A Kilkenny Convict Turned Hero

Paddy Neary

The Kilkenny Journal edition of November 19th 1884 reported of an incident in Kilkenny Prison on the previous Saturday. James Hogan a resident of Walkin Street and an employee of Power & Son had a marvellous escape from what would have been a shocking death while working in the County Prison, at a depth of sixty four feet, in a pump well which he was cleaning. He had been proceeding with his work when at about noon, portion of the well lining falling in, he was gripped at the hips and held in the sludge. He quickly signalled “In Distress,” Mr Purcell his supervisor realised the perilous situation and summoned all available hands to render assistance.

The first efforts proving unsuccessful, it immediately became clear to his co workers the awful situation and sent horror through those who were witnesses. Death by drowning stared the unfortunate man in the face. The water rose quickly but in a desperate struggle for life he worked in baling out the water in buckets lowered to him by a windlass. Exhaustion set in and his case looked hopeless when partaking of some stimulants supplied to him by Mr. Purcell. He cheeringly said all was not lost with him. Rev. M. Dalton having attended, exorted the man to recite the absolution prayers. As a result of a consultation with Dr. Johnson, the visiting physician, Hogan was strapped in a leather harness and attached to a windlass for the purpose of hauling him up. Gradually the wheel turned, gradually the rope tightened but the agonising scream from the man indicated the pain he was enduring and could result in limbs being separated from body. As a last resort Mr. Purcell and two men were lowered into the well at 5.00 p.m. They remained working with picks and shovels until 9.30 p.m. when their exertions were rewarded with success. Hogan was free and as he ascended to the top of the well he was received with cheers, by those who surrounded it. Amongst them Captain Stewart, Governor of the Prison who rendered what aid he could as was within his power. Father Dalton was given great credit for remaining with the unfortunate man until he was brought to safety. Hogan was weak but by Monday evening completely recovered. Throughout his ordeal he displayed a courage which perhaps served to save him from what would have been a shocking death.

A letter in the Kilkenny Journal of the following week Nov. 22nd 1884, from Captain Hugh Stewart, Governor of the Prison and a caustic by the Editor appeared. The letter read as follows.

Her Majesty’s Prison


21st Nov. 1884

Sir, I as Governor of the above prison would feel obliged by correcting some mis-

statements in your issue of Wednesday last regarding the accident which occurred at the well which is being sunk in this prison. Your informant has not furnished you with the true facts of the case. Firstly it would appear that no help was rendered until 5.30 p.m. whereas in reality help was at hand within 15 minutes of James Hogan’s signal of distress at 12.30 p.m. Secondly, no part of the lining of the well gave way, the accident was simply caused by the man’s boots getting stuck in the mud, in which he was engaged at removing from the well. Mr. Purcell, Messrs. Power’s foreman accompanied by Peter Betts, descended the well and after using every endeavour to lift the man out by pulley and winch which proved ineffectual commenced working in sending up to the surface the semi liquid stuff from around the legs of the man Hogan, which held him fast. This continued for three and a half hours on a stretch, when they were relieved by fresh volunteers who went down. Thirdly it was Dr. Johnson who suggested the iron crook as a means of release, although the rope and winch were used, sufficient strain was not at any time to make the man cry out in agony. Messrs. Powers men relieved each other at intervals in this humane work proceeding throughout under the superintendence of Mr. Purcell. The water, being kept under control during the nine hours of suspense, there was really no danger of the man being drowned. The courage of the man Hogan was beyond that displayed by most ordinary men. In concluding these remarks, I make, I wish to say that the men who assisted in this release deserve the greatest praise for their unceasing energy to relieve their comrade.

I am, yours, etc.

Hugh Steward

We hasten to give insertion to the above as Captain Stewart says,” the accident was simply caused by the man’s boots getting stuck in the mud” it seems strange to us that for a trifling mishap, the man had to be extricated by the aid of a windlass not to speak of the “picks” and remained in this perilous position for ten hours. His boots must have been exceedingly “tight” and the “mud” very adhesive. The Editor, Kilkenny Journal

In a subsequent issue Nov. 26th 1884, the following comment appears” But special mention should be made of Peter Betts who descended the well three times and finally succeeded in getting the prisoner free. Local tradition also asserts that one of the prisoners gallantly offered his services on the occasion and performed heroic work in the liberation of James Hogan. This convict was doing a sentence of ten years and in recognition of his services on the occasion his sentence was remitted. The Silver Medal of the Royal Humane Society for life saving was subsequently awarded to Peter Betts.


  • The Kilkenny Journal, November 1884.