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Fenian revolvers in Newcastle, 1870.

In early February 1866, ‘Yankee Irishmen’ were reported to be actively recruiting for the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) in the North of England in preparation for the long-anticipated Fenian rising in Ireland.[1] Taking no chances with the forthcoming St Patrick’s Day celebrations, police and local Rifle Volunteers in Newcastle, Sunderland and elsewhere were placed on standby.[2] The day itself (a Saturday), however, passed off uneventfully. In North and South Shields, it was reported to be ‘quieter than usual’, and that report was echoed across the region.[3]

The Fenian rising finally began in County Kerry in February 1867. Disorganised, ill-armed, riddled with informers, and with many of its leaders already imprisoned, the rising was easily crushed by the Crown authorities. At the same time, a raid by English-based Fenians on Chester Castle for much-needed arms and ammunition was abandoned before it began after an informer alerted the authorities.[4]    

In spite of the news from Ireland, St Patrick’s Day 1867 passed off in the North East as quietly as the previous year’s celebration, though, once again, precautions were taken with extra police on duty and sailors from a gunboat anchored off North Shields’ Low Light ready if needed.[5] And by May, the Newcastle Journal was commenting that ‘comparatively speaking, Newcastle has been remarkably free of Fenian turmoil and excitement’, but warned that police believed a ‘suspected Fenian leader’ had been ‘secreted’ in the town for ‘some weeks’.[6]

That ‘suspected Fenian leader’ was a nineteen-year-old butcher, Edward McDonald, who had fled Ireland after the failed rising in County Meath and made his way to Newcastle upon Tyne, where his uncle, Edward Savage, had a fruiterer’s shop in Clayton Street. Unbeknown to McDonald, he was tracked by a detective sergeant of the Irish Constabulary, who arrived in Newcastle on 15 May with a warrant for McDonald’s arrest for having on 6 March 1867 ‘assembled on the Hill of Slane… for treasonable purposes’.[7] Though McDonald had ‘dyed his whiskers and moustache in order to escape detection’, he was found by Newcastle detectives working as a cartman for his uncle and arrested. Positively identified by the Irish detective, McDonald was returned to Ireland, where he was tried and sentenced to six months in prison.[8]

The capture of this self-confessed Fenian was a rare success for the Newcastle police. The police may have had their suspicions about Fenians in the town but proof was much harder to come by. In September 1865, six men had faced a Police Court, charged after a disturbance at Burns Tavern on Amen Corner.[9] This tavern had allegedly been used for meetings of a ‘Fenian Society’, but a new landlord banned these. In the ensuing ‘row’, glasses and pots were thrown and police assaulted. Whilst one man was imprisoned for assault, the case against the others was not proved (the prosecution alleged intimidation of witnesses) and all were discharged.[10]

But were these men Fenians or just ‘whisky patriots’, as ridiculed by the Fenian journalist Arthur Forrester, and, in fact, were there no Fenians in Newcastle other than for a lone Irish fugitive and the imaginings of the press?[11] Roger Cooter, in his pioneering study of the Irish in the North East of England in the mid-nineteenth century, found little evidence of any actual Fenian activity in the region, though he did describe the widespread support Fenianism received, especially after the executions of the Manchester Martyrs in November 1867.[12]

In reality, however, the Irish Republican Brotherhood was well represented in the North East of England by members, who knew how to avoid the eyes of the police. This was explained by Peter McCorry, late editor of the Glasgow Free Press, to a meeting of the Fenian Brotherhood of America in November 1868:[13]

‘From Dundee to Newcastle upon Tyne every seat of manufacture is crammed with Fenians; and I am proud to have it to say that their discretion has preserved them, one and all, from any efforts that English or Scottish law could make to incriminate them’.[14]

Whilst Newcastle was almost certainly never ‘crammed with Fenians’, IRB membership across Tyneside could probably be counted in the hundreds. In July 1874, a secret conference of the Brotherhood in Manchester was told that their North of England division had some 4,000 members, with over 1,400 assorted firearms, and £3,000 in funds, though how many of these Fenians lived on Tyneside rather than Liverpool or Manchester was not recorded.[15]

