The Fenians: Terrorist Attacks in Victorian and Edwardian Britain

Police inspect the scene of the Clerkenwell explosion (1867)
Police inspect the scene of the Clerkenwell explosion (1867)

Terrorist attacks are thought by many people to be a relatively recent phenomenon, however, this is not the case. In Victorian and Edwardian times there were two terrorist threats, the Fenians, and anarchists.

The Fenians were Irish Nationalists organised in 1858 as the Irish Republican Brotherhood in Ireland. They were supported, mainly financially, by the Clan na Gael (Fenian Brotherhood) which formed in 1867 in the United States. The Fenians conducted what became known as the Fenian Dynamite Campaign in the 1880's.

Fenians attack police van (1867)
Fenians attack police van (1867)

In 1867, a number of Irish-American Fenian leaders were arrested in Manchester and London. In Manchester two were rescued in a daring raid on a prison van in which a policeman, Sergeant Brett, was killed when the lock was shot off.

In December of the same year they attempted to rescue two Fenian prisoners from Clerkenwell Prison by blowing up the prison wall. It failed but 12 people were killed, including a seven year old girl, and 126 injured. (See illustration at the top.)

Scotland Yard following the Fenian bombing (1883)
Damage caused to Scotland Yard and the Rising Sun public house following the Fenian bombing (1883)

In 1883 Scotland Yard received an anonymous letter threatening to 'blow Superintendent Williamson off his stool' and dynamite all the public buildings in London on 30 May 1884. On the predicted night, shortly before 9pm, the CID and Special Irish Branch headquarters were indeed successfully bombed by the Fenians, although since the building was empty only neighbours and a cabman were injured by shattered glass. Williamson's office was completely destroyed. That same night, bombs went off in the basement of the Carlton Club, a gentlemen's club for members of the Conservative Party, and outside Sir Watkin Wynne's house, and an unexploded bomb was found at the foot of Nelson's column.

The Fenians carried out a coordinated attack on London Underground on 30 October 1883. The first at 8.05pm when an explosion occurred in the tunnel between Charing Cross and Westminster stations. Fortunately, no train was passing through at the time, but passengers awaiting trains at either station were showered in broken glass and dust. The explosion left a small crater 4x3 feet and 1 foot deep. On the Metropolitan Line just three minutes later, there was an explosion in the tunnel 60 yards from Praed Street Station, Paddington, just as a train was passing. 60 passengers were injured, many seriously, cut by flying glass. Six train carriages were badly damaged.

Victorian London Underground
London Underground

On 2 January 1885, the Fenians exploded a bomb in a London Underground tunnel at Gower Street Station. No serious casualties were reported although a train did receive minor damage and some passengers were cut by glass.

On 25 January 1885 which became known as ‘Dynamite Saturday’ the Fenians attempted to blow up a number of locations in central London, including London Bridge, the House of Commons and the Tower of London. The attacks were clearly intended as demonstrations of power against icons of Britishness.

In 1897 the Fenians attempted to spectacularly blow up Westminster Abbey and Queen Victoria during the Golden Jubilee celebrations. This plot was effectively foiled by British spies.

Other targets of the 1880's Fenian Bombing Campaign not mentioned above were various military barracks, police stations, town halls, railway stations, a gasworks, a coaling shed, a canal viaduct, Mansion House (twice), and The Times newspaper offices.

Part II of this article series - Anarchists


Darin Calhoun said...

As an American,I was shocked to find out the Fenians tried to invade Canada from America several times. And at one time they had a working submarine.

Nicholas L. Garvery said...

Thanks for commenting! I didn't know they tried to invade Canada and they had a submarine, very interesting.

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