ON Saturday we told how 150 years ago, “Gentleman John” McConville had been sentenced to death for murdering puddler Philip Trainer on Darlington’s Albert Hill.

McConville was the first man in County Durham to be convicted of murder using a firearm, and the killing sparked fear in Darlington that a wave of bloody feuding was breaking out among the hundreds of Irish immigrants who had recently arrived to work in the Hill’s ironworks.

The jury at Durham Spring Assizes found McConville guilty even though there was no motive and no murder weapon, though there were plenty of unanswered questions and uncalled witnesses, and he was identified by only one person despite scores of Irishmen being present in the melee in Nestfield Street when the trigger was pulled.

And even though his barrister said he was as mild as a lamb, wouldn’t say boo to a goose or even hurt a fly.

The following week, the Darlington & Stockton Times had some shocking news about Gentleman John’s past.

He had grown up in Coatbridge, an ironworks new town on the edge of Glasgow which had been populated by Irish immigrants and had been riven with violence for three decades. There had been murders within the Irish community, and there had been riots involving cutlasses and shillelaghs between the Catholics and the Glaswegian Protestants.

In 1867, there was a Fenian uprising by the Irish Republican Brotherhood against the British rule in Ireland, and McConville was arrested in Cork apparently fighting for the Fenian army. No charges were brought against him.

The uprising was quashed, and the ringleaders fled to Manchester where two of them, Thomas Kelly and Timothy Deasy, were arrested.

About 40 of their supporters ambushed the horsedrawn police van taking the duo to court. Sgt Charles Brett was inside the van with the captives and refused to unlock the door. He put his eye to the keyhole, to see what was going on outside, just as an Irishman fired a bullet through it in an attempt to break it open.

Sgt Brett died immediately, the first Manchester City policeman to be killed on duty.

They keys were removed from his body, the prisoners were released, and they were never recaptured.

However, many of the ambushers were arrested, and three of them – William Philip Allen, Michael Larkin, and Michael O’Brien – were hanged. To some, the death of the policeman is known as the Manchester Outrage; to others, the executed men were known as the Manchester Martyrs.

McConville was there.

“At the time of the Manchester outrage,” said the D&S, “McConville was observed suspiciously near the locality of Brett’s murder, but he succeeded in getting off. Since that time he has continued as a ringleader of the infatuated conspirators. He is about 25 years of age, and rather intelligent.”

A letter to the paper from Coatbridge said that McConville’s “wayward passions let loose, the continual maddening of the brain by strong drink, and defiant contempt of authority and law on his part, have hurried him on to the terrible death now awaiting him”.

However, not everyone in Coatbridge was convinced of his guilt. About 300 had signed a statement testifying to his good character, and James Hanna to the D&S that it would be impossible to find “a more quiet, harmless and inoffensive youth than John McConville.”

Their names had been added to a petition circulating in Darlington and Barnard Castle demanding that the Home Secretary overturn the death sentence. Eleven members of the jury which convicted him had signed the petition.

But, said the paper, a date for his execution had already been set: March 22. Would he hang for murder in just a handful of days’ time?