The county Assizes, held at Gloucester in March 1765, were said to have had one of the fullest calendars ever known in the city. At the end of all the trials, nine prisoners had received sentence of death, but five of them were reprieved, leaving four unlucky men to be executed.
John Conroy, who had been a grenadier in the English Fusiliers, was condemned for committing highway robbery, having attacked a man named Morgan Thomas on the highway near Shirehampton, robbing him of his money and then stabbing him in the head several times with a clasp knife. Thomas survived the attack and was able to give a description of his assailant as being very tall and having an Irish accent. John Conroy was quickly identified as being the culprit.
Two more of the condemned men were from Ireland. William O’Brien, alias Howard, and James Wall, also known as Bryan Birchagra, were found guilty of stealing money and a pair of silver and stone buckles from the Ostrich Tavern at Durdham Down, on the outskirts of Bristol. They had been committed to Gloucester Gaol for this offence in November 1764, and also were examined by Sir John Fielding, the Middlesex magistrate, concerning two burglaries in that county. There was a fourth charge against them of stealing money and other items from a dwelling house in Bath, Somerset.
The last condemned prisoner was Richard Holmes, who had been brought into Gloucester Gaol in September 1764, on suspicion of housebreaking and stealing sundry items, including clothes, a silver stock buckle and a pair of silver knee buckles from several properties in the Mitcheldean area. At his trial, Holmes was found guilty on three indictments.
The executions of the four men were scheduled to take place on Friday, 12 April 1765. In the meantime, the prisoners were held in chains in the condemned cell at Gloucester Castle, which at that time served as the county gaol. On the Sunday evening before they were due to be hanged, the men started to work on freeing themselves from their chains, using a spring saw which somehow they had got hold of. In order to mask the noise, three of them loudly sang psalms while the other one sawed at the irons. Conroy and Holmes freed themselves first, then separated O’Brien and Wall, who had been chained together. However, before they could get the latter pair’s leg irons off, the saw broke.
Undeterred from carrying on with their plan, they called out to the person who was guarding the door to their cell, saying that one of them needed to be let out to relieve himself. When the guard opened the door, they jumped on him and knocked him down. Making their way to the gate, they beat and knocked down the turnkey there, taking his key and locking the gate behind them.
Perhaps because two of them were still wearing leg irons, the prisoners only got to Llanthony Causeway, about a quarter of a mile away from the gaol, before they were recaptured. It was said that the four had made a pact that they would all share the same fate, and so Conroy and Holmes had declined to leave their companions behind. Their bid for freedom came to an end when a gentleman who was out shooting in the area pointed his gun at them and ordered them to surrender.
Back at the Castle, the four men behaved in a disorderly manner at first, but as the day of their executions fast approached, they became more serious. On Friday, 12 April, they were conveyed to Over to be hanged. O’Brien and Wall dressed well for the occasion and prayed with great fervour, but put off giving the signal that they were ready to die until the last possible moment.
Gloucestershire Archives, County Quarter Sessions, Gloucester County Gaol Calendars, (Q/SG1, Epiphany 1765)
Gloucester Journal, 25 March, 8 April 1765
Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, 28 March, 18 April 1765 (accessed 15/05/2019 on www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk)