auxies-with-guns-at-ch Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Counting some trophies (The Allen Library collection, now held by Military Archives)

Possibly a controversial subject for most readers, this covers the IRA’s opponents at the Burning. But, as someone once said, it can be wise to know your enemies.

Hopefully the following gives some idea of what the lightly armed Dublin Brigade men faced that day in 1921.

25 May 1921

The first Crown forces to arrive at the scene were Auxy F Company from Dublin Castle, followed shortly by Q Company from the North Wall.

Many believed (and still do) that the Auxies happened to pass the Custom House by chance and felt if the IRA pickets had held their fire things may have turned out differently that day….

Source of Alarm?

However, the Auxies were forewarned and on a mission to the Custom House. Three possible sources for a tip-off are recorded.

  1. DMP Det. Inspr. Alexander McCabe acting on information received by phone from an unnamed (Irish) civil servant; or
  2. An anonymous off-duty DMP man cycling by who saw suspicious activity, turned around and went to Dublin Castle; or
  3. A DMP man sent from Store Street police station to the Castle (See here).

The IRA had cut telephone/telegraph links to the Custom House, so in all probability it had to be some outside observer who raised the alarm.

At the Castle

We may never know who actually alerted the Castle but somebody definitely did. According to post-action reports by F Company officers, they received an urgency call (sic) from Dublin District HQ at 1310 hours (in the middle of their lunch).

The word was that 100 armed men were holding up the Custom House. A party was hastily mustered and rushed off fully armed (including one Lewis machine gun) in two Crossley tenders. A couple of minutes later a third tender, accompanied by a Rolls Royce armoured car, drove out of the Castle towards the location of the incident. A second armoured car, of the slower Peerless type, followed.

Arrival on Scene

The convoy reached Beresford Place beside the Custom House at 1315 hours.

Then, said Lt. & 1st D.I. R. K. Caparn, O/C of Auxy F Company: “Just after passing under the Railway Bridge and drawing up, fire was opened on us from the Customs House and all around”.

F Company Intelligence Officer Lt. & 3rd D.I. Dermot MacMahon O’ Byrne (a Dubliner) elaborated in a Special Intelligence Report:

“As the first two tenders entered Beresford Place and were proceeding in the direction of the front entrance of the Customs House a heavy hail of fire was opened on them from the windows of the Customs House, the Railway line and the adjoining street corners. The tenders immediately halted to get into action and as the crew dismounted from the second tender bombs were thrown at them from the Railway line overhead. Six Cadets sustained casualties [sic] – two slight. (The men were English except where shown otherwise):

  • Capt. & 3rd D.I. J. J. Huntingford – slight abrasions;
  • Section Leader (S/L) H. H. Oliver – slight abrasions face;
  • S/L G. H. Lewis (Born in Wales)  – (Dangerous) leg and arm;
  • Temporary Cadet (T/C) A. L. G. Tottenham (Born in Ireland) – leg and arm;
  • T/C H. Beaumont – foot; and
  • T/C J. A. Goold – foot.

All with the exception of Lewis are progressing favourably……”

(For anyone interested, there’s a brief note further below on the Auxies, ranks, etc).

The above understated the wounds suffered by some (By the way, the use of “Dangerous” was not a comment about how fierce Lewis was – it meant he was in a bad way. The man was also hit in the arm by a bullet). Almost all received compensation later.

Auxy Section Leader R. S. Simpson wrote of being thrown off his feet by the force of the explosion, but was unhurt.

Dan Head’s Action

The Auxies’ casualties, by their own accounts, were all caused by the bomb thrown by teenaged Volunteer Dan Head, who was immediately shot dead by the armoured car’s bullets. You can read his story here

Auxy wounded Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

This was most likely S/L Lewis (Courtesy of Peter McGoldrick)

Auxy Casualties

It is not our aim here to give biogs of those men, but brief notes follow (some details from – duly checked & added to!).

1) James J. Huntingford (1879-1946): ex Lt. Devonshire Regt., joined September 1920. Platoon commander, F Company. Leader of many raids for IRA arms and men in Dublin during 1921.

2) Harold R. Oliver (1889-1980): ex 2/Lt. Royal Garrison Artillery, joined October 1920. Blast injuries to both eyes. Awarded £450 compensation. Seems to have resumed duty later.

