Terrorism in London: an echo from the 1880s

The-Illustrated-Police-News-etc-London-England-Saturday-January-31-1885-London-tower-copy

In the light of this weekend’s terrorist attack in London I was reminded of a graphic I saw recently detailing the state of terror in Britain in the 50 odd years I’ve been alive. This graph is for Europe not simply the UK but it quite clearly shows that we have been through worse times than this in terms of numbers of people killed and wounded. I am not in the business of belittling the current state of emergency, I live in London and have friends all over the country. We need to vigilant and we need to carry on and show solidarity and strength; this sort of extremist terrorism is a real threat to our lives and our beliefs.

However, its not new, even if it comes in a new form.

In the 1970s and 80s terrorism at home came from Ireland in the guise of nationalists. Abroad it was middle-eastern or closely related to organised political crime. But even seventies terrorism wasn’t a new phenomena; we had terrorism in the 1800s as well.

In Europe political extremists (to use a modern term) committed terrorist ‘outrages’ with alarming regularity. They planted bombs, through bombs, and stated assassination attempts. In 1881 three bombers attempted the life of Tsar Alexander II. The first failed (Alexander was protected by his bullet-proof carriage), the second succeeded, and so the third assassin didn’t need to use his improvised suitcase bomb.

The killing didn’t achieve anything useful, it merely brought about a crackdown on extremists and put back the cause of political reform in Russia many years.

From the 1860s onwards Irish nationalists engaged in what was termed the ‘dynamite war’ with the  British State. In 1867 bombers attempted to blow a hole in Clerkenwell prison to allow their fellow nationalists to escape. Twelve people were killed and many more injured. In the end one man was convicted and held accountable, even though he may have been a fall guy for the Victorian state. Michael Barrett has the dubious honour of being the last man to be hanged publicly in England as a result of the bombing.

In the wake of the bombing at Clerkenwell Karl Marx recognised that the Irish national cause was not helped by blowing up innocent civilians in London. In fact he suggested that he actually helped the government. His 1867 comment is eerily prescient in 2017:

“The London masses, who have shown great sympathy towards Ireland will be made wild and driven into the arms of a reactionary government”. Karl Marx (1867)

In the 1880s the war led to several terrorist attacks in the capital, none of which were very successful or had the effect of Clerkenwell. At the end of May 1884 the  Pall Mall Gazette reported a number of related incidents in London under the headline, ‘Dynamite outrages in London’.

Scotland Yard, the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police, was attacked. A bomb was left in a toilet block behind the Rising Sun pub, and when it went off it knocked out all the lights in the pub and the nearby police lodgings. Several people were hurt, mostly by flying glass and other debris, no one seems to have been killed. The target was said to be the Detective Division HQ nearby or (and this is more likely) that of the Special Irish Branch.

Almost instantaneously another explosion rocked Pall Mall. A bomb went off outside the Junior Carlton Club, in St James’ Square, a smart gentleman’s club which was a favourite of London’s elite. Nearby however, were the offices of the Intelligence Department of the War Office who may have bene the real quarry of the bombers. Again, there was lots of broken glass and superficial damage but few casualties.

A second bomb, in St James Square seems to have had similarly limited effects. Several people were treated for cuts but no one died.

The paper also reported that a terrorist attack on Trafalgar Square had been foiled:

‘While all this excitement was going on , some boys, passing close to Nelson’s Column, noticed a carpet bag reclining against the base of the pedestal.’ The bag was seized by a vigilant policeman (who I believe thought the boys were trying to pinch it). He saw one of the boys aim a kick at the bag and probably thought they were about to run off with it. When the bag was examined it was found to contain ‘seventeen and a half cakes of what is believed to be dynamite, and a double fuse’. The boys had a lucky escape.

Earlier that year there had been similar attacks at Victoria  Station and other London termini, on the London Underground and later, in 1885 at the Tower of London and the Houses of Parliament. In 1884 a gang of Irish republicans blew themselves up on London Bridge, but not deliberately, they were trying to set a fuse which detonated accidentally. They were intent on sending Westminster a message and an attack on the iconic heart of the capital (note, Tower Bridge was not yet completed), would have made that message very clear: we are here and we can get to you.

Ultimately Irish Republican (or ‘Fenian’) terrorism was not successful in the 1880s or the 1970s. The Good Friday Agreement which ended the decades (if not centuries) of war between nationalists and the British State was the result of negotiation by diplomacy, not a forced surrender of the British state. Indeed there was recognition that the Republican movement was not going to force the British to agree to ‘freedom’ through the armalite  or the bomb, and that’s why they agreed to talks.

I doubt we can hope that the current crop of terrorists will come to the same conclusion anytime soon but we can at least demonstrate to them that we won’t be cowed, or beaten, or surrender to their vicious brand of hate. In the meantime they will keep trying to terrify us and we will keep carrying on with our lives, knowing this is the best way to show them that they can’t win.

Meanwhile, in 1885, some of those responsible for the bomb attacks in London over the previous year were brought to trial at the Old Bailey. James Gilbert (alias Cunningham) and Harry Burton were convicted after a long trial, of treason, and sentenced to penal servitude for life. For those of you with a fascination for the Jack the Ripper case you will be interested to know that detective inspector Frederick Abberline (along with two others) was mentioned by the judge for his efforts in bringing the case to court.*

If you want to read more about Fenian ‘outrages’ in 1880s’ London then a section of my 2010 book London Shadows: the dark side of the Victorian City, deals with it in more depth.

[from The Pall Mall Gazette, Saturday, May 31, 1884]

*MR. JUSTICE HAWKINS  called attention to a presentment by the Grand Jury, expressing their strong approval of the conduct of the Police in this case, and particularly mentioning Inspectors Abberline, Jarvis, and Hagan, and desire that the attention of the proper authorities should be called to the same.

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