The theft of the Irish Crown Jewels, 1907
THE THEFT OF THE IRISH CROWN JEWELS from Dublin Castle in 1907 really did happen. It is a tale of mystery and intrigue but with such sinister political and sexual undertones that the establishment sought to erase it from history. They did such a good job that an almost equal mystery is the fact that it remains so little known. For readers requiring more detail, these are the basic facts.
THE REGALIA OF THE Royal Order of St Patrick – the so-called Irish Crown Jewels – comprised the Grand Master’s Diamond Star, the Grand Master’s Badge, five collars of the Companions and some smaller pieces. The Star was of eight points in Brazilian diamonds with an emerald shamrock and ruby cross forming its centre. Their official valuation was about £3.5 million in today’s money but that was only a fraction of their historical worth. In 1907, the whole of Ireland was still part of Great Britain and the jewels' safekeeping were in the hands of the King’s personal appointee, Sir Arthur Vicars, Ulster King of Arms and Chief Herald of Ireland. They were kept in his department, the Office of Arms, housed in the Bedford Tower of Dublin Castle. An Anglo-Irishman, Vicars was a scholarly, fussy type with a love of his homeland and deeply involved in the mysteries of his medieval calling. In July 1907, however, he was feeling the strain of preparing for the state visit of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra in just four days time.
The regalia were only brought out for such occasions and, in preparation, one of the collars had been sent to Weirs, the Grafton Street jewellers, for alteration. On 6 July this was returned and Vicars gave William Stivey, the office messenger, the key to the safe where the Crown Jewels were stored. Stivey came running back to report the safe already unlocked and when Vicars joined him to investigate they found it empty and the jewels gone.
Dublin Castle should have been one of the most secure places in the Kingdom: day and night there was a military guard on each of its three main gates while close to the Office of Arms, a detective and policeman were on constant duty. Just across the Castle Yard itself was the headquarters of the Dublin Metropolitan Police yet the thief, or thieves, had gone unnoticed. It was an audacious crime.
King Edward was said to be “furious” at the jewels' loss; they were a symbol of the union of Britain and Ireland and it was thought their theft might be a political insult timed to coincide with his state visit. Nationalists and Republicans were likely suspects. More worrying yet to Edward was the suggestion that it might be Irish monarchists seeking to restore a Celtic king. The police launched an immediate and thorough investigation but, even with the promise of a thousand pounds reward, made little progress. Eventually Scotland Yard, in the form of Detective Chief Inspector John Kane, were called in.
One of the early findings was that the security of the Crown Jewels fell far short of ideal. The safe should have been in a strongroom and one had been built for that purpose in 1903 but, incredibly, the door had been too narrow to move the safe inside. For four years, Vicars had been trying to secure funds to have it modified but without success. Instead the safe remained in the library which also served as a public waiting area. Three days before the discovery of the robbery, Mrs Mary Farrell, the office cleaner, had reported the Bedford Tower being left unlocked and, before that, the door to the library and the strongroom had been found unlocked as well. The last time the regalia had been seen was 11 June and sometime after that date Vicars lost his keys. They were found at his Dublin home just days after the robbery and, inevitably, Vicars himself came under suspicion. DCI Kane eventually named a suspect but this was never made public for by this time the King himself had ordered the case closed. Why?
Because investigations had revealed sinister homosexual rings operating within the Vice-Regal court of Ireland leading straight to many in high office. King Edward himself was heard to describe Dublin Castle as “that den of sodomites”. Vicars was suspected of being homosexual and certainly he had made strange and, sometimes, nepotistic choices of men as his assistants. One was his own nephew, Peirce Gun Mahoney, who he appointed Cork Herald. For Dublin Herald he chose Francis Shackleton brother of Sir Ernest, the famed Antarctic explorer. Francis was a veteran officer of the South African war but a man known to have “unnameable vices”. One of his close friends was Captain Richard Gorges, an officer of the Royal Irish Regiment and hero of Spion Kop but also linked sexually to Shackleton and, by rumour, to Sir Arthur Vicars. Vicars was sharing his Dublin home with Shackleton and it would have been relatively easy for the latter to “borrow” the Chief Herald’s keys, make copies and sneak them back. At the time of the robbery, Shackleton was out of the country but on the date that Vicars always believed it occurred, Sunday, 30 June, Gorges was known to be in Dublin.
Sir Arthur was convinced these two were responsible but nothing was ever proved. In the end, the Chief Herald himself was made the scapegoat. On the King’s direct orders, Sir Arthur Vicars was dismissed from office. A ruined man, he retired to his family seat, Kilmorna House in County Kerry, and spent the rest of his life trying to clear his name.
There are a number of strange sequels to this story.
At the end of July 1914, Pierce Mahony, Vicars' Cork Herald nephew, was found dead of gunshot wounds near his home in Wicklow. Cause was given as his own shotgun discharging while climbing a fence but was it more than accident that blasted both barrels into his heart?
“The detectives might well say that it is an affair for a Sherlock Holmes to investigate,” said Sir Arthur Vicars in a 1907 interview with the Daily Express. Actually, this was more than just a frivolous comment, for the Chief Herald was second cousin to Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle, creator of the great fictitious sleuth. On hearing of his Irish cousin’s dilemma, Conan-Doyle offered to investigate it using his creation’s famous “powers of deduction”. His conclusions were the same as Vicars': that Francis Shackleton was the main instigator assisted by Captain Gorges. Although this did nothing to influence official action, it did provide Conan-Doyle with material for a story; enthusiasts of Sherlock Holmes will recognise the plot and characters in “The Bruce-Partington Plans”.
By 1920, Ireland was in the grip of “the Troubles” that would finally see the Union flag replaced by the Irish tricolour. Targets in the I.R.A.’s guerrilla war included the stately homes and castles of the ruling Anglo-Irish. In May of that year Sir Arthur Vicars' Kilmorna House was raided by armed men. Although this attack was survived, the raiders returned on 14 April 1921 and fired the house and contents. Sir Arthur Vicars was taken outside and shot, a label left hanging from his neck declaring “Spy. Informers beware. I.R.A. never forgets” He was an unlikely target: although opposed to Home Rule he had a very great love of Ireland and had been savagely wronged by the King and Country they were fighting. Uncharacteristically, the I.R.A. issued a statement saying they were not responsible for the crime. Stranger still, a year later when the Land Commission of the new republic was carving up the old estates, they ensured no local people were allocated any of Sir Arthur’s beloved Kilmorna.
What of the main suspects? Wanted on fraud charges, Francis Shackleton escaped to Portuguese Angola. Extradited back to Britain he was tried and sentenced to fifteen months in gaol. He died anonymously between the wars. Captain Richard Gorges also went to prison for manslaughter, suggesting to fellow prisoners that he was involved in the great robbery but never giving details. He took the secret to his grave in the 1950s. If these two were the perpetrators, they never evidenced any pecuniary reward for their audacity.
And the jewels, what happened to them? Ah, there lies the biggest mystery of all for, in spite of many false trails, they were never found. Official opinion is that this beautiful regalia were broken up and the stones sold on shortly after the robbery. Or is that what they want us to believe? Just possibly, the Irish Crown Jewels are still intact and sitting regally in some private collection awaiting the day…..
THERE THEN ARE THE basic facts. For a more in-depth study, I recommend VICIOUS CIRCLE by Francis Bamford and Viola Bankes. Although half a century old, it remains the definitive account of this most complex of crimes. Better yet, visit Dublin Castle and see for yourself the Bedford Tower where, a hundred years ago, Sir Arthur Vicars stood gazing at an empty safe and one of the great mysteries of the 20th Century.