Richard Derecki: The Greenwich bomb outrage, 130 years on

Richard Derecki: The Greenwich bomb outrage, 130 years on

It was early evening on 15 February 1894 and Greenwich Observatory staff members Mr Thackeray and Mr Hollis were attending to their calculations in the lower computing room, when they were startled by what was described as “a sharp and clear detonation, followed by a noise like a shell going through the air”.

They saw a park warden and some schoolboys running towards a figure on the zig-zag path below the Observatory. He was kneeling with his left arm blown off and a gash torn in his stomach. Barely alive, he was rushed to the nearby Seaman’s Hospital, but died 30 minutes later. His last words were “Take me home”, which all added to the puzzle of who he was and what he was trying to achieve.

It didn’t take long, though, for the police to identify the man, as in his pockets were a membership card for the mysterious sounding Club Autonomie in the name of Martial Bourdin, along with £13 in gold and silver coins – a tidy sum to be wandering around with in those days.

The club, based just off Tottenham Court Road, was a haunt of foreign socialists and anarchists – typically French and German political refugees – and was well known to the police, who had already infiltrated it and placed some of its members under surveillance.

Bourdin (pictured) was one of eight children born into a working-class family in Tours, but how and why he ended up doing what he did some 25 years later is poorly understood.

He was a tailor by trade, well-educated and related to a well-known anarchist called H.B. Samuels. Apparently, Bourdin idolised him. Some researchers have claimed that the fact that Samuels wasn’t questioned about the incident by the police suggests he was an agent provocateur who had duped Bourdin into carrying the bomb, perhaps hoping that the resulting outrage would create a backlash against the rather lenient attitude the British government to foreign radicals.

There was no law controlling immigration between 1826 and 1905, bar a brief exception between 1848 and 1850, which meant there was a regular flow of radical activists (and worse) back and forth across the English Channel. Foreign governments were not impressed that anarchists were taking refuge in this country. They wanted extradition treaties enforced and changes to British law.

Other foreign anarchists had targeted European heads of state and senior military figures. There had been bombings in crowded places: a few days before Bourdin’s bomb went off, a café in Paris was attacked, killing and injuring customers.

Such “propaganda by deed” had been adopted by the anarchists’ London Congress as their strategy in 1881. Actions endorsed also included theft and the destruction of property, all to inspire others to transform society.

Why were Bourdin and his bomb by the Greenwich Observatory? Was he targeting the institution, location of the prime meridian and therefore a place of global symbolic importance? But the Observatory’s gates were closed, its walls were high and the bomb was too small to have made any significant impact. Was Bourdin intending to hand the bomb and the money over to a fellow conspirator? Or had he, realising he had been duped, decided to dump the bomb in the park and flee back to France, only to stumble and fall, setting it off?

The incident has had a lasting impact on creative minds. Joseph Conrad wove fact and conspiratorial fiction into his short story The Secret Agent (1907), which made the tragic affair, now described as the UK’s first experience of international terrorism, famous.

The story also inspired Alfred Hitchcock’s film Sabotage (1936), in which an innocent young man unwittingly carries a bomb on to a bus on its way to Piccadilly Circus. It explodes, killing him and other passengers.

And just this week Queen Mary University of London has marked the 130th anniversary of Bourdin’s still unexplained deed with events reflecting on the role of direct action in societal transformation.

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