The Last Public Execution in Belfast
18th Century Life in Belfast
Commercial Growth – Better Times
The city of Belfast’s fame and commercial success was built mainly on the production of textiles, firstly cotton and then more importantly, linen. In pre-industrial days, this was carried out by folk in their own homes. Weavers were paid for each item they produced. Hence any fluctuation in the trade had a direct effect on the weavers and their families. The poor were at the mercy of the markets, and quite often, on the unscrupulous methods of some of Belfast’s leading businessmen.
The cotton industry was introduced into Belfast in the 18th century. Two local businessmen, Robert Joy and Thomas McCabe, travelled to Lancashire to discover the workings of cotton manufacture. These gentlemen were benefactors of Belfast’s Poor House, opened in 1774. On their return they set up a cotton loom in the north wing of the House. The resident children were taught the skill of cotton spinning and weaving. Having a trade meant that when these children left the Poor House, they would be readily employed and the cycle of poverty broken.
Subsequently the McCracken’s had cotton mills in Francis Street and Donegall Street. Horse-powered mills were also established at Waring Street and Millfield. The first cotton mill to be powered by water was erected in 1781 by Englishman Nicholas Grimshaw at Whitehouse. While the first steam-powered mill was Stevenson’s at Springfield.
“The cotton trade was held supreme, and was a most flourishing industry until about the year 1800, when the American war stopped the supply of raw cotton. There were 46 firms engaged in the trade and 27,000 people employed in the cotton mills”Mary Lowry The Story of Belfast and Its Surroundings 1913
With the decline of cotton manufacture the mills were converted or rebuilt for linen production. During the Napoleonic Wars, when foreign trade was curtailed, Irish textiles prospered. Handloom weavers, on average, earned 18 shillings a week. However, with peace came increased competition which drove prices down.
“While some (weavers) were fortunate enough to be employed by factories, the vast majority worked from hovels in the poorer areas of the town. As they were on piece work (that is, being paid for what they actually produced) the fall in prices really stung”Steven Moore, Behind the Garden Wall, 1995
This resulted in a decline in wages with weavers receiving around 8 shillings per week. This combined with a series of bad harvests which increased food prices, brought the poor of Belfast to the brink of starvation.
Decline and Poverty
“In 1815 the return of peace precipitated a depression in the textile industry, the effects of which on the labouring poor, in town and country alike, were exacerbated by poor harvests, rising food and fuel prices, and outbreaks of typhus”Kerby A Miller Eire-Ireland 39 2004
The situation was further aggravated by the underhand methods of some local merchants, who bought and hoarded corn and other foodstuffs then sold them at exorbitant prices. These men were sometimes known as ‘regrators’ or ‘fore-stallers’. At times of crisis there always seem to be some people out to ‘make a killing’.
“The cotton industry suffered very severely in the great depression which followed the Napoleonic war…The cotton manufacturers attempted to reduce the cost of production by lowering wages and bitter strife with the weavers followed. Bad harvests had caused a big increase in the cost of living and there were great numbers of unemployed”E. R. R. Green, The Lagan Valley 1800-1850, 1949
In the early 19th century Belfast’s population was increasing rapidly. In 1800 it numbered around 20,000 by 1831 more than 53,000. Many of these folk coming from rural areas in search of employment ended up living in cramped, squalid ghettos with little sanitation. With limited means to provide a decent diet for their families, sickness and fever rates increased dramatically.
Poverty and ‘Combinations’
Some workers tried to band together in ‘combinations’ or unions to force employers to take a more reasonable attitude to wages. To provide a rate of pay for work and produce which would allow the workers a decent standard of living.
The reaction of the business men was to make ‘combinations’ illegal. In 1800 two masons who were accused of speaking about ‘combining’ were sent to prison for 6 months. In the same year 6 cobblers (shoemakers) who had made a joint plea for higher wages were promptly imprisoned in Carrickfergus jail. The loss of the breadwinner would have left their families destitute. In April 1815 Lisburn’s cotton weavers marched to Belfast to demonstrate against wage reductions. This resulted in a riot and the arrest of the perceived ringleaders.
As early as 1802, the Belfast newspapers were denouncing ‘combinations’ for their purported ill-effect on the commercial life of the city and on society as a whole.
