Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Thomas Bourke - Fenian at Woking

In the 1860's Woking Convict Invalid Prison housed many Irish Fenians (a term used since the late 1850s for Irish nationalists who opposed British rule in Ireland) including Thomas Francis Bourke. Thomas was sentenced to death for his role in the uprising (high treason) though this sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment.

The Fenians were members of a movement in Ireland that wanted independence from British rule. Some people in Ireland believed the British government had refused to help the Irish out during the potato famine because they'd hoped it would solve the Irish 'problem' i.e. kill them off. The only hope for Ireland, the Irish believed, was complete separation from the UK. And if that meant fighting the British, then so be it.

Their war on the British caused a wave of anti-Irish feeling throughout the UK, which didn't bode well for the Fenians when they were finally caught and imprisoned. I suspect they were treated more harshly than other prisoners ...

The following extract describes Bourke's experience at Woking Convict Invalid Prison:

On 27 February 1868, having completed his probation, Burke was transferred to Working Convict Prison in Surrey. This was considered to be a hospital prison for both the physically and mentally ill. For an unknown reason he was moved back to Millbank on 20 April 1868; he spent only two weeks there, returning to work.In Woking Burke's diet consisted of bread and tea for breakfast. He was allowed 20 ozs of bread, 1/4 ozs of tea, 4 ozs of milk and 11/2 ozs of sugar daily. His dinner was soup, potatoes (8 ozs) and bread. Prisoners were permitted 10 ozs of meat each day, but appear not to have always got it; it may have been used to make the soup. The supper was bread and tea.

Each prisoner on punishment was granted a daily concession of 8 ozs of bread, 1/4 ozs of tea, 11/2 ozs of sugar and 4 ozs of milk. After the public, which followed the exposure of the treatment of O'Donovan Rossa while in prison, the MP for Cork county secured the appointment of a Commission of Inquiry into prison conditions. Headed by the Earl of Devon, this met in the summer of 1870. Burke was one of those granted an interview. He wrote also at length to the Commission on the sufferings of his deranged friend and fellow-Fenian in Woking, Ricard US. Burke - no relation.

He had been only three times to exercise... I believe, the only times he has been out of bed since 23 July. I am also told ... that for the past thirteen days he has taken little or not food. This treatment is well calculated, if not intended, to provoke him to some desperate act of violence... from my experience of the officials of this prison I feel confident they would be but too anxious to avail themselves of any colourable pretext to lay violent hands upon my poor friend, by laying open his head with their staffs, or cutting him down with their sabres; for the criminal imbeciles,. confined in this prison, have not an immunity from this inhuman and brutal treatment; and from the course adopted by the officials of this prison towards my fellow prisoners within twenty-four hours after they had submitted their evidence to the Commissioners, that the submitting of evidence ... by any prisoner should not prejudice the future treatment of that prisoner while in prison... I have every reason to believe that my poor friend will be subjected to ... all the worst effects of penal discipline, and the treatment which has already deprived him of reason will be persistently and steadily followed up until it deprives him of life.

Burke's own prison career was coming to an end. As The Tipperary Fenian Denis Dowling Mulcahy wrote his father: Between half-past twelve and one o'clock, Thursday, the 22nd December 1870, the Governor, Captain Bramly, communicated to me, Dr. Power, Colonel Burke, and Mr. Dillon, that he had instructions to ask us if we would accept our release on condition of leaving the country, never again to return to it, or the alternative of remaining in penal servitude to finish our sentences.

According to the New York Times, however, a Thomas F Burke was released from prison in March 1869 following a petition handed in to Queen Victoria.

Who knows ...

A big thank you to Kieran Maxwell who emailed me with the following information: I can confirm that the Burke you refer to was the Burke that was released by the Queen as part of a general amnesty for the fenian prisoners.

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