Between 1865 and 1868, a resurgence of republicanism within the British- and American- Irish communities saw the development of various plots and schemes to promote the establishment of Ireland as an independent democratic republic. The groups and individuals adopting this cause have been generically referred to as ‘The Fenians’. During this period, the law-enforcement agencies, particularly the police on the British mainland (including the small number of detectives at Scotland Yard), frequently struggled to deal adequately with the Fenian threat. This culminated in December 1867 with the Clerkenwell bombing in which a Fenian gunpowder bomb (which had been set in an attempt to release the Fenian prisoner, Ricard Burke, from Clerkenwell House of Detention) killed and wounded substantial numbers of the public and damaged many properties. However, by mid-1868, the Fenian conspiracy had temporarily ebbed away; partly through lack of funding, but also because many senior Fenians were imprisoned (often as a result of informants), had fled into exile in France or America, or had simply had enough. As a result, my great-great-grandfather George Clarke (then a Detective Inspector at Scotland Yard) was able to concentrate on more conventional detective work, including a couple of murders, as well as numerous illegal-betting cases, baby-farming and abortion.
However, by 1870, some aspects of Fenian activity had resumed, including the acquisition of arms. In May 1870, Clarke (who had been promoted to Chief Inspector in 1869) arrested the Fenian arms organiser Michael Davitt at Paddington Station, where Davitt had been awaiting the delivery of a number of revolvers from a Birmingham arms manufacturer. In July that year, Davitt was convicted of Treason Felony and sentenced to 15 years penal servitude
The day after Davitt’s trial concluded, the Franco-Prussian War started, on 18th July 1870. Across the Channel, Napoleon III of France declared war on Prussia after years of tension between the combatants. The British Government adopted a formal position of neutrality in the conflict, and it was not long before the Scotland Yard Detective Department was engaged in helping to sustain the UK position. However, Irish sympathies in the conflict lay with the French (and at that time Ireland in its entirety was part of the UK); a large spontaneous demonstration of popular support was held in Dublin on 19 July and a National Committee was formed on 7 September to provide medical aid and supplies to France, by recruiting an Irish Ambulance Corps. Assembled from various parts of Ireland, the Corps sailed to France on 8 October in a chartered ship, La Fontaine. In appearance at least, The Irish Ambulance Corps was an humanitarian gesture that was unlikely to compromise Britains’ neutrality in the Franco-Prussian war.
However, on 24 September 1870, The Times [24 September 1870] reported that a London-based Committee, with offices at 7 Bolt Court, Fleet Street, had also been formed to raise money and send out able-bodied young Irishmen to form an Irish National Ambulance Corps in France; also reporting that “upwards of 2000 athletic Irishmen had presented themselves”. By the end of September, police enquiries had been initiated, as 7 Bolt Court was well known to police as a Fenian rendezvous. On 1 October, Inspector Brannan of Holborn Division reported that the London-recruited ‘Ambulance Corps’ was a ‘cover’; that in fact the Fenians were attempting to raise an ‘Irish Brigade’, and that as soon as the men landed in France they would be expected to take up arms for France and join the Foreign Legion. If correct, this would be an offence against the Foreign Enlistment Act, and would also have compromised Britain’s neutral status in the Franco-Prussian conflict. On 3 October, P.C. James Haire went to 7 Bolt Street in plain clothes to investigate the recruitment process. He saw an Irish-American of military appearance in charge, and a clerk. He was told that only Irishmen could join and he noticed that about 40 men applied during the hour that he was there [ Crown Copyright; The National Archives (TNA): Public Records Office (PRO) HO45/8444].
On 5 October the Solicitor-General’s office commented to the Home Office that “there seems scarcely sufficient evidence that the enlistment is for other purposes than the formation of an ambulance corps”, but their attitude was to change on receipt of a telegram from Frederick Bernal, the British Consul in Havre which read “Thirteen men, Irish Ambulance Corps have applied Consulate. Required to bear arms – Refuse – Penniless – What shall I do”? An additional complication was a note received via the Foreign Office from the German Ambassador in London, Count Bernstadt, stating that “He has reason to believe that enlistments of Irishmen for military service in France are being made in this country – requests urgent enquiries”. By then, suspicions started to emerge that the Fenians could potentially be exploiting the opportunity of the Franco-Prussian war to give Irishmen experience of military training and warfare that could later be deployed to the Fenian’s advantage in Ireland.
