Terrorism is nothing new to London

A huge explosion has just rocked central London. Twelve people are dead and nearby property has been badly damaged. A dangerous extremist movement is believed to be responsible. Rumours spread of further attacks to sweep the city. This was the Clerkenwell Outrage, described as Britain’s first terrorist bombing. The year is 1867 and the Fenians, Irish nationalists, have blown a 60 feet wide hole in the wall of Clerkenwell Prison where their comrades are being held. None of them escape but twelve people in the houses opposite the prison are killed. In the aftermath Karl Marx wrote that ‘the London masses, who have shown great sympathy to wards Ireland will be made wild and driven into the arms of reactionary government’. It sounds like it could have happened yesterday. Terrorism can seem like an exclusively modern phenomenon and for most Londoners it is associated with Islamist extremists or the IRA. But the sad truth is that terrorism has afflicted London for at least a century and a half. Even longer if you count the Gunpowder Plot. When the New York Times described a ‘nation reeling’ in the wake of the London Bridge Attack earlier this year it provoked an indignant backlash. London has long been exposed to this sort of violence, and many generations of Londoners have persevered. Whether the perpetrators be Anarchists, Suffragettes or Isis supporters, none of them have triumphed over our city.

The damaged wall of Clerkenwell Prison


The Clerkenwell Outrage was the first but certainly not the last time the Fenians used explosives in London. Dedicated to establishing an Irish republic independent of Britain, in the 1880’s they launched a dynamite campaign across Britain. They hoped to pressure Britain’s government into acceding to their demands by terrorising the public and undermining its authority. There were explosions in Paddington, Westminster and Gower Street Underground Stations as well as in the left-luggage room at Victoria. Bombs were defused at Charing Cross, Ludgate Hill and Paddington. There were also explosions on Whitehall, at the offices of The Times, Scotland Yard and in the basement of the Carlton Club. Another bomb was placed at the foot of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square but failed to detonate. On the 24th of January 1885, infamously referred to as ‘Dynamite Saturday’, bombs exploded within the House of Commons, Westminster Hall and the Banqueting Hall of the Tower of London.

Though the Fenians did bring attention to the Irish situation and may have indirectly encouraged reform, their campaign for independence was ultimately unsuccessful. Ireland would remain under British control for another thirty years.


Last year’s BBC mini-series The Secret Agent focussed on a fictional plot involving Greenwich Observatory in the 1880’s. Based on the 1907 novel by Joseph Conrad, the story was inspired by the mysterious demise of French anarchist Martial Bourdin. At the same time the Fenians were causing consternation in Britain, anarchist violence was creating chaos overseas. Anarchism arose in the 19th century in reaction to the brutality and exploitation of the Industrial Revolution. The term was adopted by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in 1840 and referred to the utopian political ideology which advocated the abolition of central government, believing that if not coerced or brutalised by state violence then people would be able to organise society peacefully.

The movement increasingly embraced violence however and in 1881 Tsar Alexander II of Russia was assassinated. By 1914 the Presidents of France and the USA, the Kings of Portugal, Spain and Greece, and Elisabeth the Empress of Austria had all been assassinated by anarchist extremists. In the 1890’s bombings picked up too, and on the 12th February 1894 there was an explosion at Gare Saint-Lazare in Paris. Only three days later Martial Bourdin died, apparently having tripped while carrying an explosive through Greenwich Park which then detonated. A large amount of money was discovered on his body, so whether he had been intending to attack the observatory, smuggle the bomb out of the country or simply dispose of it and flee himself remains unknown.

Bomb Damage at Aldersgate

In 1897 a bomb detonated underneath a train at Aldersgate (now Barbican) Station, resulting in one death and sixty injuries. But who placed it there remains a mystery. Though both anarchists and the Fenians have been suspected, responsibility has never been established.


Whether the Suffragettes can be classified as terrorists remains a controversial question. The Terrorist Act of 2000 defines acts of terrorism as activities dedicated to the overthrowing or influencing of government through force or violence. Under that criteria, their actions would be considered as acts of terrorism. But firstly, what do we mean by suffragette? Many of the women striving for female enfranchisement at the time would have described themselves as ‘Suffragists’ in contrast to Suffragettes. The majority would have been members of The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, founded in 1897. The NUWSS advocated the vote for all women, not just those above a certain class, and opposed militancy and the use of violence. This was in contrast to the Women’s Social and Political Union, founded in 1903 by Emmeline Pankhurst. Suffragettes, who generally didn’t shy away from violence, were largely members of the WSPU.

