On This Day: The Clerkenwell Outrage, 13th December, 1867

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.

victorian Clerkenwell

A map of Victorian Clerkenwell, drawn by Adam Dant for Spitalfields Life.

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.

Manchester prison van breakout 1867

An image showing two Fenian leaders being broken out of a prison transport van in 1867 in Manchester (Source: Getty Images).

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.

Clerkenwell bombing

Engravings of the Clerkenwell bombing from the ‘Illustrated Police News’.

“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).

Protest: What’s the Point?

When I posted a link to Reddit about the End Austerity Now demonstration in June I said it was a ‘big success’. Several comments reacted to this rather sarcastically with one asking if austerity is now over. Whilst I didn’t appreciate the tone of the comments, I realised that ‘what makes a successful protest?’ is a perfectly valid question. It is true that protests rarely bring about large scale change, but they serve other purposes too, such as raising awareness, recruitment, demonstrating solidarity and boosting morale.

Some of the comments I received when I said on the website Reddit that the End Austerity Now demonstration in June 2015 was a 'big success'.

Some of the comments I received when I said on the website Reddit that the End Austerity Now demonstration in June 2015 was a ‘big success’.

It can be difficult to find examples where protest has directly led to wide-scale change, although the 1990 Poll Tax Riots is one case where protest significantly contributed to change. It is much easier to find examples of protests that have led directly to small-scale, local change. For example, housing protest groups like FocusE15 and Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth (HASL) have managed to prevent an increasing number of evictions and long-distance relocations by London councils over the past few years. Looking further back, the female workers at the Bryant and May match factory in Bow, East London won themselves better working conditions and helped to kick start New Unionism when they went on strike back in 1888. These examples demonstrate that protest is not always as ‘unsuccessful’ as it is perceived to be.

Even protests that do not lead to direct change can be ‘successful’. For example, a protest can raise awareness of an issue amongst those who witness it and the wider public via media coverage. Fathers4Justice are a group that know how to garner publicity, as their tactic of scaling landmarks dressed as various superheroes demonstrates. As well as dramatic or comic stunts, violence can also increase press coverage, as happened in the student tuition fee demonstrations in London in late 2010. It’s a risk though, as violence can often alienate would-be supporters. On the 13th December 1867 the Irish Republican Brotherhood attempted a prison breakout in Clerkenwell by blowing up the prison wall. They used too much gunpowder however, and the explosion killed 12 people. The event became known as the Clerkenwell Outrage, and support for the Fenians in London, which had been quite strong up to this point, evaporated. Nevertheless, regardless of exactly how you go about it, protest can be an effective way of raising the profile of an issue you care about.

Fathers4Justice certainly knew how to get publicity for their cause.

Fathers4Justice certainly knew how to get publicity for their cause.

Linked to raising awareness, protests can also help with recruitment. Put simply, you can’t attract new recruits if nobody knows who you are. Protests get people talking, and provide the opportunity to win people over. After the publicity resulting from the fourth anniversary demonstration of the British Union of Fascists (BUF) in 1936, which has since become know as the Battle of Cable Street, BUF membership spiked. Membership in London almost doubled, jumping from under 3000 to around 5000 (Tilles, 2011). Whilst this is not a positive example, it does show just how effective protest can be at attracting new activists to a cause.

Solidarity is a crucial concept amongst protest groups and social movements. Holding a protest, or attending someone else’s, is a good way of providing both practical and emotional support. The work of Lesbians and Gay Support the Miners (LGSM) during the 1984-5 miner’s strike, popularised by the 2014 film Pride, is a good example of this. The actions of LGSM not only raised money for the miners, but let them know that they were not alone. In return a delegation of miners led the 1985 London Pride parade, and voted for gay rights motions at Labour and TUC conferences (Kelliher, 2015). Protest can help build and maintain ties between diverse groups.

Miner Dai Donovan (played by Paddy Considine) explains his definition of solidarity to Mark Ashton (Ben Schnetzer), founder of LGSM, in the film Pride (Source: Pride, 2014).

Miner Dai Donovan (played by Paddy Considine) explains solidarity to Mark Ashton (Ben Schnetzer), founder of LGSM, in the film Pride (Source: Pride, 2014).

The final purpose that protest serves isn’t easy to pin down, but I think is best described as morale boosting. Being active in a social movement can be difficult and draining. It often feels as though you are putting in a lot of time and effort for very little return. Protests can provide a sense of accomplishment, of getting something done. They can also be fun; protests often have a carnivalesque atmosphere which provides the chance to relax and let go. Chanting a slogan at the top of your voice surrounded by tens, hundreds, or thousands of others who share your frustration and anger can be a wonderful feeling. It can be hugely helpful to be reminded that you are not the only one who feels the way you do, and this is rarely more obvious than at a protest.

There are several ways in which protest can be successful. It may well be that protests frequently fail to cause change, but this does not mean that they fail as a tactic for dissent. Protests also serve to raise awareness, recruit new activists, show solidarity and boost morale, and at these tasks they are very successful. Austerity may still be in place after the End Austerity Now demo, but I stand by my statement that it was a big success.

Sources and Further Reading

Kellier, Diarmaid. ‘The 1984-5 Miners’ Strike and the Spirit of Solidarity.’ Soundings 60 (2015): 118-129.

Tilles, Daniel. “The Myth of Cable Street.” History Today 61, no. 10 (2001): 41-47.