by Lynda Swan
Deeply interested in crime and punishment I was inspired to research famous trials. However the trial I have written about chose me in a way, in that I had a connection with it then and now have another one …
13th August, 1975. There was strict security on my wedding day. It was almost cancelled. After a guest list had been handed to the police and scrutinised, permission was granted. It seemed to be an exercise in public relations after the accusations of police brutality – to lighten the proceedings. On our approach to the church the driver was halted while the limousine was swept with a metal detector. I felt like a celebrity as the cameras flashed in front of me as we drove past the melee of reporters, photographers and television camera crews that were waiting. Outside the Priory Church there were crowds and the driveway was packed with spectators greeting my arrival with a sea of waving hands.
After the ceremony, while posing for photos in the doorway, I was unaware that the uniformed officers on the castle roof were police marksmen and that they were also on the roof of the church. However, it was not our event that made the news that day.
Bomb Trial Security. Lancaster Castle was the scene of strict security in that week in August 1975 when six men went on trial for the murder of 21 people in the Birmingham pub bombings in November 1974.
The six defendants, John Walker, 29; Noel MclIkenny, 31; Patrick Hill, 30; Robert Hunter. 29; William Power, 29 and Hugh Callaghan, 44, all pleaded not guilty.
It was reported that the decision to hold the trial in Lancaster was taken at the request of the defence because of adverse ‘public feeling’ in Birmingham.
Thursday 21 November, 1974. Two bombs exploded within minutes of each other at the Mulberry Bush and Tavern in the Town public houses in the centre of Birmingham. The explosions killed 21 people and injured over 200.
The following day six Irish men Billy Power, Paddy Hill, Gerry Hunter, Johnny Walker, Richard McIlkenny and Hugh Callaghan were questioned by Lancashire police and later charged with planting the bombs and the mass murder of British civilians.
May, 1975. The six men were moved to Lancaster Prison to prepare for trial. It had been ruled that the case should be heard well away from Birmingham where, it was thought, they would not get a fair hearing.
As they arrived at Lancaster, Paddy Hill remembered a waiting prison officer telling them: “This isn’t Winson Green. Nobody will hurt you.”
February, 2013. Today, I interviewed my second husband who was a prison officer at Lancaster during the trial in August 1975. I was interested in the arrangements that were made in preparation for the arrival of the accused, special measures for during the trial, attitudes and morale in the prison, visitor arrangements and what happened after the trial when the verdict was announced.
I began with…
What arrangements were made prior to their arrival?
“Part of the reason for choosing Lancaster for the trial was because it was totally secure with the court being within the confines of the prison. A high security wing was created to provide Category A conditions in the Cat C prison. Over a 100 prisoners were moved from the wing to other jails for the six accused men to be contained for the duration of the trial. The men were allowed to freely associate with each other but were segregated from the rest of the prison population. Additional measures to increase security included extra prison officers being drafted in and the level of prison officers doubled. They were placed in single cells with an empty cell in between them across two landings.
What special measures were taken for the duration of the trial?
“Prior to the trial there were concerns that the IRA may try to effect their release, so high security measures were taken including police marksmen positioned on the roof and a bomb disposal unit being present. During the trial the offenders entered court handcuffed to an officer.”
Were the prison officers affected by the level of accusations against the prison service while the accused were at Winson Green prison?
“The integrity of the HMP was threatened by the level of accusations against the prison staff at Birmingham so we were being very professional in our treatment of them. It came from the top – we had to be beyond reproach But there was ill feeling between the police and the prison service when it came out during the trial that it was the police who had first inflicted injuries on the accused and that they had manipulated the situation at Winson Green to cover it up, which came to light when it was revealed the men each had two sets of injuries.”
Were there any tensions between the officers and the accused?
“No, we were extremely professional, they were treated well and a good relationship was built up between the prison staff and the men.”
Were visits allowed?
“Yes. After strict screening of visitors beforehand visits were allowed under closed conditions with specially constructed cubicles behind glass. Visitors were thoroughly searched and metal detectors were used.”
What happened after the verdict was announced?
“When the Verdicts came in they were rehoused back in Lancaster prison until arrangements were made for them to be sent to high security prisons to serve out their sentences. The next day they were individually dispersed with armed police escorts to separate high security prisons.”
1991. Sixteen years later, and after three appeals, the six were released after doubts were cast upon their signed confessions and the forensic tests carried out on them.
In a rare television interview, Billy Power spoke about his time in prison, “When I look back at the trial we were Irish men in the dock at Lancaster Castle. The police had confessions, they had forensic evidence, they say we were guilty of it.”