Murder at Solihull 1880

On the afternoon of Sunday 5th December 1880, John Gateley, a 25-year-old unmarried cowman employed at a Stechford farm, was fatally shot whilst in the yard at the back of the Gardeners’ Arms, High Street, Solihull.

He was originally from Dysart, County Roscommon, Ireland but had lived in England for about five years. He had been employed for two years at the Stud Farm, Stechford by Mr Walter Graham, a well-known horse-breeder, and was described as inoffensive and bearing an excellent character.

The case made newspapers across the whole of the UK, with many reports of the case saying that it became more mysterious as it was investigated further, and the police were baffled.

5th December 1880

The timeline of the events seem to be fairly straightforward. John Gateley, who normally attended mass in Birmingham, set off at 9am on Sunday 5th December 1880, apparently to attend mass at St Augustine’s Church, Solihull and also stating that he had an appointment with another labourer.

He arrived in Solihull at 1pm, having missed mass, and entered the Gardeners’ Arms on Solihull High Street in the company of three or four other Irishmen who were all said to be strangers in the district. There were about 20 people in the pub, which was apparently the “acknowledged Irish house.”

After about an hour, Gateley was asked by one of the men to go out into the yard, and several men went outside together. One of the men then produced a pistol and shot Gateley in the abdomen. Gateley’s waistcoat was subsequently found to be singed, suggested that the muzzle of the pistol had been placed very close to his body.

The explosion was heard in the pub by the waiter, John Johnson, and a servant, Phoebe Atkins. She ran into the yard and saw a man with a pistol standing by the stable door. Gateley was clutching his stomach. He then fell to the floor, saying “I am done for” and asking for the doctor to be called.

Gateley was picked up and conveyed into the tap room, where Mr Edward Page, surgeon, and Canon O’Sullivan from St Augustine’s Church attended him.

The supposed murderer walked back through the beerhouse stating to the landlord, James Bridges, that there had been an accident. No attempt was made to detain or follow him, and the other men left via the back yard.

Solihull had only two police constables at the time and an unsuccessful attempt was made to contact Superintendent Yardley. As the telegraph office was closed, there was no means of contacting the county constabulary and the strangers were allowed to get clean away.

It was described as unbelievable that the murderer had been able to get away, given that there was no train from Solihull for another hour or two. It was supposed that he had a vehicle waiting to convey him to Birmingham.

Gateley was taken to the workhouse infirmary, where he was attended by three surgeons and the local Catholic priest, Canon O’Sullivan. His case was considered hopeless from the start and he died at about 5.30pm on the following day, Monday 6th December 1880. He stated that he did not know the name of his assassin. A coroner’s inquest was held and the jury apparently returned an open verdict.


The suspected murderer was described as being of about 35-40 years of age, about 5ft 6in tall, of fresh complexion, with light sandy whiskers. He was dressed in a long dark (grey or black) Ulster coat with black leather leggings, strong lace-up boots and a hard billycock hat. He spoke with an Irish accent and great stress was placed on the fact that he and his two or three companions had the appearance of townsmen.

Subsequent investigations showed that the murderer was unaccompanied and that his supposed companions were fellow workers of the deceased – two men who were also employed as cowmen on Mr Graham’s farm.

The newspapers said it was rumoured that the crime was deliberately planned and that the motive was revenge. It was alleged that the deceased was a member of the Land League and had collected for the Parnell Fund, although this was not generally believed. The victim stated before his death that he was not connected with any secret society and that he did not know of having any enemies in the world.

The local police were assisted by Inspectors Hall and Carbis of the Warwickshire constabulary, and some light was thrown on the situation when a search of the deceased’s lodgings produced four books, two of which contained entries of subscriptions with names and sums of money. In the book was written “Irish Defence Fund. Arthur O’Neill, treasurer.”

The books were found in the deceased’s clothing, which was given to the police by Gateley’s landlady, Mary Lake, the wife of Abraham Lake, farm bailiff at Mr Graham’s farm.

The deceased had allegedly been heard expressing his intention of severing his connection with the organisation, and the newspapers speculated that a former associate had tracked him to Solihull and murdered him.

An inquest was opened at Solihull Workhouse on 9th December before Mr Couchman, coroner for North Warwickshire. The inquest heard evidence from the deceased’s brother, Michael Gateley, who identified the body, as well as James Bridge, landlord of the Gardeners’ Arms and two of his staff, and Edward Sutton Page, surgeon. The inquest was then adjourned until the 17th December.

