READER STORY

An ex­plo­sion out­side a Vic­to­rian prison had a dev­as­tat­ing ef­fect on the lives of Anita Horne’s Lon­don fore­bears. Gail Dixon dis­cov­ers the hu­man cost be­hind the tragedy

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - CONTENTS -

How an ex­plo­sion out­side a Vic­to­rian prison had a dev­as­tat­ing ef­fect on the lives of Anita Horne’s Lon­don fore­bears

busy Lon­don street on 16 De­cem­ber 1867: chil­dren played out­side ten­e­ment houses, moth­ers pre­pared the evening meal and tai­lors hur­ried to fin­ish gar­ments be­fore Christ­mas. This was Cor­po­ra­tion Lane, Clerken­well, where the steady hum of Vic­to­rian life beat to its usual rhythm. None could imag­ine that it was about to be vi­o­lently shat­tered by the ac­tions of des­per­ate men.

On one side of the lane stood Mid­dle­sex House of De­ten­tion (also known as the Clerken­well House of De­ten­tion), which held pris­on­ers await­ing trial. At around 4pm, a small boy no­ticed a well-dressed gen­tle­man ap­pear on the street. He lit a squib and held it up against a bar­rel, which had been con­cealed un­der a cloth. The man raced off and by­standers chased af­ter him. Sec­onds later, a mas­sive ex­plo­sion ripped through the prison wall, hurl­ing mor­tar, dust and nox­ious fumes in all di­rec­tions. The nearby over­crowded, poorly built ten­e­ments col­lapsed in­stantly, bury­ing those in­side.

Un­cov­er­ing a tragedy

Among the many peo­ple in­jured or killed that day were three of Anita Horne’s an­ces­tors, mem­bers of the Hodgkin­son fam­ily. But the first that Anita knew of the event was when she be­gan trac­ing her ge­neal­ogy. “Dad was keen on fam­ily his­tory and he in­spired me to find out more about my Lon­don rel­a­tives,” says Anita.

“The Hodgkin­sons are on my pa­ter­nal line and I worked back to my 4x great grand­mother, Martha El­iz­a­beth Hodgkin­son – known as El­iz­a­beth. I or­dered a copy of her death cer­tifi­cate and was as­ton­ished to read the cause of death: “Epilepsy whilst suf­fer­ing from some in­jury or dis­ease of brain caused ... at the time of the Clerken­well ex­plo­sion about 12 years ago at the prison.”

“At first, I thought that El­iz­a­beth may have been a pris­oner await­ing trial. I Googled Clerken­well Prison and found a wealth of de­tail about the ex­plo­sion. It was chill­ing to dis­cover that El­iz­a­beth and her fam­ily were among the vic­tims.”

In 1867, El­iz­a­beth was a 60-year-old widow liv­ing at 3a Cor­po­ra­tion Lane (now Row) with her son Henry, his wife Sarah Ann and their eight-year-old son, also called Henry. The fam­ily had suf­fered ear­lier tragedy when Henry’s first wife El­iz­a­beth Turner died, leav­ing him to raise his young son alone. As a tai­lor, Henry may have worked from home, which would ex­plain why he was in Cor­po­ra­tion Lane at the time of the bomb blast.

In 1867, a plot was be­ing hatched that would change their lives for­ever. An up­ris­ing by the Ir­ish Repub­li­can Broth­er­hood, also known as the ‘Fe­ni­ans’, be­gan in Eng­land against Bri­tish rule in Ire­land. In Novem­ber, Richard O’Sul­li­van Burke, a se­nior Repub­li­can arms dealer, was ar­rested and sent to the Mid­dle­sex House of De­ten­tion. Plans were made to free Burke and an­other Fe­nian, Joseph Casey, by blast­ing through the prison wall.

His­to­ri­ans be­lieve the Repub­li­cans didn’t in­tend to cause civil­ian ca­su­al­ties and that they mis­judged the amount of ex­plo­sives re­quired to blow up the prison wall. This ter­ri­ble er­ror re­sulted in the dev­as­ta­tion of Cor­po­ra­tion Lane. “News­pa­per ar­chives on­line have brought the hor­ri­fific events of that day to life. I read them with mixed feel­ings. It was ex­cit­ing to dis­cover a fam­ily con­nec­tion to an event that made front-page news, but dread­ful to hear of the hu­man cost,” adds Anita.

