Charles Brett (1815 to 18th September 1867)

 

Before The Falklands War in the early 1980s the only war I’d known was the one with the IRA. Through childhood I can remember murders, marches and bombings flooding the news occasionally. I thought I’d get a book out of the library to learn more and found the scrapping had been going on since 1917 when Irish volunteers refused to enlist in the British Army as World War One raged (as I leafed through the book a man hovering round the same section of the library said, “That’s the best book on the subject.”)

 

Things went back before this though and the Irish Republic Brotherhood (known as Fenians) were fighting to end British rule in Ireland since it was partitioned. Anyone reading about this cause will come across The Manchester Martyrs. They were three Irish Nationals who killed an English policeman and were hanged for it. The ashes of these three are buried in Blackley Cemetery and I’m surprised Irish Nationalists haven’t come to collect them to take them home. Across Ireland and Manchester there are nine - nine! - monuments to these three murderers.

 

As you know I normally visit just one location but for this one I’ve visited five to show how the sad tale unfolded.

 

In brief William Allen, Michael Larkin and Michael O'Brien are known as the “Manchester Martyrs”. They believed all of Ireland belonged to the Irish and were part of the Fenians to reclaim Northern Ireland. Two leaders of the Fenians had planned to make an attack against the English in February 1867 by raiding on the arsenal in Chester. Their plans were scuppered though and they were hunted down and arrested within seven months.

 

The three Manchester Martyrs planned to free the two leaders as they were transferred in a van from a Manchester court to Belle Vue Gaol. On 18th September 1867 the police and their horses were passing under a railway arch when they were suddenly surrounded by about forty men. A horse was shot and the unarmed police escort fled. The group shouted for the two Fenians to be released. An unarmed policeman, Sergeant Charles Brett, was in the van and refused to open the door. The horde set upon the van with sledgehammers, hatchets and crowbars but couldn’t open the door. As a terrified Charles peered through the keyhole he was shot through one eye and died instantly. The keys were passed out and the two Fenians climbed out through a ventilator in the van roof (they fled to America.)

 

A manhunt for the murderers began and three The Manchester Martyrs were caught with months. They were brought to trial, sentenced to death hanged outside New Bailey Prison in Salford and buried there. These men were considered martyrs for the cause and so profoundly revered back home in Ireland that two weeks after their hangings a “funeral” was held in Dublin. Can you believe that sixty thousand people followed three empty hearses to Glasnevin Cemetery?

 

When New Bailey Prison closed in 1868 the three bodies were dug up and moved to the cemetery in the much bigger Strangeways Prison Cemetery 1.2 miles away. They remained here in unmarked graves for over a century. In 1991 the remains were cremated and buried at Blackley Cemetery in Manchester. Since that day Irish Nationalists have been trying to have the ashes brought back to Ireland for a proper burial.

 

So here I am at the locations as the sad tale unfolded...

 

1. I’m by the bridge where the ambush took place as prisoners were escorted from a court in Manchester to Bell Vue Gaol. The road is one of the arterial routes straight into the city. You wouldn’t stop here until you were a nosy geek like me or worked in one of the near industries. I’m sure the surroundings were more rural when Charles was shot - the road would have been cobbled and it would be have been populated by blacksmiths and alehouses.

 

2. The cemetery where policeman Charles is buried lies in Harpurhey, a threadbare district of Manchester. I was a bit nervy about leaving the car when I went to tramp round the cemetery. On that Sunday afternoon mine was the only car on a dead-end road looked on by a block uninspiring flats with loud towels draped over balconies. There was no church to attract a flock, no warden to look after the cemetery. It seemed to be one of those cemeteries that’s overlooked and no council lays claim to it.

 

I found the headstone after about fifteen minutes - on its back with a crack through its length. I thought it odd that other headstones were still standing yet this one wasn’t….mmmm. Nobody had been to this grave for a while as there was a light carpet of leaves over it. I brushed them off and read the words. When Charles was trapped in the police van and the horde tried to prise open the doors he refused to give up the keys and shouted, “I dare not, I must do my duty”. These words are on the headstone.

 

How many people have walked by the nearby path with no knowledge of the cop who died with a bullet through the brain? I spent about fifteen minutes by the grave and if someone has passed and enquired if the grave was of note I’d have told them about the sad tale. Nobody passed by.

 

Charles was 52 when he died and left behind a wife and four children. He’s resting with his dad, wife Mary and two granddaughters. During the late 1980s and the early 1990s the masons of Harpurhey held a parade at the grave-side and a wreath was laid.  Unfortunately the lodge doesn’t exist anymore.

 

3. The site of the prison in Salford where the three murderers were held, hanged and buried. Eight to ten thousand people turned out to see them hang until no breath was left in their bodies. William Calcraft was the hangman and was nervous about this job (he’d executed about 450 people) as he’d received death threats. Allen died quickly of a broken neck but the other two were not so lucky. Calcraft had to rush down into the pit to the twitching bodies. He killed Larkin by pulling on the dangling legs to hasten strangulation. However the three Roman Catholic priests in attendance forbade O’Brien to be dealt with so compassionately. One priest held the dying man’s hand until he died. Despite his praying it took about forty-five minutes before death ensued.

 

New Bailey Gaol was proved to be too small for Manchester’s ever-growing hub of criminals and the bigger Strangeways prison was built. The site has been recently excavated (to reveal tiny cells) and yet another high-rise block is about to bury history forever. The three murderers were buried here in lime and then transferred to...

 

4....Strangeways Prison where the three bodies lay buried for over 120 years. This prison opened in 1868 the population of about 1300 men holds many Category “A” prisoners. Here the world’s fastest hanging took place in 1951, just seven seconds passing from the time the prisoner was removed from his cell to the moment that the trapdoor opened.

 

The streets around the prison are a little frightening and some businesses around there have high wire fencing all around them. I noticed most of the business are hosiery importers/exporters. I saw two groups of tramps sat on low walls sharing (probably) cider/meths. I walked down to the front of the prison and visitor time was obviously over as scores of people were just leaving. One baby-doll blonde lady in an all-in-one curvy cat-suit had obviously dressed for titivation.

 

It was only in August 1964 the last hanging occurred here.

 

5. Finally I visited Blackely Crematorium which as a fairly vast. The remains of the three murderers were dug up when Strangeways was extended. The pitiful remains were cremated and buried together on a nice bit of grass displaying neat rows of graves. As they been buried twice (once in lime so they’d decompose faster) over 120 years ago I doubt there was much to cremate. Whether the ashes are still here now is unknown. Would Irish Nationalists take them home now they’re in a public place and accessible?

 

 

 

 

 

He’s buried here…

 

 

Clearing the leaves off…

 

 

 

The murders were hanged outside New Bailey Prison which stood here…

 

The goal was over the wall shown…

 

 

 

 

The hangings were carried around here somewhere (exact spot unknown)…

 

When the goal closed down the bodies were transferred to Strangeways Prison graveyard where they remained for over 120 years…

 

The modern end of Strangeways

 

Now the ashes are supposed buried here in Blakley Cemetery…

 

 

The crematorium where the remains were turned to dust…