Fenians simply did not advertise their existence, being all too aware of the danger of informers, and so few names of IRB members in the North East of England are known with any certainty. One name, however, that is known is that of Wexford-born John Barry, who was both a successful Newcastle businessman and, until 1877, a member of the IRB’s Supreme Council.[16] And John Barry plays a key role in the second part of this story, which begins with evidence taken from the trial in July 1870 of Michael Davitt – one of the giants of nineteenth century Irish nationalism.[17]

In early 1870, Irish police asked police in Birmingham to watch ‘a manufactory of arms’ in the town run by an Englishman, John Wilson, and two Irishmen, who were suspected of smuggling arms and ammunition to the IRB in Ireland.

On 26 March, Wilson and one of the young Irishmen were watched by police wheeling a large wooden box on a hand cart to the goods’ office at Birmingham’s George Street railway station. After noting the delivery address, ‘John Wilson, Midland Goods Station, Leeds’, police opened the box and found twenty rifles and bayonets. Re-closed the box was sent on to Leeds to await collection. Over the next few weeks, the police watched eight shipments to Ireland, one to Glasgow, one to Manchester, and four to Newcastle upon Tyne.

The first three boxes were sent from Birmingham to Newcastle on 14 April. That evening, police saw Wilson and an accomplice take three boxes to the Globe Parcels Office at George Street station. Detectives then examined the boxes, secretly marked them, noted the delivery addresses, but did not open them. Two of the boxes were addressed to ‘J. M. Kershaw, Glassmaker’s Arms, Bailiff Gate, Newcastle-on-Tyne’ and the third to ‘C.H. Williams, Globe Express Office, Pilgrim Street, Newcastle-on-Tyne’.

One of the Birmingham detectives then travelled to Newcastle to alert the local police and wait at Central station for the three boxes to arrive. They arrived early on Saturday morning, 16 April, and were pointed out to two Newcastle detectives. Whilst the third box was delivered to the Globe Express Office, the other two boxes were watched by the Newcastle detectives until early evening, but no one came to collect them. The boxes were then opened and each found to contain twenty-five breech-loading revolvers. The box in the Pilgrim Street office also remained uncollected.

Whilst police began their search for ‘Kershaw’ and ‘Williams’ in Newcastle, a fourth box from Birmingham arrived on 19 April, again addressed to ‘C. H. Williams’ at the Globe Express Office. This was immediately opened and found to contain a further twenty-four revolvers.

In his evidence to the trial, one of the Newcastle detectives recounted visiting the Glassmaker’s Arms, which he described as being ‘a beershop kept by George Mullens, an Irish labourer, and is mostly frequented by Irish labourers’, but was told that no one named ‘Kershaw’ was known there. Similar enquiries failed to find any trace of ‘Williams’.

On 14 May 1870, Michael Davitt was arrested at Paddington railway station in London, together with John Wilson, who was carrying fifty Belgian-made revolvers. Since 1868, Davitt had been the IRB’s organising secretary in England and Scotland tasked with supplying and delivering arms and ammunition to Fenians in Britain and Ireland, as a new IRB leadership sought to recover from the failures of the previous year.[18] How many guns were distributed by Davitt before his arrest is unknown but, given the number of shipments monitored by the police in just a few weeks, the total must have run into many hundreds, if not thousands. And, by way of comparison, it has been estimated that between 1879 and 1882, London Fenians shipped 2,000 rifles and 35,000 rounds of ammunition to Ireland.[19]

Davitt had evaded police detection for almost two years but now his luck had run out. After police enquiries, both Davitt, who refused to divulge the names of any of his contacts, and Wilson were charged with ‘treason-felony’ and sent for trial on 15 July at the Old Bailey. Found guilty, Davitt was sentenced to fifteen years’ penal servitude and Wilson to seven years.[20]

The story of Newcastle’s Fenian revolvers, however, does not end with Michael Davitt’s imprisonment. In 1910, the Fenian John Denvir published ‘The Life Story of an Old Rebel’. Irish-born Denvir spent most of his working and nationalist life in Liverpool and his autobiography is filled with accounts of his meetings with prominent Irish nationalists, including ‘my friend’ John Barry.[21]

Barry told Denvir about an incident that had happened, when he was living in Newcastle and working as a commercial traveller.[22]  As one of Newcastle’s leading Fenians and a member of the IRB’s Supreme Council, John Barry had been sent ‘some arms’ under the name of ‘Kershaw’, but ‘by some means the police got wind of the nature of the consignment’ and were ‘waiting for Mr. Kershaw to claim them’. As Barry was going to Central station, however, to collect the two boxes he was ‘warned in time by a railway employee, an Irish Protestant member of the I.R.B., and did not finish the journey’.