De­stroyed in the blast

The Morn­ing Star de­scribed the scene: “Two houses di­rectly op­po­site were com­pletely de­stroyed... win­dows, doors and ceil­ings smashed to pieces.” Other build­ings had their front walls ripped away, ex­pos­ing a cross-sec­tion of the rooms in­side. “Some lit­tle pic­tures still re­main at­tached to the walls, and there is a fire­place sus­pended high in the air, with a ket­tle on the hob.” Many of the res­i­dents stag­gered out of the wreck­age to find them­selves home­less.

“My an­ces­tors lived in 3a, one of the houses de­stroyed by the blast. El­iz­a­beth suf­fered se­vere in­juries and was taken to St Bartholomew’s Hos­pi­tal. Her left eye had been de­stroyed, her tem­po­ral artery was cut and she had se­vere cuts to her face and fore­head. Her son Henry had wounds to his head and right arm.

“The worst shock of all was the dis­cov­ery that Henry’s wife, 30-year-old Sarah Ann, was killed at the mo­ment of the ex­plo­sion. Her body was pulled from the ru­ins and taken to the mor­tu­ary at St Bartholomew’s.”

The post-mortem found a blood clot in Sarah Ann’s wind­pipe and con­cluded she died from suf­fo­ca­tion and blood loss. Eleven oth­ers were killed, in­clud­ing seven-year-old Min­nie Ab­bott. Many more peo­ple suf­fered hor­rific in­juries from the ex­plo­sion.

The ex­plo­sion ripped through the prison wall, hurl­ing mor­tar, dust and nox­ious fumes in all di­rec­tions

“The prison break was a to­tal fail­ure. Au­thor­i­ties re­ceived a tip-off ear­lier in the day and moved the in­mates to an­other part of the gaol. This was the first time Lon­don had ex­pe­ri­enced an Ir­ish Repub­li­can bomb and it caused a furore in the press and great pub­lic anger. The ex­plo­sion be­came known as the ‘Clerken­well Out­rage’.”

The in­quest into the death of Sarah Ann was held four days later and the jury re­turned a ver­dict of ‘wil­ful mur­der’. Three peo­ple were ap­pre­hended just af­ter the ex­plo­sion and two in­for­mants came for­ward, which led to the ar­rest of more Repub­li­cans.

The trial was held at the Old Bai­ley in April 1868 and six de­fen­dants pleaded not guilty to the mur­der of the vic­tims, in­clud­ing Sarah Ann. All were ac­quit­ted apart from 27-year-old Ir­ish­man Michael Bar­rett, who was sen­tenced to death. Wit­nesses tes­ti­fied he was in Glas­gow on the day of the ex­plo­sion. How­ever, Bar­rett’s ap­peal was un­suc­cess­ful and on 26 May 1868, he made his­tory as the last per­son to be pub­licly ex­e­cuted in Bri­tain.

Last pub­lic ex­e­cu­tion

The ex­e­cu­tion was fea­tured in the May 2015 is­sue of Who Do You Think You Are? Mag­a­zi­nee in our Q& A sec­tion. Reader Sally Ar­mitage ex­plained that her an­ces­tor An­gus Bar­rett was taken by his father to wit­ness the ex­e­cu­tion and was told that the con­demned man was a rel­a­tive. Sally was keen to prove the link and may be able to do so through DNA pro­fil­ing, if she can find sur­viv­ing de­scen­dants of Michael Bar­rett’s fam­ily.

Like Sally, Anita wanted to find out more about the per­sonal con­nec­tion. “The trial and ex­plo­sion were in­ter­est­ing but I was con­cerned about what hap­pened to the Hodgkin­sons. My big break­through came via an­other back is­sue of Who Do You Think You Are? Mag­a­zine, which men­tioned the Clerken­well Ex­plo­sion Re­lief Fund Com­mit­tee. This was es­tab­lished by the clergy and in­flu­en­tial parish­ioners to raise money and do­na­tions for the vic­tims.

“The ar­ti­cle rec­om­mended vis­it­ing Is­ling­ton Lo­cal His­tory Cen­tre. It was a thrilling mo­ment to find the minute books for the fund, which men­tioned my an­ces­tors by name and gave in­tri­cate de­tails of the sup­port they re­ceived.”

