HC Deb 09 March 1868 vol 190 cc1215-8

said, he would beg to ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department, Whether, as has been publicly stated, either the Government or the Chief Commissioner of Police had information, previously to the commission of the crime, of a design to blow up or otherwise attack Clerkenwell Prison; and, if so, whether there is any objection to state what precautionary or preventive measures were taken in consequence?


replied, that he thought it very natural that the hon. Gentleman should wish for such information as it was in his (Mr. Gathorne Hardy's) power to give in reference to the lamentable occurrence at Clerkenwell. In answer to the first part of the Question he might state that on the 12th of December last a report was received at the Home Office at about twelve o'clock in the day or a little after, to the following effect. He would not give the name of the person who sent the report, because he did not think that would be advisable:— December 11, 1867. I have to report that I have just received information from a reliable source to the effect that the rescue of Richard Burke from prison in London is contemplated. The plan is to blow up the exercise walls by means of gunpowder; the hour between three and four p.m.; and the signal for 'all right,' a white ball thrown up outside when he is at exercise. That information thus received, and coming as was thought from a source on which some reliance could be placed, Mr. Liddell, the Under-Secretary for the Home Department, immediately sent to the Chief Commissioner of Police. Sir Richard Mayne was not at the office at the time it arrived, but Captain Labalmondiere was there, and the report was at once put into his hands that he might see it. At the same time a letter was written by Mr. Liddell to Mr. Pownall, the Chairman of the Visiting Justices, and despatched by a messenger, and was delivered to that gentleman that afternoon. He (Mr. Gathorne Hardy) did not know whether he need go through the circumstances which had appeared generally in the newspapers, as to the promptitude with which Mr. Pownall acted; the careful precautionary measures he took in order, if the walls of the prison were injured, to prevent an attempt at escape by the prisoner Burke; the extra warders employed to afford additional protection, and the alterations made in the usual time and place of the exercising of the prisoners; so that, as far as Mr. Pownall was concerned—though he had not time to assemble the magistrates—action was taken with that care and promptitude which were calculated to prevent the success of any attempt at rescue. Captain Labalmondiere was at the Home Office between twelve and one o'clock, because the order which he wrote to the Superintendent of Police was dated 12.45, which showed that Captain Labalmondiere had then received the information in question. He would read to the House the instructions which Captain Labalmondiere gave on receipt of that report. They were handed to Superintendent Gernon, and before he left the Office the Chief Commissioner came in, when that document was handed to him and he gave instructions to Superintendent Gernon to the like effect, only they were more specific, stating the force of police which was to be used— Superintendent Gernon—Acquaint the Governor of the House of Detention that information has been received of an intended rescue of the prisoner Burke, to be effected by blowing up the walls of the exercising ground during the hours he is at exercise. Have the external walls carefully examined to ascertain that there has been no attempt to mine, and arrange for strict observation to be kept on them.—12.45 p.m. In his Report on the occurrence Sir Richard Mayne stated— The police arrangements made by Superintendent Gernon, in pursuance of my directions, were to post a double patrol of two police-constables, and three police-constables were employed in plain clothes, all of whom were strictly instructed, together with section sergeants, to keep close observation on all persons loitering round the prison walls, and to give immediate information to the inspector on duty at King's Cross Station should anything suspicious arise. There were also five police-constables in uniform and three in plain clothes on duty round the prison walls. At the same time Inspector Thompson was sent by Sir Richard Mayne to communicate with the Governor of the prison and tell him what they had heard, and that communication was made in the course of the afternoon of the 12th of December. Precautions were taken as to the protection of the walls outside; but those hon. Members who had not read the statements made by the witnesses might not be aware that at, a late period of the inquiry, it came out that on that very afternoon a cask of a similar description to the one that exploded on December 13th was seen by a woman in the neighbourhood of the prison walls, and that, as far as could be judged, an attempt was made to light it. If it had been lighted at that time, no doubt there would have been destruction of life, not only outside of but within the prison, for it was then the hour of prison exercise; and, further, about the time that the cask was seen there, a white indiarubber ball was thrown over the wall, which was picked up by one of the warders, who, having no idea of what it was for, kept it for his children. At the same time it was noticed that the prisoner Burke fell out of the ranks and went to a different part of the yard, apparently to take something out of his shoe. But the cask was taken away and did not cause any suspicion among the people living in the neighbourhood. He should mention that at the part of the wall which was broken down there was formerly a small wicket which had been bricked up, and when Captain Labalmondiere went back to the Police Office he inquired whether that wicket was there, because it was thought that gunpowder might be used to force it open; but it did not appear to have struck him or any one of the police employed that it would be used to blow down the wall, as was actually the case; for, although the information that had been received was communicated to the officers on the spot, the cask was placed close to the wall without anybody supposing that there was any cause to apprehend mischief from it. It appeared that that mode of carrying out the design of which they received information did not strike those who were set to watch the outside of the prison, because the policeman Moriarty walked along by the side of the wall when the cask was there, and nearly all his clothes were blown off in consequence of the explosion. What their attention was apparently directed to was the undermining of the wall they thought it would probably be blown up from underneath, and had no conception that it would be blown down in the way it really was done.