The Remains of the Manchester Martyrs



THERE has been speculation as to what happened to the remains of the Manchester Martyrs and the other prisoners executed at Manchester. Various sources say one thing, others say something different. I have  been trying to piece together the accurate facts that are available. I have reached the following conclusions.

Only six executions took place at the New Bailey Prison: James Burrows, August 25th 1866; The Manchester Martyrs, 23rd November 1867; Miles Weatherill and Timothy Faherty, April 4th 1868. All the remains of these men were buried inside the walls of the New Bailey Prison. This was widely reported  in the Press.

The first man to be executed at Strangeways Prison was Michael James Johnson 29th March 1869.

In early 2008 I discovered a miscellaneous document (MISC518) relating to the history of the New Bailey Prison. By the fact that it is a miscellaneous document there is no knowledge of the author. It can be dated post 1881. One thing for certain is that the person was quoting from an article in the Manchester Guardian dated June 1867 regarding the opening of the New Bailey Prison, as can be read here. The document also includes the following passage.

The site of this vast gaol covering many acres was several years ago (1881) absorbed by the Lancashire + Cheshire (sic) Railway Company. And the rugged stones of the building itself used in forming a new wall at Peel Park Salford but it has subsisted long enough to have housed against their will more than one generation [of] notable prisoners amongst whom stand out conspicuously the three Fenians executed on top of  the New Bailey Wall in 1867 for a fatal attack on a prison van. It is said on authority that when the ground was to be cleared, the coffins of the buried prisoners were smuggled out of the gaol at eleven in the forenoon, hidden under [a] pile of mattresses, to be re-interred at the new county prison, a list being appended of the exact moment of their transfer had been know”.

I think that this possibly happened in June 1867, when the prisoners were being transferred to Strangeways over a four day period. It may have occurred a little later when the cells were being cleared.

According to my research a total of 100 people were executed at Stangeways Prison plus the six executed at the New Bailey would make a total of 106 sets of remains being buried in the grounds. So it would seem that the bodies of the Manchester Martyrs lay in the ground of Strangeways Prison from 1868 until about 1991. What happened after 1991 has not been entirely clear.

After the 1990 riot at Strangeways, the prison had to be extensively renovated. During the renovation it was necessary to exhume the remains of the prisoners executed there and those executed at the New Bailey Prison and re-inter them elsewhere. I subsequently discovered that there were two separate exhumations. This fact does not seem to be widely known.

I have been able to have access to the Grave, Burial and Cremation registers for Blackley Cemetery. The Grave Register shows that two plots were purchased by the Governor of HMP Strangeways. The first entry for grave number C2711 shows that 60 caskets of cremated remains were buried in this plot in 1991. The second entry for plot number C2710 shows that 51 caskets of cremated remains were buried in 1993.

The Burial Register shows that on 7th February 1991 60 “Unspecified Fenian Remains ” were buried in plot number C2711. On 7th April 1993 the register shows that 51  “Unspecified Fenian C/ remains” were buried in plot number 2710.

This seemed a little strange to me as there were only three Manchester Martyrs who were executed in November 1867. I then sought out the former Prison Chaplain of HMP Strangeways who said prayers along with at least one other minister at the first interment. He informed me that he was given a list of the names to read out of the people who were re-interred in plot C2711 and the first names were “The Manchester Martyrs”. This did not agree with the information in the Grave and Burial Registers.

I paid another visit to Blackley Cemetery to inspect the Cremation Registers for 1991 and 1993. Over a period of a few days before 7th February 1991, I noted that 60 sets of remains with the address of HMP Strangeways were cremated. Of these 45 were named and fifteen were entered as “un-named fenian”. I recognised many of the names entered in the register, but the names of the six executed at the New Bailey Prison were not included. These remains were interred in plot C2711.

Plots C2710 (left) and C2711 at Blackley Cemetery, the resting place of the Manchester Martyrs
Plots C2710 (left) and C2711 at Blackley Cemetery, the resting place of the Manchester Martyrs – credit Gerard Lodge

The Cremation Register for 1993 shows that over a period of a few days prior to 7th April 1993, 53 sets of remains were cremated. All of these remains had the address HMP Strangeways and all were named. The Register also shows that the ashes of two sets of remains were strewn in specified areas of the cemetery as opposed to being placed in plot C2710.