Damage Caused by Suffragettes

Growing frustrated with the Liberal government’s prevarication over the issue of female suffrage the WSPU embraced militancy in order to capture the public’s attention. Mrs Pankhurst believed that the more attention the Suffragettes gained the sooner the government would have to permit female suffrage. In 1908 they encouraged the public to join them in a ‘rush’ on Parliament. Brutalised by their experiences in prison, the suffragettes stepped up their campaign in the following years, smashing windows and setting fire to buildings and post boxes.

In 1913 bombs were discovered and defused inside St. Pauls and outside the Bank of England while the next year a bomb exploded in Westminster Abbey. Lloyd George, a particular object of Suffragette hatred, had his house in Surrey blown up. Then on the 10th March 1914, a new type of attack was initiated. Entering the National Gallery, Mary Richardson proceeded to hack at the Rokeby Venus with a meat cleaver. She justified herself by saying “I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the Government for destroying Mrs Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history”. Richardson inspired many other suffragettes and a wave of similar attacks on artworks followed soon after. A number of Botticellis were damaged in the National Gallery and a portrait of the American novelist Henry James in the Royal Academy was also defaced. Soon museums and galleries across the country were forced to close temporarily, so rampant did the destruction become. But with the outbreak of the First World War later that year the WSPU campaign was wound down. Instead, it pledged to support the nation and encouraged its members to do so too.


The next wave of terrorism to hit London wasn’t until the 1930’s. Though the IRA are associated with the Troubles in Northern Ireland the movement organised a terror campaign against Britain back in the 1930’s. Beginning in January 1939, the IRA hoped that its S-Plan would force Britain to allow for Irish unification. Initially targeting infrastructure such as power plants to minimise casualties, this had changed by February when bombs exploded at Tottenham Court Road and Leicester Square Stations as well as Kings Cross. In June there were explosions at a number of bank branches across London and in July bombs exploded at Kings Cross again as well as Victoria, resulting in one fatality. At the same time tear gas bombs were being used in cinemas across the country. However, the campaign tapered off following an explosion in Coventry. Five bystanders were killed which in turn cost the IRA its Irish-American support, so vital for its operations. Though attacks persisted until 1940, the outbreak of the Second World War and the threat of German bombardment overshadowed any menace posed by the IRA.

But the S-Plan continued to inspire the IRA, and from 1972 until 1998 another campaign of terror was organised against mainland Britain. Some of the most notorious incidents took place in London. In December 1975 the Balcombe Street Siege occurred when local residents were taken hostage by IRA militants in a Marylebone flat. On the 20th of July 1982 a nail bomb detonated in Hyde Park, killing four members of the Household Cavalry and seven horses who had been parading past, as well as injuring other soldiers and bystanders. Later that same day another bomb exploded beneath a band stand in Regents Park. A group of the Royal Green Jackets had been performing Oliver! and seven were killed. In December 1983 a car bomb outside Harrods killed six and caused extensive damage to the building itself. On 7th February 1991 the IRA fired mortar shells at 10 Downing Street while a cabinet meeting was in session. 30 St Mary Axe (better known as the Gherkin) was built on the site of the Baltic Exchange which was destroyed by a lorry bomb in 1992, killing three. Then in 1993 a huge bomb exploded in Canary Wharf, killing two and causing extensive damage.

Harrods Bombing

Although the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 brought stability to Northern Ireland terror incidents continued to occur, albeit at a greatly diminished pace. In March 2001 for example a bomb exploded outside the former BBC Television Centre in White City.


In the last year of the millennium, neo-Nazi David Copeland brought yet more destruction to London, targeting the city’s ethnic and sexual minorities. On the 17th April 1999, he planted a bomb in Brixton which killed one toddler. One left in The Admiral Duncan in Soho on the 30th killed two people. Another one left in Brick Lane on the 24th destroyed a car but with no injuries or fatalities.

So far in 2017 London has suffered four terrorist attacks. But though it can feel as if we are living through a new era of savagery and violence the unfortunate reality is that terrorism is nothing new in London. Over four hundred years ago the Gunpowder Plot was foiled. Since then the Fenians, the Suffragettes, the IRA, far-right, and Islamist extremists have all brought chaos to our city. Most of these incidents were the result of international tensions in which Britain was involved, such as in Ireland. But London has always survived and continues to thrive today. After all, if the Luftwaffe couldn’t destroy it then what chance does anyone else have. So remember, London can take it.

London can take it