Challenging myths


Tom Minogue

EVEN a quick scan of the indictments exposes the myth perpetuated in some press reports of the trial that this was an Irish navvy riot. It wasn’t. No Irishmen were charged with Mobbing and Rioting. The definition of such a charge is that a group combines with a common purpose to commit violence or intimidation. The two Irishmen were charged separately with Assault, Peter Cooney—to the danger of life—acting alone, and Charles Wynn acting with three other persons unknown, during an affray in Bruce Street Dunfermline late on the Saturday night of June 22, 1850.
There were three victims of the Irishmen’s assaults: David Anderson, James Johnstone—later convicted of the mobbing and rioting that followed—and Thomas Chalmers.

By contrast 12 native inhabitants of Dunfermline were charged—in three separate indictments—for their part in the events of the Monday following the Saturday night affray with: Mobbing and Rioting; Violently, Masterfully and Unlawfully Invading and Entering the dwelling houses of Her Majesty’s subjects; Housebreaking; Violently, Masterfully and Unlawfully Ejecting Her Majesty’s subjects; and Assault causing serious injury.
The total number of Her Majesty’s—mostly Irish—subjects who were victims of the Dunfermline natives’ crimes numbered at least 100.

The press reports of the day and subsequent historical articles give much detail of the injuries to the few victims of the two Irish navvies, but don’t report in a similar vein—with three exceptions previously noted in part one—the many injuries to the Irish who were assaulted and evicted. This is remarkable.

One of the evicted was an elderly Irishman, Peter Kelly, a pedlar, who died within days of being forcibly evicted, assaulted and driven ten kilometres from Dunfermline to North Queensferry, all the while being beaten and abused by the mob. If anything was newsworthy this was.

Although the press didn’t report any details of Irish victims, the indictments do.

Pedlar, Peter Kelly, suffered when ‘the said mob or great number of riotous and evil-disposed persons did, at or near the door of the house at or near North Chapel Street aforesaid, then occupied by Peter Kelly, now deceased, wickedly and feloniously attack and assault the said Peter Kelly, and did seize hold of him, and did drag him or force him away and violently, masterfully, and unlawfully, eject and drive him from the town of Dunfermline, and along the road therefrom to North Queensferry, or a great part thereof, and did by the way pelt him with stones or other missiles and beat him with their fists, and with sticks or similar weapons, and did otherwise maltreat and abuse him, to the severe injury of his, person.’

Having died in the space of a few days after his beating and forced march, Peter was cited to appear as a prosecution witness, but when the list of witnesses was published a few days later by the Advocate Depute he was noted as ‘deceased.’

The mob also targeted housewife Catherine Macafferty ‘and did kick her and strike her repeated blows with the fist, and with sticks and bludgeons or other similar weapons, on or about the head or other parts of her person, and did otherwise maltreat and abuse her; by all which, or part thereof, she was cut, bruised, and wounded to the effusion of her blood, and serious injury of her person.’

Weaver, James O’Hanlon, meanwhile, ‘having fled to the house in or near the Rhodes Building aforesaid, then and now or lately occupied by Benjamin Lyons or Lyness, then and now or lately weaver there to escape from the violence of the said mob or great number of riotous and evil-disposed persons, the said mob or great number of riotous and evil-
disposed persons did follow him there and did, violently masterfully, and unlawfully, invade and enter the said house’ where he was similarly assaulted.

The above extracts are serious matters, but they are only some of the many brutal acts of the mob against many innocent people, predominantly Irish, who played no part in the Saturday night affray. But even these large numbers of victims don’t tell the full story, because as well as the acts detailed in the indictments, witnessed by many, there were others, which would have gone undetected.

As evidence of this underestimate, the newspapers of the day reported several instances of brutal treatment to Irishmen that didn’t feature in the indictments so it must be the case that the violence was even greater than that from which charges resulted.

That the press of the day didn’t report on the many instances of violent crimes, such as those that hastened or even caused the death of Peter Kelly is astonishing, given that the crimes against him were published in the indictments brought against the rioters.

These were crimes that were seen by at least 49 prosecution witnesses called by the Crown to testify against the 12 accused natives, they were also seen by many others not called.

It must be assumed that these evil acts, known to so many and well worth reporting at the time, but weren’t, was due to the fact that the press viewed a death and the injuries to the Irish residents of Dunfermline as inconsequential—they
simply didn’t count.

And it seems that the awful violence meted out to the Irish residents not only didn’t count as far as the press were
concerned, but it didn’t count for much as far as the courts were concerned either, because the violent element of the charges in the indictments of the natives were dropped, meaning no one faced charges for assault of the Irish.
This plea bargain meant that the court would never hear from the 49 prosecution witnesses the gory details of the assaults which led to one Irishman’s death, and serious injuries to the person and property of many.

One is left to assume that these evil acts, which should have incurred the righteous wrath of the Scottish justice system, but didn’t, was due to the fact that the legal authorities, like the press, viewed the death and injuries to the Irish residents of Dunfermline as inconsequential.