That gives a total of 113 sets of remains that were removed from Strangeways Prison. As I stated earlier, my research suggests that there should only have been 106 sets of remains buried there. Could it be that prisoners who died while serving their sentences were buried in Strangeways? There is also the question of there being 15 “un-named fenians”. It may be safe to assume that three of them are the Manchester Martyrs and three are the other prisoners executed at the New Bailey Prison. So who were the other nine? On what evidence were they all deemed to be “un-named fenians”?

In an attempt to throw some light onto this subject I made a Freedom of Information request via the Data Access & Compliance Unit. The Ministry of Justice sent me a photocopied list of the details of those buried at Strangeways Prison and also a map of the burial sites. The information it contained was tabulated in the following  form:


1,2,3,and4 Fenians
5 John Aspinall Simpson 23-11-1881

On examining the burial records from Strangeways Prison some of my previous questions have been answered. It appears that this document was a transcription of an earlier record. One of the entries was omitted and reference was made to it in the remarks column. Only three people appear to have compiled the register, which covers a period from 1881 to 1964. Some of the dates of interment seem to have been transcribed incorrectly. There were 33 separate graves. The bodies from graves 13 to 16 were removed to grave 33 in 1965 to facilitate the erection of a new gate.

The first thing to note is that, only the names, or in some cases initials, are entered from November 1881 onwards. The first entry in the register is shown above. The first name to be recorded is that of John Aspinall Simpson. He was executed on 28th November 1881 (not the 23rd as appears in the register). He was the tenth person to be executed at Strangeways Prison. The number of remains buried at Strangeways can summarised as follows:

Executed at the New Bailey Prison 1866-1868 6
Executed at Strangeways Prison1868-1964 100
Executed at Knutsford Prison 1866-1912 8
Total 114

The bodies from Knutsford Prison were re-interred at Strangeways on 23rd November 1928. It was announced on 16th October 1915 that it would cease to be a criminal prison although it continued to be used to house conscientious objectors, and perhaps other military prisoners until the end of the war. It was demolished in the 1930’s.

The men executed at Knutsford Prison were:

Owen M’Gill February 22nd 1886
Thomas Bevan August 16th 1887
Richard Davis April 8th 1890
Felix Spicer August 22nd 1890
William Hancocks August 9th 1905
Edward Hartigan November 27th 1906
James Phipps November 12th 1908
John Williams March 19th 1912

The grave register also reveals that one set of remains were exhumed from Strangeways Prison  on 6th December 1966 and returned to relatives thus:

No of bodies exhumed and located in Plot C2710 60
No of bodies exhumed and located in Plot C2711 51
No of bodies exhumed and located elsewhere in Blackley 2
Previously exhumed in 1966 1
Total 114

There are ninety one names on the list plus the eight from Knutsford, that gives a total of ninety nine. That is a shortfall of fifteen names, which can easily be explained. The first nine executed at Strangeways were not named, likewise the six executed at the New Bailey. A total of fifteen, exactly the same number as “un-named fenians”. To the best of my knowledge, the other 12 members of this group were convicted of murders that were not related to the Irish problem. Certainly some of them were Irish and at least one had Fenian sympathies, but how this group became to be known as the Fenians, may well never be discovered.

The 15 “un-named fenians” can be named as follows:

James Burrows August 25th 1866
William O’Meara Allen (William Phillip Allen) November 23rd 1867
William Gould (Michael O’Brien) November 23rd 1867
Michael Larkin November 23rd 1867
Miles Weatherill April 4th 1868
Timothy Faherty, April 4th 1868
Michael Johnson March 29th 1869
Patrick Durr December 26th 1870
Michael Kennedy December 30th 1872
William Flanagan, alias Robinson December 21st 1876
John M’Kenna March 27th  1877
George Pigott February 4th 1878
James McGowan November 19th1 878
William Cooper May 20th 1879
William Cassidy February 17th 1880






Those Manchester and Salford Prison records that have survived can be seen on line.

