Clerkenwell has been the focus of a large amount of turbulence over its history, even for an area of London. During the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381 the priory of St. John was burnt down because of its wealth and connections with Sir Robert Hales, a hated tax collector. Lenin moved into 37a Clerkenwell Green in 1902, and published 16 issues of Iskra, a pre-Bolskevik newspaper from there. The house is now the Marx Memorial Library. The area has also harboured religious nonconformists, such as the Lollards and early Methodists. Clerkenwell Green, historically an open, grassy area, has played host to many political meetings and demonstrations, some more peaceful than others. But on the 13th December 1867, Clerkenwell was rocked by an explosion that shocked even this contentious neighbourhood.
The story begins in America in 1858. A group of Irish expatriates founded a secret society called the Irish Republican Brotherhood, known to most as the Fenians. Their aim was to free Ireland from British rule by any means necessary, including attacks on the British establishment in Ireland, other colonies, and even the mainland itself. By the middle of the 1860s, there were Fenian groups in Soho and Finsbury. By 1867, they were proving quite troublesome to the authorities. After a failed attempt to steal over 10,000 rifles from Chester Castle in February to arm an Irish uprising and the breakout of two prominent Fenians from a prison van in Manchester that resulted in the death of a Police Sergeant in September, tensions were running high.
Richard O’Sullivan-Burke was largely thought to be the man who led the Manchester prison van breakout. He was arrested in London in November along with another man called Joseph Casey. To avoid a repeat of Manchester the men were quickly transferred to the Clerkenwell House of Detention, just to the North of Clerkenwell Road. The prison was formidable, surrounded by a wall 25ft high and over 2ft thick. The men obviously had friends in London—every day cooked food was brought to them by a woman named Anne Justice, and rumours of an escape attempt soon reached the authorities.
Extra guards and uniformed police were posted in and around the prison in response to the warning. Despite this, an attempt was made to break out O’Sullivan-Burke and Casey on the 12th of December. A man wheeled a large barrel up the prison wall by the exercise yard, and attempted to light a fuse on the barrel twice before he gave up, and wheeled the barrow off. A policeman watched the entire thing, but did not think it suspicious. The next day, another, similar attempt was made. This time, a firework was used as a fuse, and it turned out to be much more reliable. The resulting explosion was heard all over London. It levelled 60ft of the prison wall, and the front of a row of houses across the street in Corporation Row. 12 people were killed, and 120 others were injured.
“Britain’s first terrorist bombing” (Webb, 2012; p53) was an unmitigated disaster. Because of the failed attempt the day before the prisoners were not even in the exercise yard at the time of the explosion. Which was lucky in a way, as the Fenians had used far too much gunpowder (548lbs of it to be exact), and the explosion would have killed anyone in the yard. It sparked hysteria across the capital; it was said that twenty babies were killed in the womb by the blast, and that the explosion was a signal to begin a whole wave of terrorist attacks across the city. There were calls for new laws and emergency powers which would not be unfamiliar to us today. Any sympathy that there had been for the Irish cause amongst Londoners evaporated, and the government set up the first Secret Service Department, with the goal of gathering intelligence and anticipating future Fenian attacks. It was the forerunner of today’s Special branch and MI5. 5 people were charged with murder, including Anne Justice, but a man named Michael Barrett was the only one convicted. He has the dubious distinction of being the last person to ever be publicly executed in Britain.
Sadly, London is no stranger to terrorism. The Clerkenwell Outrage may have been Britain’s first terrorist bombing, but it was not the first terrorist plot, with conspiracies going back as far as the 1605 Gunpowder Plot and beyond. In light of everything that has been going on recently, it can be helpful to remember that this is not the first time London has faced vague and shadowy threats; the city has always continued to survive and thrive.
Sources and Further Reading
German, Lindsey and John Rees. A People’s History of London. London: Verso (2012).
Hunt, Nick. “History and Politics.” Plunging into History. No date, accessed 21st November 2015. Available at http://www.plungingintohistory.com/ir-area-historyandpolitics
Merat, Aaron. “Clerkenwell’s Hidden Communist History.” Islington Now. Last modified 11th March 2010, accessed 21st November 2015. Available at http://islingtonnow.co.uk/2010/03/11/clerkenwells-hidden-communist-history/
Webb, Simon. Dynamite, Treason and Plot: Terrorism in Victorian and Edwardian London. Stroud: The History Press (2012).
White, Jerry. London in the 19th Century: A Human Awful Wonder of God. London: Vintage (2007).