On 30th December 1880, a young Irishman named Patrick Hannelly was apprehended in Wednesbury and charged with the murder of Lord Mountmorres, who had been shot at Clonbur, County Galway in September 1880. Hannelly’s appearance was said to correspond with that of John Gateley’s murderer, except that he had recently shaved off his whiskers. One of the witnesses at the inquest at Solihull saw him but failed to make an identification so it seems no charges were brought.

In mid-January 1881, it was reported that police had discovered the name of the murderer of John Gateley but that it was not deemed advisable to divulge it. The suspect had been engaged as a labourer at an ammunition works in the neighbourhood and it was said that he and Gateley were both connected with a political organisation in Ireland. The man was in the habit of occasionally disposing of revolvers to Gateley, which were then forwarded to Ireland. He remained in Birmingham for a few days after the murder, but then travelled to Dublin.

The police were said to be favouring the opinion that Gateley was not intentionally killed and that the suspect shot him accidentally whilst showing him a revolver.


There was no further progress in the case until 18th July 1885 when an Inspector Hall, a police officer from Warwick, spotted John Duff (named in some reports as Henry Duff) on an omnibus in London. Inspector Hall had known Duff some years previously, when the Inspector was stationed in Aston. It seems that Inspector Hall had travelled to London on hearing that Duff had been spotted there, suggesting that Duff was the suspect from 1881 whose name had not been publicly released.

The inspector took a cab and followed the omnibus, arresting John Duff when he alighted and taking him to Bow Street Police Station. Duff gave his alias as James Wallis, and gave a false address to the police. However, the police were able to locate his real lodgings in Camden Town and found ships’ discharge papers in the name of James Wallis (or James Wallace according to some reports).

John Duff was remanded in custody at Warwick Gaol and conveyed by armed police to Solihull at daybreak on 22nd August 1885 for a first public hearing before magistrates at the Public Hall, Solihull. The building was guarded by armed police, apparently assisted by the military (Boston Guardian, 22nd August 1885).

The police admitted to some difficulty in collecting evidence as a result of the passage of time since the murder but also because

most of those present at the public-house when the shot was fired were labouring men whose habits are migratory, and whose position is such that very little interest would be taken in their movements. Some of the persons who might furnish evidence of identification are believed to be dead, and several have left the neighbourhood. It is stated, however, that there are persons belonging to Solihull who will be able to contribute several links to the chain of evidence.

Leamington Spa Courier, 8th August 1885

At the time of the murder, Duff was employed by Messrs. Kynoch & Co. ammunition manufacturers of Witton in the manufacture of cartridges. He and John Gateley were acquainted with each other, and Duff had apparently visited Gateley on several occasions, both at his lodgings with Mrs Lake and at Mr Graham’s stud farm.

About two weeks before the murder, Duff had acquired a .442 six-chambered revolver, known as an Irish Constabulary pistol. The prosecution’s case was that witnesses would testify that they had seen Duff with Gateley in the Gardeners’ Arms, and fleeing Solihull along the Birmingham Road from the village. There was also evidence that the bullet that killed John Gateley was compatible with the .442 revolver.

The day after the murder, Duff returned to work but had shaved off his whiskers, leaving only a moustache. When his fellow workers teased him about being the murderer because of so closely matching the description of the wanted man, he apparently went pale and never returned to the factory. He left without giving notice and without collecting the wages that were owing to him.

Duff then travelled about over the following years, including working as a fireman on a number of Atlantic-going steamers, sailing between London and New York, as well as to the Black Sea, China, Cape of Good Hope, and Australia.

Following his arrest, John Duff was remanded in custody on a week-by-week basis for almost two months before appearing before magistrates at Solihull on 22nd August 1885 for the first public hearing of the case against him. Extra police, some of whom were armed with revolvers, had been drafted into Solihull to guard against any attempt at rescuing the prisoner.

The trial of John Duff

John Duff, described as aged about 40, was charged with the murder of “Thomas Gateley” an “alleged Fenian traitor.”

