It’s just after 8pm on the evening of the 30th October 1883 and the London Underground is busier than normal as people are hurrying home from a big exhibition in Earl’s Court — when two large explosions take place, sending smoke billowing into nearby stations.
This marks — as far as I can tell — the first-ever terrorist attack on the London Underground, and it took place 130 years ago today.
The attacks were carried out on what are today the District and Circle lines, one near Embankment station and the other near Paddington.
Although never conclusively proven, the attacks were widely thought to be part of the “Fenian dynamite campaign” that took place in Great Britain from 1881 to 1885 by the Irish Republican Brotherhood, nicknamed the “Fenians”, who were fighting for an independent Ireland.
For the sake of convenience*, I shall use modern names for the lines/stations affected.
The first explosion took place in the tunnels between Embankment and Westminster stations but fortunately didn’t injure anyone. An investigation of the site of the explosion afterwards — which was about 200 yards from Embankment found a large hole in the ballast beneath the wall of the tunnel on the up side. The hole was about 3 feet by 4 feet wide and about a foot deep.
On the opposite sides of the tunnel were the visible marks in the wall of the ballast stones having been dashed against the brickwork. The windows of the signal box at Westminster station were also broken.
The lack of injuries to passengers is down to the fact that there wasn’t a train in the tunnel at the time of the explosion. However, the gas lamps at both stations on either side of the tunnel were extinguished, and large amounts of black smoke blew into the platforms, scaring those waiting for a train to arrive.
The explosive is thought to have been dropped from the previous train, by means of being lowered by a string close to the ground and dropped when it was close enough so that the impact of being dropped wouldn’t have caused an immediate explosion.
The second explosion however was far more serious.
This terror attack took place near Paddington on the line heading towards Edgware, and while reports as to the effect on the railway tracks themselves varied from insignificant to substantial, it caused the glass in three third-class carriages to shatter, injuring “a large number of persons” within. In total six carriages were damaged in the explosion.
The Times newspaper said that 30 people were taken to the nearby St Mary’s Hospital, while others sought medical attention of their own. Other later reports suggested the hospital saw 40 patients in total.
Most of the injured were released after treatment for glass cuts, but four people have to be detained by the hospital due more serious injuries.
The track itself was strewn with the shattered glass and broken panel-work of the carriages, and several crumpled carriage lamps. One report said that the railway sleepers were badly damaged, although that seems unlikely as the railway was back in action fairly shortly afterwards. Four “rockets” were found near the site, which may have been dynamite cartridges.
An inspection of the site found a hole in the ballast about a foot deep and three to four feet wide. The telegraph cables were broken, but otherwise, the tunnel was unharmed.
In addition to the effects of the shattered glass in the carriages, all the gas lights were blown out by the concussion from the explosion, which must have made the whole thing even more terrifying to the passengers within.
One of the passengers, Elizabeth Lee told the Standard newspaper that just after the explosion shattered the glass and threw their carriage into darkness, another train passed by in the opposition direction, and the lights from those carriages illuminated a “sickening spectacle of men and women bleeding profusely from fearful gashes in the head and limbs”.
Being a sub-surface line, the houses above ground also felt the force of the explosion, with reports that the windows shivered in many instances.
The train itself though managed to make it to Edgware Road, where they were then able to render assistance, and the train later was taken to the Neasden depot for repairs. The interior of the middle, most badly damaged carriage was said to have been “thickly splashed with blood, presenting a ghastly appearance”.
Naturally, this outrage was widely reported in the news across the country and government officials worked to investigate the matter. There were suggestions that the railway had been warned that it might be a target from American supplied explosives and malcontents, and had stepped up security accordingly, but this was further enhanced after the attack.
The Times editorial on the 1st November thundered in deep Victorian verbosity about these nefarious malcontents and said that it was only by good fortune that there wasn’t mass carnage on the railways had a following train smashed into the damaged one.
An investigation into the explosions started just a few days later, and swiftly ruled out an accidental gas mains explosion, although the Paddington explosion appeared to have been worsened by the deliberate placing of the explosive underneath a gas pipe.
A reward of £1,000 was offered for information about the perpetrators of the outrage — which was a considerable sum of money in those days. £500 came from the Home Office, and a further £500 from a rare cooperation between the Metropolitan and its rival the District Railway.
Although a number of people were arrested in the following month after being found with dynamite, there doesn’t seem to have been any proven link with the railway attacks.
A police notice placed in Irish newspapers later named John M’Cafferty and William O’Riordan as suspects. The USA based Fenian leader, O’Donovan Rossa claimed the attacks were the work of Fenians, but no evidence was ever presented to prove this.
In fact, the railway attacks do not appear to have ever been fully solved.
This was the first terrorist attack on the Underground, but the “dynamite war” would see several major attacks on mainline terminus railway stations during 1884 before slowly dying down a year later.
The railways, and underground have been a target for terrorists ever since.
You may have noticed on occasions buildings that still bear the mark of WW2 shrapnel damage. As the tunnels themselves have never needed rebuilding, there is a decent chance that concealed beneath a layer of dirt in the tunnels can be found the shrapnel marks from that original explosion, still a testament to an Irish outrage 130 years ago.
The illustrations above come from The Graphic newspaper printed the following Saturday.
1] Illustrated London News, Nov 03, 1883
2] The Times, Wednesday, Oct 31, 1883
3] The Times, Friday, Nov 02, 1883
4] The Belfast News-Letter, Oct 31, 1883
5] The North-Eastern Daily Gazette, Oct 31, 1883
6] The Standard, Nov 01, 1883
7] The Hampshire Observer, Nov 3, 1883
8] Lloyds Weekly Newspaper, Nov 4, 1883
9] The Dundee Courier & Argus, Nov 8, 1883
*It also really infuriates railway pedants 😉