Edward Charles Hamilton: the person Parnell punched

On a Saturday evening in May 1869, the future Irish leader Charles Stewart Parnell became involved in a fight outside Cambridge railway station with a local man, Edward Charles Hamilton. Following a court case, Parnell was rusticated (briefly expelled) by his College. He never returned to complete his studies. But who was Edward Charles Hamilton? 

Edward Charles Hamilton encounters Charles Stewart Parnell On the evening of Saturday 1 May 1869, Edward Charles Hamilton became involved in a fight with a Cambridge undergraduate at the town's railway station. The student was Charles Stewart Parnell of Magdalene College. Hamilton, who came off badly in the encounter, made a formal complaint against his assailant at the local police station, and then sued Parnell for damages in the County Court, specifically claiming for damage to his overcoat and his blood-stained trousers. On 21 May, a jury, composed of local residents who were very probably weary of student misbehaviour, rejected Parnell's claim of self-defence and found in Hamilton's favour. Parnell's "gross misconduct" incurred the displeasure of the Fellows of Magdalene College, who rusticated him until the end of the Easter (summer) Term. He never returned to finish his studies, but went on to become the leader of the Irish Home Rule party and – so it briefly seemed in 1885-6 – the arbiter, even the dictator, of British political life. By contrast, Edward Charles Hamilton had emerged into the glare of History from the twilight of a May evening on Station Road, Cambridge and vanished from the courtroom, victorious, three weeks later.[1]

In himself, Edward Charles Hamilton can hardly be regarded as a major historical figure. Nonetheless, the obscurity that surrounds him also leaves a gap in Parnell biography. If we do not know what sort of person Parnell fought on that fateful night, we lack the necessary material fully to understand the future Irish leader on the verge of adult life. Was Hamilton tall or short, young or old? Did Parnell beat up a respectable citizen – for his antagonist certainly came off the worse in the encounter – or did he employ a reasonable if regrettable degree of force in an exchange of punches with a combative labourer? The evidence from the trial of his clash with Parnell and his fellow Magdalene student Robert Bentley tells something about Hamilton's personality, but there is little to identify him by class and nothing at all descriptive of physique. The brief but confrontational dialogue outside the railway station suggests a self-important and combative individual, qualities that may explain, although they hardly, justify Parnell's decision to throw a punch at him. His ponderous name probably provides a clue to his sense of himself. Among 'ordinary' people, it was unusual to have two forenames – Parnell's "Charles Stewart" was an indication of gentry status – and other reports suggest that Hamilton did in fact use both of his baptismal names, and not just when he had to be formally identified in court proceedings.

Carefully led by a combative Cambridge lawyer, Mr F.P. Adcock, Hamilton explained that he had asked why Parnell was stretched out on the road, and was told that the recumbent figure had been drinking and that his friends had gone to find a cab to take him back to College. Parnell, of course, chose to recall the enquiry as a contemptuous "what is the matter with this 'ere cove?" Hamilton added that he had offered to help, only to be haughtily rebuffed by Bentley: "we do not want any of you or your damned help; go about your own business". To this, Hamilton claimed that he portentously replied: "When one offers assistance they are not usually insulted", although in Parnell's version, the riposte was that "he did not expect to meet with such bloody impertinence". At this point, Parnell leapt to his feet, roaring, "What do you mean by insulting my friend[?]", to which Hamilton replied: "Your friend has been impertinent and I will not have any from you". The stranger's assumption that he had the right to dictate the tone of the encounter was too much for Parnell, who threw the first punch. In fact, the inebriated undergraduate missed his target, which suggests that, at this point, Hamilton might have retreated towards the relative security of the railway station, perhaps directing a few words of abusive reprimand at his unsteady antagonist to cover his withdrawal. Instead, he struck Parnell in the eye, drawing upon himself a brief but bloody beating.

Who was Edward Charles Hamilton? In his evidence in court, Hamilton claimed to be a "merchant" and described his companion as "my man", but no trace of him could be found in contemporary directories and other records. When asked the nature of his business, he replied – according to the staccato press report – "Dealt in manure." Those three words have haunted his image. It was tempting to couple them with Michael Davitt's comment – probably derived from Parnell himself – that his assailants were "drunken drovers": after all, Davitt can be acquitted of the snobbery towards manual labour that afflicted so many other contemporary commentators.[2] In 1992, I took a step further, noted that Hamilton and Allen [or Allan] were surnames connected with Lowland Scotland, and suggested that the two men were Scots, associated with the long-distance cattle trade from north of the Border. No doubt I should have heeded the warning of Sherlock Holmes, who once remarked: "It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data." However, I acquit myself of the Holmes allegation that I twisted facts to suit theories, instead of shaping theories to suit facts.[3] Historians have to accept that the data they crave may never emerge, and some degree of speculative interpretation is permissible. However, I was wrong, and my mistake lay essentially in the interpretation of the term "manure". I pictured Hamilton and his associate shovelling out cattle pens and selling bags of cow dung to local farmers and gardeners. In fact, in the mid-nineteenth century, "manure" was used to describe artificial fertilisers, many of which incorporated natural products, such as fish waste or inedible roots.[4] Hamilton described himself as a resident of Harston, a village about five miles south-west of Cambridge. When advised by his lawyer to secure medical evidence of the injuries inflicted by Parnell, he consulted a "surgeon" (general practitioner) at Sawston, five miles to the east. Midway between the two villages stood the plant of the Cambridge Manure Company, with an address at Duxford although it operated through nearby Whittlesford Station.[5] It is likely that Hamilton worked there, probably employed both in manufacturing and sales. He was a transient figure not because he hailed from the highly mobile lower classes, but because he would soon move to Essex, where his devotion to his calling would make him very unpopular with his new neighbours.