Since writing the above I have learned that there were in fact several cases in which the remains of the executed prisoners were returned  to their families in this period without a pardon having been granted.  I am most grateful to a gentlemen from Finland who put me on the correct tract. When the Act of Parliament, Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act 1965, which temporarily suspended the Death Penalty for an experimental period of five years, was passed 1965 it also repealed The Capital Punishment Amendment Act 1868 which had required, wherever possible,  the burial of executed prisoners’ remains to be buried within  prison walls. The 1965 Act also repealed another eight Acts  amongst other things relating to the Army, Navy and Air Force. In essence this new Act permitted the reburial of executed prisoners after December 1965. It has also been suggested to me that the above case would not have been reviewed by the Home Secretary. The crime and trial took place in Wales and therefore any review may  have been undertaken by the Welsh Secretary. I got this  I believed that the Ministry of Justice was the ultimate source for this case.

This is a letter I received from a former member of the staff of Strangeways. I have reproduced it here as I feel that it contains some important (if gory) historical facts. I have edited some parts of the letter.

Hi Gerard,

 I was a Prison Officer at Strangeways in the late 60s – I was also involved using my trade as a T/A in the Works Dept.

I remember well the digging up of Harris and because he was a fairly recent burial where no quicklime was used only major bones remained.

We also had to dig up the remains of 13 bodies to make way for a future new Prison entrance as concrete could not be laid over prison graves in case relatives wanted them removed for reburial.

This was the result of the then Home Secretary Roy Jenkins allowing an Irish martyr to be dug up and sent back to Ireland. [This refers to the repatriation of the remains of Roger Casement that were exhumed from the grounds of Pentonville Prison.]

The remains we had to dig up were ages old and the boxes had been filled with quicklime which because they were buried close to the 26foot high prison wall and the Manchester high rainfall had caused the quicklime to slake so helping to preserve the remains, resulting in a pretty horrendous job plus we had a Home Office walla trying to identifying remains and two Priests wanting to say words over various remains, it was a very nasty job and because the boxes had collapsed on top of each other we ended up building a large coffin and placing all the remains in it and reburying it.

In 1967  I along with another Officer T/A  was given the job of dismantling the hanging shed and associated structures on the end of B2 landing, the job had to be done during silent hours,  away from public gaze and all pieces of equipment rendered unrecognisable, as we were not allowed to enter from B2 landing we had to use the outside door, so imagine after signing for the key we tried to enter the shed at night. The door was overgrown with weeds and was difficult to open but eventually in we went, located  the light switch and found ourselves underneath the floor and trapdoors of the shed, to our left was a wooden staircase which we climbed finding ourselves in the shed itself. Immediately in front was the large lever which operated the trap, above was a massive pitchpine beam which was supported each side of the shed, the beam had with 3 lynch positions and fittings, the leaves of the trap were about 10 feet long and each leaf about 3 feet wide thickness about 4 inches.

The lever operated a series of flat bars the ends of which engaged in the ends of the left hand side leaf retaining it in the horizontal position and supporting the right leaf by way of a half housing or rebate, using this design the minimum amount of mechanics was required and so was more  reliable.

Directly under the centre lynch position was a large chalked “T” positioned centrally across the rebate/join of the leaves left over from the last hanging at Strangeways of Owen Evans at 8.00am 13 August 1964 at the same time at Walton Prison Liverpool Peter Allen Evans partner in crime was also topped.

Explaining the chalked T on the trap, the inmate in the condemned cell across the landing had his/her hands secured and was then  double (raced  across the landing and onto the trap, the feet being positioned either side of the T with the toes against the T and ankles secured, the hood/pillowcase positioned over the head along with the noose, a nod from the assistant to the hangman and job complete…[Edit]

Needless to say 41 years later I still have the safety pin from the trap lever and the centre lynchpin-TUT TUT.

The 3 cells knocked into one condemned cell was returned to 3 single cells but could not be used for 1 or 2 years (can’t remember which) quaint rules!! And the “reception cell” opposite likewise.

Yes on top of the beam once we had got it down was an inscription saying it was erected in 1944, you mention double hangings, they would be hard enough but triple hangings would be a nightmare as it involves gratings across the trap so Officers can stand and “support” inmates safely.

A couple of thoughts, re the 3 Fenians, in the Works Yard was a stone paving slab engraved the 3 Fenians, whether they were reburied there was another question.

Trivia: A bloke called Marwood, cobbler, executioner and Crown Officer invented the “Long Drop” in 1871 which led the way to the present now deleted quickest/most humane method of execution.

Catch you later,