Friday, 10 June 2011

10: McCaffery

A ballad about Private Patrick McCaffery, who was executed in front of Kirkdale Gaol on 11 January 1862. For the most part I have used the version given in Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl's Singing Island, which was collected by MacColl from Patrick Dodds of Birkenhead. It's pretty much compulsory if talking about this song to mention the rumour (probably no more than a myth) that it was/is a punishable offence to sing it in the British army. MacColl tells us, "I first heard this song sung by a group of Liverpool dockers who had been drafted into the army, and I noticed that a couple of them were standing guard very obviously outside a tent, and I bribed my way in with a half bottle of whisky and sure enough they were singing this song McCaffery." The tune used is essentially 'The Croppy Boy', although the version collected by MacColl is unusual in having a different tune for the first verse.

Roy Palmer, in The Rambling Soldier gives a pretty complete account of the historic events surrounding the song: McCaffery "was born in Ireland, near Mullingar. His family later moved to Carlow, where his father was the governor of a lunatic asylum. His mother died, and his father left for America, where he seems to have disappeared without a trace, after a minor scandal. Young Patrick soon moved to Mossley, near Stalybridge, in Lancashire, to join the household of a Mrs Murphy, who had wet-nursed him as a baby. He worked for a time in cotton mills at Mossley and Stalybridge, and then, inflating his age by at least a year to reach the statutory eighteen, enlisted in October 1860 into the 32nd Regiment... This was the Cornwall Light Infantry, which had its depot at Fulwood Barracks, Preston. On Friday 13 September 1861, M'Caffrey was acting as picket-sentry near the officers' quarters. The adjutant, Captain Hanham, came out to complain to M'Caffrey about the noise of some children playing, and asked him, first, to remove them, and second, to find out their parents' names. Hanham felt that M'Caffrey's complied with his orders in a half-hearted way, and sent him to the guardroom... M'Caffery appeared before his C.O., Colonel Crofton, the following morning, and was sentenced to fourteen days' C.B. [confined to barracks]. He seems to have gone quietly afterwards to his barrack room, taken his rifle, knelt outside, and coolly shot at Captain Hanham as he was crossing the barrack square with Colonel Crofton. Both officers were in fact hit, with the same shot, and mortally wounded."

The Liverpool Mercury gave this account of the execution outside Kirkdale Gaol:
"Immediately after the clock had struck twelve, the wretched culprit, followed by Calcraft [the hangman], walked, apparently firmly, upon the scaffold, whithe he was accompanied by Father Lanns, reciting prayers suitable to the occasion. A smile seemed to play upon his youthful countenance as he took a farewell look at this world. He was dressed in the prison garb, consisting of a grey jacket and trowsers. His mild countenance and boyish appearance elicited the sympathy on the part of the immense crowd. As soon as Calcraft, who was dressed in a suit of good black, had produced the white cap, the priest took from his breast a small crucifix, which the wretched culprit kissed with much fervour. His lips were observed to move in prayer until the rope was adjusted round his neck. The priest then shook him by the hand, Calcraft also bade him farewell in a similar manner, and everything being arranged, the bolt was withdrawn, and the unfortunate young man was launched into eternity, having been kept standing at the trap a much longer time than usual. He seemed to suffer a good deal, his struggles being great. The last words he uttered were - 'Blessed Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, I give you my heart and soul. Jesus and Mary, have mercy on me!' When the bolt was drawn, shrieks burst from many of the spectators, and several of the females left the ground weeping and wringing their hands, apparently suffering intense agony at the spectacle they had witnessed. Thus ended the mortal career of one of the youngest criminals that ever expiated his guilt upon the public scaffold. After hanging an hour on the scaffold the body was cut down, and in the course of the afternoon was interred within the precincts of the gaol. Calcraft completed his disgusting task amid yells, hisses, and fearful imprecations from the mob... It is supposed that there were between 30,000 and 40,000 persons on the ground."

The groundswell of popular support for McCaffery, with much public opinion in the north west of England firmly behind his cause, gave rise to this song, a eulogy of sorts. It is #1148 in the Roud folksong index.


  1. Why is it the song says he was confined for 14 weeks and 15 days?

  2. Not a clue, I reckon it's inflation. Seeing as in real life he seemed to shoot them just after being sentenced for fourteen days, I reckon that subsequent repetitions of the song just ramped up the sentence he served, and did so working on two units at once. That way each singer made things sound just a little bit worse. (I'm heard some versions where they say "14 weeks and 13 days", which is obviously 2 days softer than the version I sing). If current trends continue, by the 200th anniversary of his death in 2062 he will serve 152 days, perhaps to be sung as "18 weeks and 26 days".

    I have to say, shooting the officers after a long and ever increasing period of CB makes McCaffery a more sympathetic character than the idea that he shot them just after sentencing. But contemporary reports do make out that the officers were bullies, like the Preston Mercury: "We are assured on good authority that (and as impartial journalists we must state the truth, however painful it may be) both Colonel Crofton and Adjutant Hanham have been guilty of great tyranny in the government of the men, to such an extent indeed that the soldiers express sympathy with the murderer. Many instances in proof of this have been related to us."

    So the core of the story, McCaffery was bullied, decided to shoot the bully, and was hung for it, seems true enough.

  3. (More seriously on the 'inflation' point, I have wondered whether it's a distortion of the earlier singing of "fourteen NIGHTS and fifteen days", which sits a bit neater with the actual sentence, but that's just a guess, I've obviously not come across any version like that.)

  4. That's plausible. "Fifteen days and fourteen nights" would be a more natural expression, but then it wouldn't rhyme so well.

    Bullied or not, this McCaffery was clearly a nut job.