Edward Charles Hamilton: manure manufacturer The 1871 census provides some definite information about the man whom Parnell had punched two years previously.[6]  "Edward C. Hamilton" was now a resident of Wivenhoe, a fishing village on the Colne estuary which functioned as an outport for Colchester. He described himself as "Manure Manufacturer and Importer", and stated that he was 35 years of age, which would point to his having been born in 1835 or 1836. (Victorians were often vague about their vital statistics, and Hamilton varied information about his age on later occasions.) Far from being a Scot (at least by place of birth), he had been born in the Suffolk town of Sudbury. The rest of the entry contains some very unexpected information. His wife, Elizabeth, came from Ireland. There were two children, both bombastically named, so much so that two middle initials had to be crammed into the limited space on the census form for each of them. Edith [M.M.] Hamilton, aged 9, had been born in Dublin; Granville [E.W.], whose age was not clear, was a product of Middlesex. The census evidence, then, suggests that Edward Charles Hamilton had been working in Ireland around 1860, when he was in his early twenties, and had presumably met his bride there. He had then moved his family first to London and then to the Cambridge area. This prompts the speculation that his background might have been Irish. Hamilton was an extremely rare surname in the eastern counties of England. A Suffolk directory of 1839 lists a bank manager at Bury St Edmunds called Francis George Hamilton, and the ponderous similarity of the dual forename could indicate a relationship. The East of England Bank, whose branch he headed, had been established in 1836, and he might well have made a career move of less than twenty miles from Sudbury.[7] Perhaps F.G. Hamilton was an incomer – maybe from Scotland, or (more likely in the context) from Ireland, where the 1901 census recorded over 8,000 people bearing the surname. If Edward Charles Hamilton's father was indeed an exiled Irishman, perhaps he removed his family to their ancestral land many years before 1860. Parnell himself believed that he had been born in Brighton, but in no way did this qualify his claim to an Irish identity.[8] But if Edward Charles Hamilton was, even if indirectly, Irish, the flamboyant naming of his children indicates that their parents were certainly not Catholics. It would indeed be bizarre had Parnell clashed with a fellow Irish Protestant in a dimly lit East Anglian town.

By 1871, Edward Charles Hamilton had taken over the fertiliser manufacturing business of a company called Marshall and Co., whose name he chose to retain. Its activities were unpopular in Wivenhoe, as a police superintendent called Daunt confirmed to the local petty sessions in May of that year.[9] Operating mainly inshore, fishermen on the Colne estuary caught large numbers of starfish, known locally as five-fingers, which were not only commercially useless but quickly rotted into a putrid mess. When Superintendent Daunt ventured into Hamilton's yard, he found the decomposing starfish "being converted into manure" in three "immense vats" of sulphuric acid, mixed with sulphate of lime. "The matter in the vats was in a high state of fermentation, and there being no lids to the vats, the effluvia arising from it was certainly most offensive." Thus processed, the five-fingers were "mixed with crushed bones and other ingredients, and ... sold as a powder[,] something in the form of guano. ... There were several tons of this stuff in the process of manufacture." Hamilton had assured Daunt that he used acid to mask the smell, but the police officer was not persuaded. "My opinion is that nothing will stop it but the absolute removal of the manufactory," he assured the magistrates. Concern was expressed that the operation was a health hazard. Hamilton, present in court, was asked if he wished to comment, but the manure manufacturer replied that he would "reserve his remarks". In effect, he challenged his critics to make the next move. "He should allow things to take the regular course, and when called upon, should be represented by a legal gentleman." It seemed that he had learned from his encounter with Parnell something about the way in which legal process operated. However, within a few days, Edward Charles Hamilton had launched a pre-emptive legal strike against his local critics, displaying enough confidence in his courtroom skills to conduct his own prosecution.

Frank Cridge Price: Hamilton wins in court again Hamilton's manufactory adjoined the house and shop of Francis John Price, who was one of Wivenhoe's leading citizens. A former sea captain, he had settled in the village almost forty years earlier and was in business as a ship's chandler. Hamilton's activities were a considerable nuisance to Price, who had been forced to block one of his windows in the hope of keeping out the smell. He was sometimes assisted with his paperwork by his son, 27 year-old Frank Cridge Price (he had been baptised with his mother's maiden name).[10] In the aftermath of Superintendent Daunt's investigation, Frank decided to send Hamilton an anonymous letter, couched in the traditional candid-friend threatening mode and signed "Warning Voice". The manure manufacturer was informed that "there are persons in W—e who say that they respect you and have no ill-feeling against you and such like stuff before your face, but behind your back they call you a stinking f—l, and are trying their utmost to kick you out of the place in an ignominious manner". Since his enemies were hatching a "diabolibal [sic] plot ... for a public expulsion by the mob", Hamilton would be well advised to "leave before anything of so unpleasant a nature occurs". Frank Cridge Price planned a second prong in his attack. Although Wivenhoe was no more than a large village, the parish employed a crier who was paid to make announcements in the streets.[11] A covering letter, using an assumed name, advised this official: "You will oblige the parishioners of Wyvenhoe by crying the enclosed notice in all the streets, and you will receive five shillings worth of stamps by return of post." One shilling's worth of stamps was enclosed as an advance payment, along with the proclamation that was to be shouted in the streets. "This is to give notice that any person or persons who will assist to turn the man out of this parish who makes an horrible stink will be handsomely rewarded by the inhabitants of Wyvenhoe. Turn him out! Turn him out! Turn him out!"

