Entrance into Government work - The "Fenian Rising" and the "Clerkenwell explosion of 1867-Panic caused in London : illustrative incidents-Interview with a clairvoyant informant of Lord Derby's-The Birdcage Walk mystery of January, 1868: panic in London.
In my Irish book, I have explained how it came about that I was called in to assist at Dublin Castle in 1867. The early years of a barrister's career are often a time of anxious and weary waiting for briefs. But I belonged to the favoured and fortunate class who become self-supporting from the very start. And though I was not professionally employed at the State trials of 1865, I had access, not only to the Crown briefs, but to the information' which led to the prosecutions of that year. When, therefore, on his coming into office in 1866, Lord Mayo sought for some one to coach him about Fenianism, my name was put before him by the Under Secretary, and I was commissioned to make a précis of all the secret and confidential papers which had reached the Government relating to the Fenians, both at home and in the United States. And having completed my task, I proceeded to write a history of the Fenian conspiracy up to date, which proved of value to the Government. This again led to my services being requisitioned by the Attorney-General when "the Fenian Rising" occurred in March, 1867. In the autumn of that year I was for the third time called in to advise and assist at Dublin Castle ; and I was thus engaged when the Clerkenwell explosion took place in December.
I must not forget that these pages will be read by a generation of men who have grown to manhood since that event occurred, and for their benefit a brief account of it may be opportune.
A prominent Irish-American Fenian, Ricard Burke by name, who had been for some time `arms agent" to the conspirators, fell into the hands of the police in November, 1867, and was committed to the House of Detention at Clerkenwell. This miscreant hatched a plot for the rescue of himself and another Fenian who was his fellow-prisoner. In Dublin we received full particulars of the project, and in due course the information was given to the Home Office and to the authorities at Scotland Yard. The following is an extract from this warning notice, as afterwards communicated to the House of Commons by the Secretary of State:
"The rescue of Ricard Burke from prison in London is contemplated. The plan is to blow up the exercise walls by means of gunpowder; the hour between ; and 4 p.m.; and the signal for all right,' a white ball thrown up outside when he is at exercise."
On December 12th, at the hour named, the police on duty outside the prison witnessed a rehearsal of the plot. A cask of gunpowder was conveyed to the place on a truck, and before a light was put to the fuse a white ball was thrown over the wall into the exercise-ground as a warning to Burke. He immediately "fell out" on pretence of having a stone in his shoe, and sought safety in a remote corner of the yard. But the fuse was damp, and failed to explode the powder.
So the whole performance was repeated next day, and again under the watchful eyes of the police. The barrel of powder was rolled to the same spot, and the white-ball signal was given as before, and the explosion followed. The prison authorities took the precaution of exercising the prisoners in a different yard, but the police took no action of any kind. The Commissioner of Police, Sir Richard Mayne, freely acknowledged that their conduct was inexcusable, and he was never the same man again. On my first visit to the Home Office I learned that he had at once placed his resignation in the hands of the Secretary of State, but Mr. Hardy refused to accept it. As Mr. Liddell, the Under-Secretary, put it in his characteristic way, " We told him he had made a -- fool of himself, but we meant to pull him through ; we weren't going to throw him over after his long public service."
The explanation of this, offered by the Secretary of State in Parliament (March 9, z 868), reads more like a Mark Twain story than a Hansard report. It was to the effect that the police were misled by the terms of the warning. It said the wall was to be blown up, whereas in fact it was blown down ! Here are Mr. Hardy's words :
"It appeared that the mode of carrying out the design of which they had received information did not strike those who were set to watch the outside of the prison. . . . What their attention was apparently directed to was the undermining of the wall ; they thought it would probably be blown up from underneath, and had no conception that it would be blown down in the way it really was done."
It was an atrocious crime, and it would have served its purpose had Burke been in the coign of safety to which he had retreated the preceding day. But if the yard had been occupied, he alone would have escaped serious injury. I was reminded of the condition of the opposite premises when, after the siege of Paris, I witnessed the effects of bombs upon dwelling-houses. Four persons were killed, and some forty others were carried to hospital, "suffering from all forms of mutilation." It was indeed a heinous and hideous crime. But, regarded with reference to a political conspiracy, it was contemptible. This needs to be said, lest the historian should perpetuate the false estimate of the outrage which prevailed at the time. Even the "Annual Register," which is supposed to furnish material for history, spoke of "the certainty that the explosion was planned by the American-Irish who managed the conspiracy." And it added :
Great vigilance was for some time required, and strict precautions were properly taken, to protect the public edifices and the places which were threatened with attack, or were peculiarly exposed to acts of wanton mischief but the fact of the Government being thus forewarned and forearmed sufficed both to deter the conspirators from a further prosecution of their plots, and to reassure the peaceable and well-disposed part of the community of the protection of the law."
