Greenwich Firsts (1)
The First International Terrorist Attack in Britain.
Greenwich gets all the best ‘firsts’ (well, okay, ‘best’ isn’t quite the word, but it does have some gooduns) so I thought I’d start a new occasional series with a literal bang – the first anarchist bomb in the country. Graham, who runs the superb site The Greenwich Meridian reminded me of it because of the rather splendid proto-SF invasion novel by William Le Queux we were talking about last week, The Great War in England of 1897.
Le Queux wrote the book in 1894 – though whether as a direct result of the bomb or a natural feeling for zeitgeist I have no idea. Certainly the incident directly inspired Joseph Conrad in his novel The Secret Agent where he pretty much dramatises the event itself, though of course with added conspiracy and sex (okay, so the bloke runs a dirty bookshop. It’ll do for me…)
The bomb, carried by 26 year-old Frenchman Martial Bourdin, was probably not intended to go off where it did – in the middle of Greenwich Park, forty-five feet away from what we can only assume was the intended target, the Observatory, but, as bombs have an uncanny knack to do, it went off in his hand at a pretty random moment. I guess Victorian Londoners got off lightly – the guy had taken it on public transport all the way from Fitzroy Street, where he was seen by several people, any of whom would have been unable to tell the tale had his device exploded any earlier.
I have been in two minds about rehashing the story as it’s been so well documented already – there’s a really excellent account of the very gruesome tale (the bomb wasn’t very powerful and only blew the guy’s hand off. He died at the scene, but not instantly – eeek) at the NMM website and Graham sent this article from a magazine at the time which I’ll share now. No point in reinventing the wheel…
Anyone else get a certain image in their head when the words ‘anarchist bomb’ are mentioned? Even the anarchists themselves can’t take it entirely seriously – this from Anarchist News Dot Org.
I have no idea if bombs ever looked like this. Perhaps someone here (from whom I will keep a safe distance) will know. I mean – how big were such things? What was it made from? It was apparently in ‘a parcel’ but what does that mean? Wrapped neatly in brown paper? Disguised as a hat box? The odd wire sticking out of it? Was it ticking? No one ever tells us stuff like this.
And why the Observatory? It wasn’t anywhere near big enough to do any damage to the building – the pic below has a teeny white mark where a bit of shrapnel hit it. Apparently no one knows what caused the choice – some say Bourdin was on his way back to France and needed somewhere to dump it. Conrad is far more romantic, saying that Greenwich is the very source of time and therefore civilisation – and an attack on it would create a true intellectual threat to the establishment. Others say that Bourdin was duped into carrying it by agent-provocateurs.
Perhaps it was a secret plot to undermine the credibility of the Observatory by dastardly, moustache-twirling French astronomers, still furious that Paris wasn’t chosen as the Prime Meridian. Yes. I’ll go with that one…
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