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Derry Shop Tragedy: The Murder of Robert Clarke, Londonderry, Co. Londonderry, Northern Ireland 1927

The Londonderry Sentinel & Belfast Newsletter

Transcribed and Submitted by
Viola Wiggins, Co. Fermanagh

The Londonderry Sentinel, Thursday Morning, December 29, 1927





A painful tragedy occurred in Londonderry on Christmas Eve.

A young married farm worker named Robert Clarke, aged thirty-two, of Lower Violet-street, was in the butcher's shop of Patrick Sharkey, in Chapel-road, close to his home, on Saturday night at 10.30 o'clock, and Thomas Eaton, aged forty years, unmarried, of 13, Upper Violet-street, was also there. Both men are well known in the city, Eaton being at one time a prominent footballer, while he also played cricket for Brigade Club. The men were on good terms and in a jolly mood, Clarke having previously had a few drinks, and Eaton, it was stated, being more or less drunk.


Eaton picked up a butcher's knife and cut a piece of raw steak, which he ate. He then commenced sharpening the knife on the steel, when Clarke remarked to him, “You couldn't sharpen the knife.” Eaton replied “I could, and I could stick it in you, too.” Immediately afterwards those present, who thought the incident was only a joke between the two men, saw Clarke reel from a stab in the region of the heart with the butcher's knife. They ran to his assistance, and the doctor and ambulance were phoned for. In the meantime Eaton left down the knife and went out. When Dr. Malseed arrived he found that Clarke, who had received a severe wound near the heart, was dead, having succumbed five minutes after receiving it. His body was then removed to his father's house, where he resided. Later the police visited Eaton's house, and there found Eaton, who was arrested.

Eaton was brought up at a Special Court in Victoria Police Barracks on Sunday and charged with murdering Clarke.

Patrick Sharkey, jun., 13, Chapel-road, said he assisted his father in his father's business at 11, Chapel-road. He was working there on Saturday night. Robert Clarke came into the shop about half-past ten. William M'Gonigle and Michael M'Gonigle were in the shop at the time. Thomas Eaton and Thomas Gardiner came in along with Clarke. Witness was serving a lady customer with beef, and he was using his butcher's knife, which he left down on the counter. He was talking to the lady, getting change, and reaching her a parcel. She went out then. He then saw his knife in Thomas Eaton's hand. He asked witness for the steel, and witness handed it to him. Eaton started to sharpen the knife on the steel. Clarke was standing near him at the time. “I saw Eaton stab Clarke with the knife.” added witness. “He stabbed him about the chest. He then left the knife on the counter. Clarke gathered himself up and turned towards the counter as if to hold himself up, and I went round, caught hold of him, and took him to the door. He did not speak at all. Eaton did not give me any assistance. Mr. Wm. M'Gonigle then took charge of Clarke and brought him back into the shop and laid him on the floor. I then went to phone for the ambulance, and when I returned Clarke was still on the floor. I went into the kitchen and saw nothing more. When Clarke was lying on the floor I saw blood on his shirt. As far as I saw Clarke was sober. I could not detect any drink on him. I heard no argument. The defendant, Eaton was drunk. Neither defendant nor deceased was a customer of mine, and they did not appear to want anything in my shop.”


Mr William M'Gonigle, 9, Chapel-road, said that he met Clarke on Saturday night at 9.50 in Michael Deehan's public-house at Dungiven-road. They had a few drinks together, and they left the premises by the back door about ten o'clock. They parted then, and witness and his little son, Michael, went into Patrick Sharkey's shop. Patrick Sharkey, jun., was the only person in the shop then. Robert Clarke, Thomas Eaton and Thomas Gardiner came into the shop, and a woman also came into the shop while they were there. Robert Clarke and Thomas Eaton went up to the counter, and witness saw Eaton cut a small piece of raw steak and eat it. The two men were talking in a jolly mood. Witness saw Eaton steeling the butcher's knife. “I was taking no notice of what was gong on.” continued witness. “I happened to look around, and saw Robert Clarke staggering. Paddy Sharkey then said, 'Reach for him; he's stabbed.' I went over to him and caught him when he was on the door-step. He went silly. I had him on the footpath, and his feet went from under him. I held him up and brought him back to the shop and laid him on the floor. I saw blood on the left breast of his shirt. I opened the shirt and saw a wound on the left breast. Both the defendant and the deceast had drink taken and were in a jolly mood. I would not say either of them was drunk.”