3) Gwilym H. Lewis (1895-?): ex Lt. 6/London Regt., joined October 1920. Multiple shrapnel wounds and a bullet though one arm. Discharged medically unfit, November 1921. Awarded £1,700 compensation. Possibly went to South Africa or Malaysia in 1922.

4) Arthur Loftus Gore Tottenham MM [Military Medal – but see comment at end by Reader Hugh Keane] (1874-1940): ex Major, New Zealand military, joined August 1920. From Auxy Depot at Beggars Bush. Fractured arm and leg. Discharged medically unfit, November 1921. Awarded £2,500 compensation (on appeal). Born in Co Leitrim to “Landed Gentry”, he had a very chequered career, e.g. was with K Company when they burned Cork city and was demoted as Intelligence Officer after a robbery elsewhere (For those reasons we might just do a future post on this “dodgy auxy”).

5) Harry Beaumont MM (1895-1983): ex Lt. Rifle Brigade, joined November 1920. Discharged medically unfit, November 1921. Claimed £2,000 compensation. A TV interview with him is included in the section on the Custom House here.

6) John A. Goold (1894-1982): ex Lt. RNVR, joined December 1920. No further details of wounds but was admitted to KGV Military Hospital after the attack on the Custom House. Returned to duty a couple of months afterwards.

So, at least three of them were put out of the fight in Ireland for good – but lived to advanced ages.

Some Others Involved

A few others notable, or notorious, from actions or photos from the Burning of the Custom House:

S/L Leonard G. Appleford (1894-1921): ex 2/Lt., Machine Gun Corps, joined September 1920. One of the Auxies who “rescued” the Blue Ensign (British Customs & Excise flag) from the roof of the burning building.  A month later, off-duty, he and another Auxy were shot dead in broad daylight on Grafton Street.

grafton-st-hits Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

See also BMH WS0477

T/C Richard Dentith (1896-1974): ex Lt. Inniskilling Fusiliers, joined November 1920. Previously wounded by the IRA in the Battle of Brunswick St, 14 March 1921. Features in several photos from 25 May and is labelled A in photo below. He is also in the “Cairo Gang” photo.

T/C James Waddingham MC [Military Cross] (1883-1972): ex Capt. Artillery, joined February 1921. Labelled B in same pic. A tall, lean guy, he appears carrying a rifle in many pictures from the attack on the Custom House.

arrested1-labelled Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Courtesy of Peter McGoldrick. (An IRA intelligence copy labelled ‘Denteith’ X & ‘Waddington’ Y). The IRA’s Tom Flood is at extreme right and Bill Donegan is 3rd from right. The man between them is probably Paddy Brunton.

Others mentioned in reports were (all F Coy except otherwise noted): 2nd D. I. Crang (2nd in command), 3rd D.I.s Fruen and Towse (Q Coy), T/Cs O’Connel-Corson, Winch, O’Rourke, Crewe and Goodbody.

The Auxies used far heavier weaponry than the IRA that day – Lee Enfield rifles, machine guns in two armoured cars plus portable Lewis machine guns, shotguns and handguns (see here).

A combination of fire from armoured cars and Auxies fatally shot 5 IRA. The Auxies mistakenly shot dead one Custom House civil servant and wounded a dozen others during the assault on the building. Most likely they also killed two other innocent civilians caught in the wrong place at the wrong time – John Byrne and James Connolly.

Selective Arrests of IRA Suspects

They made out arrest sheets for 18 IRA men arrested at the Burning:

*Patrick Brunton                              William Donegan

*John Sliney                                     Richard Joseph Seville

*James Thomas Shiels1                    Thomas Patrick Rigney2 

*Michael Watchorn                          Hugh William Fitzgerald3

*John James Wilson                         Christopher Fitzsimons

*Ned Breslin                                     John Foy

Frank Brennan                                 Edward John Lane

Thomas Francis McKenna               Cyril James Daly

Patrick McGlynn (wounded)            John (Sean) Ward (wounded)

* Allegedly in possession of revolvers or ammunition (The Auxies reported capturing 27 hand guns and one bomb).

¹ Alias used by Tom Flood.