As the rich got richer, and the poor poorer, gangs of distraught men roamed the streets in search of food, their sense of injustice growing with their hunger. Rumours of food sales would result in near-hysteria as crowds surged to the shop only to find the prices beyond their reach. Inevitably violence broke out, as warehouses and shops were ransacked in search of food.
“…when angry mobs plundered stores and put the fear of death into the hearts of merchants… and with the same merchants who hoarded foodstuffs to sell them at higher prices during the dearth, the hungry people had little patience”Cathal O’Byrne As I Roved Out 1946
Many clergy sided with their congregations. It is reported that 60 years earlier at another time of severe food shortages a Protestant clergyman, Rev Philip Skelton told his flock
“If you have not food, beg it; if you can’t get it for begging, steal; if you can’t get for stealing, rob, and don’t starve”Rev Philip Skelton
The Attack on Francis Johnson
Events came to a head on Tuesday 28th February 1816. At about 4 o’clock in the morning a group of around 10 armed men attacked the house of wealthy merchant Francis Johnson of Peter’s Hill.
Mr Johnson fired his blunderbuss (a precursor to the shotgun) at the men. However, they managed to pull off the iron sheeting that was covering the windows and a rudimentary incendiary device of tar and gunpowder was thrown into the home. (This has been described as Belfast’s ‘first bomb’)
Fortunately, Mr and Mrs Johnson and their 8 children and servants (2 maids and a manservant) escaped unharmed.
“….the party that was at work forsd the Shutters and entroudeced either a bomb Shel or Some other extronary Combustable preparation that Soon exploded and rent the House from top to bottom not a wall nor inside partation that was not torn to pieces yet despirate as it was and wounderfull to relate not a life was lost on either Sides”Taken from a letter by William Coyne 17th March 1816 Eire-Ireland 39, 2004
Frank Johnson was a muslin manufacturer in North Street. His property had been previously attacked on 24th August 1815 when tar had been smeared on the door and set alight. It was at this point that Johnson employed a night watchman, John Lewis, to protect the family home. The fact that Johnson was generally loathed by his workforce suggests that he was not a good employer. He was infamous for payment of low wages and his employees had tried to have him boycotted:
“…neither to weave a web for him, or portion of a web, nor permit others to work for him”
In contrast however, Johnson was highly regarded by the wealthy traders of Belfast, he was described –
“… as a merchant, useful and intelligent – and for a firmness and unshrinking determination a man scarcely to be equalled”Belfast Newsletter 2nd January 1818
That he was against the spread of trade unionism is indicated by the following sentence from the same article
“He was cool, dispassionate, and humane, and amidst difficulties that might have paled a less determined heart, he succeeded in putting down a system of combination which threatened to subvert the very basis of every principle of commercial good order”.Belfast Newsletter 2nd January 1818
Francis Johnson died in December 1817 of typhus fever.
Another businessman whose premises were the subject of riotous crowds was Thomas How. Mr How lived at 11 Church Street with his workplace around the corner at 12 Long Lane.
The incident at Johnson’s house at Peter’s Hill, provoked further widespread rioting and looting in the town. The local gentry were both angered by events and afraid for their own safety. Within days a huge reward of £2,000 had been amassed to secure the convictions of those involved in the outrage. (It is a pity the gentry could not have donated this money previously to alleviate the sufferings of their poor townsfolk).
However, many ordinary citizens of Belfast well understood the despair that had provoked these acts of violence. There are not many lengths a parent will not go to, to feed his child. Even the local newspaper showed some sympathy for the working classes
“We have had the best opportunities of knowing the condition of the poor, which we can truly say was really miserable and their misery was greatly heightened, if not solely occasioned by the avarice of the huxters and fore-stallers….. many of the persons concerned in said mob, we take upon us to say, it was on account of these kind of oppressions and the want of bread to support their families that induced them to be concerned therein, and not of any idle, loose or disorderly way of living or thinking”Cathal O’Byrne, As I Roved Out 1946
Arrest and Betrayal
The outcome was that by late summer in 1816, five men were arrested for the attack on the Johnson household. The men were brought before the County Assizes in Carrickfergus at 9 o’clock on the 12th August. They were all journeymen weavers from County Down on the outskirts of Belfast. (A journeyman weaver was a skilled craftsman who was employed by a master weaver and was paid by the day).