Thomas Gardiner, of 50, Benvarden-avenue, said he met Eaton on Saturday night at the foot of Dungiven-road about 10.30 o'clock..Eaton went into Sharkey's shop and witness went to the door. Robert Clarke was then in the shop, standing a bit off the counter. Eaton went over with his back to the counter. They were joking. Witness did not see anything taking place till he heard a call that Clarke was stabbed. He then went into the shopand saw M'Gonigle and young Sharkey holding up Clarke. Witness then ran to Mr. Heatherington's to 'phone and when he came back Clarke was lying on the floor and a crowd had gathered. Eaton was drunk. Witness did not remember talking to Eaton after the thing happened.

James Torrens, 20, Lower Violet-street, said that on his way home between ten and eleven o'clock on Saturday night he passed Sharkey's butcher's shop and saw Gardiner, Clarke and Eaton there, with young Sharkey behind the counter. Eaton and Clarke were standing nearest the counter. “I saw Eaton waving something in his hand,” added witness. “It appeared to be a knife. I saw him playing dab at Clarke. I thought it was all a joke. I travelled on the length of a shop ot two and I next saw Clarke in William M'Gonigle's arms. I ran then to see about a Doctor, and when I came back I saw Clarke being carried into the shop. I saw no blood or wound on Clarke and I never heard him speak.”

Sergeant Elliott said that on Saturday night he went to the house of James Eaton at 13 Upper Violet-street at 11.15 and found the prisoner, Thomas Eaton, there. When charged with murdering Clarke, Eaton said “I'll say nothing. He 'bummed' me up. Young Sharkey was in the shop at the time. He saw me sharp the knife.” On the way to the police office prisoner said”There is no use grousing about it. It is done I am prepared to take the consequences. We were always the best of friends, Bob and me. It was all bravado. He said I could not sharp the knife, and I said I could and stick it in him too.”

Accused was remanded in custody until tomorrow.

The police have taken possession of the knife, steel and Clarke's clothing.

The Inquest was held on Monday evening at the deceased's residence, 28, Lower Violet-street, before Mr. W. J. Arthur, J. P., Deputy-Coroner, and a jury.

Mr. H. S. Robinson was for the accused, and Head-Constable Fallon represented the Authorities.

Alex Clarke, brother of the deceased, gave evidence of identification. He said he last saw his brother alive about 7.30 on Saturday evening. At about eleven o'clock he was carried home, dead.

Dr. A. Malseed gave evidence of being called to attend deceased in Sharkey's butcher shop. Deceased was then dead. Witness found an incised wound on the left side of his chest one inch long. Witness could not state the cause of death.

At this stage the Deputy-Coroner stated there was nothing further to be done for the present except order a post-mortem examination, as Dr. Malseed was not in a position as yet to state the cause of death, and they were unable to say if the wound mentioned was the cause of death or not.

The inquest was then adjourned till Saturday, the post-mortem to be carried out in the meantime.

The widespread sympathy which the affair has aroused was evidenced on Tuesday afternoon, when the funeral of the deceased took place. There were some impressive scenes while the cortage was proceeding to the Cemetery. Many hundred people of all creeds and classes followed the remains.


Belfast Newsletter, Tuesday March 27, 1928.

Christmas Eve Tragedy.

Crown Supports Plea of Lieniency.

