‘Murder Most Foul: The Death of Joseph Byrnes’ (Plumpton Wall)

A wall in Plumpton bears a memorial to an heroic policeman, Constable Joseph Byrnes, murdered by jewel thieves in 1885

A wall in Plumpton bears a memorial to an heroic policeman, Constable Joseph Byrnes, murdered by jewel thieves in 1885

The history of the peaceful village of Plumpton, a few miles north of Penrith, has more than its fair share of horror: readers will already be aware that the notorious Percy Toplis, known as the ‘monocled mutineer’, was shot by the police near the village in June 1920. (1)
Few, however, are aware that a few decades previously the peace and quiet of Plumpton were turned into atrocity and death in a chain of tragic events that raised fundamental questions about the position and role of the police force as guardians of law and order in Victorian Britain. (2)
The sequence of events that led towards bloodshed in Plumpton in the autumn of 1885 opened at the magnificent country home, Netherby Hall, near Longtown, of Sir Frederick Ulric Graham (1820-88), heir to generations of Border magnates and High Sheriff of Cumberland in 1866. The wealthy Sir Frederick married into more money - that of his wife Lady Jane Hermione St Maur (d. 1909), daughter and heiress of the 12th duke of Somerset. It was the allure of Lady Hermione’s glittering collection of jewellery that drew three burglars towards Netherby Hall, on the night of Wednesday 28 October: the little gang consisted of James Baker, a 29- year old Londoner and specialist house-breaker; Anthony Benjamin Rudge, aged 45, a suspect in the murder of a policeman in Staffordshire; and John Martin, 36 years old, an incorrigible criminal since his early teenage years and wanted for questioning over the murder of a policeman in Essex: the unfolding fabric of events was to confirm that police officers had everything to fear from this murderous trio. (The identity of a mysterious ‘fourth man’ in the party has never so far come to light.)
Entering the Netherby mansion silently, Baker relieved Lady Janes’ bedroom drawer of its stellar cache; the party got away, and a servant reported the theft, the news of which was telegraphed to the Constabulary HQ in Carlisle. Now two officers, Sergeant John Roche and Constable Jacob Johnstone, were posted on the high road to Carlisle to stop the four in flight from Netherby: a simple, all too easy,  case of larceny  now began to turn into a tale of ruthless assault and manslaughter, as Rudge shot Sergeant Roche in the arm, beating him badly about the head, while Johnstone was shot in the chest at point-blank range. 
These injuries allowed the four to proceed to Carlisle Railway Station where, at about 2.30 am, an attempt to apprehend them was made by Constable Christopher Fortune: ‘so badly beaten’ was this officer ‘that he never fully recovered’. He was thrown on to the tracks where he might easily have been dismembered by a passing train had not Baker, perhaps in a fit of humanity, rescued his battered body from the lines. (The shadowy ‘fourth man’ now exits from the narrative.)
In the early hours of Thursday 29th, Carlisle was becoming unsafe for the trio to remain there: and, determined to gain safety to the south of Cumberland, after hiding for a day in Wreay Woods, they walked to the village of Calthwaite, where they arrived at about 7 in the evening. Desperation now induced them to give their own game away by enquiring about trains to the south, while hunger and thirst led them from Calthwaite to nearby Plumpton, entering the ‘Pack Horse’ inn in search of food and drink. Meanwhile, what has been called the ‘unnecessary tragedy’ within this saga approached its climax:  the Calthwaite station-  master  having telegraphed  his report of  the  threesome’s movement to his opposite number in Plumpton, the Plumpton station-master passed the information to the village constable, Joseph Byrnes, and the latter stepped out, armed only with his police-issue truncheon, to confront the dreadful outcome to which his office as a guardian of the peace summoned him.
Virtually un-armed and certainly outnumbered - three to one - by armed desperadoes whose survival depended on their escaping arrest, Byrnes might readily have fallen in with what Baker later claimed was his groups’ advice to him to back off: to await police reinforcements would have been prudent, if not heroic. Yet this country constable persisted in his duty, was shot in the head, his dying body dumped over a wall: the site was marked later with a memorial stone, which has since been transferred into the street wall of one of Plumpton’s houses.
The murderers now resumed their trek south and were held up at the Tebay junction, taken into custody by employees of the Lancaster and Carlisle Railway.  Baker remained at liberty for a few days, having thrown Lady Jane’s - accursed?  -  stones into the Lune.  (They were later retrieved and restored to Netherby Hall, doubtless under tightened security.)
Baker, Martin and Rudge were put on trial at Carlisle early in the new year. In what may appear to us to have been an open-and-shut case, it might seem odd that the jury took over an hour to deliver its verdict - guilty of wilful murder- but in cases where the capital sentence was by its nature irreversible, it was good law to proceed lawfully - even against the ‘notorious habitual criminals’ who had damaged and ended lives.  The three were hanged in Carlisle Prison in February 1886, Baker protesting ‘I die an innocent man.’  
Much of the subsequent discourse centred on Joseph Byrnes, a tragic hero, leaving a widow and four children, a police officer of over 12 years’ service, an Irish Catholic from the County Down, whose interment in Penrith Cemetery on 1 November 1885 was attended by 3,000 people, many more than the Catholic population of the town.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of Constables Byrnes’ legacy - at the burial Fr Meynell   of Penrith acclaimed his ‘courage and devotion to duty - lay in his posthumous contribution to community relations, between the largely Catholic immigrants into Victorian Cumberland, and the county’s Protestant majority.  Such relations had not been altogether harmonious: Penrith had been the scene of the terrifying English-versus-Irish ’navvy’ riots; in 1846; in 1850 Carlisle townspeople sent a petition to the Queen protesting against the restoration of a Catholic episcopate of England and Wales; the industrial towns of the coast were bedevilled by sectarian tension and violence between Irish Catholics and members of the Orange Order. Joseph Byrnes, in contrast, served his local community to the end, an icon of law and peace. (3)
The trial judge ordered the sum of £177 to be shared between Mrs Byrnes and Officers Fortune, Johnstone and Roche - rather less than the £250 value of Lady Jane’s’ jewels. I have yet to unearth information about any donation to a relief fund from Netherby Hall, but that may be because the necessary research has not yet come to light.  

(1)    Lorna M. Mullett, ‘Percy Toplis’’, CCHT: ‘Interesting Facts’, www.cumbriahistory.org.uk  
(2)    Michael A. Mullett, A New History of Penrith Book V Penrith in the Nineteenth Century 1800-1901: Chapters on the Victoria Town (Carlisle: Bookcase, 2020) pp. 322-8; Ewanian (William Furness), History of Penrith from the Earliest Record to the Present Time (Penrith,  n. pub., 1894, reprinted Carlisle: Bookcase, nd.), pp. 314-15.
(3)    Mullett, Penrith in the Nineteenth Century, pp. 175-82; Michael A. Mullett, ‘“Your Majesty’s Loyal and Dutiful Subjects”: Carlisle and “Papal Aggression”’, Transactions of the Cumberland & Westmorland Antiquarian & Archaeological Society, Third Series Volume 20 (2020), pp. 157-170; J. D. Marshall and John K. Walton, The Lake District from 1830 to the mid-twentieth century A Study in Regional Change (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1981), pp. 99,151.

Text by Michael Mullett

Photo by Lorna Mullett

To find out more about the history of Plumpton Wall township, click here