² Alias used by Jim Conroy

3 Alias used by Gerald Hughes.

Prisoners’ Fates

The two wounded men were brought to King George V (now St Bricin’s) Military Hospital, while the 16 others were taken to Dublin Castle. There they suffered severe interrogations and beatings before the 6 marked * were sent to Mountjoy Jail on capital charges. The other 10 went to Kilmainham Gaol (The main body of men were arrested by the military, the Wiltshire Regiment, who arrived shortly after the battle had ended. Over 100 were taken away in lorries to Arbour Hill Detention Barracks and those determined to be IRA members were later interned in Kilmainham).

Battle ‘Honours’

The Auxies were well chuffed with their actions on 25 May 1921. An expert has discovered one Auxy officer mentioned above received the highest police award, the Constabulary Medal, after the battle. While this would of course have been good for British propaganda and morale, it possibly also shows some recognition of the dangerous military capabilities of the Dublin Brigade.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Two of the Auxies, Appleford (later killed on Grafton Street) and Simpson, acted with their military mindset about colours. They climbed onto the roof of the building and recovered the Blue Ensign flag mentioned above. A group posed with that trophy (plus weapons found) afterwards in a happy mood. Simpson kept it as a souvenir for many years before it was sold.

Short note on the Auxies

The following includes personal opinions of the writer.


Auxiliary Division, Royal Irish Constabulary (ADRIC), the Auxies, were recruited mainly from former British military officers with WW1 experience.

join-the-auxies-ad1920 Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Devised and created in June 1920 by Churchill & others, they were thrown together with minimal police training.

The good pay attracted many – some war-junkies seeking adventure and others unemployed and looking for work – to face “a rough and dangerous task”, as Lloyd George (British Prime Minister) termed his undeclared war on “the IRA/Sinn Féin terrorists” in Ireland. At any time there were about 1,500 serving Auxies. In all, just over 2,000 joined. They originated from over a dozen countries worldwide, but the vast majority were English. Some were Catholics. More than 170 were Irish born.

Organisation and Chaos

Auxies were formed into Companies of about 100, lettered A-R (plus the somewhat mysterious S and Z). In effect they became a second semi-independent British army in the 26 counties (only a tiny number were based in the north). They quickly gained notoriety for violence – reprisals, torture, destruction of property, indiscriminate shooting and summary executions.

Auxies were called Temporary Cadets (ex-military officers) and Temporary Constables (ex-military NCO’s and other ranks as drivers, etc in the Veterans Drivers Division).

They were graded in line with Old RIC ranks. 1st D.I. meant 1st Class District Inspector, 3rd D.I. was 3rd Class District Inspector, Section Leaders were equivalent to RIC Head Constables and Temp. Cadets to RIC Sergeants. Auxy officers also used their former military rank, e.g. Lieutenant & 3rd District Inspector. Unit officers were elected by their colleagues.

Not Tans, Probably Worse!

Auxies are commonly termed Black & Tans – another disastrous knee-jerk response to the Irish situation by Britain – but had a separate command & organisation and were paid twice as much. Originally they wore their old military uniforms with a tam o’ shanter hat. They eventually had RIC dark green-blue uniforms; and a distinctive Balmoral bonnet with company badge with coloured flash on the side, a bobble on top and ribbons at the back.

But they didn’t always fight in uniform….. (See F Company, below).

All Auxies were heavily armed, with a wide selection of personal weapons, machine guns, plenty of ammo and transport for operations.

Bad Reputation

There is a belief they were the dregs let loose from British jails. Not true, but many must have been mentally scarred by the Great War. There was a higher than average suicide rate among them, according to one researcher. And some were convicted or sacked for ordinary crimes while in Ireland. One of their own, J. C. Reynolds of F Company (who sold secret information to Michael Collins’ intelligence service) said “some were very good and about 10% were bad eggs”. A few led lives of crime after leaving the Auxies.

Trouble Makers

One expert has found 4 who had been jailed before becoming Auxies. An example is the very same T/C Sparrow mentioned for arresting Johnny Wilson at the Custom House, here. Sparrow was banged up in 1913 for robbery in England. His excuse to the judge – he needed the money for betting! While serving in Dublin Sparrow was pictured in a group of F Coy Auxies posing with their armoured cars at Dublin Castle, a photo captured and labelled with names by IRA Intelligence.

Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

F Company pose with 2 armoured cars at Dublin Castle.


Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Partial crop showing T/C Sparrow numbered 11 (top left)

In a wider context, around the time the Custom House was burned newspaper headlines included the conviction of one Tan (Mitchell, later hanged) for a murder/robbery in Co Wicklow; and the white-wash court martial of 13 Auxies of N Company sacked for looting a loyalist’s wine and spirit business in Trim, Co Meath.

trim Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

Brig. Gen. Frank Crozier (first commander of the Auxy force) resigned when 8 accused were exonerated and re-instated.

In Dublin

Over 400 Auxies (F, Q and 3 other Companies rotating) were in Dublin at any one time. They also had a depot in Beggars Bush Barracks (This was, briefly, considered as a possible alternative target to the Custom House).

F Company formed on 30 July 1920 and was permanently based in Dublin, with HQ at the Castle. They could call on armoured cars with military crews and for BA back-up as required (At the Custom House the Auxies were supported and replaced by the Wiltshire Regiment). During the WoI three of them were killed and 9 wounded by the IRA.

F Company was closely associated with dark forces of the Crown in the Castle, including notorious figures like Capt. ‘Tiny’ King, Capt. ‘Hoppy’ Hardy and the Igoe or Murder Gang. They often went undercover in a deadly cat-and-mouse street war with the Dublin Brigade and were implicated in many notorious episodes in Dublin.

cairo-gang-pic-labelled Burning of Dublin Custom House 1921

The so-called “Cairo Gang” photo, at Dublin Castle. They were really F Company Auxies. No. 6 is Appleford, no. 1 is Dentith (face just visible)  – both mentioned in the article.

Q Company, the “Ship Searchers”, formed in February 1921 and was located at Irish major ports to stop arms smuggling. Members were mostly seamen and ex-navy. Dublin HQ was at the former London & North Western Railway Hotel, not far from the Custom House. It was attacked by 2nd Battalion on 11 April 1921. Later the Dublin Brigade killed one and seriously wounded another from Q Coy at the Mayfair Hotel. Michael Collins dismissed Q Company’s impact – “One of the old ‘G’ crowd [DMP detectives] would be worth 20 of them”.

A Lasting Bad Taste

The Auxies existed for less than 2 years but left an indelible mark on Irish memory.

One researcher says fifty nine Auxies died in Ireland and 44 of those were killed by the IRA. This writer has counted 11 in Dublin. Over 100 were wounded in action, in accidents, by friendly fire, etc. Nobody has yet counted their civilian or IRA victims although a few books on overall fatalities have been published recently.

They were tough opponents for the IRA (See the book ‘Where Mountainy Men Have Sown‘ by by Micheal Ó Súilleabháin). The Spy in the Castle David Neligan thought “They were a thoroughly dangerous mob, far more intelligent than the Tans”. Unleashed with few controls, they had no worries about disciplinary action if they shot innocent people or IRA men “attempting to escape”. Their hated reputation was earned through their behaviour towards the general population, whether neutral, loyalist, nationalist or active IRA.

The Auxies were the cause of many questions and rows in the British parliament and outraged some politicians and public opinion across the water. Most Old RIC were in awe of them and even feared them. They were popular only in their own barracks mess – when not fighting or shooting each other….

One Exception

Was anything good ever said about them by the Irish? Well, maybe once. It was acknowledged that during the court martial of Longford Brigade Comdt. Sean MacEoin, 3 Auxy survivors from the Clonfin ambush gave character evidence, testifying how well he’d treated them as wounded prisoners (He was still sentenced to death, the Truce and Mick Collins saved him).

Exit from Ireland

The Auxies were withdrawn from this country by end January 1922 and all units disbanded. The Freemans Journal, tongue-in-cheek, wished the “Ogsies” a speedy trip home. Very few shed a tear over their exit. Unlike regular Tommies, they did not have many Irish girlfriends!

Needless to say, they did not go quietly. Two companies mutinied, refusing to give up their arms and leave a ship in a Welsh port; and there were other disputes over pay, expenses, unpaid bills and pensions which rumbled on. Some former Auxies went to Palestine to support the British mandate there. Britain eventually paid them all off at a higher price in sterling than planned.

But Ireland incurred a far bigger cost through deaths and injuries; and economic woes from destruction of property and businesses, jobs lost and compensation paid.

Des White

Credits and sources: (Peter McGoldrick); (David Grant); Books ‘Tudor’s Toughs’ and ‘The Auxies’ by Erne McCall; Irish Newspaper archives.

And to Kind Reader Dermot Gunn who corrected my silly error about who’s who in The Cairo Gang pic.