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A “Fearful Tragedy” and The Ballad of Private McCaffery


In 1861 Private Patrick McCaffery, aged 19, of the 32nd Regiment was serving at Fulwood Barracks with the 11th Depot Battalion, under the command of Colonel Hugh Crofton who had commanded the 20th Regiment of Foot during the Crimean War and had led his men in the battles of the Alma, Sevastopol and Inkerman.

The Adjutant, Captain John Hanham. was a captain in the 9th (East Norfolk) Regiment of Foot. After being wounded during the Sikh Wars he was posted as Adjutant of the Depot at Fulwood. There he appears to have been something of a disagreeable, domineering martinet, to the extent that even the Commanding Officer seemed to have been under his influence and McCaffery, an indifferent soldier and a loner, was usually in trouble.


Barracks Commandant Colonel Crofton was one of McCaffery's victims

On Friday 13th September the young soldier was on sentry duty outside the officers’ quarters when the Adjutant ordered him to take the names of some children who were suspected of breaking windows. McCaffery obeyed, but with obvious reluctance and consequent lack of success. He was accordingly charged, and sentenced by Colonel Crofton the following day to be confined to barracks for 14 days. Later that morning McCaffery saw the two officers walking across the Infantry Square and, loading his rifle, he knelt on the footpath outside K Block (the East Wing, since demolished), aimed and fired. The first percussion cap did not explode, so he deliberately replaced it and fired again at a range of 65 yards, “the bullet struck Colonel Crofton in his right breast and, passing through that region, then went into Adjutant Hanham’s left arm, entered his breast and lodged in his spine. Adjutant Hanham put his hand upon the wound and then coolly walked off to the officers’ quarters. Colonel Crofton stepped back a few paces, threw up his arms and said “Oh my God, I am shot”. He then walked up to his own quarters with the aid of a little assistance”, at least according to one account in the Extraordinary edition of the ‘Preston Mercury’. Colonel Crofton died at 11 p.m. the following evening and Captain Hanham died on the Monday at 11.30 a.m.

McCaffrey’s trial was set for the Liverpool Assizes, where he appeared in December. The result was a foregone conclusion, though the defence was particularly inept. The sentence was carried out on Saturday, 11 January 1862, in front of Kirkdale Gaol, at Liverpool. This is part of the account of the scene from the ‘Liverpool Mercury’ (13 January):

“Immediately after the clock had struck twelve, the wretched culprit, followed by Calcraft [the hangman], walked, apparently firmly, upon the scaffold, whither he was accompanied by Father Lanns, reciting prayers suitable to the occasion. A smile seemed to play upon his youthful countenance as he took a farewell look at this world. He was dressed in the prison garb, consisting of a grey jacket and trowsers. His mild countenance and boyish appearance elicited the sympathy on the part of the immense crowd. As soon as Calcraft, who was dressed in a suit of good black, had produced the white cap, the priest took from his breast a small crucifix, which the wretched culprit kissed with much fervour. His lips were observed to move in prayer until the rope was adjusted round his neck. The priest then shook him by the hand, Calcraft also bade him farewell in a similar manner, and everything being arranged, the bolt was withdrawn, and the unfortunate young man was launched into eternity, having been kept standing at the trap a much longer time than usual. He seemed to suffer a good deal, his struggles being great. The last words he uttered were – ‘Blessed Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, I give you my heart and soul. Jesus and Mary, have mercy on me!’ When the bolt was drawn, shrieks burst from many of the spectators, and several of the females left the ground weeping and wringing their hands, apparently suffering intense agony at the spectacle they had witnessed. Thus ended the mortal career of one of the youngest criminals that ever expiated his guilt upon the public scaffold. After hanging an hour on the scaffold the body was cut down, and in the course of the afternoon was interred within the precincts of the gaol. Calcraft completed his disgusting task amid yells, hisses, and fearful imprecations from the mob. It is supposed that there were between 30,000 and 40,000 persons on the ground. It was remarked that there were only three or four soldiers present to witness the execution.”

The sympathies of the crowd were clearly with McCaffery, and the presence of so few soldiers can also be taken to be a favourable manifestation. Soon after the crime, an attempt was made to engage popular feeling for the victims [via a song that styled them ‘heroes’]. However, it was the home-made production which found the popular ear amongst the large Catholic Irish population of the North West, to such an extent that it continued to circulate for a century or more afterwards, for most of the time without the assistance of print.

Patrick McCaffery was born in Co. Kildare in October 1842. His father was an asylum governor who, upon being cleared of charges of misconduct, took off alone for America. Mrs.


The old Officers Mess today. The two murdered officers were walking outside this building when they were shot, and the ghost of Pte McCaffery may or may not haunt one of the ground--floor rooms in the right foreground.

McCaffery was unable to support the boy, so she sent him to England to stay with a friend, Mrs. Murphy of Mossley near Manchester, where, at the age of 12, he started work in the mill. After a while he left the mill and drifted to Liverpool where he seems to have had occasional minor brushes with the police. During this time he befriended a police constable who was to reappear briefly later in his life. Eventually he returned to Mossley and was employed in a Stalybridge cotton mill as a piecer. It was this job that he left on October 10th 1860 to take the Queen’s shilling and enlist in the 32nd (Cornwall) Regiment of Foot (Light Infantry). After enlistment he was sent to Fulwood to train with 11 Depot Battalion and then posted to 12 Coy, the 32nd Regiment.

The melancholy story gave rise to a halfpenny ballad whose mildly subversive lyrics were rumoured to have been ‘banned’ by the military authorities, while the ghost of McCaffery is said to haunt the old Officers’ Mess.

When I was eighteen years of age
Into the army I did engage
I left my home with a good intent
For to join the thirty-second regiment

While I was posted on guard one day
Some soldiers’ children came out to play
From the officers’ quarters my captain came
And he ordered me for to take their names

I took one name instead of three
On neglect of duty they then charged me
I was confined to barracks with loss of pay
For doing my duty the opposite way

A loaded rifle I did prepare
For to shoot my captain in the barracks square
It was my captain I meant to kill
But I shot my colonel against my will

At Liverpool Assizes my trial I stood
And I held my courage as best I could
Then the old judge said, Now, McCaffery
Go prepare your soul for eternity

I had no father to take my part
No loving mother to break her heart
I had one friend and a girl was she
Who’d lay down her life for McCaffery

So come all you officers take advice from me
And go treat your men with some decency
For it’s only lies and a tyranny
That have made a martyr of McCaffery

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