As a matter of fact, the Clerkenwell explosion was not the work of the Fenian organisation at all, but of a small gang of low-class London Irish within its ranks. At this time, moreover, the organisation had ceased to be formidable. In the beginning of 1867 Fenianism was a power to be reckoned with, both in the United Kingdom and in America ; but the events of the year had utterly discredited the movement and demoralised the conspirators. The most ordinary police precautions would have prevented the outrage, and a competent Intelligence Department would have prevented the wild scare which the outrage produced.
The apathy which had prevailed till then gave place at once to unreasoning panic. The explosion occurred on a Friday. The Cabinet met next day and decided to adopt heroic measures to cope with what was supposed to be a great national crisis. On the Monday a Home Office circular called for the enrolment of special constables, and a body of over 50,000 was thus raised in London within the month, and more than double that number throughout the provinces. Another project decreed by the Cabinet was the organisation temporarily of a Secret Service Department. To undertake this duty the Home Secretary nominated Colonel the Hon. William Feilding of the Guards, who had done good work in Ireland in checking the spread of Fenianism among the troops. Lord Mayo's choice fell on me, and I was invited to cooperate. When I came to London the following week, the scheme submitted to me was that we should take up our quarters in a private house in some quiet street and " work underground." To this I objected, not only for professional reasons, but because I believed that secrecy on such lines would be impossible. In Mexico, it is said, people speak the truth only when they wish to deceive ; and a display of openness is always a good screen for secrecy. I would consent to remain only if attached to a Government Department. Lord Mayo took my view of the matter, and I was installed in the law room at the Irish Office. Colonel Feilding carried out the other project with the help of Captain Whelan of the 8th Regiment. They were both friends of mine, and the joint scheme worked admirably.
The panic which prevailed in London at this time was absolutely ludicrous. When I took up the Times on the morning of my arrival (December 19, 1867), I learned that, the night before, " a great number of detective police were sent out on duty into different parts of the city." And further, that " the South Kensington Museum, the British Museum, the gas factories, the powder magazines, &c., &c., were all protected by officers of the police and military." By every post Ministers received letters from panic-stricken folk, or from lunatics or cranks, reporting suspicious incidents, or giving warning of plots upon public or private property. And the " specials " had a bad time of it, doing " sentry-go " in the streets on foggy nights when they ought to have been in their beds.
My friendship with Montague Corry, afterwards Lord Rowton, dated from this time. When meeting him at the Home Office I persuaded him that it was quite unnecessary to carry a revolver. All the private secretaries carried arms, he told me. And the Fenians were credited with the intention, not only of murdering public officials, but of burning public buildings and private houses. Paragraphs and letters in the newspapers every day gave warning that " Fenian Fire," or "Greek Fire," as it was called, would be used for this purpose, and advising that, as water would not quench it, a supply of sand should be kept in readiness - advice which was acted on at Whitehall, if not elsewhere.
As a matter of fact, the Clerkenwell explosion frightened the Fenians quite as much as it frightened the Government. The wretched men who fired that fuse meant only to make a breach in the prison wall, and it never occurred to them that they would wreck the opposite houses. And though, as I have said, the Fenian leaders in London had no part in the outrage, they expected to suffer in consequence of it ; and if sensible measures of repression had been adopted they would have submitted without a protest. But when they discovered that, by exploding a cask of gunpowder, they could throw not only the public but the Government of this country into hysterics, they rallied from their fright, and set themselves to profit by the lesson.
I suppose I ought to have accepted the situation and posed as the saviour of my country; but my efforts were chiefly aimed at preventing or exploding scares. In some quarters my cynical scepticism was not appreciated ; but I had a powerful " backer" in Mr. Liddell, the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Home Office, a man who was the impersonation of sound judgment and common-sense.
