Dr O’Brien’s Arrest

It could happen to anybody.

There you are, walking through the streets of London, full of the joys of spring, when, all of a sudden, up comes a plainclothes policeman, puts an accusatory hand upon your broad shoulder, accuses you of being an international terrorist; and, without a by your leave, marches you off to Scotland Yard, totally oblivious to your cries of innocence and howls of indignant protest.

Yes, it could happen to anyone.


It did, in fact, happen to Dr. H. O’Brien – a respectable East End physician who, on Tuesday, May 22nd, 1889, was walking nonchalantly through the streets of Clerkenwell, when he attracted the eagle-eyes of Detectives Foley and Macauley, of the Metropolitan Police headquarters at the aforementioned Scotland Yard.


Now, in fairness to the two intrepid detectives, the newspapers of the previous week had been full of reports that members of the Clan na Gael, an Irish republican organization based in the United States, were planning fresh outrages in London, and the Metropolitan Police’s Special Branch, under the command of Chief Inspector John Littlechild, was on the hunt for suspected members of the movement who may have come to London with the intention of carrying out the feared campaign of terror.

So, the fact that Dr. H. O’Brien was a) Irish and b) bore a passing resemblance to an alleged member of the organisation, Mr. McInerney, meant that, as he made his way through the streets of Clerkenwell on that Tuesday afternoon, officers Foley and Macauley took an interest in him.


The Leeds Mercury reported what occurred on Tuesday, 29th May, 1888:-

“Some sensation was caused yesterday by the announcement of the arrest of Dr. H. J. O’Brien a medical man with a considerable practice, residing at 46, East India Road, London, in connection with the extreme Irish Nationalist party.


A representative of the Press Association had an interview with Dr. O’Brien last night at his private residence, and was furnished with the following statement of what actually occurred on Tuesday last.

Dr. O’Brien was walking through Clerkenwell-road on his way to Harley-street to consult a brother medical practitioner, when he was suddenly tapped on the shoulder and confronted by two men, who afterwards proved to be Detectives Foley and Macauley, of Scotland-yard.


Foley said, “You are Mr. McInerney, I presume,” Mr. McInerney being a well-known character in connection with the Clan-na-Gael.

Dr. O’Brien replied that he was not McInerney, and that they had made a great mistake.

Foley then said, “We are police officers. You must go with us to Scotland-yard.”

Dr. O’Brien remonstrated against such a proceeding, but said that if it was the law he must go.

He, however, suggested that in order to establish his identity they had better take him to his solicitors, in Theobald’s-road, which was close to the place where he had been accosted.

He also said his identity could easily be proved by a score of tradesmen in Theobald’s-road, as he had been in practice there.


But Foley said, “You must go to Scotland-yard,” and they started to walk in that direction.

Dr. O’Brien, however, requested them to hail a cab, and they drove to Sotland-yard, where he was brought before inspector Littlechild.

He again entered a protest against his arrest, and produced several private letters, and he asked the police to read them.


Inspector Littlechild, after examining the documents, apologised for what had occurred, and asked if he could do anything by way of paying any expenses he had incurred by reason of loss of time, &c., and whether he could do anything to settle the matter.

Dr. O’Brien indignantly refused to accept anything, and was then shown out of the premises.

A portrait of Detective Jon Littlechild.
John Littlechild. From The Sketch, 21st June, 1893. Copyright, The British Library Board.


Next morning Inspector Littlechild called at the residence of Dr. O’Brien, repeated his apologies, and said, “I am very sorry for this fearful mistake of our men,” and added, “if £5 would recompense you for your trouble we are willing to give it you.”

Dr. O’Brien said that he declined to have his mouth stopped in that way, and Inspector Littlechild, after remaining two hours, left.


Dr. O’Brien, who is the son of an Irish magistrate now deceased, says he is willing for his whole career to be inquired into, and that the most that can be brought against him is that he is a Liberal and a Radical.

It was stated in Scotland-yard that action at law had been taken against the police by Dr. O’Brien.

That gentleman. however, says that he is still hesitating as to what course he shall pursue.”


Several notorious wrongful arrest cases – such as those of Miss Cass and Police Constable Bloy – had led to a great deal of press criticism of the Metropolitan Police throughout the latter half of 1887 and the first half of 1888, so this latest news that a respectable doctor had now fallen victim to what some newspapers were portraying as a massive institutional failing inherent in the force, was seized upon by the radical press as yet another  example of police incompetence.


However, several newspapers leapt to the defence of the force, amongst them The Nottingham Evening Post, which, on Tuesday, 29th May, 1888, published the following article:-

“What action Dr. H. J. O’Brien, who was arrested by detectives in mistake for the notorious Mclnerney, may take in vindication his honour we do not of course know, but, if he be wise, he will be content with the ample apology tendered.

The officers no doubt acted in a stupid manner, and well deserve the official wigging which they will no doubt receive, but the whole affair was manifestly a mistake, and if Dr. O’Brien does not care for pecuniary compensation, it will be best for him to accept the apology and agree to regard the occurrence in that light.

We all know that mistakes to identity occasionally happen even amongst persons who might be supposed to know each other “by sight” as the phrase goes, and the risk of error is increased when a detective has to deal with men who are personally unknown to him.”


However, The Shields Daily Gazette, in an article it published on Tuesday, 29th May, 1888,  smelt a rather large rat in relation to the information that was being fed to the press concerning the new Fenian threat and the arrest of Dr. O’Brien.

