Fenianism in Wolverton

The Irish Republican Brotherhood was founded in 1858 as a secret society to further the cause of Irish Nationalism and self-government. Like its 20th century successor the IRA it was impatient for results and prepared to use violence. The movement gained in popularity and its mostly young followers were known as Fenians. As the level of activity grew in the 1860s the government became more anxious and Fenians were spotted everywhere – even in Wolverton, it seems.

The Times of Thursday, December 26th 1867 has this report.

The two prisoners James Connerty and Gladwin Meehan who were arreted at Wolverton on Tuesday on a charge of treason-felony were taken to Aylesbury on the last train, in charge of a strong body of police, under the command of Charles J.C. Tyrwhitt Drake, the Chief Constable of Bucks. They were brought before Mr J.C. Senior, one of the county magistrates in the waiting room of the railway station, and the information from Superintendent Breary was read over, which stated that sedition and treasonable meetings had been held at the houses of each of the prisoners at New Bradwell. Some other important facts were stated in the information, which was not considered expedient to make public. Connerty denied in the most emphatic way that any illegal meetings had been held at his house, or that he had anything to do with Fenianism. He had been reared in this country, and he hoped he had too much sense to do anything of the sort. It was an extraordinary charge, he had always conducted himself to the satisfaction of his employers and those with whom he worked. Meehan also positively denied that there had been any meetings at his house, and asked whether bail would be accepted. He said it was a serious matter to bring a man up without any foundation for a charge. It would probably end with his being discharged from his employment, and the ruin of his family, Connerty asked that bail might be taken, and on being informed that this could not be granted, he asked for a copy of the charge against him to send to his friends. He was informed that he could write whatever he pleased, and that he might have a copy of the information. The prisoners were then remanded until today.

It all appears very serious with a full force under the command of the Chief Constable no less to escort the two men to Aylesbury. What they were up to is not related and indeed is kept secret. Four days later, on December 30th 1867, The Times reported further:

The two artisans, James Connerty and Gladwin Meehan, who had been apprehended by Superintendent Breary, of the Bucks. County Constabulary, on a charge of being concerned in a Fenian conspiracy at Wolverton, were brought up on Saturday at Aylesbury, before Mr. J.T. Senior, the Rev. James Booth, LL.D., the Rev. Joshua Greaves, Colonel Caulfield Platt, Mr. R. Rose, Mr. E. Bartlett and other justices. There were present a large number of the prisoners’ fellow workmen from Wolverton locomotive works. After the opening of the court the magistrates retired to a private room to take some further evidence. In the course of half an hour afterwards they re-entered the court, where Mr. Senior, the chairman of the bench, addressing the prisoners, said, – “I have to state that the magistrates have carefully considered the evidence that has been adduced against you, and they are unanimously of the opinion that the evidence is not sufficient to justify them in committing you for trial. You will therefore be discharged.” Connerty remarked that he was quite sure nothing could be proved against him if the witnesses spoke the truth. Mr. Shepherd observed that the accused had desired him to say that they had been treated with the greatest fairness by the governor and the chaplain of the gaol, as well as by other officers of the prison; and he was happy to be able to hand the bench some very high testimonials of character from their employers, who would be glad and ready to see them return to their service. This announcement of the decision of the Bench was hailed with loud cheers and clapping of hands by the prisoners’ friends, but this was speedily suppressed. Meehan and Connerty were then conducted out of the hall by a private way, and on their departure by rail were cheered by the people who had assembled at the station.

What to make of this? The government was tense. Naval dockyards at Chatham, Protsmouth and Gosport were on high alert. In London, 200 men were sworn in a special constables in anticipation of a Fenian demonstration on Clerkenwell Green. Charges were laid against Connerty and Meehan but no information was revealed that the public could assess, but even the magistrates, inclined no doubt to support the authorities, could find little substance in the charges.

James Connerty and James Gladwin Meehan were both born in Ireland and had probably only recently come to Wolverton. Both were in their late twenties. It is conceivable that it was their irishness that attracted attention in those uncertain times and there was nothing more to it than that. We have recent experience where suspected terrorists re arrested with great fanfare and then quietly released without charge. It seems that Connerty and Meehan were in that category. Judging by the turn out of their fellow workmen from Wolverton in the Aylesbury courtroom, nobody but the police believed the charges.

Connerty stayed in Wolverton for a few more years. In 1871 he was living with his wife and five children in a house on Young Street. Later in that decade he moved to Liverpool. Meehan must have moved soon after the trial. He appears to have settled in Woolwich in London and lived to the great age of 80.