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Underground Attacks

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Roland Quinault finds alarming parallels for the recent London bomb attacks in the 1880s.

The almost simultaneous explosions on the London Underground on July 7th, 2005, caused more deaths and casualties than previous terrorist attacks on the city but they were not unprecedented. In the 1880s there were several explosions along what was, at that time, the only underground railway in the world: one took place at Edgware Road, the scene of one of the recent bombings. The earlier attacks were part of a campaign – known as ‘the dynamite war’ – by a group of Irish-American republicans against the British government and high profile targets, particularly in London. The explosions and the response of the public, the press and the government to them provide an interesting comparison with recent events.

The bombing campaign began in 1881 with an unsuccessful attempt to blow up the Mansion House in the City of London. In March 1883 an explosion at an entrance to the Local Government Board off Whitehall, caused much blast damage but no injuries. Then, on the early evening of October 30th, 1883, there were two, nearly simultaneous, attacks on the Underground. A Metropolitan Railway train, which had just left Praed Street Station for Edgware Road Station, was damaged by an explosion in the tunnel;  it shattered the windows and some of the woodwork of the last three carriages of the train. Four men suffered head wounds and there were minor injuries to about two dozen others. Shortly afterwards, there was an explosion in the tunnel between Charing Cross Station and Westminster Station on the Metropolitan District Railway. No trains were passing at the time but the blast blew dust into the adjacent stations, broke the glass and extinguished the lamps on the platforms, creating much alarm. An official enquiry later established that the explosions were probably caused by nitroglycerine.

The passengers injured by the explosion near Edgware Road Station were all in the third-class carriage. They were mostly artisans, including carpenters, cabinet-makers and coach-builders, or shop-keepers, including a grocer, a butcher, a draper and a dispenser. There were also a few labourers and female servants, along with two schoolboys who had come up to London for the day, from Clacton-on-Sea. The social segregation of Victorian society along class lines was also evident seven months later, when an explosion at the Junior Carlton Club injured some of the kitchen staff but none of the club members.

The response of the press and the public to the Underground bombings was concerned but not unduly alarmist.The Times observed that the use of explosives in a narrow tunnel created ‘vast possibilities of destruction’, but considered that it was impossible to guard every railway line and train. Consequently it was ‘greatly to the credit of the people of London that there has been no approach to panic, still less any rash impulses of suspicion and vengeance’. The Times also noted that the working men of England would have no sympathy for such indiscriminate attacks. One correspondent derided the bombers for not blowing up the permanent way – thereby derailing the train and causing a more serious incident! The Victorian public was familiar with railway accidents, many of which were more serious than the Underground explosions.

But the man who was responsible for catching the bombers and preventing further attacks – the Home Secretary, Vernon Harcourt – took the terrorist threat much more seriously. He told Prime Minister Gladstone that they were confronted by ‘a well-organized and fully equipped band who are prepared to commit outrages all over the country on an immense scale’. Harcourt drafted an extra 300 policemen into the centre of London to guard the Underground and public buildings. The bombing campaign convinced him that the Home Office should continue to control the Metropolitan Police rather than a new elected unitary authority for London.

Harcourt also believed that the development of dynamite and nitroglycerine posed a new danger that required new remedies. So he introduced an Explosives Bill, which banned the unlicensed possession of combustible substances and severely punished those convicted of possessing them. The Bill was put through its three House of Commons readings in just an hour-and-a-half and then was passed by the House of Lords later that day. Not everyone, however, was happy with the frantic speed with which the Explosives Bill became law. A few MPs expressed the fear that they were legislating too rapidly and the Conservative Leader of the Opposition, Lord Salisbury, thought that they were acting in a panic and should only pass a temporary measure.

Some of Harcourt’s Cabinet colleagues also thought that he was over-reacting. Gladstone’s secretary Edward Hamilton noted that the premier was ‘perfectly calm and unalarmed; so unlike Harcourt, who is just the reverse’. Hamilton thought that the more alarm that was shown, the more likely it was that the outrages would be repeated. But Harcourt feared it was impossible to eradicate ‘the roots of the mischief’ – because those responsible for the explosions were based in the United States, beyond the reach of the British authorities. They were militant members of Clan na Gael, the leading Irish-American republican organization, but they were not supported by the wider Irish-American community or by the great majority of the Irish in Ireland or Britain. Indeed John O’Leary, the veteran Fenian exile in Paris, denounced the bombing campaign on the grounds that it would not damage or frighten England but would only hurt the Irish community there.

Harcourt denounced the bombers as enemies of the human race – like the pétroleurs of the 1870-71 Paris Commune and the Russian Nihilists. But the timing and location of the London explosions showed that their authors had some scruples. For example, an explosion at Victoria Station in February 1884, went off at one in the morning after the last train had come in and when the station was virtually empty. One of the leading bombers, William Lomasney, wanted to avoid deaths and injuries and so directed his assaults against property rather than people. Ironically, he was killed, with two companions, in December 1884, while planting a bomb under London Bridge.

Nevertheless the attacks continued and in January 1885 a small percussion bomb was thrown from an Underground train between Gower Street Station and King’s Cross. It seems that the Underground was targeted, not out of a desire to kill or maim, but because the darkness in the tunnels allowed the perpetrators to evade arrest. Some of bombers were arrested and convicted, but it was mainly divisions within Clan na Gael and the political opportunity opened up by Gladstone’s support for Irish Home Rule which brought the ‘dynamite war’ to an end in 1886. 

The recent explosions in London differed from those in the 1880s in both the scale of the casualties and the motivation of the bombers, but there were also differences between the victims. In the 1880s they were almost entirely male, working class and English. By contrast, a very large proportion of the recent victims were non-manual workers, women or from a non-English ethnic background. And different language was used about the bombers. Revolution was the great bugbear of most Victorians and the bombers were described as ‘revolutionists’ as well as ‘ruffians’. Today, by contrast, they are called ‘terrorists’ rather than revolutionaries.

But there were also similarities in the reaction of the public and the authorities to the two bombing campaigns. In neither case was there a significant backlash against the ethnic minority associated with the bombings, but on both occasions new security legislation was introduced, designed to reassure the public as well as to prevent further attacks. Then, as now, it was admitted that the general public could not be wholly protected against a ruthless terrorist campaign, which drew support from outside Britain, so more astute politicians recognized that the best way to undermine and isolate the terrorists was by political action. 

Roland Quinault is Reader in History at London Metropolitan University.

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