The revolvers remained uncollected and John Barry continued to lead a charmed life and was never arrested for his Fenian activities. Unfortunately, Barry did not name the Fenian Irish Protestant railway worker, who warned him to stay away from Central station. Yet one more of the hidden Fenians in the North East of England, whose ‘discretion’ kept them safe from prying police eyes.

Postscript: In November 1869, the imprisoned Fenian, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, stood in a by-election for the Tipperary parliamentary constituency In Ireland. Though victorious, his election was declared invalid, as he was a felon serving a sentence. In response, the nationalist press launched the ‘Tipperary Election Fund’, and in February 1870 The Irishman printed a letter from George Mullen at the ‘Glass Makers’ Arms’ in Newcastle listing the names of donors from Newcastle, Birtley and Gateshead to the fund, and enclosing a ‘post office order’ for £7 13s 6d.[23]  Among the names of more than a hundred donors, men and women, are a few anonymous donors, including ‘Peep-o’-Day’, ‘a Friend to the Cause’, and ’a Lover of the Green’. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Newcastle police searching for ‘Kershaw’ had no success in this ‘beershop’.


[1] Morpeth Herald, 10 February 1866; Newcastle Daily Journal, 14 December 1867.

[2] Shields Daily News, 15 March 1866.

[3] Shields Daily News, 19 March 1866.

[4] Patrick Quinlivan and Paul Rose, The Fenians in England 1865-1872 (London, 1982), pp.16-24.

[5] South Shields Daily Gazette, 18 March 1867.

[6] Newcastle Daily Journal, 16 May 1867.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Durham Advertiser, 27 July 1867. McDonald and his fellow co-accused, who all pleaded guilty, were prosecuted as agrarian protestors under the eighteenth century ‘Whiteboys Act’, rather than for ‘treason-felony’.

[9] For a photograph of Burns Tavern, see https://www.twsitelines.info/SMR/6687

[10] Newcastle Daily Chronicle, 16 September 1865.

[11] Flag of Ireland, 5 March 1870.

[12] Roger Cooter, When Paddy Met Geordie: The Irish in County Durham and Newcastle, 1840-1880 (Sunderland, 2005), p.157.

[13] See Brian Jenkins, Fenian Problem: Insurgency and Terrorism in a Liberal State, 1858-1874 (Liverpool, 2008), p.195.

[14] Flag of Ireland, 14 November 1868.

[15] T W Moody and Leon Ó Broin, ‘IRB Supreme Council, 1868-78’, Irish Historical Studies, 19.75 (1975), p.332.

[16] Ibid, pp. 294-295, 328. Also see https://www.dib.ie/biography/barry-john-a0445

[17] For the trial of Davitt and Wilson see: Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org version 8.0, 02 July 2021), July 1870, trial of JOHN WILSON (43) MICHAEL DAVITT (25) (t18700711-602). Also see Flag of Ireland 23 July 1870 and The Nation 23 July 1870.

[18] Quinlivan and Rose, Fenians in England, pp.29-31.

[19] Robert Delaney, ‘Arming the Fenians,’ History Ireland 28.4 (2020): p.28. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26934617  Accessed 26 May 2021.

[20] During the trial a hand-writing expert testified that the address-cards on the boxes of arms and ammunition delivered to Newcastle (and elsewhere) were in Davitt’s hand.

[21] John Denvir, The Life Story if an Old Rebel (Dublin, 1910, reprinted Shannon, 1972), p.127.

[22] Ibid.

[23] The Irishman, 26 February 1870.

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