Clerkenwell on the eve of an ‘outrage’, 1867

 

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The 13 December 1867 saw a massive terrorist attack in London. Irish republicans (‘Fenians’ as they were called) exploded a bomb at Clerkenwell Prison in an attempt to free members of their organization imprisoned inside. The attack failed in its intention as no prisoners escaped, but the bomb caused damage and killed 12 people and wounded more than a hundred more. I cover the attack and the related terrorist ‘war’ that followed in the 1880s in London’s Shadows, so I won’t revisit it here except to say that the bombing led to the arrest and trial of six men in April 1868. Michael Barrett was the only person convicted despite claiming to have been in Scotland at the time the bomb was exploded. He became the last man to be publically hanged in England when he was executed outside Newgate on the 26 May that year.

On the morning of the 13 December 1867 the Clerkenwell Police Court met as normal. The newspaper reported the proceedings on all London courts that day, choosing cases they thought might interest their readers.

In this case it was the story of three young thieves and their uncle, and an older ‘fence’. Henry Mason (18) and their younger sister Emma (just 14) were accused of stealing china and glass. William Mason (40) and William Bridge (aged 43) were charged with receiving the stolen items.

Emma Mason worked for a china and glass dealer named Ward who kept two shops on the Holloway Road. On the 2 December Emma was seen (by a passing policeman on his beat) coming out of one of the shops with a box of china, which she handed over to a young lad (later identified as her brother, Henry).

As the PC approached Henry scarpered with the constable in pursuit. He got away but the policeman returned to the shop and arrested Emma and William Mason. He soon extracted the address where their brother could be found and proceeded to Hope Cottage in Holloway with a fellow officer.

When they entered the house they found it stuffed with china and glass. There were ‘cut glass decanters, chimney ornaments, glasses, china plates, a set of tea trays, some tinware, and numerous other articles’, all belonging to Mr. Ward.

The ‘elder Mason’ (the uncle of the younger ones) was now arrested and when his room was searched the police found 43 pawnbroker’s duplicates, which presumably led them to William Bridge and a charge of receiving. The magistrate committed them all to trial.

They appeared at the Middlesex Sessions of the Peace in January 1868 and William Mason pleased guilty as charged. The court heard that he a criminal record already, including two separate terms of penal servitude. He was the chief instigator of the crime and ‘had signaled to the girl in Mr. Ward’s shop, so ‘she might know when to hand out articles to her little brother’. This girl was not Emma but her older sister Mary Ann (who did not appear in the summary hearing).

On conviction the judge postponed sentence on Mary so we might hope she escaped further punishment, perhaps because the court realized she would need to look after her younger sister (the children seem to have been orphans). Henry Mason was sent to Feltham (somewhere I remember well from the days when my father used to play football for a Probation Service team). Feltham opened as an Industrial School in 1854 but became the country’s second Borstal in 1910. It still holds young offenders aged 15-18.

But stiffest penalty was reserved for their uncle: the judge sent him away for ten years penal servitude as he was deemed ‘incorrigible’.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, December 14, 1867, and Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper , Sunday, January 12, 1868]

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