Prison experience
Following the High Court trial at Perth the convicted men were taken to prison to serve the various terms handed down by the Court. The 12 Dunfermline natives and one Irish navvy, Charles Wynn, were sent to Perth Prison where male prisoners worked as shoemakers, tailors, weavers, and mat makers.

The other Irish navvy, Peter Cooney, who was sentenced to be transported beyond the seas for seven years, was first remanded in the Dunfermline Prison pre-trial, then returned there after his trial. After his time in Dunfermline Prison Cooney was sent to England and was received into Millbank Prison then later transferred to Pentonville Prison.
After his nine month assessment there—where again his conduct was ‘Good’—Cooney was considered suitable for public works, thus postponing his transportation, and was sent to Portland Prison, Dorset, where he worked in the quarry and on the sea-front (above), helping to build the breakwater of a harbour for Royal Navy vessels being constructed at this time.

The healthy outdoor work at Portland must have been a welcome relief to Cooney, after having spent more than a year of mind-numbing seclusion and silence, first at Dunfermline, then Millbank and Pentonville.

Stone quarrying, dressing and erecting masonry would have been almost identical work to the work navvies did on the Stirling to Dunfermline railway bridge viaducts, like those at Buffie’s Brae, Dunfermline and Comrie Dean, Blairhall, and would have been second nature to a young strong Irish navvy like Cooney.

The first petition
While the 12 Dunfermline natives and Irishman Charles Wynn were weaving away in Perth Prison a petition was
subscribed by residents of Dunfermline and district seeking the early release, on compassionate grounds, of one of their number, coal miner, Alexander Black Senior. This extraordinary development came about on June 7, 1851.

Nothing extraordinary about that? Well there is when the petition was drawn up, not by the lumpenproletariat, the mob who had helped Black evict the Irish miners at Townhill, but by the movers and shakers in Dunfermline society.
Provost Kinnis who had first read the Riot Act to the rioters, Bailie Ireland, who had sworn in special constables at the start of the riot and had followed the mob the six miles to the Burgh boundaries, John Bonnar, the Burgh Magistrate, who would have remanded into custody those accused of Mobbing and Rioting prior to their trial at the High Court in Perth, the Minister and assistant Minister of the prestigious Abbey Church, as well as a host of manufacturers/merchants all signed their support for the petition.

The list of signatories to the petition for clemency reads like a ‘Who’s Who’ in Dunfermline and includes a name that featured large in all the 1830s and 1840s riots, Andrew Carnegie’s uncle, Thomas Morrison, now a Bailie and Burgh Treasurer, and another relative of Andrew Carnegie his uncle George Lauder, said by the millionaire to be his greatest influence in life.

And if the signatories to the petition did not give it sufficient gravitas it was presented to the Home Secretary, on the
petitioners’ behalf, by no less a person than the Member of Parliament for Dunfermline, Mr John Benjamin Smith, of the Liberal Party.

When the petition was received by Sir George Grey, the Home Secretary, it was forwarded to Scotland’s Lord Justice Clerk, Lord Hope, accompanied by an explanatory letter from one of the trial judges, Lord Ivory, for him to review and report back on.

The second petition
A second petition for clemency was raised in March 1852. This one was from a lone petitioner, the former Irish navvy, Peter Cooney, now a convict in HM Prison Portland, Dorset.

Unlike the one for Alexander Black, Cooney’s petition didn’t have a host of eminent Dunfermline citizens supporting it and testifying to his good character. But it did have reports from the prison authorities at the four prisons he had been held in.

Such reports gave a less than ringing endorsement of the Irish inmate stating that he possessed ‘intelligence very
limited’ and ‘could read a little’ adding ‘nothing is known regarding the convict’s character he having been a very short time in the neighbourhood.’

Nor did Cooney have the benefit of a legally trained advocate to draft his plea, or an eminent politician to present it on his behalf to the then Home Secretary, Spencer Horatio Walpole. He also had the added difficulty of writing in his own hand using a language that was foreign to him (Irish was the common language in Monaghan).

Despite all these handicaps, a prayer for clemency was written from a cramped prison cell in Portland Prison by Peter Cooney. In his plea he detailed how prosecution witnesses to his alleged assault of David Anderson had repeatedly failed to identify him; how he had been tried without a lawyer and without witnesses for his defence, and how a defence fund collected among his navvy colleagues to allow him to produce witnesses at Perth (a day’s coach trip from Dunfermline) had been misappropriated.

Clemency for Alexander Black
The task of the Lord Justice Clerk in considering whether or not to recommend to the Home Secretary that he exercise clemency in the case of Alexander Black Senior—a case not known to him—necessitated him being appraised of the
circumstances of the case by one of the trial judges. This clarification was directed by the Home Secretary in the form of an explanatory letter from Lord Ivory.

In his letter to the Lord Justice Clerk, Lord Ivory sought to explain his—and his fellow judge Lord Mackenzie’s—
decision as to Black’s sentencing. The letter was couched in defensive terms, as if he knew the decision not to sentence any of the Dunfermline natives to transportation for crimes of such magnitude was anomalous.

Puzzlingly, the reason offered by Lord Ivory for the failure to transport any of the 12 Dunfermline men was stated as being because the Perth Prosecutor had charged so many native inhabitants, who had all pleaded guilty, and so few Irish, because, he presumed, of difficulty in identification.