The case against him included:

  • His acquaintance with John Gateley, and witness statements that they had been seen together
  • His enquiring of the way to Solihull from one of his fellow workmen just a few days before the murder
  • His acquisition of a .442 about fourteen days before the murder
  • His being seen as “in close conversation” with Gateley in the Gardeners’ Arms on the day of the murder
  • His being identified by witnesses as the man holding a pistol in the yard of the Gardeners’ Arms as John Gateley was discovered
  • His having an Ulster coat that matched that of the suspect and his being identified as the man in such a coat seen hurrying from Solihull towards the direction of Birmingham on the afternoon of the murder
  • His disappearance from work after fellow workers joked about his being the man wanted in connection with the murder at Solihull
  • The discovery at his lodgings of a book similar to that found at the deceased’s lodgings containing details of subscriptions, some of them for “sticks” (rifles) and “pills” (ammunition)
  • When first arrested, he protested his innocence but, on appearing before magistrates, he said that Gateley’s death was an accident

After the first magisterial examination, the court subsequently heard that Duff had offered on 24th August 1885 from his cell at Warwick Gaol to turn Crown witness. He said that he and John Gateley, as well as all those with him at Solihull, belonged to the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and that he had been “sent to do it.” He admitted that he had bought an Irish Constabulary Pistol from a Samuel Pountney of Aston, and that he sourced the corresponding bullets from his employer, Messrs Kynoch.

John Duff, described as aged 32 and a stoker, was committed by magistrates at Solihull on 4th September 1885 to a trial at Warwick Assizes on the charge that “On the 5th December 1880 at Solihull he did feloniously kill or murder John Gateley.”

The trial took place on 16th and 17th November 1885. The defence barrister, Mr Hugh Young, contended that the death of John Gateley was a pure accident and had no connection with political or Irish conspiracies. Several witnesses testified that the deceased and the defendant were close friends.

The jury deliberated for more than six hours before returning a verdict that he was guilty of manslaughter. The judge, Mr Justice Denman, sentenced John Duff to 20 years penal servitude, remarking that the jury had taken a merciful view. He said that if they had reached a verdict of wilful murder, “it would have been one in which ninety-nine people out of every hundred would have agreed.” There was a suggestion that 11 out of the 12 jurors would have returned such a verdict:

Much surprise has been expressed at the verdict given in the Solihull murder trial, as neither the defence nor prosecution submitted the issue of manslaughter to the jury. It is now said that shortly after retiring 11 of the juryment were agreed upon a verdict of wilful murder, and that one held out against them. He expressed his intention of holding out a week, if necessary. Argument followed, but the juryman would not give way, and after seven hours’ consideration, a verdict of manslaughter was agreed upon.

South Wales Daily News, 20th November 1885


Penal servitude was authorised as a punishment by the Penal Servitude Acts of 1853 and 1857, which replaced transportation. The sentence usually meant incarceration in a convict prison such as Parkhurst or Dartmoor and hard labour on Public Works for the benefit of the state. This included work such as construction, road building, and clearing areas of moorland to turn into farmland.

The only John Duff we have been able to find as a prisoner on the 1891 census is a 38-year-old former stoker, listed as being born in Dublin. He was recorded as a convict at Her Majesty’s Convict Prison, Portland, Dorset, where many of the prisoners worked quarrying tons of stone for breakwaters.

The Warwickshire Herald 3rd September 1896 noted that the Great Britain Amnesty Association for the Release of the Irish Political Prisoners had received an official intimation that John Duff had been “certified as being insane and dangerous” and that he had therefore been moved to Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum.

The Irish News and Belfast Morning News of 3rd March 1899, describing John Duff as a “political prisoner” noted that he was still confined at Broadmoor, “where it was found necessary to send the unfortunate man after the horrors and sufferings of prison life had deprived him of his reason.” His mother, Ann Duff, had applied in 1898 for her son to be removed to an asylum in Ireland so that she might have the opportunity of visiting him, but the Home Secretary declined.

It seems that he was still in Broadmoor at the time of the 1901 census, listed under his initials, “J. D.”, a 47-year-old stoker from Dublin (many thanks to researcher James who sent in the information). The Broadmoor records are held at Berkshire Record Office and indicate that John Duff left the institution in 1905.

We don’t know what happened to John Duff after this so, if you have any further information, please let us know.

Heritage & Local Studies Librarian

This information has been compiled from various contemporary newspaper reports that are available via the British Newspaper Archive. All Solihull Libraries have a subscription to the site, which may be accessed free of charge from library computers (for holders of valid library memberships) or by connecting your device to our free library WiFi.

© Solihull Council, 2020.
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