Police files on Victorian villains finally go public

From donkey theft to assassination: reports from 1861 to 1893 published on ancestry.ie


Details of the villains of Victorian-era Ireland – who engaged in cattle and sheep rustling, ferret stealing, housebreaking, assaults and murder – are being made available through the online publication of 19th-century police files.

The records detail the names, addresses and descriptions of people wanted for and convicted of the crimes, many of which were connected to spasms of civil unrest that defined the Land War and its related tensions in rural Ireland in the final three decades of the 19th century.

Some, including the Phoenix Park murders of May 1882, are linked directly to the struggle for independence.

The records, published on the ancestry.ie website, are from the official Hue-and-Cry, the colloquial name for the Police Gazette, an internal bulletin of the Royal Irish Constabulary that was not meant for publication. The files, covering the period 1861-1893, show that assault was the most common crime in the period, with some 28,353 cases reported, closely followed by reports of the breaking of licence conditions (28,092 cases) and of theft (23,345 incidences).

Stealing ginger beer

Other crimes detailed range from petty cases such as the stealing of bottles of ginger beer and stone-throwing to murders, the rate of which was seven times higher in Victorian times than today.

Rewards were offered frequently to encourage people to give information. The amounts involved ranged from the relatively small – for example, £5 offered in February 1863 by Supt Daniel Ryan, in Dublin Castle, for information about a hoard of gold chains, bracelets and rings stolen from a house – to £10,000 for high-profile murders. Lower-profile killings resulted in reward offers of between £100 and £300.

Among the most high-profile political killings included in the records are the infamous Phoenix Park Murders, the May 1882 assassination, by members of the National Invincibles, a radical splinter group of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, of Frederick Cavendish and Thomas Burke, respectively chief secretary and permanent undersecretary for Ireland.

Four men wanted for the murder were described as having “whiskers and moustache recently clipped to give a bristling appearance . . . natural hollow or dinge on bridge of nose . . . brown faded coat as if much exposed to sun . . . the men had the appearance of sailors or well-to-do artisans.”

Family records

But it is the less high-profile records that may be of interest to people searching family records and to social historians of the period.

For instance, descendants of Mary (Neille) McCarthy, of Glenbeigh, Co Kerry, who was a stout, ruddy-faced, 30-year-old servant of William Quane of Kilmoily, might be interested in know that she stole £35 from him on June 3rd, 1863.

The description of McCarthy in Hue-and-Cry states: “This woman’s upper teeth project over the lower, her lips are generally of a blue or livid colour, and the upper lip thick.”

Animal theft is a common thread running through the records. Daniel Coleman of Mitchelstown, Co Cork, was said, in March 1863, to have “feloniously stolen a gray mare donkey, car, and tackling, together with a quantity of wearing apparel, &c, the property of John Halloran, a dealing man”.

Ferret theft

William O’Brien, “alias Black, alias Sheridan”, of Castlebar, Co Mayo, was alleged in October 1877 to have made off with two ferrets, having “entered the dwelling house of John Barbour”. O’Brien/Black/Sheridan is described as having a “regular nose, shallow complexion, [and] small thin face”.

“One ferret is a white buck, the other a dark-coloured doe,” reported Hue-and-Cry.

Michael Horan, of Cashelacoolaun, Co Mayo, was alleged in January 1863 to have “attempted to carry off by force, and against her will, Bridget Regan, a girl of 13 years old, with a promise of marrying her . . . and likely to go to England, via Liverpool, where he is wont to go annually as a harvest labourer”.

Police in Dublin’s G Division were interested in getting hold of Rose Byrne – “about 35 years of age, low size, dark brown hair, mark of an old cut on forehead, large ordinary mouth, bad, discoloured teeth, hard features, speaks in a strong northern accent, and is a prostitute” – who relieved an unnamed man, “who was under the influence of drink”, of £150 in September 1863.

Rhona Murray, historian at ancestry.ie, says that in 19th-century England, the Irish “were the villains of the Victorian era” and that the records will give people “the opportunity to back into their own understanding of history and see if the myths are true”.

The records, searchable by name, date and type of crime, have been acquired under licence from a private collector and may be accessed, for a fee, through the website.