Tom ECCLES’ Last Robbery
11 Aug. 1899 Tyrone Constitution
Article written by W. T. LATIMER, B.A.
About 3 miles from Omagh stands a comfortable farm house, built in a style of architecture that prevailed one hundred and fifty years ago. It is, in fact, a long thatch-covered cottage, one story high, but there are substantial modern office-houses behind it. The occupier farms a large freehold property of his own and everything has the appearance of comfort, respectability and wealth. This place has been the property of the ‘X’ family, for more than 200 years. In 1790, it was possessed by the grandfather of the present owner and it is concerning a terrible experience of his, that crave the attention of your readers. The whole narrative is strictly true, even to the most minute details.
On a fine dark evening in the winter of 1790-1, Mr. ‘X’, with his wife and his father, sat in the parlour, evidently expecting company. A square mahogany table stood in the centre of the room and on this table, were two large brass candlesticks, each holding a mould candle, which, every now and again, had to be snuffed with an instrument, that I am sure, but few of your younger readers could use properly.
Mr. and Mrs. ‘X’ had been married some years, but all their children were then dead. Mr. ‘X’s’ father had retired from business and lived in a cottage about 350 yards from where his son resided. That evening he had walked over to drink a cup of his daughter-in-law’s tea and to meet her sister and her sister’s son, Mr. Matthew R—. But the expected visitors failed to keep their appointment. After waiting some time, Mrs. ‘X’ had the tea served and soon afterwards the old man left for his own house.
Mr. ‘X’ accompanied his father to the door and then turned into the kitchen to talk with his servant man. His workers generally lived in cottages of their own; only two, a girl and a boy resided in the house. A month previously the boy’s brother had come to the place and offered to work in his stead for a few weeks. This exchange had been duly carried out. The stranger was now gone and the hired man back at his work. This servant was regarded by his master as honest, and faithful, although, he was a brother-in-law of Tom ECCLES; ‘whom people suspected of being a highway robber.’ When Mr. ‘X’ entered the kitchen, there was a good fire blazing on the open hearth and he sat down to give some necessary orders. After he had explained what he wanted done, the servant remarked, “I’ll tell you what, master, when I a’wos on the hill, above the lough in the evenin’, ah’ seen two men walkin’ through the scrog at the lough bog.”
They were likely gathering briars for scollops, remarked Mr. ‘X’, but before the man could reply, a sharp knock was heard at the hall door. Mrs. ‘X’, who had followed her husband to the kitchen, said, “I suppose that’s Mat and his mother” and ran herself. to receive them. It was now 9 o’clock and wondering what had detained her supposed visitors, she said, as she opened the hall door, “Mat, dear, what kept you?” The words were hardly out of her mouth, when a number of men, with blackened faces, rushed past her into the kitchen. Her husband, hearing the noise, looked round and seeing the gang rushing in from the hall, seized one of his guns, which were resting on pins stuck in the kitchen brace, but before he could turn round to fire, the robbers, with the stocks of their guns, knocked him to the ground. At the same time, the servant man was overpowered and both were securely tied with cords, which one of the robbers pulled from his pocket. A search was then made for the mistress and the maid, who had both disappeared. After some time, the girl was found sitting on the top of a wall in her own room, which was not built up quite as high, as the roof. She was also tied, but nowhere could the mistress be found. Every room was searched, every press and closet ransacked, every chimney closely examined, still, she could not be discovered.
All the gang had their faces blackened, except their leader, the redoubtable ECCLES himself. He had a black handkerchief tied over his face. Hitherto, he had stood in the kitchen watching his prisoners, while the others ransacked the house. When finally, they returned unsuccessful, he cursed their stupidity, seized a candle and began to search himself. Room after room. he examined minutely, but without success. A sleeping apartment occupied a good deal of his attention. He examined the bed, he looked under it, he opened a clothes-press, but his search was unsuccessful. The bed was covered with a canopy and was curtained all round. Curtains hung down in front, which could be pulled aside and fastened to the posts and behind there, was another curtain, hanging down from the canopy, covering the wall, against which the side of the bed was tightly pressed. ECCLES again examined the bed. It struck him at last that the curtain, which covered the wall did not lie into it, so closely as it ought; he pulled it up and found Mrs. ‘X’ lying stretched on the far ‘stock’ of the bed. She did not scream, nor was she overcome by fright. The idea just then entered her mind that one day she would see this robber in the dock and her whole attention was given to mark his appearance, for the purpose of future identification.