Clarke had already received his orders from the Home Office; he would be off on his travels again, this time to a country at war where he would be operating ‘undercover’:
“The main object of the Officer’s [journey] is to obtain sufficient evidence to sustain a prosecution against the agents here who engaged these men ….Then to return the men by the cheapest route. The men will not be aware that Mr Clarke is a Police Officer and he can therefore deal with them in whatever manner he may deem most advisable”. [Crown Copyright; TNA:PRO HO 45/8444]
The survival of Clarke’s report allows him to tell the story:
“October 19th 1870; With reference to the alleged infringement of the Foreign Enlistment Act, I beg to report that as directed I left London for Havre on Tuesday the 12th Inst. On my arrival at 4 p.m. on 13th I put myself in communication with Frederick Bernal Esq. H.M. Consul, who informed me that about 80 men arrived at that Port, on Friday the 7th Inst. by the “John Bull” Steam Ship from London. Most of these men called at the Consulate, and said they had been induced to leave home for the purpose of joining an Ambulance Corps. 21 of these went on to Caen the following day (Saturday) and 40 more on Sunday; 19 refusing to proceed any further, and remained at Havre in a destitute state till Monday when he paid their passage to Southampton.
I proceeded to Caen on Friday being furnished with a letter of introduction to C.G.Percival Esq., Vice Consul at that place, and had an interview with him the following morning. He stated that a number of men from England had been lodged in the Barracks there for several days, but that most of them had returned to Havre. He accompanied me towards the Barracks and on the way we met several of the men, four of whom said they were penniless and begged to be sent back to England. I paid their fare to Havre and accompanied them there, the others about ten remained at Caen. On reaching Havre I found about 50 at that place; on questioning them they stated they had been engaged by Messrs. McDonald, Cotter, Cotter, O’Hagan and Carmandy, who had an office at Bolt Court, Fleet Street, London, to proceed to France for the purpose of joining an Ambulance Corps, and had each paid 8/- for their passage. They were accompanied on their journey by the two Cotters; on reaching Havre [they] were joined by O’Hagan, who took them to Caen and there lodged them in the Barracks. By this time they suspected all was not right, and asked O’Hagan, who had assumed the command as Colonel Dyers, for an explanation. He informed them they were not required for the Ambulance Corps, but to join an Irish Brigade and fight for France. This they refused to do, and demanded to be sent home. They were confined to Barracks under the charge of the two Cotters, who called themselves Captain and Ensign, and told them they would be required to take the Oath as Soldiers of France, and threatened to place them under arrest if they were not obedient. They remained in Barracks till the Friday still refusing to become Soldiers, when about 48 of them were marched down to the boat for Havre, escorted by Soldiers with loaded rifles, and fixed bayonets, accompanied by the two Cotters and O’Hagan. When on board they were given about 7d. each. These man remained at Havre until noon 17th when I engaged passages for them (52 in number) to London in the Steam Ship John Bull; Mr Bernal giving an Order to the Captain for the payment of their passage money. He also advanced me 453 francs for the purpose of providing them with food and lodgings during their stay in Havre, they being entirely destitute, and in a starving condition, having received but little food since they left London, some having sold the greater part of their clothing. They further complained of being cruelly deceived and badly treated by those who had engaged them; several had left wives and families quite destitute, being promised by McDonald and others, that they would receive pay at the rate of 25/- per week, with rations and an outfit – these promises induced them to leave their houses. McDonald and Carmandy went with them on their outward journey as far as Gravesend. I accompanied these men to London and provided them with food on the passage – their names, addresses, and statements are attached, and several are prepared to give evidence if required.
