The Crosshill Railway Murder of 1840 (1:1)

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 1 (Spring 1993), Volume 1

Willy Maley

Dennis Doolan, of King’s County, and Patrick Redding, from Tipperary, were hung at the scene of their alleged crime before the largest mass of spectators ever gathered together in the West of Scotland. The people present were only part of the mass who lined the road from Glasgow Cross to the place of execution. The procession from Jail Square to the scaffold may have been witnessed by around 120,000 persons.
These numbers had turned out for the first public hanging in Glasgow carried out ‘beyond the common place of execution’ since 1769. In the case of Doolan and Redding, the decision to carry out the sentence publicly provoked a lively controversy in the Scottish press. It was a major issue in terms of public order, with rumours abroad of 10,000 Irish labourers ready to intervene on behalf of their countrymen.

The Crosshill Railway Murder of 1840  1BACKGROUND OF INDUSTRIAL UNREST
These controversial judicial killings took place against a background of industrial unrest on a key Scottish railway construction dominated by Irish labour. The Edinburgh and Glasgow Railway Company had been set up in 1838. The line was finally completed, at a cost of 1.25 million pounds, on 18 February 1842. On 8 December 1840, during a period of agitation and uncertainty on the line — with wages being cut, deadlines delayed, and contractors failing to honour payments to workers — John Green, an experienced English ganger was placed in charge of a squad of Irish railwaymen at the Crosshill Cut in Bishopbriggs. All of the labourers on this portion of the line, barring two Englishmen, were Irish. The accident rate was high, with seven fatalities per mile of track. Two days after his arrival at Crosshill, on the morning of 10 December, Green was ambushed on his way to work and beaten to death on a temporary wooden bridge. He was the third ganger to be murdered on the line in three months. With the perpetrators of these murders still at large, the authorities were hell-bent on a hanging.


First reports indicated that positive identification of Green’s assailants was not going to be easy: ‘identification of the murderers is difficult or impossible, from the darkness which prevailed at the time, and the similarity  of  dress  worn  by  the labourers ‘ (Glasgow Herald, 11 Dec. 1841). Great emphasis was placed on the apparently premeditated nature of the crime. Although revenge was offered as the motive, the court record suggests that fears of a Ribbon conspiracy lay behind the determination of the authorities to secure a conviction. Ribbonism was ostensibly an Irish secret society whose oath-bound members wore a green ribbon as an emblem. The Ribbon movement was a form of popular resistance to English landlords and employers, and, in particular, to the forcible eviction of tenants from the land. There was probably more shadow than substance to their purported machinations in the West of Scotland, but the Scottish constabulary was in many ways the brainchild of Sir Robert Peel, who had served as Chief Secretary in Ireland from 1812-1822, and a central plank of its activities was the policing of the Irish immigrant community. Its detectives had to justify their existence. Where a political conspiracy did not exist, one could easily be invented.

A conspiracy theory was evident from the first reports. The Glasgow Herald of 11 December 1840, declared:

That the murder was a combined and premeditated one admits of little doubt. Green had only come to this superintendency two days before, but a report had been spread that he was strict and harsh in the former works which he had overlooked; and the determination to rid themselves thus cruelly of one whom they might consider a sharp taskmaster, is the only reason which can be given for this heartless action.

The following Monday (14 Dec.), the paper confidently declared: ‘That the murder has been the result of a conspiracy, organised according to the principles of Ribbonism, is now beyond a doubt.’
On the morning of 11 December, Henry Bell, Sheriff-Substitute, and Mr Salmon, the Procurator-Fiscal, had gone to the woods near the Crosshill Cut with a company of soldiers, and a party of police officers. They rounded up the majority of the Irishmen Green had ganged over, and brought them to the city in half a dozen omnibuses. A total of twenty-eight Irish labourers — all wearing teetotal medals rather than green ribbons — were taken into custody. Six were detained, though not formally committed to stand trial for the murder. One of those questioned, James Hickie, a native of County Carlow, implicated himself and two of his fellow workers — who were also fellow lodgers at a cottage in Auchinairn — in the murder of the ganger. As a direct consequence of Hickie’s statement, a reward of £100 was offered for the apprehension of Dennis Doolan, who had been discharged from his employment the day previous to Green’s murder, and had since absconded. A reward of £50 was subsequently offered for the arrest of Patrick Redding.
By this time, three possible motives for the killing of Green were in circulation: popular reaction to a harsh overseer — Green’s reputation preceded him; revenge on the part of an individual — Doolan was dismissed the day before the murder; an Irish political conspiracy — rumours of Ribbonism were played up by the police and the press. Once Doolan was portrayed as the ringleader of a Ribbon gang, all three motives manifested themselves in one man.
By 21 December, the Glasgow Herald had abandoned the notion that it was too dark to see on the morning of the murder:

It has been distinctly made out that five persons were on the bridge at the time, two of whom actually committed the murder … The murder was committed by a heavy kitchen poker, taken from Gray’s house on the morning the deed was committed.

Neither the missing poker, nor any other murder weapon, was ever found.
The police hunt for the two Irishmen extended far and wide, with false arrests in Portpatrick and Dublin. A report in the Dublin Register announced that a man was being held there on suspicion. John Carr, a native of Kildare answering Doolan’s description, was questioned at length in Henry Street before being released once his identity, and innocence, were established.


On 1 January 1841, the Herald told its readers that there was:

little doubt that Doolan actually inflicted the blows with a poker; and there is at the same time good reason to believe that one of the men now in custody was the person who jumped upon the body of Green, while he lay under the merciless strokes of Doolan.

