‘What’s done is done’: When an Offaly boatman murdered his fare - a British officer

In 1865, Lieutenant Clutterbuck hired a man to take him shooting on the River Brosna. He never returned to the barracks

It was a Saturday evening and Martin Burke was in his father’s potato field, weeding. The land, at Tinnakilly, sat on the Tipperary side of the River Brosna – not far from Birr, Co Offaly – previously known as Parsonstown and King’s County, respectively.

It was about 7pm on July 8th, 1865, when a young man he knew – Laurence King – came into the field. That wasn’t unusual. King, aged in his 20s, visited the house from time to time, and his own father had a few potatoes in the same field. What was unusual, however, were the claims he made.

King, Burke quickly realised, was drunk. Though he staggered, he was able to walk and speak. King produced from his pocket a shot pouch and a soda-water bottled filled with about a naggin of whiskey. “There was but one officer in the barrack,” he said to Burke – referring to a British officer, and to the barracks at Birr. “And I am after shooting him.”

By this point, Martin’s brother Thomas had approached the pair. “God bless the work,” said King, offering up some of the liquor. He explained again that he was after “downing” a “blue boy”.

Thomas warned King he should be careful what he said, eliciting a cool reply from the drunk young man: “What’s done is done.” Thomas told him if what he said were true, that he’d be hanged as round as a juggler’s ball. King’s reply – that thousands of British soldiers were killed at the siege of Sebastapol – a bloody engagement in the Crimean War – did little to convince the Burkes of King’s newfound cold-bloodedness. So, he showed them.

King led the way to a nearby pasture field. By the side of a ditch, in the grass, the Burke brothers viewed a bundle containing a coat, trousers, waistcoat, a pair of boots and a double-barrelled gun. The visitor gathered up his items and left, crossing the river and heading for town.

***

William Edwards was a private in the 5th Fusiliers, and acted as a servant to an officer – Lieutenant Henry James Clutterbuck. On the morning of the day his master went missing, Edwards noticed some valuables on a table in the officer’s room: two sovereigns, four half sovereigns, and two or three shillings. He saw a gold pocket watch on the chair beside the bed, too.

After Clutterbuck – himself a young man in the “prime of his life” – left to go shooting on the river with a hired local named Laurence King. When he left at about 4pm, the officer took with him the valuables on the table, a double-barrelled gun, a shot pouch and a dog. The setter returned later that evening, wet and dirty. Clutterbuck did not.

Edwards raised the alarm. A search was mounted. Of course, King was questioned. It wasn’t a secret that Clutterbuck had been with him on the river on July 8th – in fact, reports indicate that he’d been fowling with King before. King told the soldiers he had let Clutterbuck ashore at Mullin’s bog, and that he earned 2s 6d for his trouble. The last he saw of the lieutenant, he was marching up the turf road, alive and well.

Cash rewards in the end totalling at least £80 at one point, were offered. When a search of the surrounding bogs yielded no sign of the officer, the river was searched.

On Tuesday, July 11th, Clutterbuck’s body was found, up-stream from the point at which King said he’d left him. The officer was naked, bar his shirt, and face down in an area of the river about 12 feet deep. Near Clutterbuck’s ear, at the back of his head, the men noted a two-inch-wide bullet hole. The body was pulled from the river.

King – and his parents – were arrested. His parents were later released, but the case against King was quite clear. Even before the Burkes’ testimony at his eventual trial, it was reported in The Irish Times and elsewhere that spent shot had been found within his boat.

***

King’s trial for the murder of Lieutenant Clutterbuck took place at the King’s County Assizes on August 4th and 5th, 1865. The case drew huge attention, with The Irish Times noting on the second day: “The entire courthouse, as on yesterday, was densely crowded.” Clutterbuck’s colleagues were in attendance.

King pleaded not guilty, but the evidence was damning. Many witnesses were called. Several other locals had seen the two enter the boat, others heard shots, and others saw King on his own afterwards, with a double-barrel gun.

Another of the Burkes – Bridget – had all but seen the shooting. According to the report in The Irish Times, she had been attending some geese in her family’s field, near the river, when she saw King with a man she didn’t know. As they stepped onto a nearby boat, she heard a shot fired from the gun held in King’s hand, while the other gentleman “seemed to sink into the boat”. Bridget went home, apparently thinking nothing of it.

Mr Montgomery, for the defence, gave a 2 hour and 45 minute address to the jury (“a most able and eloquent speech”) in which he pleaded with them not to put any weight in the testimony of “the Burkes”. A number of technical legal points were raised, the main one being the location of the supposed murder: judging by the evidence presented, the alleged crime technically took place in Tipperary. King, therefore, should have been tried there.

The Crown’s story – that King had shot Clutterbuck in the back of the head, in cold blood, and then robbed him – was believed by the jury. After 90 minutes, they found him guilty, with a recommendation to mercy because he was drunk when he murdered the lieutenant.

The judge said he would not forward the recommendation and sentenced King to hang in Tullamore. King broke down in the court for the first time, shouting through tears to an old man in the court room: “Dan McNamara, remember me to my poor father.”

***

The points of law were considered. It’s written on King’s case file – a note directed that his sentence was to be delayed until the appeals court considered them. The conviction, in the end, was deemed legal.

A single letter seeking reprieve exists in King’s file; a four-page plea that didn’t cite any legal grounds for a commutation of the sentence, instead appealing to the “forgiving heart and generous mind” of the Lord Lieutenant. The writer sought mercy for the “poor lad”, who was “but a youth, a boy”.

At the top of the document, written in red ink, a short note summarises the reply: “His Excellency finds no ground for any interference on his part.” And so, King went to the scaffold.

In the days before his execution on September 6th, as many condemned prisoners did, King turned to God and confessed to the killing, blaming the drink.

The hangman, not unusually, is unnamed. The Irish Times reported that he was a soldier under sentence in Kilmainham "for a criminal assault on a child of tender years". The Belfast Newsletter painted a vivid picture of a "villainous-looking scoundrel" who arrived to Tullamore station in full uniform and handcuffs – and not to the pleasure of the locals. Criminals performing hanging duties was not unheard of, nor was the mobbing of the executioner, who would often require a police escort from the train to the jail – especially in Ireland and particularly if he was English.

King’s execution would be one of the last public hangings in Ireland. Reports said he knelt at the scaffold and repeatedly kissed a crucifix held to his mouth, before speaking a few words of apology and then being hanged. As sometimes happened, the hanging was not a successful one, with one report noting that it took five minutes for King to die.

The King’s County Chronicle, in its report Covering Clutterbuck’s inquest in July, had noted the sadness that the killing brought the locality. “The consternation and gloom caused by the finding of the body were something awful, and every one in the town seemed to feel as if a personal calamity had overtaken them,” it said.

That feeling did not go unnoticed. Lieutenant Clutterbuck's body was returned to England and his father, Rev James Charles Clutterbuck – vicar of Long Wittenham, near Abingdon in the UK – penned a letter to the Times which was then circulated in other newspapers, in which he expressed gratitude to the police, soldiers and also for the conduct of the people of the town.

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