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The Manchester Martyrs

Submitted by on January 11, 2010 – 3:31 pmNo Comment

The last man hung in this country was Michael Barrett on May 26th 1869. He’d tried to blow up Clerkenwell prison. But the penultimate public hanging on these shores was one that would happen in Manchester (well Salford to be exact) and have repercussions beyond these shores and would rally men to the cause of a free united Ireland in their droves.

The men hung were William Patrick Allen, Michael Larkin and Michael O’Brien for the murder of Sergeant Charles Brett, a Blackley man. The hanging took place on the 23rd of November 1867, roughly ten weeks after the murder.

The story is quite simple: an uprising in Ireland had failed and as always most of the leaders were arrested and jailed. However one of the main conspirators Colonel Kelly together with his deputy Captain Deacy had escaped to England. And in England at the time the safest place for a man of fenian leanings was Manchester, where Angel Meadow, Red Bank and Ancoats were a hotbed of republicanism.

Once in Manchester Kelly assumed the role of leader of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (the forerunner of the IRA). And it was while sorting out a minor IRB squabble that both Kelly and Deacy were arrested (on Oak Street in what this council calls the Northern Quarter but what we Mancunians know as Shude Hill).

The police arresting them mistook them for vagrants, but their American Irish voices gave cause for suspicion and they were remanded in custody awaiting identification.

News went around the Irish conclaves of Central Manchester and money and men were dispatched to Birmingham to pick up and bring back ten revolvers. And a daring plan was concocted to free the men as they were transported from court to Belle Vue gaol.

As the van passed under a bridge on Hyde Road Gorton, it was to be attacked by Fenians armed with the revolvers and crowbars and other tools.

However a mishap ensued and the tools weren’t delivered and a coach and horse driver rode off to inform the police.

The Irish community had turned up in numbers and the pubs along the Hyde Road were awash with them.

The van was stopped under the bridge and a stand off followed. The Fenians stormed the van and attempted to smash their way in by the use of stones. The policeman on duty inside the van was Charlie Brett a battle harden Sergeant. Brett was proud and dedicated and refused to open the doors of the van. And as he peered through the lookout hole above the lock a gunman (Peter Rice) attempted to blow the lock off. His shot resulted in the death of Sgt Brett.

A female prisoner in the van (she had been arrested for soliciting) went through the dead officer’s pocket and passed the key to the van out to the awaiting mob.

Kelly and Deacy were spirited away.  It has always been maintained that they were taken to a house in Ashton, but police records show that they believed the two men were claiming sanctuary in the as yet to be finished Gorton monastery (which incidentally is open to the public every Sunday from 12-4pm). The reason the police didn’t raid the monastery was that the conflict in Ireland was more palatable to public opinion if it was an English versus Irish problem rather than a Catholic versus Protestant problem.

At the scene of the crime Allen, Larkin and O’Brien (who gave his name as Gould) were arrested and charged along with two other men with the murder of Sergeant Charles Brett. The charges against the other two men were dropped as one had prominent American political friends and the other poor bugger had just spent two years on board a ship and couldn’t have been involved.

The trial was a farce, with witnesses changing statements seemingly at will and on a whim. Murder, arrests, trial and hanging all took place within ten weeks. And the death sentence was inevitable given the political climate of Britain at the time.

The more Liberal newspapers were outraged and none other than Karl Marx threw his weight behind the campaign for clemency. The pleas and petitions were rejected out of hand.

So on the 23rd of November 1867 Allen, Larkin and O’Brien stood on a purposely-built scaffold on the walls of Salford gaol awaiting British justice.

What was the scene you may wonder? Jesters and carnival clowns and hawkers and prostitutes but no Irish. The local churches had sworn them not to attend. So that day Allen, Larkin and O’Brien faced the laughing underclass of Manchester Society. It was also attended by 2,000 special constables (the same class and calibre of man that had been responsible for Peterloo a half a century before).

On the night before all three men wrote letters to their loved ones and took their final confession.

The hangman was the notorious Calcraft (may he rot and burn in Hell). The first out was Allen, in his hand he held a crucifix. Next came O’Brien, a time served soldier in the American Civil War. By this time Larkin had a white hood over his head. O’Brien, history tell us, kissed the hood of his soon to be dead comrade and bade him farewell. The last man out was Larkin, a man who was too ill to participate on the day. Larkin wobbled at the knees. O’Brien moved to hold him steady. They were all hooded and bound. Then at a signal the hangman released the bolt and they swung in the air.

‘Hurrahs’ rang out in the Manchester sunshine and the party started. Punch n Judyand Dancing Bears.


‘Young Allen died instantaneously. His neck was broken. The other two ropes, stretched taut and tense by their breathing twitching burdens were in ominous and distracting movement. The hangman had bungled. For Larkin and O’Brien the drop had been too short. Canon Cantwell and Father Quick had retired as soon as the bodies had fell. So had the governor.

None remained but Father Gadd, a warder and the hangman. Calcraft then descended into the pit and finished what he could not accomplish from above. He killed Larkin. Then he turned his attention to O’Brien, but O’Brien was in the Monsignor’s charge and he forbade the hangman to touch him. For three quarters of an hour he breathed and for three quarters of an hour the good priest knelt holding the dead man’s hands within his own.

Then the long drawn out agony ended. O’Brien at last was dead.’

If you’re ever passing St Joseph’s cemetery in Moston there is a monument there to the three men. And if you are ever passing St Ann’s church in St Ann’s Square there is a memorial to Sergeant Charles Brett.

(For my late Auntie Mary who like me was a Fenian)

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