Propaganda by Deed: the Greenwich Observatory Bomb of 1894

Greenwich Park ExplosionThe Greenwich Park explosion: siteseers near the scene of the fatality. From the Illustrated London News The Royal Observatory in Greenwich Park, London was subject to an anarchist bomb attack in 1894: this was possibly the first 'international terrorist' incident in Britain. The incident was immortalised by Joseph Conrad in his novel The Secret Agent. This article draws on manuscript notes of the event made by staff members, held in the Royal Greenwich Observatory Archives, as well as contemporary newspaper accounts.

Working life at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich in the 1890s must have been generally uneventful. An endless series of transit observations were done by duty observers at night, with a team of human 'computers' working through the day on data reduction and predictions. This routine existence was shattered one Thursday afternoon in February 1894 by a totally unexpected event, which put the Observatory into the headlines for days afterwards.

In the last two decades of the 19th century, a series of anarchist inspired terrorist attacks hit many European countries. One of the earliest and most spectacular was the bomb assassination of the Russian Tsar Alexander in 1881 which inspired anarchists to many other similar attacks on the rulers and aristocracy. By late 1893 anarchist terrorists were particularly active in France, culminating in the bombing of the Chamber of Deputies in Paris in December. Auguste Vaillant was convicted and executed for this crime in early February 1894, with a particularly futile 'reprisal' for the execution following close after when a bomb exploded in a Paris Cafe on February 12, 1894. Up until then, Britain remained unaffected by the anarchist campaign, although Irish Fenian bomb attacks had occurred in England as early as the 1860s.

In Greenwich, on the afternoon of 15 February 1894, two members of the Observatory staff were still in the building at 16.45. This they described as working 'late' – all the other staff had left by that time. Mr Thackeray and Mr Hollis were both in the Lower Computing Room when they were startled by a 'sharp and clear detonation, followed by a noise like a shell going through the air'. They looked out to see the door porter running across the courtyard and rapidly followed him so as to be able to look down the hillside North of the Observatory into Greenwich Park. They saw a park-warden and some school-boys running towards a figure that appeared to be crouched on the zig-zag path below the Observatory.

Racing down, their first thought was that the man had shot himself, but the scene they encountered was unexpected and horrific. The park-warden was holding a man who, despite massive injuries, was still alive and able to speak. The man's left hand was completely missing and he had a gaping hole in his stomach. Soon a doctor and stretcher were fetched from the nearby Seaman's Hospital, to where he was carried. The man died about 30 minutes later, having said nothing about who he was or what had happened.

Messrs Hollis and Thackeray searched the area between where the man was found and the Observatory wall and recovered numerous fragments of the man's hand, including a 2-inch piece of bone. A trail of blood and fragments were spread over a distance of nearly 60 yards towards the Observatory wall. As the two shocked Observatory staff went home that day, the identity of the man and the reason for the explosion was still a mystery to them.

Police investigators soon learned that his name was Martial Bourdin. That afternoon the 26-year old Frenchman left his room in Fitzroy Street, and took a tram from Westminster that took him all the way to Greenwich. On leaving the tram he was observed to be carrying a parcel as he made his way to Greenwich Park. What happened a few minutes later, no-one knows, but it appears that due to 'some mischance or miscalculation or some clumsy bungling' the bomb exploded in his hand. He had a considerable amount of money on him, which led investigators to believe that he was intending to leave for France immediately.

Later on the day of the explosion, police raided the Club Autonomie in London, arrested all of those inside and discovered that Bourdin had been a member of this club which had attracted mainly foreign anarchists. Many were deported but no charges were made. The funeral of Martial Bourdin became a rallying point for anarchist sympathisers in London and attracted huge crowds.

A mystery remains – why did Bourdin pick such an unlikely target as the Observatory? The small bomb was unlikely to cause any serious damage there and it was a very different target from the crowded opera houses and cafes favoured by the terrorists in France. Some believe that Bourdin was duped into carrying the bomb or that he was on the way to France and wanted to dump it in the Park. The true reason will never be known. His brother-in-law was widely believed to be a police informer and anarchist writers in the years following the bombing always claimed that the whole episode had been inspired by this agent provocateur.

The French anarchist campaign reached a climax soon afterwards with the assassination of the French President, leading to a ruthless clampdown by the French authorities which effectively ended the terrorist campaign in France.

The incident remains as the only anarchist inspired attack in Britain during the period and it became famous due to the author Joseph Conrad in his 1907 book The Secret Agent. In this book the evil mastermind 'The Professor' plans an attack on the Greenwich Observatory which ends in a bomber being 'blown to pieces' by his own bomb when he trips and falls in Greenwich Park. Conrad was inspired by the reality of the Observatory attack but wove a literary tale of conspiracy and tragedy which was all his own invention. The story further inspired Alfred Hitchcock in his film Sabotage (1936). In this film the innocent dupe who carries the bomb dies when the bus that he is travelling in explodes on the Strand: a strange pre-figuring of the real event in early 1996 when an IRA bomber blew himself up in a bus just off The Strand.

The echoes of this long gone incident continue to resonate: in July 1996 the FBI described how the 'Unabomber', Theodore Kaczynski, was inspired by Conrad in his 18-year bombing campaign against scientific institutions. Kaczynski had apparently often used the alias Conrad.

The final words on the Greenwich bomb are left to Conrad who wrote:

The attempt to blow up the Greenwich Observatory: a blood-stained inanity of so fatuous a kind that is is impossible to fathom its origin by any reasonable or even unreasonable process of thought. For perverse unreason has its own logical processes. But that outrage could not be laid hold of mentally in any sort of way, so that one remained faced by the fact of a man blown to pieces for nothing even most remotely resembling an idea, anarchistic or other. As to the outer wall of the Observatory, it did not show as much as the faintest crack.