Michael Barrett – 1867

By | November 12, 2016

“A great cry rose from the crowd as the culprit fell”


Poice among the rubble of the Clerkenwell House of Detention


The last person to be publicly hanged in Britain was an Irish terrorist who, 12 days before Christmas in 1867, tried to rescue two Fenian prisoners — Richard O’Sullivan Burke and one Casey —being held at Clerkenwell House of Detention in London by blowing a hole in the prison wall. The plotters parked a wagon packed with dynamite beside the prison and exploded it at 3.45pm. The explosion tore down the prison wall but it also devastated the block of houses opposite. The tenements were “stripped clearly of their frontages, left open like doll’s houses with the kettles still on the hobs”. Six people died immediately, another six later and 120 were injured. Most of the victims were women and children. Neither Burke nor Casey escaped.

Barrett was arrested when informers went to the police. He was taken into custody with a woman and four men, two of whom turned Queen’s Evidence. Barrett spoke eloquently in his own defence but to no avail and he was found guilty of “Wilful Murder” and sentenced to death. Barrett claimed that he had been in Glasgow at the time of the explosion. In his prison cell, he wrote to a Glasgow newspaper thanking his supporters for “knowing me to be innocent of the crime for which I am called upon to suffer”.


Clerkenwell House of Detention, London, England


3.45pm Friday 13 December 1867


On the day of his death — 26 May 1868 — Barrett wore a short red jacket and stripy grey trousers as he was led to the gallows outside Newgate. The crowd booed and hissed in equal measure but Barrett ignored them, listening instead to the priest who accompanied him. When someone in the crowd shouted, “Hats off” everyone obeyed. Barrett’s last words were spoken to hangman William Calcraft, asking him to adjust the rope.

The executioner complied and then immediately pulled the bolt, sending the Irishman to his death. The Times reported, “A great cry rose from the crowd as the culprit fell — a cry which was neither an exclamation nor a scream, but it partook in its sound of both”. Barrett died instantly, no mean feat for Calcraft often bungled his executions. The Times said, “In the presence of a vast concourse of spectators, Michael Barrett, the author of the Clerkenwell Explosion, was hanged in front of Newgate. In its circumstances there was very little to distinguish this from ordinary executions. The crowd was greater, perhaps, and better behaved; still, from the peculiar atrocity of the crime for which Barrett suffered, and from the fact of its being probably the last public execution in England, it deserves more than usual notice…” Another newspaper added, “He had gone to the scaffold with red hair and beard; when he was lifted off it, his hair, oddly, was said to have turned black.”


Calcraft performed the last public executions in England, Scotland and the first private execution in England.

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