A ‘suspicious person’ at Woolwich, but ‘not clever enough’ to be a terrorist.

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In the 1880s Woolwich was home to the Royal Arsenal, as it had been since the 17th century (and in fact earlier as there had been used for gun storage from the mid 1500s). After 1886 it was also home to what was to become one of London’s most successful football clubs, Arsenal FC.

Given that artillery and shells were manufactured at Woolwich in the 1800s the site was an important one for the Victorian military, but also a target for the enemies of the state. Security, then, as now, was an issue of national importance and the Victorian state was concerned about internal threats just as much as it was about  those posed by rival imperial powers.

In the 1880s there were  a series of terrorist incidents in London, all part of a long running campaign by Irish nationalists in the cause of independence. It is a subject I have looked at as part of my research into late Victorian London and I drew heavily on the capital’s newspapers and the work of K. M. Short, whose study of Fenian terrorism remains the most comprehensive one out there, despite its age.

So, given the background, we might expect the authorities at Woolwich to be on the look out for potential terrorists, and in April 1881 they thought they might have caught one.

Two constables from the Arsenal were patrolling by the river front when they saw a man rowing up and down, seemingly watching the shoreline. It was particularly suspicious because this was at just after one o’clock int he morning and they could not see what legitimate purpose he had for being there so late (or early). At three he was still there so they called to him and asked him what he was about.

He replied that he was lost and was it possible for him to land. The constables directed him to a pier, and when he docked and climbed the steps they arrested him. The police were called and they questioned him. It was soon discovered that the boat he was in had been stolen from an MP who lived at North Woolwich, Mr (later Sir) Thomas Brassey the member for Hastings.

The man’s name was Michael Sullivan and his peculiar behaviour and Irish background raised concerns that he was a Fenian bent on mischief at the Arsenal. However, when Inspector McElligot was called to give evidence he ‘repudiated any supposition that Fenianism had anything to do with the case, and complained that the most extravagant and unfounded rumours had been circulated’.

The magistrate agreed, he commented: ‘I agree with you that he is not a Fenian. I doesn’t look clever enough’, which was met with much laughter in the Woolwich Police Court, before his worship (Mr Balgey) sent him to prison for a for a month at hard labour.

1884 saw a number of terrorist outrages in London. A bomb was placed at Victoria Railway Station and other London termini, and a fairly inept attempt to blow up London Bridge resulted in the death of the bombers. In May 1884 two boys kicking an abandoned briefcase attracted the attention of a policeman who found they were playing with a case containing dynamite, fuses and a detonator! These incidents followed attacks in 1882 (at the Lord Mayor’s residence, Mansion House) and at the offices of The Times newspaper in 1883. In January 1885 the Houses of Parliament were targeted  along with he Tower of London, and the new underground railway was also subject to a bomb attack, as the Hammersmith train left Aldgate station.

There were few deaths and nothing like the serious level of injury that modern terrorists have inflicted recently, but it still reminded Victorian society that as long as Britain insisted on claiming Ireland as a colony Victoria’s subjects would not be safe in their homes or their streets. It also contributed to wider prejudice and the stereotyping of Irish immigrants in London and elsewhere, something that we see repeated in the demonisation of moslems today.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, April 20, 1881]

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