Reporting Doolan’s arrest on 25 January 1841, the Herald was indiscreet, to put it mildly. Doolan was taken on the roof of a lodging-house on the evening of Wednesday 20 January by officers of the Liverpool constabulary acting on information received from Michael ‘Smoker’ Byrnes, an acquaintance of the fugitive Irishman. According to the Herald, Doolan:

was dressed in a blue jacket, or lumper’s coat, with canvas trousers, but it is expected that the bloody garments which the accused is said to have worn when Green was murdered will yet be got.

The ‘bloody garments’ were, like the murder weapons, never recovered.
On 1 March, the Herald reported the arrest of the third man wanted in connection with the Crosshill murder. Patrick Redding was taken near the quarry where he was employed near Austonley, in Yorkshire. Between Doolan’s arrest and the apprehension of Redding, legal pressure was placed upon the Herald to refrain from divulging details of the case or imputing guilt to those detained by the police. The newspaper was consequently much more muted than it had been in its account of Doolan’s detention:
We are in possession of the particulars of the apprehension, but as it is the express desire of the gentlemen who conduct the criminal department in this establishment, that no detailed statement of the circumstances inferring the guilt of any prisoner should go forth, whereby his case might be prejudged before trial, we are unable at present to communicate the circumstances involving Redding.

A watch torn from its fob at the time of Green’s murder turned up in a pawnshop near Huddersfield. The pawnbroker recalled it being deposited by a man with an Irish accent, but could not identify Redding. This was hardly conclusive evidence, since Irish immigrants were the principal clientele of pawnbrokers in the industrial areas of Scotland and England. However, Huddersfield was considered sufficiently proximate to Austonley to incriminate Redding, and the mere mention of an Irish accent confirmed his guilt in the eyes of the authorities.

Given the presumed political nature of the crime, the crown appointed the Solicitor-General, Mr Maitland, to conduct the case for the prosecution. The court heard twenty-one crown witnesses. There was no defence. The fifteen-man jury was composed of small Protestant employers, unlikely to be sympathetic to the cause of Scottish labour, let alone Irish labour. Despite a shortage of hard evidence, the jury found Doolan and Redding unanimously guilty as charged. The verdict was reached in the face of a clear contradiction between the charges and the medical evidence. The charges read out in court against the accused stated that they did:

inflict several blows upon the head and body of the said John Green, and did fell him to the ground, and did repeatedly jump upon and kick him while he was Iying on the ground, and did otherwise abuse and maltreat him, by all which, or part thereof, his skull was fractured, and he was mortally injured, and was reduced to a state of insensibility, and soon thereafter died.

Yet the medical evidence submitted by Dr James Corkindale maintained that:

neither on the trunk, nor on the limbs was there any mark of violence except that there was an abrasion of skin on the little finger of the left hand, and that the large bone of the fore finger of the same hand was fractured without any wound of the flesh.

In directing the jury toward a verdict, Lord Moncrieff, the presiding judge, emphasised the religious and national identity of the accused: ‘These men are strangers in our country; they differ from us in religion.’ Once an unanimous verdict of guilty was returned, the Lord Justice Clerk, recommending a public hanging — ‘that the example may have its effect in time to come’ — made explicit what had been implicit throughout the trial:

It is a crime which, I am happy to say, is of rare occurrence in this part of the kingdom. It is a crime, however, by no means rare in another part of her Majesty’s dominions, of which those prisoners are natives; and I am very much afraid that the brutal conduct which is exhibited in so many counties of that land, and the frequent escapes from justice which there take place, have not at least been the means of deterring them from entering into the case of deliberate murder which has so long engaged the attention of the court.

In passing sentence, Lord Moncrieff again underlined the religious and national differences between Scotland and Ireland, reminding the Irishmen that they were ‘of a different religious persuasion than the majority of the people in this place.’ The hidden agenda of anti-Irish racism surfaces not only in the conduct of the court, but in the coverage of the case. The illiterate Hickie in particular was held up as the perennial ‘thick paddy’. When informed that he had been found guilty ‘art and part’, and was to be recommended to mercy, he is reported to have asked ‘who’s she?’

The Crosshill Railway Murder of 1840  2THE EXECUTION
The Catholic hierarchy wanted to avoid a confrontation between Irish labourers and Scottish police at all costs. Consequently, Bishop Murdoch advised the Irish labour force to stay away from the execution, and they obeyed the church. The awful spectacle passed without incident. The executioner, who refused an assistant in spite of the fact that this was a double hanging and a public one, was paid the princely sum of £24 for his labour. He was reputedly later fined £5 for an unlawful killing, leaving him with £19 for his morning’s work. Redding died instantaneously. Doolan took twenty minutes to die. At one point he brought his knees up to his chest. Amid allegations of deliberate strangulation, the hangman attributed the protracted suffering of Doolan to a rope that was stiff and new, and asked ‘Didn’t the other go down kindly?’ The final bill for the day was £210. This figure must be weighed against the sum of £100 raised for the families of labourers killed on the line.
The Crosshill railway murder was one of the biggest Scottish stories of the last century, bigger than Burke and Hare, or Baird and Hardie. In the wake of the execution of Doolan and Redding, the Glasgow Herald of 17 May 1841, wished ‘that the names of Doolan and Redding may soon be forgotten, and no successors revive their crime.’

Willy Maley is a lecturer in English at Goldsmiths’ College, London.


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