‘The occasion proved to be one of those strange meeting places of old and new, with crowds arriving at Farringdon on the new underground railway to witness an event that was positively medieval.’
The last public hanging in Britain took place outside Newgate Prison and involved the Irish nationalist (Fenian) bomber Michael Barrett. They had arrested Barrett following the bombing of the Clerkenwell House of Detention in 1867 which, in a botched effort to free another Fenian, Richard O’Sullivan Burke.
Michael Barrett’s case was a controversial one. He was the only one of six people to stand trial for the crime who was convicted, and his execution was postponed twice, because of questions over his guilt.
The crowd at the hanging on the morning of 26th May 1868 was said to be a great surging mass. The Times reported, ‘With the first sound of the bells came a great hungry roar from the crowd outside, and a loud, continued shout of ‘Hats off’, till the whole dense, bareheaded mass stood white and ghastly looking in the morning sun, and the pressure on the barriers increased so that the girls and women in the front ranks began to scream and struggle to get free.’
Michael Barrett was born in 1841. At 27 he joined the Fenians, which, in the 1860s, was a political movement that dominated Irish Republican politics and defied the Catholic Church, middle-class nationalists who advocated milder approaches and Irish Unionists. They recruited tens of thousands of Irishmen in both Ireland and Great Britain into its ranks. The Clerkenwell bombing was the most infamous action carried out by the Fenians in mainland Britain. It resulted in a massive backlash that fomented much hostility against the Irish community in Britain.
Fenian, Ricard O’Sullivan-Burke was on remand in the Middlesex House of Detention, Clerkenwell. On 13 December an attempt to rescue him was made by blowing a hole in the prison wall. The explosion was seriously misjudged; it demolished not only a large section of the wall but also a number of tenement houses opposite in Corporation Lane, Clerkenwell (now Corporation Row) that killed twelve people and wounded up to a 120 more. It became known as the Clerkenwell Outrage.
Michael Barrett was executed outside Newgate Prison on 26 May 1868 before a crowd of two thousand who booed, jeered and sang Rule Britannia as his body dropped. Michael Barrett’s execution was the last public hanging to take place in England.
Until their transfer to the City of London Cemetery, Michael Barrett’s remains lay for 35 years in a lime grave inside the walls of Newgate Prison. When the prison was demolished in 1903, they took his remains to their present resting place in the City of London Cemetery. Today the grave is a place of Fenian pilgrimage and is marked by a small plaque.
They banned public hangings just three days after Michael Barrett died, when Parliament passed the Capital Punishment Amendment Act of 1868.
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