Mem­bers of the re­lief fund vis­ited ev­ery af­fected fam­ily to pro­vide med­i­cal at­ten­tion,

food, cloth­ing and blan­kets. Build­ing re­pairs were or­gan­ised and those made home­less were re­housed. Even the poor­est mem­bers of the lo­cal com­mu­nity do­nated what they could to the fund. Soon a huge sum of money had been raised.

“It gave me great com­fort to read of this kind­ness. The re­lief fund paid for the fu­neral of Sarah Ann and the other peo­ple who were killed in the blast. They were buried in a com­mu­nal grave in Finch­ley Ceme­tery af­ter a ser­vice at­tended by 1,500 mourn­ers. “Records show that El­iz­a­beth was ap­por­tioned £ 300 from the re­lief fund, which was in­vested to give her an in­come of eight shillings a week. Ev­ery pay­ment was metic­u­lously recorded and signed for in the minute books. It’s ironic that El­iz­a­beth prob­a­bly had a more com­fort­able life af­ter the ex­plo­sion than be­fore, thanks to the fund. She lived in Clerken­well un­til her death in 1879.”

The fate of El­iz­a­beth’s son, Henry, preyed on Anita’s mind. “This poor man had been wid­owed twice, suf­fered ter­ri­ble in­juries in the blast and was left with a young son to bring up. How did he cope?”

Again, records from Is­ling­ton Lo­cal His­tory Cen­tre pro­vided an­swers. “Henry was sent to a con­va­les­cent home in Seaford, on the Sus­sex coast, and the fund cov­ered the cost of his stay.”

This left Henry Ju­nior un­ac­counted for. Anita found the clue she needed in a let­ter sent by re­lief com­mit­tee chair­man Rev­erend Robert Maguire to The Stan­dard news­pa­per in Fe­bru­ary 1868. It reads: “A benev­o­lent gen­tle­man (Mr Ed­wards) has of­fered a free nom­i­na­tion to the Royal Al­bert Or­phan Asy­lum, for which I have rec­om­mended the son of the wounded tai­lor, Hodgkin­son, whose wife was killed.”

Henry ac­cepted the of­fer and sent his young son to the or­phan­age, which pro­vided religious and ed­u­ca­tional in­struc­tion. “I found the school log book at Sur­rey His­tory Cen­tre and it stated that on ad­mis­sion Henry was a ‘very sickly look­ing child’ who was in a ‘ fear­fully dirty con­di­tion’. How­ever, it was heart­en­ing to read that dur­ing his stay his health im­proved and he made good progress.”

Mean­while, a ro­mance was de­vel­op­ing on the south coast be­tween Henry Se­nior and Cather­ine Vin­cent, whom he mar­ried in May 1868. An en­try in the Re­lief Fund Bank Book gave the fi­nal clue to the fam­ily’s life. Henry was pro­vided with fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance to start his tai­lor­ing busi­ness again. He with­drew young Henry from the or­phan­age and the fam­ily was re­united in a new home in Is­ling­ton. “It was a re­lief to know that they re­cov­ered and could make a fresh start.”

Anita has dis­cov­ered a con­nec­tion to a key mo­ment in Bri­tish his­tory. How­ever, it’s the per­sonal as­pect of the story that has touched her the most.

“I’ll never for­get see­ing Sarah Ann’s name on the me­mo­rial to the vic­tims in St James’s Church, Clerken­well. It re­ally brought it home to me.

“I feel deeply for my an­ces­tors and their suf­fer­ing but I bear no ill will to­wards the per­pe­tra­tors of the crime. The Repub­li­cans were fight­ing for some­thing that they re­ally cared about and I don’t think they in­tended to kill in­no­cent peo­ple. It was a prison break that went wrong, not an act of ter­ror­ism.

“It has been lovely to learn of the Clerken­well Re­lief Fund and the gen­eros­ity of the Lon­don poor. Thanks to them, the Hodgkin­sons got back on their feet again. It would be a joy to dis­cover if any other de­scen­dants are out there.”

It was a prison break that went wrong and not an act of ter­ror­ism

El­iz­a­beth Hodgkin­son’s death cer­tifi­cate shows she died of in­juries sus­tained in the ex­plo­sion

Anita Horne with the death cer­tifi­cate of El­iz­a­beth Hodgkin­son at St James’s Church, Clerken­well

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