IN the dock at Durham stood “Gentleman John” McConville, a 23-year-old furnaceman from Darlington who was a “well-conducted, honest, peaceable and quiet” character, yet he was charged that with “feloniously, wilfully, and with malice aforethought, he did kill and murder Philip Trainer at Darlington”.

His barrister, Mr Campbell Foster, conducted a “brilliant” defence, according to the Darlington & Stockton Times when the case was heard 150 years ago this week.

The victim and the accused were of Irish stock and they had worked at Barningham’s ironworks on Albert Hill – then the largest ironworks in the north which had attracted hundreds of Irish immigrants seeking work.

Mr Trainer had been shot in a melee of Irishmen outside the Allan Arms, which had been on the corner of Killinghall and Nestfield streets.

But, as Mr Campbell Foster pointed out, only one witness – puddler James Quinn – had testified that it had been McConville who had pulled the trigger from point blank range. Everybody else who had been present had just melted away.

Mr Campbell Foster said Mr Quinn – who was currently living in the Darlington police station for his own protection – was “cowardly and unmanly”.

The Northern Echo:

The Chesnut Street police station, Darlington, on Northgate was opened in 1868 - the following year, murder witness James Quinn was living there for his own protection. The station was demolished in the 1970s and now a large bed shop is on its site.

“He was the man who stood and saw a fellow creature shot down and then, instead of rushing indignantly to seize on the brutal murderer, or even at once giving information to the police, he helped to carry the dead body into the house and then went quietly away,” said the barrister.

Then he turned on Sgt Hewitt, who had put the prosecution case together. Sgt Hewitt said that at the time of the murder, he was in another Albert Hill pub – the Havelock Arms – arresting another Irishman, Thomas Finnigan, for attempting to murder yet another Irishman. Sgt Hewitt had found a pistol in Finnigan’s pocket but, as Memories told last week, Finnigan had been found not guilty.

“The sergeant had got up both Finnigan’s case and the present one, and he would doubtless think it necessary to make the times fit into each other,” said the barrister. “The police are a body deserving of all encouragement when they were candid and honest, but when any member of the force is found to be not frank, and not giving the whole truth, they deserve censure.”

Sgt Hewitt had not found any reason for McConville to want to murder Mr Trainer. Nor had he found any murder weapon and nor had he called to give evidence an Irishman called Owen Hanlon, a shadowy figure who was known to have collected from a Darlington gunsmith bullets identical to the one that had been found in the murdered man’s eye socket.

“Why is Hanlon not present?” railed Mr Campbell Foster. “It is the duty of the prosecution to put the whole of the evidence before the jury. Is this a light matter?”

He warned the jury at the Durham Spring Assizes that the decision facing them was quite literally one of life and death.

“McConville has been known by all to be well-conducted, honest, peaceable and quiet, and not a motive was assigned or hinted at for the commission of such a crime,” he said. “You are now asked by the prosecution to say that this man has committed the most atrocious crime on the face of the earth, and thus to send him, as he is entering life, vigorous and healthy, and with a fair reputation, to the scaffold to die.”

The D&S Times reported: “The jury were absent for an hour, during which the greatest anxiety was evinced in the crowded court. When at last the cries of the ushers betokened the return of the jury, perfect silence prevailed.

“The foreman: ‘After long deliberation, we have come unanimously to the conclusion that the prisoner is guilty of murder’.”

The Northern Echo:

Judge Sir Robert Lush then assumed the black cap, and said: “The jury have come unanimously to the conclusion that you are the person who fired that fatal shot. I must say that I think they are right. I cannot conceive that Quinn can be so far mistaken, or so deeply wicked as to say he saw you commit the act if he did not, and I cannot conceive that you wanted those dreadful weapons for any good purpose.

“I do not know what your animosity may have been, or where you got that degree of depravity which led you into the commission of this crime, which is a disgrace to civilisation, and a stain on the town you came from. I can only exhort you to prepare for the sentence I am bound by law to pass upon you…”

The D&S said: “The sentence of death was then passed in the usual from, the prisoner maintaining a cold and passive demeanour. He was then manacled hand and foot, and removed from the dock, through the court to the prison-van.”

It was a historic verdict: “Gentleman John” McConville was the first person in County Durham to be convicted of murder by using a firearm.

Executions in those days were carried out as quickly as possible, and fear stalked the streets of Darlington that their town was in the murderous grip of a Fenian feud among the Irish secret societies.

An appeal was hurriedly lodged with the Home Secretary in a bid to save McConville’s life. Would Gentleman John hang?