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Peter Kirwan’s sojourn in Stafford could have been very short. In 1853 he was accused of involvement in Stafford’s most notorious killing of the Victorian age, the so-called ‘Five Shilling Murder’. He and two other Irishmen, Ned Walsh and Charles Moore, were charged with the murder of a farmer and his wife. In the end Kirwan escaped the hangman’s noose and ultimately the family survived in Stafford until 1884. They were one of the terminal families who just faded away.

Peter and Margaret Kirwan arrived in Stafford with their three children some time in 1852. Like many of Stafford’s Irish they came from Co. Galway. Peter Kirwan had probably worked in the Stafford area before the Famine, and now he survived on scraps of farmwork. He and his wife were already in their forties, however, and they earned a bit more money by running a lodging house in Plant’s Square. Peter Kirwan’s two occupations put him in contact with Charles Moore.

Charles Moore was the ringleader. The son of a cattle dealer from Co. Cavan, he was born around 1817. In his youth he seems to have been involved in violent Rockite activities, robbing arms as well as stealing cattle and sheep. Things got too hot for him in Cavan and he moved to Co. Kildare. There he continued thieving and was suspected of writing threatening Captain Rock letters. During the Famine he was caught stealing potatoes but assaulted the two people who discovered him. He fled to England around August 1847 and got farm jobs in the Stafford area.[1] He did some work for John Blackburn, an aged farmer who lived in a dilapidated house at Ash Flats to the south of the town. Blackburn reputedly paid Moore a shilling a day when he could not get work elsewhere.[2]

In 1852 Ned Walsh came to Stafford with his wife. Walsh already knew Moore from Co. Kildare where they had been on building work at Maynooth College. Walsh’s daughter Catherine – or Kitty – had already lived with Moore for five years and had a little boy. Charles and Kitty came to Stafford in April 1852 and by mid-1852 she was pregnant again. The Walshes arrived in October and lived with Moore in the Broad Eye. Peter and Margaret Kirwan arrived in Stafford in the same year and Peter also did work at the Blackburns’ farm from time to time. In doing so he got to know Walsh and Moore.

Though John Blackburn and his wife lived in squalor at Ash Flats it was widely suspected they had money. On 24 October 1852 dense black smoke was seen rising from the farmhouse. People nearby managed to break in and fight the fire, but they then discovered the gruesome bodies of John and Jane Blackburn in one of the bedrooms. Both their heads had been bludgeoned and Jane had also been strangled. The debris of a ransacked house was all around. The thieves had obviously been after money and valuables, but all they got was around five shillings. The miser’s money, if such there was, had been well hidden.

Initial suspicion fell on John Blackburn’s son Henry who lived in Wolverhampton. He was known to be looking forward to the old man’s demise because he would inherit property. The police then received three anonymous letters directly accusing Blackburn. That was foolish since they could only have been written by someone who knew things only an insider could have known. Charles Moore was known to have worked at Blackburn’s farm, and the finger of suspicion pointed to him and his father-in-law Ned Walsh. A shirt with singed wrists made of ‘material and substance such as labouring Irishmen usually wear’ was found in a quarry near Tixall.[3]  They were arrested. The chain then led to Peter Kirwan because Ned Walsh and his wife had moved into Kirwan’s lodging house in Plant’s Square. Peter Kirwan was arrested ‘due to letters written showing a mind ill at ease’.[4]

The case was a local sensation and received considerable national coverage. At the coroner’s inquest in January 1853 Moore implicated a number of other Irishmen in the murder but the inquest jury arraigned just Moore, Walsh and Kirwan. Doubt remains about whether Henry Blackburn was involved in the conspiracy, but the jury believed his alibi and preferred to pin the blame on the Irish alone. Even so, Henry Blackburn as well as Moore, Walsh and Kirwan were committed for trial at the Crown Court. The trial opened on 21 March 1853. At that point things looked black for Peter Kirwan. The police had, however, written to the Irish Constabulary and reports came back on the three men. Moore’s character was damned – the authorities branded him manipulative, violent, a thief and an inveterate liar. Nothing bad was known about Ned Walsh, but he seems to have been a poor man of low intelligence who did whatever Moore told him.

The report about Kirwan was favorable. He was considered a man of good character.[5] This and the fact that there was nothing to link him directly with the murder led the police and Crown lawyers to offer no evidence against him. The judge therefore directed the jury to return a formal verdict of not guilty. The jury also acquitted Henry Blackburn, but Charles Moore and Ned Walsh were found guilty.

Broadsheet of Charles Moore's execution (Staffordshire County Museums Service)

Broadsheet of Charles Moore’s execution (Staffordshire County Museums Service)

Moore was publicly hanged in front of Stafford Gaol on 9 April 1853 ‘in front of a large assembly of people.’[6] Walsh’s death sentence was commuted to transportation for life.

What became of Peter Kirwan and his family? See Part 2 of this post which will follow in a couple of weeks.

[1] Staffordshire Advertiser, 9 April 1853. Post-trial evidence about Moore’s background. See also Alfred Middlefell’s account in The Story of the Ancient Parish of Castlechurch, (Stafford, Berkswich Local History Group, 1998), pp. 24-5.

[2] SA, 30 October 1852.

[3] SA, 12 February 1853.

[4] SA, 20 November 1852.

[5] SA, 2 April 1853.

[6] The Times, 11 April 1853.