I beg to add that about 350 men said to form an Ambulance Corps arrived at Havre from Dublin on Wednesday 12th Inst., and were still there at the time of my leaving. A great number of these were about the streets in a drunken riotous state and on Saturday night broke out in open mutiny, refusing to obey those in command, and a guard of Soldiers was called out to quell the disturbance, and I was informed by some of the parties that only about 40 of their number were required as an Ambulance Corps, and that the others must either join the French Army or return home, and I am of opinion from the riotous demeanour of these men, should they remain at Havre serious consequences will follow.I respectfully beg to state that I received every possible assistance and attention from F. Bernal Esq. at Havre, and C.G.Percival at Caen”. [Crown Copyright; TNA:PRO HO45/8444]
The reference made in Clarke’s report to an Ambulance Corps arriving from Dublin on 12th October, was the ship La Fontaine. Several of the men from this ship did go on to serve in a medical-assistance role. However others apparently did not:
“Contrary to the original intentions of those who sent the Ambulance Corps to France, a number of the volunteers, including some Dundalk men, adopted a more active military role soon after their arrival…[including] those who joined the Foreign Legion: they enlisted in the 1st Compagne Irlandaise, Légion d’Étrangère. The Legion had its headquarters at Bourges, numbered 30,000 men, and was attached to the Army of the Loire” [O’Mahony, C. (2000) The Irish Sword 22, 36-50]
The men received rifle and machine-gun training, and learnt how to operate as snipers (‘Franc-tireurs’) and guerilla fighters behind enemy lines. Whether any of the men from Dublin or London later participated in Irish Republican activities is not known.
Having done what he could to return those men who had been potentially duped into fighting for France, Clarke obtained statements (including a full description of events from one of the volunteers, William Costello) implicating McDonald and others involved in the recruitment process. On 21 October, the newly-promoted Chief Inspector Druscovich arrested ‘John McDonald’ believed to be the principal recruiter for the Bolt Street recruits to the Irish Ambulance Corps, whose real name was Joseph Patrick McDonnell. He was brought up before Sir Thomas Henry at Bow Street on 21 and 28 October, on charges under the Foreign Enlistment Act. At the second hearing, Clarke’s witness, William Costello gave his evidence of events. However, after the hearings, no trial appears to have taken place; the case against Joseph Patrick McDonnell was “removed by Certiorari’ (a writ from a superior court directing that a record of proceedings in a lower court be sent up for review) and it is possible that some legal or political mechanism was used to sweep the case under the carpet to avoid political embarrassment. McDonnell had been involved with organisations associated with Irish nationalism since 1862, including the National Brotherhood of St. Patrick, and the Fenians; he had been detained under the suspension of habeas corpus but was probably freed in 1869. McDonnell had also been appointed by Karl Marx as the representative for Ireland on the General Council of the International Working Man’s Association. In January 1872, at the latest, McDonnell was a free man, as newspaper reports for that month indicate that he attended the Association Council meeting. [The Times 22 and 29 October 1870, 4 and 21 November 1870; Leeds Mercury, January 1872]
The Irish Ambulance Corps investigation, together with the monitoring of James Stephens in Paris, and surveillance operations on foreign refugees seem to have been the closest that the Metropolitan Police got to covert operations during the time that Clarke was a detective. Although Clarke had been sent to France on an ‘undercover’ mission, the object was for him to obtain evidence of criminal activity in the context of the Foreign Enlistment Act, rather than to play a political-espionage role. For Clarke, this appears to have been the last time that he was involved with Fenian investigations that reached court. There were subsequent occasions when his expertise on Irish matters was sought, but his involvement in these did not emerge as headline-making issues. There was a resurgence of Irish terrorism in the 1880s, driven by a combination of Clan na Gael and the maverick, O’Donovan Rossa. However, by then, Clarke had long retired, though his friend and colleague ‘Dolly’ Williamson was still at Scotland Yard, and in the front-line of the policing of this next phase of Irish republicanism.
[The primary sources for this article have been mentioned in the text. For further information on the activities of Scotland Yard detectives in the mid-Victorian period, please see my 2011 biography of Detective Chief Inspector George Clarke: “The Chieftain“]