As a terror campaign, this was neither particularly intimidating, nor was it very well thought out. Much depended upon the willingness of the village crier to incur the hostility of Edward Charles Hamilton in exchange for a promise from an unknown source of five shillings in postage stamps, and here young Price hoped for too much. The crier not only decided to ignore the commission, but thought it prudent to hand over the communication to Hamilton himself. The manure manufacturer had no difficulty in getting hold of bills that Frank Price had penned for his father's business, allowing Hamilton to prove – in his opinion, at least – that the handwriting was identical. It was enough for him to secure a warrant charging Frank Cridge Price with unlawful incitement to commit a breach of the peace, along with endangerment of the public tranquillity through the transmission of an anonymous letter. Despite his earlier threat to hire a lawyer to protect his interests, Hamilton conducted his own case in the hearing before a Colchester magistrate. He had presumably learned from Mr Adcock's handling of his action against Parnell that a well-marshalled case infused with theatrical outrage constituted an effective courtroom technique. Parnell had been ineffectually represented by a barrister, whose legal grandeur only highlighted the threadbare quality of the defence. Frank Cridge Price similarly called upon the services of a Colchester solicitor, who began by denying that the documents were in his client's handwriting before switching to the argument that, even if they were, the matter was hardly very serious. The defendant's dogged refusal to admit the obvious, that he had uttered the threats, served only to antagonise the magistrate, who ruled in Hamilton's favour. "Prisoner would have to be bound over, himself in £10, and find a surety for the like amount, to keep the peace towards all Her Majesty's subjects, and Mr. Hamilton in particular, for six months." Price senior promptly produced the cash, and the Price household also bore the costs of the action. 

It will be apparent that Edward Charles Hamilton's prosecution of Frank Cridge Price had several elements in common with his action against Charles Stewart Parnell two years earlier. On the rather smaller stage of Wivenhoe, young Price was a person of some consequence, the son of one of the principal local businessmen, who would himself eventually become a long-serving churchwarden at the Anglican parish church. Like Parnell, he had made a false move that opened him to crushing legal retribution. In neither case did Hamilton profit financially; in both, he secured the humiliating reprimand of someone who had affected a superiority that he had spurned. The majesty of the law was fused with the dignity of Edward Charles Hamilton himself. Students of the life of Parnell may also see in the Frank Cridge Price case a faint prelude to one of the dramatic episodes in the Irish leader's embattled career, the unmasking under relentless cross-examiner of Richard Pigott the forger before the Special Commission into Parnell's alleged terrorist links in 1889. Pigott's public roasting also turned upon identification of mystery handwriting: young Price was fortunate not to have been challenged to spell the word "diabolical" in court.

Edward Charles Hamilton moves to Colchester Despite having silenced one of his critics (for six months at least) and, presumably, having intimidated the Wivenhoe community, soon afterwards Edward Charles Hamilton removed his premises to Colchester. Goods unloaded from coastal shipping at Wivenhoe were carried upriver by lighters to the Hythe, the port of Colchester, and it was here that Hamilton established his new plant. The move was probably not a good idea: as a municipal borough, Colchester possessed an irritating officialdom that Wivenhoe had lacked, plus a larger and more outspoken middle class.  It was widely believed that Hamilton had been driven out of Wivenhoe "by the force of public feeling and threatened legal proceedings", which made his new neighbours all the more determined to get rid of him. In February 1872, the town's Collector of Customs complained that "we are daily annoyed with the most sickening and offensive smell", while a local clergyman – a breed with which Colchester was richly endowed – concluded that the only effect of the manufactory's move upriver was that "as a nuisance, it is increased in proportion to the extension of the works". Hamilton thought it prudent to give ground, authorising an announcement that "the use of fish has been discontinued at the Manure Works ... until arrangements to the entire satisfaction of the Inspector of Nuisances have been perfected". The public was assured that Hamilton had incurred "large expense ... and every available assistance [had been] sought to remove the cause of complaint".[12] However, the truce was short-lived. When summer came, the plant was busily processing five-fingers, which were ground and mixed with clay dredged from the River Orwell below Ipswich.  "[I]t was well-known to everybody that when collected in a mass in hot weather these fish would soon become decomposed". In July, the parish authorities at the Hythe charged "Mr. Charles Edward Hamilton [sic], trading under the title of Marshall and Co., manure manufacturers" with "permitting a nuisance injurious to health" by maintaining on his premises "a large quantity of stinking manure and other matter". The ensuing five-and-a-half hour court case was highly controversial. Hamilton managed to escape censure, prompting angry locals alleging various dark misdeeds, including a change that the accused had been tipped off about the planned date of the indictment, giving him time to clean up his premises on that day.[13] Once again, Hamilton had been victorious in court but, in the longer term, it was unlikely that his noxious enterprise would survive in an urban area.

Perhaps the most noteworthy feature of the 1872 prosecution was Hamilton's legal representation. Colchester lawyers had probably declined to take his case, for he imported a solicitor from Brentwood, a town over thirty miles away. The ideal courtroom performer on behalf of an unpopular cause, W.R. Preston was aggressive, interrupting witnesses and challenging the validity of inconvenient evidence. Indeed, he spoke as much as an ally as an advocate, closing his arguments with a public relations manifesto: "On behalf of Mr. Hamilton I may say that he will use every precaution in his power so that the business shall be conducted with as little nuisance as possible."

Preston was no mere small-town attorney, but a promoter with big ideas, which included an entrepreneurial interest in artificial manures. In 1868, he had been the leading spirit in a syndicate that sought to develop a residential suburb called Harold Wood around a new commuter railway station in the fields between Romford and Brentwood. Although the settlement grew only slowly, Preston built himself an Italianate mansion nearby, which he grandiosely named Harold Court, where he lived a lavish lifestyle and sought a reputation as a pioneering horticulturalist. The town of Brentwood had established a much-needed sewage works close to Harold Court, and Preston took charge of the project, aiming to irrigate and fertilise the fields of his estate with liquid excrement.[14] Unfortunately, he quickly found that Brentwood produced far too much sewage for al fresco absorption, while there were, of course, other drawbacks to the scheme.