The following characteristic incident may serve to illustrate the daily occurrences of this period. Lord Derby received a letter, evidently from a lady of culture, giving details of a serious Fenian plot to attack the Bank of England on a certain night. The writer added that it would not be convenient to her to see any one on the subject ; nor would anything be gained by an interview, as she could add nothing to her written statement. But she implored the Prime Minister not to neglect the warning, as the quarter from which the information came was a guarantee of its value. This matter was deemed too serious to trust to special constables, and it was proposed to double the usual military guard at the Bank. I protested that by action of this kind we were reviving Fenianism and creating future trouble ; and I sought and obtained Lord Derby's consent to my investigating the matter before any orders were issued.
That afternoon I set out upon my errand. The address given in the letter proved to be a lodging-house which had an unmistakably Irish name upon the door, and it occurred to me at once that the writer might have overheard what she narrated, and that her story might after all be important. Gaining admittance by a ruse and under an assumed name, I was shown into a room on the first floor, half boudoir, half bedroom. There I was received by a very charming elderly lady, who shook hands with me, saying, "You have come from Lord Derby?" "Lord Derby!" I exclaimed. "Do you mean the Prime Minister?" "Yes, said she with a smile, "you can't deceive me ; I have ways of finding out things. I have no doubt you have my letter to Lord Derby in your pocket." With a laugh I assented, and proceeded to talk about the subject of my visit. But she insisted on talking about herself, in order, as she said, to satisfy me that she was deserving of trust. She gave me a sketch of her life, and showed me a number of letters from persons of distinction, in whose houses she had lived either as governess or companion-letters which gave proof that she was held by them in high esteem. Some forty minutes were spent in this way before I could lead her to the business I had in hand. She then lowered her voice and repeated to me the substance of her letter to the Prime Minister. I discussed the matter with her and tried in vain to induce her to disclose the source of her information. But at last her power of resistance gave way, and she told me that she was in the habit of receiving heavenly visions, and that this plot had been divinely revealed to her.
I was completely taken aback. Till then her whole manner and bearing had impressed me most favourably, and I was looking forward to apologising at headquarters for my dogmatism. But there was more to follow. Then and there she lapsed into some sort of trance, her eyes became fixed, and in a changed voice she described what was passing before her. I was held like the wedding-guest by the Ancient Mariner. To this day the incident lives in my memory. I will not attempt to explain it, but will only add that the Bank of England was never raided by the Fenians, nor was the military guard increased.
The " Clerkenwell explosion " was not the only London sensation of that winter. An event occurred some four weeks later which, in the language of the Annual Register, "occasioned an almost universal panic." On the afternoon of January 8th a Somersetshire clergyman arrived in London in order to officiate at a wedding. Leaving his portmanteau at the house of a relative in Pimlico, he announced that he had to go to Westminster on business, but would be back in an hour or so. Then he disappeared, and in the evening his hat was picked up in the Birdcage Walk. A wild scare resulted ; for the inference seemed obvious that he had been either murdered or kidnapped. Not paragraphs merely, but leading articles on the case appeared in every newspaper. The prosaic Times had a couple, and the sedate Spectator became almost hysterical over it. " Twenty or thirty thousand minds," it declared, " have been at work upon the case, including the whole body of Police, the entire Bar, and the whole body of Clubmen " of the Metropolis. The scare was fomented by a letter to the Times of February 5th from the well-known chaplain of the Savoy. When passing through Trafalgar Square, he said, a cab drew up beside him, and the occupant, springing out, announced that the Chief Magistrate requested his immediate presence at Bow Street to give evidence in a pending case. Mr. White refused the man's urgent appeal to accompany him in the cab ; and when he afterwards made his way to the Court he learned that the whole story was false. "A new form of crime has been invented, in which a confederate drives a cab," was the Press comment on the incident. Mr. White of the Savoy Chapel had narrowly escaped the same fate as the victim of the Birdcage Walk tragedy.
Six weeks after his disappearance, a man was arrested at Padstow, in Cornwall, on suspicion of being wanted for an offence committed at Hull. Though dressed as a bullock driver, his pocket contained more money than a bullock driver was likely to possess. Accordingly, he was remanded for inquiries ; and the inquiries resulted in finding a portmanteau containing several "disguises," and a diary which gave proof that he was not the Hull criminal but the missing parson.