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Killed in the line of duty, PC Byrnes was murdered after attempting to apprehend a notorious gang.
In 1885 four notorious criminals planned to burgle Netherby Hall, a few miles from Carlisle. These men were members of a successful ‘ladder gang’. They were known as Anthony Benjamin Rudge, John Martin, James Baker and William Baker.
On Tuesday 27 October 1885, Rudge, Martin and James Baker arrived at Gretna station. They left three cases in the care of the stationmaster.
At 3pm the following day Baker collected one case and joined the other two men in the Graham Arms Inn close to the station. Later that afternoon, Baker returned and asked the stationmaster to forward the case to “A. Smith, Carlisle Station, until called for”.
The men had learned that the family at Netherby Hall were in residence. They entered the grounds and got into the house without being seen.
At 8.15pm a housemaid discovered the door of Lady Hermione Graham's room was locked and she gave the alarm. A butler entered the room from outside and discovered that valuable jewellery was missing.
The police were alerted, and the nearby countryside was searched. Information was also sent to Carlisle eight miles away, and all roads north into Carlisle were watched.
A manhunt was launched and it lasted for two days.
The burglars, now joined by William Baker, were first seen near Kingstown in the late evening by Sergeant Roche and PC Johnson of the local constabulary.
On challenging the men, the officers were greeted with two revolver shots. The men ran, the officers in pursuit. More shots were fired, and both officers were wounded, one in the shoulder, the other in the thigh. The burglars made their way on to a nearby railway line and disappeared in the direction of Carlisle.
Later that evening, PC Handley at Gosling Dyke stopped four strangers. One man pulled a gun and Handley, was forced to let them pass. He was lucky to escape with his life.
At 2am on 29 October, a signalman at Dalston Road Crossing on the North Eastern Railway heard footsteps on the ballast and saw three men going along the line towards Carlisle. He opened his cabin door and as he did so they made off. The signalman reported wheat he had seen to PC Fortune.
The officer went in pursuit, and was turned upon by the four men who beat him with sticks and pistol butts before they headed for the road. PC Fortune recovered consciousness after half-an-hour and made his way with difficulty to the signal box.
Two of the men were next seen in a goods yard near Carlisle and some time afterwards a blood-stained jemmy was found in a wagon at Blencowe.
The four desperadoes were not seen again until the evening, when the stationmaster at Southwaite station was approached by a man who asked the time of the next train to London. The stationmaster told him and the man replied that it was too long to wait. The stationmaster was somewhat suspicious and reported accordingly.
Some time later, the stationmaster at Plumpton saw three men on his station and sent for the local constable, PC Byrnes. Byrnes went in search of the men. Shortly after, a shot was heard nearby.
Half-an-hour went by and then a man heard moaning and discovered PC Byrnes. He had intercepted the men and been shot through the head. Bloodstains and other traces indicated that he had been rolled down the bank. Byrnes died shortly afterwards.
As the search continued, news came after 10pm when a constable on duty near Penrith saw three strangers behaving suspiciously. He lost sight of them in the darkness.
A goods train due to leave Keswick Junction was searched without revealing any sign of the men. The guard, Christopher Gaddes, was advised to keep a sharp lookout. As his train moved off, Gaddes saw three men break cover and climb into a truck.
When the train pulled up, Gaddes spoke quietly to a platelayer who was near his van and all available railway staff were mustered and armed with every weapon they could lay their hands on. Gaddes then jumped from truck to truck. He was not certain which truck the men were in and he stepped on the back of one of them.
All three jumped from the train and a desperate struggle took place. Martin broke away but an engine driver managed to chase and hold him although he himself was badly injured in the process. A revolver was found in Martin's possession. Rudge was also caught after a chase and violent struggle, and he too was carrying a revolver. Both guns had been fired recently.
James Baker, escaped and hid in another truck. Near Oxenholme two footplate men saw him leave the train and they passed the word on. Later, at Lancaster Station, Baker was challenged by a guard, and after a severe struggle Baker was secured. His clothes were bloodstained.
The fourth man, William Baker, had not been seen with the other three for some hours and he was definitely not with them when PC Byrnes was murdered - a fact which saved his life. He was later arrested in Manchester and taken back to Carlisle where he received a sentence of penal servitude.
The case addressed to the Carlisle cloakroom and handed in at Gretna Station by James Baker was found to contain skeleton keys and other housebreaking tools. None of the stolen jewellery was found on the prisoners, but a few days later a tobacco pouch belonging to Rudge was found near Tebay station. In it were all the jewels except a valuable diamond star. The star was later found under a railway arch.
In January 1886, the three men were found guilty and sentenced to death.
The judge highly commended the police and railway staff and ordered that the sum of £170 be divided among them. Rudge, Martin and James Baker were hanged in Carlisle on 8 February 1886.
On the scaffold, Martin confessed that he fired the shot that killed Byrnes. In law, all three were equally guilty as parties to a joint felonious enterprise.
A memorial was erected to PC Byrnes near the spot where he died. The inscription reads:
"Here Constable Joseph Byrnes fell on the night of October 29, 1885, shot by the three Netherby burglars whom he singlehanded endeavoured to arrest."
Above the inscription is a cross with the words 'Do or Die.' A constable cannot do more than that.