John McCabe was a notorious Huddersfield criminal and leader of the Irish Small Gang, a group of "Irish ruffians" active in Huddersfield from the mid-1860s to early 1870s who terrorised locals and attacked the police.
He was born in 1846 in Huddersfield, the son of Irish parents Michael McCabe and his wife Mary.
About a year after John was born, his father was accused of involvement in a vicious triple murder in Mirfield of James Wraith, his wife Ann and their servant Caroline Ellis on 12 May 1847 — all three were found with their throats cut and skulls smashed. Michael, a hawker of earthenware, was arrested having been seen near the house prior to the murder and was found to have a small amount of blood on his clothes. Another hawker, Patrick Reid, was also arrested and both were sent to trial. Despite Reid later making a full confession and stating McCabe was innocent, controversially the trial judge was of the opinion that McCabe was possibly involved so sentenced him to be transported for life.
Their father's ill-treatment by the judiciary appear to have led to John and his older brother James swearing an oath to throw stones at the police.
The 1851 Census records Mary McCabe (aged 35) as a "pauper convict's wife" residing at 97 Upperhead Row with her widowed mother, pauper Julia Keasley (69) of Dublin, brother James Keasley (44), and her sons James (5) and John (4). Mary was still residing on Upperhead Row at the time of the 1861 Census.
In May 1855, a young Irishwoman was acquitted of stealing money from James Stott of Upperhead Row. A few days later, John and a group of around 20 other boys harangued Stott by throwing stones at his house. Stott's wife tried emptying a bucked of water over the boys, but the stone throwing continued late into the evening. Feeling enough was enough, Stott raced out of his house and managed to grab John. Found guilty at the Police Court, together with Michael Hayley, Michael Corkeran and James Burke, the four boys were fined 6s. 6d. each.
Mary McCabe's case was raised by the Huddersfield Board of Guardians at their fortnightly meeting on 4 July 1856. Despite a desire to have the McCabe's removed, it was felt there was still too much sympathy for the family over the trial of her husband. Joshua Hobson noted that barrister Digby Seymore was currently engaged with trying to "procure the liberation and return" of Michael McCabe.
The circumstances of Mary McCabe were discussed again by the Board of Guardians on 3 December 1858, where she was described as a "big, strong, strapping Irishwoman" in receipt of 5 shillings per week who was refusing to seek work. It was stated that local magistrates had written to the board "to say it was necessary that the woman and her family be removed to Ireland" as she was refusing to enter the Workhouse. A motion was passed allowing the "relieving officer to take out removal orders for McCabe and her children." The Huddersfield Chronicle noted that:
Mr. Floyd said if there were any devils in the world, the two children belonging to McCabe were. They were perfect imps. One of them [James] used a crutch, but might be backed to run against any other boy in the town, for he could run like a race-horse.
According to a letter published in the Yorkshire Gazette (28/Feb/1863), Michael McCabe was released on 24 December 1862 into the care of the Prisoners' Aid Society. Seeking donations, the Rev. Robert D. Jackson wrote:
His health during his term of transportation was such that he could not perform any hard work. He has a wife and two sons ; one a cripple, aged 17, and another aged 16, who is now out of employ through scarcity of work in the mill. I shall be most happy to receive any donations on behalf of this much injured and innocent man, to enable him to make a fresh start in life.
Together with Thomas Carney and Michael Maguire, John was fined in June 1863 for "indulging in the dangerous amusement of throwing stones with wanton recklessness [...] to the great danger of passers-by," some of whom had to take shelter in nearby houses. It was stated that "the officer had to chase them a considerable distance" before he was able to apprehend them and take down their names.
June 1864 saw John McCabe, Michael Maguire and James Macguire — "a regular lawless lot" — fined 13s. 10d. each (in their absence) for throwing stones through the windows of the Wheat Sheaf Inn on Upperhead Row, after having broken into the cellar and turned off the gas supply. In the same court session, McCabe, John French and John Gannon were fined 10s. each for assaulting Julia Roddy near King Street. Gannon was also fined for "using obscene language to Ellen Cooney."
In December 1864, "three youths of desperate character", including a McCabe, were charged with "stoning the police" — when an officer had attempted to arrest McCabe, the three had clambered onto a nearby roof with a hammer and thrown smashed tiles at officers. Although the Huddersfield Chronicle named Michael McCabe as one of the youths, it was undoubtedly John that took part. By now, the name "Irish Small Gang" was being applied to the group.