Thomas Eaton, Violet Street, Waterside, Londonderry, pleaded guilty to the Manslaughter of Robert Clarke, Lower Violet Street, on Christmas Eve last.

Mr T. M. Maxwell, K. C. and Mr R. W. M'Neill, instructed by Mr J. E. Young, (for the Crown Solicitor) appeared for the Crown, and Mr E. S. Murphy, K. C. and Mr J. C. MacDowell (instructed by Messers Caldwell and Robinson) appeared for the accused.

An extremely said case was a most remarkable case.

Eaton was unmarried, aged 41 years, and for the last eight years resided with his brother-in-law, James Clarke, and his sister, Mrs Clarke. During the 41 years of Eaton's life he had never been in in trouble of any kind. No criminal charge had ever been brought against him. He had always borne the highest character and had been a hard-working, steady, responsible well-educated peaceable citizen. He was a man who had never been given to fits of anger, and would never willingly, or wittingly do an injury to a fellowman. On 24th December he went to a football match in the afternoon with David Clarke, brother of Robert Clarke, the dead man. Before the Match Eaton took some drink. He was not given to drinking, but very rare occasions he had taken drink. The effect of drink on him was to cause the loss of self-control, and almost entirely to deaden his faculties, but he never became quarrelsome. Robert Clarke was almost a lifelong friend of the prisoner. In the Butcher's shop they were in a jolly mood, and Eaton was steeling a knife. There was no suggestion that any angry words passed between them. Both had drink taken. It would be idle of him to suggest that the prisoner had not rightly taken the view that he was uilty of the offence. This most remarkable case, though in law amounting to a crime, approximated in reality to a tragical accident. His Lordship had said that the Crown had taken a merciful view in sending up a bill of Manslaughter, but, he submitted, they took correct view of this crime, and he submitted that this was a case in which his Lordship would take a most merciful view of the position of the prisoner. The man had suffered terribly as a result of this crime. To be charged with causing the death of his best friend, was possibly the worst fate that could have befallen him.

James Clarke, (a brother-in-law), James M'Loughlin, Thomas Clarke, Alderman J. Mark, M. B. E., Seargeant Elliott and Alderman Captain J. M. Wilson, M. C., gave evidence on behalf of the prisoner's good character.


Mr Maxwell said he was going to take a rather unusual course for Crown Council. He asked his Lordship to exercise the extreme of leiency towards this man. He did not want it to go forth from that Court that the Crown, as represented by him, had taken a light view of the loss of human life. It was a terrible thing that this man lost his life in this way, but, while that was so, he thought that, if he might respectfully say, as Atorney General, in instructing him originally to prosecute this man for Manslaughter, and not for Murder, took a proper view of the facts of the case.

His Lordship -- I agree.

Mr Maxwell said the next question was to what extent was this manslaughter a matter that merited severe punishment. When the very special circumstances of this case were remembered, he did not think the public interest would suffer if his Lordship exercised the extreme of liency towards the prisoner. He did that feeling he was taking a great responsibility on his shoulders.

(the next two lines of photoprint are blurred and unreadable)

---a man's life had been taken away. Robert Clarke had been sent to eternity in a moment, and sent to eternity by the hand of one of his life-long friends. He had intended in case the prisoner pleaded guilty, or was found guilty, to inflict a very severe term of imprisonment, or, indeed, perhaps a term of penal servitude, but having regard to the splendid character that had been given to this man, and the attitude taken up by the Crown, he thought he would be justified-- he did so with great hesitation, and he was not sure that he was right--- In recording a sentenceagainst the prisoner, who had now been three months in jail. He was taking a mersiful course having regard to the attitude adopted by the Crown, and he thought their attitude was right. He would record against the prisoner a sentence of twelve calendar months imprisonment with hard labour, but this sentence would not be executed on the prisoner entering into his own recognances of £100 and two surities of £50 each for prisoner's good behavior for the next two years.

The necessary recognances were entered into and the prisoner was discharged.