Image: Portland Prison (© Mary Evans Picture Library)
By Eddie Mullan
“The couple had disappeared under mysterious circumstances.” It was this comment from a fellow researcher that led me to uncover the colourful and criminal life of former soldier, Robert Connolly.
I had been researching my own family history when I discovered that my great, great aunt, Margaret Connelly (born Margaret Lang), had married Robert in 1875 in Paisley, and that their marriage had ended in tragedy.
In my initial quest to find out more about the couple, I first scoured the British Library newspaper archives and the National Library for Scotland.
It appears that Robert Connolly was born in Birmingham, the son of Irish parents who had come over to England during the great famine. When the couple met, Robert was stationed in Paisley, a private of the 26th Foot (Cameronians).The records tell us that Robert’s army career ran from 3 Jan 1873 until 23 Aug 1876.
It was when I was searching through the newspapers that I found that the Birmingham Daily Post reported that a Robert Connolly was charged with deserting his wife and children in 1881. He had been traced to Paisley but had disappeared. Throughout this time he was described as a gun maker, gun finisher and the like. Both ‘Paisley’ and ‘gun’ were important labels that helped to confirm the various sightings of Robert.
Then I discovered the uncomfortable truth about the couple. In 1886, several newspapers started reporting the brutal murder of Margaret. It was claimed that Robert had badly beaten her after a drinking session, knocking her to the ground and then jumping on her. Margaret was only 29 years old when she died.
Many papers carried the same condensed story reporting her subsequent death. A few included details such as eye-witness accounts, police reports, the post-mortem, the coroner’s report and the judge’s opinion and eventual judgement, which was penal servitude for the rest of his natural life. The judge did actually query why Robert had only been charged with manslaughter when it should have been murder.
The more I found the more I was reminded of the quote from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: – ‘The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones.’
I continued my newspaper search and discovered more details about Robert’s life including the fact that he had five children and a string of previous convictions.
Searching for Robert’s previous convictions led to newspaper articles covering a number of incidents in his life including the time he assaulted two soldiers in Paisley. It appears he also assaulted three men in the same town, stabbing them with a table fork. There were also articles about his attempt to steal a boiler that had been built into the wall of his digs.
Ancestry.com provided more evidence of his criminal activities, giving times and dates of previous convictions, although there was very little detail about the actual crimes. His earliest jail sentence appears to have occurred in 1868 when he was just 12 years old (where he got seven days). By 1872 he had been in jail four times and at the age of 17 he received four months imprisonment. By 1874 he is incarcerated in Paisley jail. A year later he is charged with desertion, and in 1876 he had been jailed for the stabbing of the three men in Paisley.
While trying to find references of Robert’s time in prison, I found him in the 1891 and 1901 censuses. In 1891 he is in Portsea, Her Majesty’s Convict Prison (Portsmouth) and is described as a widower (this was initially hard to find in Ancestry.com as his name had been transcribed as ‘Robert Cornolly’). In 1901 he is in Portland Prison, this time described as a quarryman (stone).
In 1907, several newspapers reported that Robert has been released after 20 years of hard labour. The articles all seem to have come from a common stock, but each paper chose to emphasise different parts of an interview with him. Pulling them all together we find that he spent his first day sitting on a London bus in ‘awe’, as he had missed the introduction of the internal combustion engine during his period of incarceration.
He had been brought up from Dartmoor in preparation for his release, but even after 20 years, still recognised Wormwood Scrubs. It was there that he did his nine months introductory solitary confinement in 1886.
Robert acknowledged that gun making had advanced beyond his old training, but stated that he was now a stonemason, a skill he had learned in prison, and a profession in which he hoped to find employment.
In the 1911 census we find him back in Birmingham, living with his niece. He is described as ‘single’ and a stone-mason.
Further Criminal Records on Ancestry.com give details of his release – his alias was Robert Conley, his register number was M577, his prison Dartmoor and his crime manslaughter with 13 previous convictions. He was described as grey (partly bald), had a scar on his temple and centre forehead and listed as a labourer. He was released on 19 March 1907 into the hands of the Catholic D.P.A.S. London.
I presume that he behaved himself after his release as I could not find any more references to him in the papers.
Robert died in 1920 in the Birmingham poorhouse of the flu, possibly one of the many victims of the Spanish influenza pandemic that swept across the globe in 1918. The informant was another of one his nieces.
But the story doesn’t end there. Intriguingly, the niece had revealed that Robert had another alias, ‘Thomas McDurmott’. So far I have been unable to locate instances of this name, or any of its spelling variations, in the newspaper archive.
And I am not giving up on my search. After all, it took many attempts over several years to flesh out Robert’s life, eventually yielding enough information for a CV and a 112-page A5 book full of interesting details, including maps, images and newspaper articles.
It may turn out that his aliases led just as colourful, and perhaps even criminal, lives. But no matter what I discover, they will make interesting additions to our family history and the life stories of former soldier, Robert Connolly.