By then, the group which likely numbered around a dozen youths, had become known as the Irish Small Gang. According to Superintendent Hannan of Huddersfield, "the members of this gang had bound themselves to oath to stone the police" and "to attack indiscriminately" people in the street, and were ruffians for hire "employed by interested parties to kick up rows in certain low public-houses in the town."
In April 1866, Superintendent Hannan described John McCabe as being "one of the worst characters in the West Riding", having seven previous convictions to his name.
In April, John McCabe was out on bail when two officers attempted to arrest him at his home. Whilst Police Constable Standish waiting by the cellar door, in case McCabe tried to escape that way, Constable Ianson entered the house. As Ianson entered the bed chamber, McCabe threw a chamber pot at the officer whilst his mother, Mary McCabe, pushed him onto the bed and the pair attempted to strangle him. Standish charged in and managed to cuff John, whilst Mary rushed downstairs to get a knife, swearing she would "run them [both] through". Whilst the officers tried to drag McCabe out the house, several more members of the gang appeared and started fighting them, pushing them out into the street. A large mob gathered and the police officers, fearing for their lives, managed to drag McCabe through a cellar door until other officers arrive. Mrs. McCabe was then arrested and placed in a cell, "where for some hours her language was disgusting in the extreme." In court, McCabe was sentenced to two months with hard labour, which the accused seem to regard as being lenient.
Following his release, McCabe appears to have temporarily relocated to Brighouse and found work as a mill hand. However, he was soon back in prison in March 1869 after being found guilty of assaulting Police Sergeant Beevers in the town.
In May 1870, several members of the Irish Small Gang had gone to the Angel Inn on Macaulay Street where they stole a bottle of gin and a bottle of whiskey. Inspector White was informed and, acting on information, entered a house in the Spread Eagle Yard where he found John McCabe, Bernard Dunn and Frederick Harper, together with three women of ill-repute. McCabe rushed at the Inspector with a poker and the fight spilled out onto the street, where George Edward Robertson of Paddock came to the Inspector's aid. Police Constable Lynch arrived on the scene and, misunderstanding who was actually attacking the Inspector in the melee, managed to knock Robertson unconscious. As more officers arrived, Harper and McCabe were arrested. As for Bernard Dunn, he was found still in the house "in a helpless state of drunkenness" and wheeled senseless to the police station in hardcart. Given the seriousness of the events and his many previous convictions, McCabe was sentenced to seven years' penal servitude. Dunn received 18 months' hard labour whilst Harper was given two months' hard labour.
With their leader in prison, the exploits of the gang decreased and, at a Town Council meeting in November 1874, Alderman Mellor referred to the "Small Gang" in the past tense, and praised Chief Constable Withers for his efforts in breaking up the gang.
He was released early on licence on 31 January 1876 and made his way back to Huddersfield. However, when he was named as being involved in a robbery, he fled to Bolton and was eventually arrested for "neglecting to report himself while on licence." McCabe pleaded for leniency, stating that "he had spent the half of his life in prison." However, his statement had "abounded with discrepancies" and the magistrates approved the Chief Constable's request that the accused be returned to prison to serve the remainder of his sentence until June 1877. A description from the Police Gazette (08/May/1876) described McCabe as "5 feet 7 inches high, fresh complexion, brown hair, grey eyes, scar outside right arm and back of right shoulder."
Upon his release, he was subject to a seven year supervision order under the terms of the Crimes Prevention Act and required to "report himself as required" to the chief constable of the borough.
In March 1878, McCabe, "mason of Castlegate", was fined 10s. plus costs for keeping an unlicensed dog.
In November 1879, he was in front of the magistrates for breaching the terms of his supervision order, having not informed the police of a change of address. In his defence, he stated that he would be turned away from lodgings as soon as the landlords became aware of the supervision order and was unable to find regular employment.
February 1880 saw him charged with being drunk and disorderly, and having assaulted Police Constables Casson and Jagger. He pleaded guilty but claimed "the police were down on him and would not let him alone."
On 9 October 1881, whilst under police surveillance, he stole money from Rowland Halstead. Following his arrest, he was committed for trial. Found guilty, he was sentenced to ten years to be followed by seven years police supervision.
It remains uncertain what happened to him next, but he may be the John McCabe who died in Halifax in 1899, aged 52.