Indeed, as they saw it, Scotland Yard was engaged in a massive campaign of misinformation in order to create an Irish scare in England, and Dr O’Brien had, inadvertently, got caught up in the machinations of the Metropolitan Police’s attempts to foster fear:-


“…Detectives from Scotland Yard are engaged in arresting, as dangerous conspirators, quiet medical men who are on their way to consultation with their colleagues.

Dr H. G. O’Brien, whose home and practice lie in the East End of London, but who had business as far west as Clerkenwell, seems to have been arrested under the impression that his name was Mclnerney, and that he belonged to the Clan-na-Gael.


The Clan-na-Gael is a mysterious order which may or may not be very powerful among the Irish in America, but which is credited with originating all the desperate designs against England – when, that is to say, it is not thought necessary for political reasons to credit those designs to Mr Parnell and the Irish party in Parliament.


Mr Mclnerney is, we suppose, the Dr Mclnerney, who recently came over from America to unveil a monument to Allan, Larkin, and O’Brien, in the Glasnevin Cemetery.

How dangerous the Clan-na-Gael may be there are no means of ascertaining with any degree of certainty.

It has undoubtedly got a bad name, and it may, for all that is known to the contrary, thoroughly deserve it.

Our information as to Dr. Mclnerney is less vague.

He is an Irishman of the irreconcilable sort, of whom there are many in America.

He is one of the bogies which are dangled by the Unionists to frighten us out of confidence in the benefits that would result from Home Rule.

Mr Mclnerney is, in fact, one of those whom Home Rule will not satisfy, and who will sink into very minor consequence when Home Rule is granted.

Hitherto, however, there has been no hint that he is connected with desperate designs.

He was permitted to visit Dublin, and to leave that city, without molestation.

The arrest of Dr. O’Brien under his name indicates that the police might not now be indisposed to prevent his departure if the visit should happen to be repeated.


A short time back some remarkable disclosures were made as to the operations of the Clan-na-Gael.

They were supposed to come from Scotland Yard.

It was alleged that the heads of the Metropolitan Police Department wished certain things to be widely known, and therefore sought the publicity of the press.

It was said that, disappointed at the failure of the recent dynamite plot and the capture of its agents, the Clan-na-Gael had lately promoted new schemes of outrage, hoping again to attract the subscriptions of the discontented contributors, as well as to clear the leaders from accusations of having embezzled a large proportion of the funds entrusted to them.


As the authorities had reason to fear that these fresh plots would be directed to a repetition of the Phoenix Park tragedy, they took measures to watch the movements of certain Irishmen who escaped to America after the murder of Lord F. Cavendish; and one of these had been traced to an obscure hotel in Paris, where he had been lodging under a false name.

This man, it is said, was denounced by Carey as one of the chief promoters of the Phoenix Park murders.

He had always advocated schemes of assassination, and there was no reasonable doubt that his mission to Europe was connected with some desperate plot.


There need be little hesitation in connecting the arrest of Dr O’Brien with these “revelations.”

Mistaking him for another person, the police marched him off to Scotland Yard on account of these “desperate plots.”

There is something exceedingly suspicious in the communication to the press of such particulars as those which we have set down.

In a general way, drawing information from Scotland Yard is like drawing blood.

What, then, could be the motive in this?

The arrest of suspected persons was not at all likely to be furthered by giving publicity to their schemes.

The usual method of police procedure is to keep things as quiet as possible until arrests can be made.

When the “revelations” were published ten or twelve days ago, they were seriously puzzling, as a new departure in police tactics.


It was, not altogether unreasonably, suspected that the police might desire to create a scare.

The arrest of Dr. O’Brien certainly strengthens that suspicion.

If the police knew so much as the alleged “authorised” information indicated, they must have been much too sure of their men to fall into such an error as the arrest of Dr. O’Brien.

But did they know anything; and if they did not, how are we to account for the issue of alarmist intelligence from Scotland Yard. How, indeed, are we to account for it in any case?

We shall be very slow to believe that the police arrangements are being used to stimulate passion against the Irish people in the interest of the party which opposes Home Rule, but for the present, some late events are incomprehensible on any other supposition.

We have recently seen how the Irish police are in the habit of reporting accidents as outrages. This cannot be either justified or excused.

We shall, however, expect to see Scotland Yard clear itself from the suspicion that it has been a party to the creation of an Irish scare.”


Surprisingly, the Gazette’s, suspicions were not more widely reported, even by the more radical newspapers, and not much was made of Dr O’Brien’s arrest in Parliament.

Member of Parliament, Sydney Buxton, raised the issue during questions to the Home Secretary, Sir Henry Matthews, and their exchange was reported by Freeman’s Journal, on Saturday, 9th June, 1888:-

“Mr. Sydney Buxton asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department what explanation he could give of the unwarranted arrest in Clerkenwell Road of Dr O’Brien, of 96 East India Road, Poplar, on Tuesday, 21st May, and why Dr. O’Brien was not allowed to prove his identity by an application to his solicitor in Theobald’s Road, and to other residents in the neighbourhood, instead of being taken to Scotland Yard.

The Home Secretary (Henry Matthews) stated that the arrest of  Dr O’Brien. by a police constable was through a mistake as to identity. Dr. O’BrIen was, however, only detained a few minutes in Scotland-yard.”