Fortune was favourable to her intention. ECCLES held the candle in one hand and with the other he dragged her across the bed. She clasped him by the wrist and measured its thickness by meeting her finger and thumb. In this struggle the handkerchief fell off his face and she got a good look at his features, which remained firmly planted in her memory. ECCLES dragged her down to the kitchen and then handed her over to some of his men to be tied with the others. Now there was the reaction, from the great effort to keep cool. Feeling weak at heart and almost fainting, she asked the man, who tied her arms, to give her a drink of water. This they refused, but ECCLES, immediately, with a voice of authority, cursed his followers to “give the woman a drink in her own house”, and his orders were obeyed.
Then the gang, thinking their captives secure, proceeded to examine the contents of the house. But before they began to appropriate the plunder, they determined to refresh themselves after their journey. They drank all the whiskey that they found, but Mr. ‘X’ was exceedingly temperate and there was not enough in store, to make them all drunk. They found, however, plenty of bread and butter and honey. The honey seemed to have a peculiar attraction for them, as they ate so much of it, that their stomachs were unable to bear the burden.
Then they began to search everywhere for a large sum of money, which they knew that Mr. ‘X’ had received a few weeks previously, but which, very fortunately, he had already lent out to a neighbouring landlord at 6 percent interest. The money, of course, could not be found. There were then, only 24£ sterling in the house and ECCLES was greatly disappointed. He ordered Mr. ‘X’ to tell him where he had hid his money. Refusing to believe that it had been lately invested, he declared that he would soon adopt a plan which would cause it to be produced. Getting a large iron griddle, he put it on the fire until red hot. Then he declared that if he was not informed of the secret corner in which the money was hidden, he would roast its owner alive on that terrible instrument of torture. Still Mr. ‘X’ declared that they had got every penny that he possessed at present.
At last ECCLES said he would stand this nonsense no longer. He caught his captive by the shoulders and two of his followers caught him by the legs. They lifted him up and held him over the griddle. Every instant the victim of this cruelty expected to be set down on the burning instrument of torture. Then he raised his thoughts in silent prayer to God for deliverance and as a result, he felt assured that he would escape unharmed from the danger. At last ECCLES said “Throw him on the floor and I’ll try another plan.” This order was at once obeyed and the leader of the gang went to the parlour to search for something. Expecting some other form of torture, Mr. ‘X’ looked round with terrible anxiety. Soon ECCLES reappeared with the family Bible under his arm.
“I know” he said, “you are a Meetin’ man and I expect you would not swear a lie. You have your choice now, if you don’t swear that we have got all the money in, or about the house, you’ll roast on the griddle.”
Then he cursed a terrible oath that he meant what he said and would do what he threatened. But Mr. ‘X’ readily took the oath, the griddle was removed and the captives all placed together on the floor, while the robbers again, commenced their work of plunder. Finding in the attic several empty meal-sacks, they filled these with everything valuable which could be packed inside, silver plate, wearing garments, and even the clothes of Mrs. ‘X’s’ deceased child, the last of her children that died. The loss of these, she declared, she regretted more than anything else.
Some of the most valuable articles were divided among the gang. The door from the kitchen into the hall, and from the hall into the parlour being open, a part of the conversation could be heard by the prisoners. One of the robbers remarked, “Tom must get the watch.” Then the voice of ECCLES was heard in reply. “That’s Tom ECCLES’S voice”, said the servant man. “I could swear it anywhere.
“Hold your tongue,” said Mr. ‘X’. If they think we know them, they will certainly kill us, every one.” But it was with the greatest difficulty he could prevent the servant making these and other remarks, calculated to endanger their lives. I have already indicated that this servant was not blamed for any complicity in the robbery, although it is thought that his brother was a guide to the gang.