The answer was to team up with Edward Charles Hamilton to develop a method of dealing with the surplus raw material. In May 1873, Hamilton and Preston took out a patent for the invention of "improvements in the manufacture of artificial manure", which they elaborated in August to include "apparatus employed therein".[15] That month, Preston proudly displayed the process to an invited delegation of Essex notables. To the incoming sewage was added "an equal quantity of a black woolly substance termed wool dust ... and the mixture is stirred by labourers with spades till all the liquid is absorbed into the wool dust". This was then strained through a steam-powered mill and "loaded into bags within half-an-hour after being received from the sewer". A "high fertilising power" was claimed for the end product, which was claimed to possess a "comparatively inodorous character", but  "[t]he process is as yet in its infancy, and doubtless many improvements will suggest themselves in working". After the demonstration, Preston invited his guests to luncheon at Harold Court, where he spoke cheerily of his hopes for the new project: "in a year or two they would know whether it was a success or no. Should it turn out badly, he trusted that he should be able to frame some fresh scheme to bring his friends together again."[16] It was an attitude that would bring him, eight years later, to a spectacular bankruptcy, which he attempted to evade by fleeing the country, leaving debts of £50,000. Preston's venture into sewage disposal became regarded as "a white elephant" that had contributed to his problems. If Edward Charles Hamilton had a financial stake in their invention, it is likely that he lost money.[17]

The May 1873 report of the Harold Court fertiliser demonstration – which he did not attend – seems to have been the last occasion on which Hamilton was described as "manure manufacturer, Colchester". Despite the failure of the court case against him the previous year, public opposition to industrial nuisances was growing: the programme of sanitary legislation passed by Disraeli's ministry in 1875-6 was an indication of changing attitudes. It may be that Hamilton simply could not afford the additional overheads involved in trying to eliminate noxious odours. British agriculture was also beginning to feel the sting of North American competition, and farmers probably had less money to buy artificial fertilisers. We may also suspect that the innate brutality of some of the chemical manufacturing processes killed the nutritional potential of the ingredients: sulphuric acid is not an obvious boost to garden growth. Edward Charles Hamilton appears as a Colchester resident in the Post Office Directory for 1874 but, thereafter, there is silence for seven years.[18] He is next traced in the 1881 census, at an address in Bath, which was apparently a hotel or lodging house. His occupation, in the cramped column of the form, was given as "Merchant – iron".[19] As he had shown in the court case against Parnell, Hamilton liked to describe himself as a merchant, but it is likely that he was, as he would be identified seven years later, a commercial traveller. Elizabeth Hamilton and the children have not been traced: she may already have returned to Ireland, where census records for that year do not survive.

Edward Charles Hamilton in the dock The editor of the Essex Standard obviously enjoyed the story and was keen to avoid any suggestion of mistaken identity, or confusion of namesakes. "A Hotel Robbery by a Former Inhabitant of Colchester" ran a headline in its edition of 3 November 1888. The Edward Charles Hamilton, a 48 year-old commercial traveller who had been arrested for theft in London, was "formerly of the Chemical Manure Works, Hythe, Colchester", and the town, we may suspect, was invited to revel in his downfall. Staff at the Salisbury Hotel, off Fleet Street, had been suspicious of his activities for some time, and Hamilton had been refused service. In the eighteen-eighties, hotel cloakrooms were open-access facilities that functioned under light supervision, policed by eagle-eyed hall porters.[20] One such functionary at the Salisbury spotted Hamilton entering the hotel and kept him under observation. When the former manure manufacturer emerged from the men's cloakroom wearing an overcoat, he was challenged. At first, Hamilton insisted that the garment was his own property, before admitting that he was trying to steal it. The next stage of the saga was puzzling. He was prosecuted at the Old Bailey and found guilty, but sentence was postponed. Far from being sent to prison, Hamilton was "released on entering into his own recognisances in £20 to come up for judgment if called upon".[21]

This curious decision probably formed part of a strategy of entrapment. It transpired that once before, in 1885, Hamilton had successfully brazened his way out of an accusation of theft from a hotel, on that occasion of a silk umbrella. It seemed likely that he was a serial thief – but how was he disposing of the stolen items? Britain had over four thousand licensed pawnbrokers, and a commercial traveller working a wide area could have unloaded his loot in different towns, avoiding suspicion by using different outlets. Technically, he would be raising a loan with the overcoat as security, but he would not redeem the item within the set period, and the pawnshop would then be entitled to sell it. But pawnbrokers had a responsibility to avoid acting as receivers of stolen goods, all the more so after having successfully resisted the passage of interventionist regulatory legislation in 1881.[22] There was also reason to suspect that Hamilton was targeting hotels in central London, where there was a concentration of high-value goods and a thief could merge anonymously into the crowds. It was safe to assume that he would need to dispose of such stolen items quickly, which raises the possibility that he was passing them to dishonest elements in the rag trade. They could use East End tailoring establishments to remove labels and other identifying features before recycling the garments through used clothing emporia. Allowing Hamilton to believe that he had got away with the Salisbury Hotel theft might encourage him to reoffend, and perhaps lead the police to a wider criminal conspiracy.  Hamilton, who liked to be the central figure in his own personal drama, apparently did not realise that he was a marked man.

On the afternoon of Boxing Day, 26 December 1888, Edward Charles Hamilton walked into the smoking room of the Westminster Palace Hotel, one of the largest and grandest of London hotels, located in Victoria Street, within a few minutes' walk of the Houses of Parliament. Staff initially assumed that he was a visitor but soon became suspicious. When he left the building, Hamilton was observed to take a mackintosh "from the hat stand outside the coffee-room", even though he was wearing an overcoat on that winter day. One of the porters – his name was Sweeney – followed Hamilton into the street, stopped him and suggested that there was a problem. Hamilton affected surprise, and agreed that he had made a mistake. By way of explanation, he suggested that he must have left his own waterproof at the nearby Grosvenor Hotel. Sweeney reclaimed the rainwear, but Hamilton was followed. He called to two other hotels in the Victoria area, behaving suspiciously in both. The second was the Grosvenor, a mistake given his answer to Sweeney. Challenged by a hall porter who asked if he was staying in the establishment, Hamilton replied "that he was waiting for some one."[23] The confusion of excuses was enough to justify his arrest, and a series of court appearances.[24]

Hamilton's downfall produced two pieces of personal information to the benefit of historians. The first was a description as he stood in the dock: he was a "well-dressed, middle-aged man, of short stature, without whiskers or moustache".[25] (I return to the implications of his appearance in the next and final section.) The second relates to the likely state of his marriage. On his arrest, while he was still insisting that "a very great mistake had been made", Hamilton had suppied a false address. As this was in nearby Bayswater, it was easily checked and rejected, and the device only deepened his plight. He then mentioned that his wife lived in the Dublin suburb of Upper Rathmines, an address that was duly verified. Indeed, "on inquiries being made it was ascertained that he was well connected". Although the Rathmines address was accepted by the prosecution for the purposes of identification, it does not seem that he actually lived there, not least because it could nevr pass as the home-base  for a commercial traveller working in England. I have not been able to establish whether his wife was a householder, a family member or a servant, but it seems obvious that she had returned to Ireland, probably taking the children with her. Neither Elizabeth Hamilton nor their son Granville has been traced, while daughter Edith may well have been married and living under a different surname. It seems likely that the Hamiltons' marriage had broken up.

During three court appearances, there was only one flash of the self-possessed and combative Edward Charles Hamilton of earlier times. When a police constable gave evidence, wholly improperly, that he had been charged with stealing a silk umbrella in 1885, Hamilton angrily interjected that "the case was immediately dismissed". Otherwise, he seemed to accept that the game was up, pleading guilty, and even supplying the investigating officers with "a printed list of the principal hotels and clubs throughout England and Wales". An Adcock or a Preston might have launched diversionary counter-attacks. Could Hamilton be accused of theft from the Westminster Palace Hotel when he had returned the disputed raincoat to Sweeney the porter? Was it so suspicious that a commercial traveller should haunt hotels hoping to meet clients? But Hamilton probably could not afford legal representation. When the case came to trial at the Middlesex Sessions on Monday 21 January 1889, he simply pleaded that "[h]e was not by any means a strong man, and he hoped the court would deal leniently with him".  He was sentenced to six months' imprisonment with hard labour, a relatively severe penalty that suggests that it was assumed that he was a serial thief who had been cornered on a token charge.[26]  

Parliament was not sitting when Hamilton was sentenced. The interest of the political world focused on the Parnell Commission, a judicial enquiry into charges made by The Times that the Irish Home Rulers had connived at terrorist activities. Yet even here, the proceedings were dull, since lawyers had settled into the "miserable monotony" of reading aloud allegedly incriminating letters in order to transcribe them into the record.[27] In any case, the Commissioners did not sit on Mondays. Parnell, who liked to keep his movements secret, was probably with Katharine O'Shea at Eltham. If, on the following morning, his eye happened to catch the report from the Middlesex Sessions – which is improbable – it is unlikely that he identified the accused. Nonetheless, the opening months of 1889 could be regarded as a time in Parnell's life for the settling of scores, albeit in an indirect manner. First, the accuser who had ended his studies at Cambridge was sent to break rocks as a common thief. The downfall of Edward Charles Hamilton would be followed a month later by the exposure of Richard Pigott, the forger who had tried to destroy Parnell's entire career, who was himself broken by devastating cross-examination. But no doubt Parnell would have swapped them both for the scalp of Captain Willie O'Shea.

As for Edward Charles Hamilton, the remainder of the story is sadly repetitive. In 1892, he was caught stealing a coat from the lobby of the Opera Comique, a London theatre that specialised in light entertainment. Worse still, he had made the mistake of targeting the property of a police officer. Hamilton's previous convictions (had there been more than one?) were reported to the court. "His defence was that he had taken the coat under the influence of drink. He further stated he was on the staff of a professional journal, and that, if released, he would go back to his newspaper work again." His pleas were rejected, and he was sentenced to twelve months in prison, again with hard labour. In May 1899, he was once more convicted of stealing an overcoat, this time from the balcony of the Hotel Cecil, and received another twelve months with hard labour.[28] He could hardly have benefited from his crime for, on this occasion, the stolen goods were valued at just £5.[29] I have not traced any report of his death, but Edward Charles Hamilton was into his sixties when he was sentenced to his third term of penal servitude. His wheedling request for clemency in 1889 had been self-centred and self-serving, but it is likely that his health had been damaged by exposure to the primitive processes of manure manufacturing. Despite his claim to be a journalist, he was described both in 1892 and 1898 as a "traveller", a semi-nomadic lifestyle seeking sales on commission, surely a disappointment after his bombastic self-projection in earlier days. The reference to alcohol and the absence of any mention of his wife both suggest a life marked by unhappiness. It seems unlikely that he survived into old age. Yet if it is now possible to establish something of the outlines of his life, the man himself remains a mystery. In 1869, he had specifically claimed damages from Parnell for damage to his coat and trousers: did he have some obsession with menswear? It is time to put him back into the life of Charles Stewart Parnell.

Hamilton v. Parnell: the long-term view  So far as relates to the story of Charles Stewart Parnell, perhaps the most solid, and indeed most damaging, piece of evidence to emerge from the life of Edward Charles Hamilton is the 1888 description of him as a "well-dressed, middle-aged man, of short stature". Many accounts of Parnell state that he was tall, but the Irish journalist Edward Byrne seems to have been the only person who attempted a precise estimate, which he did by persuading the Irish leader to stand back-to-back with his wife, who was a tall woman. Byrne concluded that Parnell was "a little over six feet" (around 185 cms). Modern research has established that the average height of an adult male in later nineteenth-century Britain was around five feet five inches (167 cms).[30] If Hamilton seemed short to a contemporary observer, then he was probably little more than five feet three inches (160 cms) in height, if that. Hence it is likely that there was a difference of at least ten inches (25 cms) in height between the two men. Pitted against one another in the confined space of a court room, the contrast would have been dramatically highlighted. Furthermore, other aspects of the description indicate that Hamilton was not some labouring navvy with pompous pretensions. Well dressed and working as a commercial traveller, Edward Charles Hamilton might not have been middle class in the grand manner of John Bright and Mr Gladstone, but he was sufficiently respectable for a jury of Cambridge townsmen to feel that he was one of themselves, and hence entitled to protection from the arrogant violence of a privileged student. We have long heard the voices from the legal action of 21 May 1869. Now, for the first time, we can glimpse the images, no doubt still a ghostly scene but one confirms that Parnell was doomed to defeat in his courtroom encounter with the man he had so violently assaulted, and even that he richly deserved to lose.

