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
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