At last everything valuable had been secured and packed in the sacks. Three horses were taken out of the stables and a sack thrown over the back of each. One of the robbers arrayed himself in Mrs. ‘X’s’ bonnet and cloak and seated himself on the top of one of these. He went in front, the others came straggling behind.
Meanwhile the inmates of the plundered house lay securely bound. Their legs were tied together and their hands were fastened behind their backs. In this position they were, of course, unable to rise and it seemed impossible that any one of them could liberate the others. At last a happy thought struck Mrs. ‘X’ and she said, to her husband, “Try to roll yourself along the floor to where I am and I’ll endeavour to cut, with my teeth, the string fastening your hands.” With some trouble he succeeded in placing himself beside her. Luckily the string by which his hands were tied was fastened with a slip knot and she had only to pull the end in order to loose it. In a moment he was free and soon the others were free also.
Mr. ‘X’ was a brave man and he determined to follow the robbers. He knew it was the gang of ECCLES, by whom the deed was done and that they would march towards the Pomeroy mountains. There were neighbours who lived near. These readily accompanied him, and thus he was enabled to start very soon with a few determined companions. As they went onwards in pursuit they got their other friends, who lived in the houses they passed, to join them. Soon they were sufficiently numerous to give battle to the robbers.
When they reached the village of ‘B’, they were joined by more of their friends and they obtained valuable information. About 2 hours previously a loud knock had been heard at the door of Mr. Samuel KING. The servant maid who was then in the sink washing her feet, got up quickly to admit the persons who knocked. But her master shouted “Don’t open”, and she drew back. Then the door was again struck 3 or 4 violent blows, as if by the stocks of guns, but it remained firm and the party went off. Likely they thought that it would not be safe to make a violent attack when other houses of the village were so near. Evidently, this took place as the gang were on their way to Mr. ‘X’s’ house. Their pursuers were also informed by a woman that she had only ‘reeled’ two perrons of yarn, since she saw some people passing through the village towards the bridge. One of them on horseback, wore a cloak and bonnet and the woman imagined that it was a midwife riding on a pillion, going to Mr. RODGER’S residence, on Drumnamalragh Hill, as it was known that a woman, who followed the profession in question, had been sent for some hours previously.
I may here remark that the baby, who that night came into the world, was a lineal descendant of John KNOX and was afterwards distinguished as a poetess, Miss Vincentia RODGERS.
Only a minute or two were wasted by the pursuing party in ‘B’, gathering the information they obtained. The knowledge that they were so close to the robbers made them redouble their exertions. They passed rapidly up Drumnamalragh hill, crowned by a fine building, then known as ‘The pride of Peggy WELSH.’ They had now left the broad road and were on a narrow ‘bridle path’ that went through woods, where at any moment they might be assailed by the robbers in ambuscade. But they examined the priming of their guns, they pulled them up to full cock and they pushed along the narrow road in Indian file. Another mile brought them into a region of dark glens and still darker woods. At last they met a very steep hill, but they pressed on. When they arrived breathless at the top, they thought they could hear noises of a party descending the other side.
They again started off in pursuit and on turning a corner at the foot of the hill, they found their 3 horses, just shaking themselves after being released of their loads. This was in one way, a terrible disappointment to Mr. ‘X’ and his party, whose blood was hot for battle and who wished to recover the plunder. But now they were completely baffled. They searched all the glens and scrogs around, but could discover no traces of the robbers, or their sacks of booty; accordingly, they were reluctantly compelled to return.
When the authorities heard of the robbery, they at once took the steps necessary to secure ECCLES. A warrant was issued for his apprehension, soldiers were sent to execute it and Mr. ‘X’ had to accompany them. As he put on his overcoat, he chanced to thrust his hand in the outside pocket and he found there a sixpence. This was a serious trouble for some time to his conscience, as he had sworn to the robbers that they had got all the money which he had then, in the house. Such a matter would not trouble many consciences now. Mr. ‘X’ set out with the soldiers; there were then no police; and after a ride of 20 miles, arrived at the place where ECCLES resided. But he was nowhere to be found and all his neighbours professed the utmost ignorance of his movements. At last they entered a cottage, even more miserable than the others of the neighbourhood and found the only occupant to be a woman, who sat on a bed of rushes, over which, was thrown a single quilt. They ordered her to get up, but she refused. Then the soldiers dragged her off and underneath the quilt was one of Mr. ‘X’s’ coats, ripped out and ready to be made up anew. They immediately arrested the woman and brought her before Mr. LOWRY, the nearest magistrate. She admitted her connection with ECCLES and the fact that he was a leader of the gang who robbed Mr. ‘X’. Besides, she gave information regarding his hiding places. As she was then in delicate health, she was dismissed on promising to repeat her information when required.