Taking an even longer view, we may be struck by the strange similarities between Edward Charles Hamilton and Charles Stewart Parnell, whose lives sometimes seemed strangely to intertwine. Hamilton was living in Dublin around 1862 when his daughter was born. In that year, Parnell's mother moved her brood from Dalkey to the heart of the city, taking a house at 14 Upper Temple Street, the address from which he would be admitted to Cambridge three years later. Of course, Dublin was a city of a quarter of a million people, with a further 50,000 living in the suburbs, sufficiently anonymous for the dapper newlywed and the lively teenager to walk the same streets without registering each other's existence. They had similar interests in gadgetry and science, although Parnell tended towards chemistry and metallurgy, while Hamilton specialised in mixing and boiling. In the late eighteen-sixties, Parnell was re-establishing farming at Avondale, and "could talk learnedly about the rearing of pigs, the calving of cows and the top-dressing of land". It is even possible to imagine him engaging in a conversation with Hamilton about artificial manures, although hardly when under the influence of drink in a Cambridge street late on a Saturday night.[31] 

As already argued, it is highly unlikely that Parnell remembered Hamilton, or would have connected any reports of his arrest with the events of 1869. But could Edward Charles Hamilton have remembered Parnell? A commercial traveller needed to establish rapport with customers, and a fund of interesting tales would have been a useful asset to build up trust. As Parnell became an increasingly notorious figure in England, so the story of his victimisation and subsequent revenge would surely have opened doors and loosened order books. Unfortunately, there was really very little reason why Hamilton might have realised that he had tangled with the feared leader of the Home Rule party. While Parnell was not a common surname, it was hardly unknown. During the early years of Charles Stewart Parnell's political career, relatively little biographical information about him appeared in the British press, and there were almost no allusions to his time at Cambridge. Although the new art of lithography enabled newspapers to publish portraits of public figures, in Parnell's case their quality was poor, at least until the mid-eighteen-eighties. In any case, the Parnell of Home Rule days was bearded, whereas he had probably been clean-shaven as an undergraduate.[32] Sad to say, Edward Charles Hamilton may never have realised the notorious identity of his most notable scalp.

Perhaps the oddest overlap between the respective careers of Hamilton and Parnell concerns the Westminster Palace Hotel.[33] Located within a few minutes' walk of the House of Commons, this hotel played an important part in Irish parliamentary politics. and especially in the career of Parnell. It was, as Frank Hugh O'Donnell put it, thanks to relays of reinforcements who had rested "between the sheets of the Westminster Palace Hotel" that the small band of Irish obstructionists were able to hold up parliamentary business for 26 hours on 31 July-1 August 1877.[34] Parnell seems to have moved there around May 1880, probably because his previous lodgings in Bloomsbury were too far from the House of Commons.[35] It was from the Westminster Palace Hotel that Parnell responded to private and public crises, for instance in July 1881 penning a frigid letter to Captain O'Shea refusing his absurd challenge to a duel. On a desperate Sunday morning in May 1882, Parnell retreated to his suite with his closest associates to assimilate the shock of the Phoenix Park murders. "He walked frantically up and down the room, flung himself passionately on the sofa, and petulantly cried out: 'I will leave public life.'" Davitt recalled how politicians, both Home Rulers and at least one English ally, had headed for the Westminster Palace Hotel that morning "to learn if any light could be thrown upon the deed".[36] F our years later, on a "raw, foggy night" in March 1886, it was in Justin McCarthy's room at the hotel that Parnell unveiled the principal provisions of Gladstone's intended Home Rule bill to his closest associates.[37] In June 1888, he used the hotel as the base for negotiations for the support of the South African millionaire politician Cecil Rhodes, who offered a large cheque in exchange for a promise that, under Home Rule, a delegation of Irish MPs would be retained at Westminster so that Irish devolution might become a step towards Imperial Federation.[38] In May 1889, Parnell chose the Westminster Palace Hotel as an appropriate venue to receive a deputation headed by the Lord Mayor of Dublin and representing the Nationalist municipalities of Ireland, who came to congratulate him on the unmasking of the Pigott forgeries.[39] As late as June 1890, his parliamentary party could use the hotel's banqueting facilities to feast their leader's birthday, implicitly rejecting an attack on his private life by the Archbishop of Dublin.[40] Throughout the Split in 1890-1, Parnell "habitually stayed at the Westminster Palace Hotel", using the smoking room for strategy meetings with his supporters. At a crucial meeting in November 1890, he received an Irish Party delegation there, and offered the tactical promise to retire from the leadership if they could secure binding concessions from Gladstone on the content of the next Home Rule bill.[41] On 6 December, Tim Healy and his associates came to the Westminster Palace Hotel formally to notify Parnell that they intended to walk out of the party meeting later that day. The two men exchanged a frosty handshake and parted forever.[42] It is curious in the extreme to realise that, in the midst of all this high political drama, the manure manufacturer who had worsted Parnell in court back in 1869 may have been creeping around the same hotel, seeking overcoats to purloin. Ireland's uncrowned king might easily have become one of his victims.