“…charged the prisoners with wilfully and feloniously conspiring to set on fire the home of Francis Johnson – for a burglary, in forcibly entering and attempting to burn said house – with a conspiracy to murder the said Francis Johnson – for a riot and an assault – and several other counts”Belfast Commercial Chronicle, 14th August 1816
One of the prisoners, William Gray, turned ‘approver’ (that is informer) and gave evidence against his comrades.
Outcome of the Trial
Two of the convicted were James Park and James Dickson. They were both sentenced to 18 months imprisonment in Carrickfergus jail and 300 lashes each. Three further men were sentenced to death.
However, just a couple of days before the execution date one of the condemned men, Joseph Madden, had his sentence commuted to transportation for life. The jury in the trial while finding the prisoners guilty had urged the judge to show mercy to all the defendants.
On Friday 6th September 1816 John Doe and John Magill were hanged in Castle Place opposite the doors of the Bank Buildings. The authorities wanted the execution to be as public as possible to act as a deterrent to further acts of violence.
Large crowds had gathered to witness the event. The soldiers of the 5th Dragoon Guards and the Royal Scots under the command of General Dalzell, were deployed for crowd control.
The two young men arrived in an open cart with 4 clergymen in attendance – the Revs Joseph Alexander, B Mitchell, J Stewart and Johnathan Blackwell. Following behind were the carts conveying the two executioners, their faces covered in black crepe material to avoid recognition.
Both the condemned men had prepared statements. Doe read his aloud while Magill’s was spoken by the Rev J Stevenson.
The cart was positioned under the recently constructed wooden scaffold and the nooses placed around the necks of the unfortunate men by a hooded executioner. The horses were then whipped forward and the men were hung as the cart was pulled from beneath them. John Doe died instantly but for James Magill the strangulation took several minutes. The crowd remained silent throughout the ghoulish spectacle. This was Belfast’s last public execution.
The bodies were left on display for an hour, then cut down and given to their families. Both Doe and Magill were married with young children. The coffins were place in a cart and covered with black cloth, then driven over the Long Bridge into County Down. Both men were buried in an unmarked grave in the Burial Ground of the Meeting-House Green, Knockbreachan. The location of their interment suggests they were of the Presbyterian faith.
A week later on 13th September, a scaffold was re-erected in Castle Place outside the Donegal Arms. This time it was for the flogging of Park and Dickson. The prisoners were brought by open cart from Carrickfergus. James Park, an elderly man, was flogged first, receiving 314 lashes. James Dickson endured 269 lashes before he collapsed. The men were then returned to jail.
“…upon which the executioner (a strong athletic man, grotesquely disguised) commenced his operations and inflicted a most exemplary flogging… But we trust it will operate as a salutary lesson to guard the ignorant from those abominable combinations (that is trade unions) which strike at the root of all good habits”Belfast Commercial Chronicle 14th September 1816
The Belfast House of Correction
The following year saw the establishment in Belfast of a House of Correction. It was situated in the fields behind the White Linen Hall, in what we know today as Howard Street.
The House of Correction was designed to implement a harsh regime to instil ‘morals and industry’ among its inmates. The building complex contained numerous cells, a courtroom and the governor’s house. Prisoners were kept busy spinning, chopping wood and picking oakum (a loose fibre obtained by untwisting old rope, used especially in caulking wooden ships).
“The appearance of this place corresponds with its use. It is a dark, strong building of brick, surrounded with a high wall….The discipline of this prison is so strict and correct that its influence has been most salutary on the conduct of the disorderly in this town and neighbourhood”George Benn, History of the Town of Belfast, 1823
The motto above the doorway read ‘Within amend, without beware’.
As citizens of Belfast, while we can always take pride in our industrial heritage, it should be tempered with a worthy respect for those who actually laboured in the textile trade. While the rich prospered the poorest became even poorer.
Whether cotton spinners in their own homes or those whose lives and spirits were broken in the ‘satanic’ mills, we should remember that not everyone prospered through the city’s commercial success.
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