Clerkenwell Green has played host to many political meetings and demonstrations, some more peaceful than others. But on the 13th December 1867, Clerkenwell was rocked by an explosion that shocked even this contentious neighbourhood.
The story begins in America in 1858. A group of Irish ex-pats founded a secret society called the Irish Republican Brotherhood, known to most as the Fenians. Their aim was to free Ireland from British rule by any means necessary. By 1867, they were proving quite troublesome to the authorities. After a failed attempt to steal over 10,000 rifles from Chester Castle and the breakout of two prominent Fenians from a prison van in Manchester that resulted in the death of a Police Sergeant in September, tensions were running high.
Richard O’Sullivan-Burke was thought to be the man who led the Manchester debacle. To avoid a repeat he was quickly transferred to the Clerkenwell House of Detention, just to the North of Clerkenwell Road. The prison was formidable, surrounded by a wall 25ft high and over 2ft thick. He obviously had friends in London as every day cooked food was brought to them by a woman named Anne Justice, and rumours of an escape attempt soon reached the authorities.
Extra guards were posted around the prison. Despite this, an attempt was made to break him out on the 12th of December. A man wheeled a large barrel up the prison wall and attempted to light a fuse twice before he gave up, and wheeled it off. A policeman watched this, but didn’t think it suspicious! The next day, another attempt. This time, a firework was used as a fuse and the explosion was heard all over London. It levelled 60ft of the prison wall, and the front of a row of houses in Corporation Row. 12 people were killed, and 120 others were injured. There were no escapees.
It sparked hysteria across the capital. The government set up the first Secret Service Department, the forerunner of today’s Special Branch and MI5. Five people were charged with murder, including Anne Justice, but a man named Michael Barrett was the only one convicted. He has the dubious distinction of being the last person to ever be publicly executed in Britain.