In 1880, at the height of the Land War, Parnell invoked one of his most striking metaphors in an attempt to reassure the advanced nationalists who feared that the agrarian agitation was a diversion from the struggle to free Ireland from English rule. "I would not have taken off my coat and gone to this work if I had not known that we were laying the foundation in this movement for the regeneration of our legislative independence."[43] By the middle of the eighteen-eighties, Parnell had become so notoriously scruffy that he might have discarded his coat without attracting the interest of any clothing thief. One day in 1884, Frank Hugh O'Donnell was shocked to encounter him in the Strand looking tired and ill, in "a slovenly and well-worn overcoat" which Parnell hastily discarded when O'Donnell carried him off for lunch at a fashionable restaurant. However, lawyers representing the Irish leader before the Special Commission insisted that he acquire a new frock coat to impress the judges. Parnell's widow recalled him "stroking its silk facings with pride".[44] It would have been one of the sweet ironies of History had Edward Charles Hamilton been apprehended striding purposefully out of the Westminster Palace Hotel with Parnell's new coat over his arm – for it would have trailed along the ground had he attempted to wear it.[45] In disparate phases, the lives of Hamilton and Parnell had been oddly interwoven, but they did not meet again after their brief period of interaction in May 1869.


For a full list of material relating to Charles Stewart Parnell on martinalia, see https://www.gedmartin.net/martinalia-mainmenu-3/382-charles-stewart-parnell-on-www-gedmartin-net.

[1] The events of 1 May and the court case of 21 May 1869 were reported in Cambridge Chronicle and Cambridge Independent Press, 22 May 1869. The latter is reprinted in R.F. Foster, Charles Stewart Parnell...  (Hassocks, Sussex, 1976), 320-2. For my previous attempts to describe these events, Magdalene College Magazine and Record, 1969-70, 10-13 and "Parnell at Cambridge: the Education of an Irish Nationalist", Irish Historical Studies, xix (1974), 72-82. For Parnell's rustication, "The departure of Charles Stewart Parnell from Cambridge, 1869"; https://www.gedmartin.net/martinalia-mainmenu-3/380-the-departure-of-charles-stewart-parnell-from-cambridge-1869.

[2] M. Davitt, The Fall of Feudalism… (London, 1904), 107.

[3] The quotation is early Sherlock Holmes, from A Study in Scarlet.

[4] Sootigine, made in Hackney from soot and human excrement, both of which Hackney produced in large amounts, ought to have been a success, but the chemical process to which the raw material was subjected destroyed its nutritive value. "Sootigine: Marketing a Failed Victorian Fertiliser": https://www.gedmartin.net/martinalia-mainmenu-3/270-sootigine. .

[5] The Cambridge Manure Company advertised on a grand scale: I quote from the example in Cambridge Independent Press, 10 June 1865.  It dealt in superphosphate, presumably imported, but manufactured fertilisers from agricultural waste (cornstalks and root crops). Hamilton claimed he was on his way to Cambridge Station "on business" when he encountered Parnell. 

[6] I owe thanks to Gail Wood for census information. Census day was 2 April 1871. The Hamiltons employed one live-in domestic servant, about the norm for a lower middle-class family.

[7] Pigott's Directory of Suffolk, 1839, 539.

[8] Lyons briefly reviewed and dismissed the evidence in his Charles Stewart Parnell (London, 1978 ed., cf. 1st ed. 1977), 627. However, it remains curious that Parnell should have been born on 16 June 1846 but not baptised, at Rathdrum's Protestant church, until 9 August. Fever was rampant in Famine times, and an eight-week delay in so basic a ceremony is hard to understand, but might well be explained by the fact that the family were travelling.

[9] Chelmsford Chronicle, 12 May; Essex Standard, 13 May 1871. Wivenhoe was usually spelt Wyvenhoe in the 19th century.

[10] For Francis John Price and his son: https://www.wivenhoehistory.org.uk/content/topics/streets/bethany-street/prices-house. Frank Cridge Price died at the age of 80 in 1924.

[11] Wivenhoe was located in a relatively shallow estuary, where the working day would have pivoted on the timing of high tides. I have not come across any other reference to the village crier, but no doubt his job was to rouse sailors and quayside workers when high tide was in the middle of the night.

[12] Essex Standard, 2, 23 February 1872.

[13] Essex Standard, 9 August 1873.

[14] Victoria County History of Essex, vii, 25-31, 146.

[15] London Gazette, 27 May, 2607; 8 August 1873, 3736.

[16] Chelmsford Chronicle, 23 May 1873.

[17] Chelmsford Chronicle, 12 August, 4 November 1881.

[18] Post Office Directory for Essex, 1874, 74. Hamilton's address was 8 Camp Villas, Military Road. In the London Gazette the previous year, this had grandiloquently appeared as "Camp House". The fertiliser industry was competitive, and Hamilton was challenging established manufacturers. Joseph Fison's Turnip Manure (as advertised, e.g. in Bury Post, 25 May 1869) was produced at a large factory in Ipswich. "Twenty years' Success has proved the value of this Manure for producing heavy crops of sound healthy roots." The product was made from a mixture of guano (presumably imported) and "dissolved bones". Fisons would go on to become a major pharmaceutical company. 

[19] Hamilton's age was given as 48 (not 45), but this could well be an enumerator's error.

[20] Formal hat-and-coat-check cloakrooms seem to have originated around 1900 in New York, where they were often operated by independent contractors and criticised for profiteering.

[21] Essex Standard, 3 November 1888; Morning Post, 4 January 1889.

[22] In 1889-90, there were 4.433  registered pawnshops in Great Britain. Around one-fifth were in Greater London. A. L. Minkes, "The Decline of Pawnbroking", Economica, n.s., xx (1953), 10-23, esp. 18.  The campaign against the 1881 Stolen Goods bill is described in A. Hardaker, A Brief History of Pawnbroking... (London, 1892).  

[23] The Grosvenor Hotel in Victoria should not be confused with the later Grosvenor House Hotel in Park Lane. The Westminster Palace Hotel is discussed below.

[24] The Times, 28 December 1888; (also Morning Post, same day).

[25] Sheffield Evening Telegraph, 28 December 1888. The Times has an identical report, but omitting one hyphen.

[26] The Times, 28 December 1888; Morning Post, 4, 22 January 1889. Hamilton's decision to hand over a list of hotels and clubs seems an odd move, perhaps intended to imply that he used a nationwide network of pawnbrokers to dispose of stolen goods, and hence diverting suspicion from any criminal gang for whom he may have been stealing to order. Overcoat theft could hardly have been a profitable form of crime.