Lord Ivory must also have been dealing in presumption rather than fact when he misled the Lord Justice Clerk by stating that the 12 native inhabitants had ‘characters that were otherwise unimpeached’ prior to the riot. This was untrue. It was the case that two of them, James Johnstone, and Adam Baxter, had convictions for assault prior to the Perth hearing.

Lord Ivory also hinted that it would have caused further unrest among the troublesome Dunfermline townspeople if he sentenced the 12 natives to transportation. This thorny issue caused him and fellow judge Lord Mackenzie to delay sentencing the twelve by one day as they pondered their predicament of how to deal with them.

It is apparent from his letter that Lord Ivory had some sympathy for the 12 native rioters who he described as ‘poor people’—a Masonic phrase from 3rd Degree obligations, regarding helping a brother in distress—and ‘shrank’ from transporting them, but had little hesitation in transporting a large number of his own townfolk (he was native to Dundee) to transportation on the same day for trivial offences compared to those of the Dunfermline mob.

Lord Ivory also accepted that the 12 poor people felt intimidated by the Irish and their violent responses to this fear were not planned or calculated, but rather were ‘much excited’ reactions taken in the heat of the moment.

When the Lord Justice Clerk, Lord Hope, reviewed the petition along with Lord Ivory’s letter he shared none of Lord Ivory’s sentiments. Lord Hope totally rejected Lord Ivory’s view that the 12 native rioters were carried away with the excitement of the mob and felt provoked by the Irish assaults, or that this offered some justification, or mitigation for their acts. Nor did he agree with Lords Ivory and Mackenzie’s lenient sentencing.

From Lord Hope’s Report to the Home Secretary we see for the first time mention of the Irish as being Catholics.
In rejecting the Magistrate and people of Dunfermline’s petition presented by Mr J B Smith, MP, Lord Hope’s Report gave reasons that were simply stating the obvious, namely, that the 18 and 15 months jail sentences given to the Dunfermline natives for acts of ‘great barbarity’ against innocent men, women and children were ‘extremely lenient and any mitigation of it would be very inexpedient.’

From the back page of the petition we can see the initials of Sir George Grey, the Home Secretary, as evidence of his rejection of this petition by the Magistrates and other inhabitants of Dunfermline.

Clemency for Peter Cooney
Peter Cooney had petitioned the Home Secretary, Spencer Horatio Walpole, on March 17 (St Patrick’s Day), 1852 and though he had to wait for 668 days for his decision, his wait was worthwhile, as his plea for clemency was granted.
No doubt the stated opinion of the staff at Portland Prison that Cooney merited a reduction in ‘consequence of his exemplary character’ had a part to play in this decision.

On January 27, 1854, with less than half of his seven year prison sentence served, Peter Cooney was released into the care of Josiah Clyde, a merchant in Falkirk.

To sum up
The charges give a lie to the myth created by the press that the Irish had planned and put into practice a mock-fight to lure innocent bystanders into an ambush. Were that the case the authorities would have been quick to charge the two Irish navvies with this nefarious plan, which would have constituted the crime of Mobbing and Rioting.

The charges also show that the injuries as a result of assaults reported by the press were misleading, in that they concentrated on those inflicted by the Irish navvies, which they exaggerated greatly, while ignoring the vastly greater number of brutal assaults and one death suffered by the Irish residents.

Lord Hope’s report to the Home Secretary reveals the true nature and causes of the mob violence was not, as the
newspapers opined, a reactionary revenge for a Saturday night affray, but rather it was a regularly conceived and planned affair, mainly about race, and—the other, unstated factor, until Lord Hope identified it—religion.

With anti-Irish and anti-Catholic views prevalent in Scotland at the time it’s not hard to see how a simple Saturday night drink-fuelled affray would be portrayed as an atrocity, and the two Irishmen who committed three assaults into ogres, while the numerous planned and orchestrated crimes of two or three thousand Scots native inhabitants were sanitised, explained away in the best possible light as an understandable reaction to the atrocities of the former, and, as far as their assaults were concerned, went unheralded and unpunished.

In his reasoning for rejecting the pleas of Black’s supporters, Lord Hope, the Lord Justice Clerk shared my bafflement at the light sentences given to the natives of Dunfermline who had committed so many violent crimes, as he too seemed at a loss to understand it, and refused to recommend any reduction of it. To believe their sentences were appropriate, as Lord Ivory opined, would be to accept that stealing a handkerchief from someone’s pocket or a pair of trousers from a drying green was worthy of transportation for 7-10 years, but driving a whole community out town was only worthy of 12-15 months in prison.

What Lord Hope’s report didn’t, or perhaps couldn’t, fully explain, was why the most prominent burghers of Dunfermline, the civic leaders who should have exemplified law and order, felt it was their duty to bring home Alexander Black Senior, one of the leaders of the mob that had brought the town to the brink of anarchy. That is a puzzle I will attempt to unravel in the next part.

Tom Minogue is an Irish citizen living in Scotland, as well as an investigative writer and campaigner