On several other occasions Mr. ‘X’ had to accompany the cavalry on their search for ECCLES. One day they succeeded in getting a sight of him, as they passed round the foot of a mountain. But the robber immediately ran into rough ground, where the cavalry were unable to follow. Some of the party ran after him on foot, but he soon left all behind, except a young man named DENNY, who pressed the robber closely. They ran round the foot of the mountain, over ditches, through brambles, across swamps, but still DENNY gained ground. At last, ECCLES stopped short, presented a pistol and shouted out “Stop, or I’ll fire.” DENNY stood and pulling out his pistol, he and ECCLES discharged their weapons at the same time, but neither shot took effect. ECCLES set off once more and DENNY followed. For nearly 3 miles this race was run and several times, shots were exchanged, but at last, the fugitive disappeared mysteriously. All trace of him was lost and the party had to return home unsuccessful
These repeated journeys were distasteful to Mr. ‘X’, as he had no vindictive feelings to gratify, in wishing for the punishment of ECCLES and he was tired of hunting so often among the mountains, far from home and surrounded by dangers. But the authorities compelled him to continue the pursuit.
One day Mr. ‘X’ was passing through the village of Seskinore on his way to ECCLES’S mountain fastness. He there heard that a farm of exceedingly good land was to be auctioned in that neighbourhood. Partly through curiosity, he went to the sale. There were few bidders and he was himself declared the purchaser, at a sum that did not represent half its value. This bargain turned out so well, that in after life Mr. ‘X’ often remarked that his robbery was the most fortunate circumstance in his life.
Another day Mr. ‘X’ and the cavalry were accompanied by a young man named Samuel EARLY, a celebrated athlete, who happened to notice a dog entering a cave. He followed and after him came the soldiers. Inside, they found a woman, who denied that there was any person hiding there. But the dog went on to an inner cave. EARLY followed and there he found ECCLES, who seemed to be stricken with fear and did not offer any resistance to his arrest. Another account is to the effect that EARLY caught ECCLES on Pomeroy street.
It is said that after he was lodged in jail, he kept up his spirits wonderfully well, as he did not think he would be convicted and even if convicted, imagined that he would not be hanged, as he relied upon some mysterious influence that he had with persons in high authority. Many, indeed, believed that a certain gentleman, in consequence of a valuable consideration, had connived at his robberies in the past and was now ready to act as his intercessor.
ECCLES was brought to trial in April 1791. The chief witness against him was Mrs. ‘X’. She was brought into jail and confronted with a number of prisoners, who were placed before her in a row, with blankets thrown round them. Before she went into the room, a son of the jailor whispered in her ear, “ECCLES is the second man of the row on the side next to you.” To this she replied, “I don’t thank you for your information and will rely upon my own judgment.”
When confronted with the prisoners Mrs. ‘X’ said that ECCLES was not dressed in this manner when he came to visit her and she declined to point him out except the blankets were removed. This was done. Then she went round them all, looked intently into the face of each one and besides, measured the thickness of the wrist. When she came to the last but one of the row, she said, “This is the hand that pulled me from behind my bed.”
It is to be noted that ECCLES, instead of being the second of the row, was the last all, but one, proving plainly, that the jailor’s son had been bribed to lead Mrs. ‘X’ astray.