[27] South Wales Daily News, 26 January 1889.

[28] Manchester Courier, 9 January 1892; Morning Post, 19 May 1899. The Opera Comique was demolished in the early 20th century to make way for the Aldwych urban regeneration project. The Hotel Cecil stood between the Embankment and the Strand, and was later replaced by Shell Mex House.

[29] Hamilton, of course, would have pawned it or sold it on for much less than £5. Some of Hamilton's victims would have been hard hit by the loss of an overcoat. After Michael Davitt's release from prison in 1877, A.M. Sullivan had taken pity on his poverty and gifted him a "top-coat". Healy, Letters and Leaders of My Day, i, 159-60.

[30] E. Byrne (ed. F. Callanan), Parnell: a Memoir (Dublin, 1991), 18. The research into 19th-century male height was published in Oxford Economic Papers by Professor Tim Hatton of the University of Essex in 2013, when it was extensively reported in the media. 'Zozimus', a contributor to the Ballarat Star (19 December 1891) met Parnell during the 1874 by-election and recalled him as "about 5 feet 10 inches [173 cms]  in height, rather slight". I have not yet identified Zozimus, who was a student at the Catholic University at about that time.  

[31] Foster, Charles Stewart Parnell, 82; T.P. O'Connor, Charles Stewart Parnell: a Memory (London, 1891), 22.

[32] A photograph of him aged about 20 does show him bearded, but this probably relates to his brief service as a junior officer in the Wicklow Militia before his Cambridge days.

[33] The Westminster Palace Hotel faced the west front of Westminster Abbey, a few minutes' walk from the Houses of Parliament. Located on a v-shaped corner site, it was an ornate flatiron building containing over 400 rooms. It ceased to be a hotel during the First World War when it was purchased by the National Liberal Club, which had been ousted from its former premises by the War Office. The building was sold and converted into offices in 1922-3, to the considerable profit of shareholders who included Lloyd George. The Victorian building was demolished c. 1974 and replaced by modern bank premises. It is intriguing to speculate how various post-1918 parliamentary intrigues might have played out had there continued to be a hotel large enough to accommodate multiple conspiracies virtually on the doorstep of the House of Commons.

[34] F.H. O'Donnell, A History of the Irish Parliamentary Party... (2 vols, facsimile ed., Port Washington, NY, 1970, cf. 1st ed. 1910), 223-5.

[35] T.M. Healy, Letters and Leaders of My Day (2 vols, London, 1928), i, 93-4. In February 1881, Parnell and his principal parliamentary lieutenants met A.J. Kettle and Michael Davitt at the hotel to discuss a possible national rent strike and withdrawal from the House of Commons if Coercion legislation were introduced. Davitt boldly, but perhaps unwisely, then spent two hours sitting in the strangers' gallery of the House, a provocative move that probably triggered his recall to prison. Davitt, The Fall of Feudalism in Ireland, 302.

[36] R. Barry O'Brien, The Life of Charles Stewart Parnell (2 vols, London, 1898), ii, 167; Davitt, The Fall of Feudalism in Ireland, 357-8.  The American reformer Henry George claimed that he roused Davitt at the Westminster Palace Hotel with the news of the murders. Davitt then awakened Parnell. "There could be no mistaking Mr Parnell's horror and pain." Brisbane Telegraph, 7 June 1889, via the National Library of Australia's Trove online newspaper archive. Healy, Letters and Leaders of My Day, i, 159, recalled the "despair" among them, but portrayed Parnell in a more controlled frame of mind. He had joined the gathering later, after a decision had been taken to issue a manifesto condemning the assassinations.  

[37] W. O'Brien, The Parnell of Real Life (London, 1926), 118-19; Healy, Letters and Leaders of My Day, i, 251.

[38] O'Brien, The Life of Charles Stewart Parnell, ii, 185.

[39] Queenslander (Brisbane), 20 July 1889, via Trove.

[40] Freeman's Journal (Sydney), 9 August 1890, via Trove.

[41] Byrne (ed. F. Callanan), Parnell: a Memoir, 19-20; O'Brien, The Life of Charles Stewart Parnell, ii, 251-2.

[42] Healy, Letters and Leaders of My Day, i, 335-6.

[43] O'Brien, The Life of Charles Stewart Parnell, I, 239-40. The speech was delivered on 24 October at Galway.

[44] F.H. O'Donnell, A History of the Irish Parliamentary Party (2 vols, London, 1910), ii, 173-4; K. O'Shea [Parnell], Charles Stewart Parnell ... (2 vols, London, 1914), ii, 134. In 1887, a visiting Australian politician was surprised to encounter "an ill-dressed, spare, delicate man" instead of the heroic Parnell of political legend. An obituary described Parnell's decline in the later 1880s: "His dress grew slovenly, and the Irish leader delighted to array himself in Cardigan jackets of strange hue and pattern and rough frieze suits that seemed made in a country tailor's shop." W. Murdoch, Alfred Deakin: a Sketch (London, 1923), 106; Illustrated London News, 17 October 1891 in N. Kissane, ed., Parnell: a Documentary History (Dublin, 1991), 110. 

[45] Parnell was unusual in seeing political significance in overcoats. In the House of Commons one afternoon in the late 1880s, he commented to a party colleague: "If the House divides now, the Government will be beaten". Given that there was a substantial Unionist majority, his prediction was queried, but he insisted that there were more opposition MPs than government supporters within the parliamentary precinct.  Asked how he could know this, he replied: "I counted the coats as I came up." It seems that government and opposition MPs were allocated different coat-hanging facilities, probably because cloakrooms gave access to urinals, where political friction was best avoided. In the event, the division was delayed and Lord Salisbury's government secured a narrow majority. O'Brien, The Life of Charles Stewart Parnell, ii, 180-1.