Murder mysteries at the South Wall

Photo © Oliver Dixon (cc-by-sa/2.0)

The Pigeon House and its accompanying buildings are a well-known part of Ringsend’s sailing and industrial history, but perhaps lesser known is the story of the tumultuous Pidgeon House murders of 1761 and the Ringsend family at the centre of the scandal.

The story of the murders begins with John Pidgeon, his wife, his son Ned and his daughters, Mary and Rachel Pidgeon (the ‘d’ in their name was later dropped). During the building of the great south wall, John Pidgeon worked as the caretaker of a storehouse used by the builders and lived with his family in a timber house where the ESB power station now stands.

Soon, Dubliners began making their way out to the wall on Sundays and holidays to watch the works and Pidgeon began selling refreshments and operating a pleasure boat, capitalising on the walls popularity.
A 19th century Ringsend native recalled: “During the times the works were going on, the word was of a Sunday – ‘Where shall we go?’ ‘To the Pile-ends and take our dinner in the Pidgeon’s house.’”
One summer’s evening the Pidgeons heard cries of distress coming from a boat of four men below their window. The Pidgeons admitted the four men and gave them food and drink and a place to rest. One of the men took off his hat and on his head was a large wen, which the Pidgeon’s later had rueful reasons for remembering.

Suddenly the four men drew sabres and threatened the aging Mr and Mrs Pidgeon as they tied them up and began pillaging the house. In an attempt to save his sisters from a swiping knife, the courageous Ned Pidgeon caught the descending blade, ripping his hand apart and maiming him for life.
Leaving his sisters to fend off the attackers, Ned ran to raise the alarm with neighbours. Upon returning with his hastily dressed hand and two other men armed with pistols, Ned found that the intruders had already fled and so the three men gave chase.

Upon arriving at the dock, Ned found that the attackers had stolen one of their boats and the rest had been attacked with a boat hook, rendering them useless. The marauders had escaped into the night unscathed, or so it would seem.

News of the robbery spread through Dublin the next morning and upon realising the absence of the Pidgeon’s pleasure boat from its usual spot, the Sunday excursionists flocked to the Piles-End to console the family. A collection was made which was big enough to compensate the Pidgeons for their losses. A new boat was organised for the family to resume business.
Within a few days, Ned and his father were back out in their boat. But unbeknownst to Mr Pidgeon and his son, there was more than just fish lurking beneath the surface of the water.

Ned was now only able to steer the boat on account of his maimed hand. It was on this excursion that Mr Pidgeon hooked a heavy object on his line. Presuming it to be a piece of heavy rope he drew his line in to discover he had hooked a corpse. Worse still, he recognised the corpse as one of the men who had just attacked his home the previous Saturday night. Just when the Pidgeons thought that their ordeal was over, the appearance of this corpse posed a host of new questions. How had this man met his end and what had happened to the other three assailants?

The mystery continued to unfold as yet another body was mysteriously washed ashore – the body of the second robber. There were four men the night of the robbery, two of them were dead but where were the other two? It would be the following summer before the pieces of the puzzle began to fit together.
The following winter old Mr Pidgeon passed away. Mrs Pidgeon was already helpless and so too was Ned, whose hand had almost rotted away. Now being incapacitated, Ned hired two men to row the Pidgeon’s pleasure boat while Ned steered and collected the money.
One day while the two hired men ate lunch on the shore, Ned became transfixed by a jack-knife lying on a seat in the boat. He immediately recognised it as his late father’s knife which had been stolen the night of the robbery. Yielding the knife at one of the men, Ned accused him of robbery, causing the thief to jump overboard, losing his hat in the process. As the man resurfaced, his bare head revealed the same wen that Ned had seen on the attackers head the night his family’s home was robbed. The one man who could piece together the story of the two resurfacing corpses was now desperately swimming away from Ned.

Throwing a rope around his wrist, Ned and the other man pulled the robber aboard the boat and sailed him to the military port where he was charged with armed robbery and sentenced to death by hanging. Realising he was coming to his end and had nothing left to lose the man confessed to the murder by stabbing of all three of his accomplices in a squabble over the division of their loot.
The murderer stated that after falling overboard on his own boat he was then picked up by a smuggler on a ship where he worked until he was injured and eventually dropped ashore. Being unable to work at sea anymore he began rowing a ferryboat until he was hired by the Pidgeons.
After the triple murderer was hanged, Ned Pidgeon died on the operating table and was followed to the grave by Mrs Pidgeon six weeks later leaving Mary and Rachel with the tough fate of keeping the family business going.

One stormy evening the sisters heard the sound of distress signals coming from the entrance of the harbour. Placing candles in every window they hoped to guide the storm trapped vessel to safety.
The next morning the two sisters sailed their boat out to the wreckage of two ships and found three survivors – two American men and a young boy. Taking the three in, the sisters nursed them back to health, with Mary building a rapport over time with the young boy and his widowed father.
The boy’s father and Mary fell in love and soon married in Dublin. Her new husband took Mary and her sister Rachel to live in New York. Soon Rachel was also married and the Pidgeon’s began their new life in

New York leaving life on the Piles-End behind them.
And so ends the tumultuous tale of the Pidgeon family and the mysterious Pidgeon house murders. Although the ‘d’ was later dropped from the name, we shouldn’t forget the family or their tale. As Hynes puts it in his 1953 article, “Spell it Pidgeon – with the ‘d.’ They earned that much from this Dublin of ours. God rest them.”

Special thanks to Jim Cooke who brought this amazing tale to NewsFour’s attention.

by Paula Boden