ECCLES was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged, as reported in the Belfast Newsletter of 26th April 1791. But ECCLES had no idea that the sentence would be carried out, he relied upon a powerful intercessor. One day Mr. ‘X’, accompanied by a friend, was passing up the street quite close to the jail. ECCLES, standing at one of the iron-studded windows, shouted out, “I say, Billy, could you give me a chew’ of tobacco?” And then he made some wild threats of what he would do when liberated. A report of this language was carried to a nobleman who resided in the neighbourhood and he gave the Irish Government warning of how dangerous it would be to suffer ECCLES to escape. Accordingly, instead of a commutation of his sentence, a warrant arrived for his execution. When ECCLES heard his fate, he complained bitterly. Had he been hanged last year for robbing M’FARLAND, it would have been a respectable business, but to be hanged for Billy ‘X’s’ miserable £24, was beneath the dignity of any respectable highwayman.
At length the fatal morning arrived. No police force then existed and the turnkeys were not numerous enough to guard the culprit to the place of execution. But the officials asked their friends to assist them and succeeded in raising a force strong enough to protect the hangman and prevent any attempt from being made to rescue the culprit. Then the procession went from the jail to the “Gallows hill,” and ECCLES paid the last penalty of the law, meeting his fate with courage and resignation.
29 June 1912 Strabane Chronicle
Exploits of Tom ECCLES, Highwayman
Now that the days of the professional highwayman are gone, it is interesting to recall some of the daring deeds for which such men were noted. The hero of the following story is the once famous Tom ECCLES, to whom reference was made last week in an article on “Old Omagh,” by R.C.
The scene was a house on the hill through which the railway now runs, opposite the entrance gate to Col. BUCHANAN’S, Edenfel. The occupier of the house was a Mr. HARVEY, surveyor, and on a certain evening in the year 1834 <sic>, he went to ceilidh to a neighbour’s house, Dick HANDCOCK’S, leaving behind him his housekeeper, and a Betty KERR.
Dick HANDCOCK lived where Mr. AUCHINLECK’S garden now is, on the roadside, as the old Dublin road was changed to make room for the site of Mr. AUCHINLECK’S house, and brought round by the bottom of the hill. There were several houses along that old road, which went up to the old “Causeway”, through which Col. BUCHANAN’S farmyard is now, and over “Neck Break Brae”, famous for its echo, past the “Whistling Bush” and the asylum, on opposite side of the river. The road is still shown on the old ordnance map and the site of about fifteen houses, which have since disappeared, but which I distinctly remember. The district was therefore more thickly populated than now, but this did not daunt Tom ECCLES, who made his appearance about 7 o’clock on a winter evening, accompanied by six other men. They began by first tying together the two women left by HARVEY in the house and they then threw them into a bed that was in the kitchen, telling them to keep quiet, or they would “settle” them. This was, however, the only ill-usage the women received at their hands. Two of the men guarded the door, two watched outside, as the women heard them speaking, whilst ECCLES and two others searched the house. They got £20 cash, a gold watch, a gun, a side of bacon, and they took these with them and all the bread they got. Mr. HARVEY returned about 8 o’clock and found the two women tied, but the robbers had disappeared by that time. An alarm was then raised and all the available men in the neighbourhood turned out, more than 50, armed with guns and pitchforks, to surround and catch the robbers if possible. They searched three townlands, but could get no trace of them. In the meantime, the robbers just went up the Aughagallon road, about half a mile from the scene of the robbery and stopped where Mr. J. HARVEY lives now, the owner then, being a journeyman weaver, from Fermanagh, whom Tom knew. There they cooked some of the bacon they had stolen and made themselves comfortable, whilst all the people living in the neighbourhood were looking for them.
They managed to get away before day, the next morning, without being seen.
Tom ECCLES was afterwards taken prisoner for robbery, tried and convicted. The principal witness against him was a woman whom he had tied, as in the incident related above. She was able to pick him out of a crowd of men and her means of identification was the thickness of his wrist, which she had noticed when he was tying her. He was a very big man, as those who had seen him often told about his size and strength. For this last offence he was detained in Enniskillen jail, awaiting his trial and he was afterwards hanged. Before his execution he made a full confession of all his exploits. As a result of this, Mr. HARVEY recovered the watch and gun, stolen from him years before.
by B. M’B. of Mullaghmore.
Transcribed & compiled by Teena