Updated: Nov 17, 2021
Martial Bourdin | 1868 – 1894
The date was February 15th, 1894. A cloudy Thursday with the possibility of slight rain.
The location was Greenwich Park, and the bomber was a Frenchman called Martial Bourdin. What followed next was a ‘gory mess and an enduring mystery.’
Political backdrop – the anarchist clubs
During the later nineteenth century, an anarchist movement spread across London. It mainly consisted of nationals from Germany and France who gathered around places like Soho and Fitzrovia (part of the London Borough of Camden). At the peak of the movement, there were around 2,000 members, although some sources claim there were over 8,000.
Many of these members were political exiles, having been repressed, crushed, or sometimes tortured for their political beliefs. Britain was comparatively liberal, and clubs that became known as anarchy clubs originally started as places of refuge. People who needed help would arrive at the clubs and be fed or looked after. To fit in and appear respectable, many clubs banned alcohol drinking and tried to maintain a sense of decency within their communities.
Europe was in a commercial and financial crisis, worsened by political corruption. Unions were forming across the world – strikes and social agitation was increasing. The political views of many anarchists didn’t change just because they had relocated to England. This meant that most anarchist clubs wanted to expose the decadence of power and its defects in all countries, including the UK. It was a troubled time, with an underground network for agitation and discontent. (NB* this is a very simplified explanation of the political and social complexities of the time).
Bourdin wasn’t a very tall man. Some would call him short, but I take offence at such a thing, considering he was the same height as me, at 5 ft. 2 in. Apparently, he was delicate in features, with small hands and limbs (unlike me) and a thin, fair moustache (no comment). His hair was light, parted in the middle and brushed straight back – very much a look for the era.
He was a tailor by trade and worked for his brother’s business in Great Titchfield Street (nothing to do with his height). A fairly debonair man, Bourdin was well travelled between London, Paris, and New York – fluent in English and well educated.
According to Bourdin’s friends, when he returned from a visit to New York, he had changed from an enigmatic character to one far more reserved. What they didn’t know at the time was their friend had literally become a card-carrying member of the Autonomie Club (6 Windmill Street, Fitzrovia). The Club was the hub of anarchist activity in London, and many of the radical leaders were members.
The day of the bombing
Leaving Westminster – Martial Bourdin left his room at 30 Fitzroy Street and took a tram from Westminster to Greenwich. He was just twenty-six years old.
The Royal Observatory – On a damp early evening in February, at around 16.45, Mr Thackeray and Mr Hollis were both in the Lower Computing Room of the Royal Observatory, working late (oh, those were the days when late didn’t mean late-late). According to their statements, everyone else had gone home, and it was just another ordinary day.
Greenwich Park – Meanwhile, Mr Bourdin was walking through the park, carrying a ‘small brown paper parcel about the size and shape of a brick.’
A newspaper article states that the Frenchman was winding along the slope on the Observatory’s summit.
The bomb – Something happened. A blast. A ‘sharp and clear detonation followed by a noise like a shell going through the air.’ Mr Thackeray and Mr Hollis, the two Observatory staff still in the building, ran to see what was happening. A park-warden and boys from the nearby Roan school were running to the scene – to a man, slumped on the path beneath.
Bourdin asked the boys to fetch him a cab.
‘Take me home,’ the wounded man demanded.
But he was too injured for such a demand to be met. What comes next is a little gruesome – actually, not just a little – so skip a few lines if you don’t want to read.
The impact – Martial Bourdin was taken to the nearby Royal Naval Hospital. The shock or the pain must have numbed his sense because despite demanding to go home, his intestines were spilling from his stomach wound, and his left hand had been blown off. Having looked at his post-mortem photos, I can confirm these injuries are correct in their description. I’ve chosen not to post them in this blog, but an account of his injuries along with photos can be found here. Needless to say, Bourdin died of his injuries around thirty minutes after reaching the Royal Seaman’s hospital.
The two Observatory staff, Mr Hollis and Mr Thackeray, combed the area from where the bomb had gone off, right up to the Observatory wall. Within a sixty-yard radius, they recovered quite a few grisly missing hand parts, including a two-inch piece of bone. Their ordinary Thursday late shift had turned into a bloody-bombing flesh explosion.
The question is, why would anyone want to bomb the Observatory? But then, who knew whether this was Bourdin’s actual target? Lots of conspiracies developed after the event.
Quite a large sum of money was found on Bourdin’s body (£12 in gold and nearly a pound in silver), along with his membership card to the Autonomie Club. Police also found the recipes for bomb-making. It was suggested that he might have been carrying the bomb with the intention to pass it along to another anarchist for its exportation to France, where it could be used against the allegedly obnoxious government. This was quickly disproved because it made no sense for a bomb to travel across the rough seas when the French were very capable of making their own.
Some of the anarchists suggested that Bourdin was carrying the bomb to Paris himself so he could recreate the actions of Émile Henry, who had been charged with the explosion at the Café du Terminus in Paris just a few days before. By diverting through Greenwich, the anarchists argued the Bourdin would have avoided the spies. It’s a possibility, but just like the point above, he could have picked up a French bomb quite as easily – after all, they were a revolutionary bunch and quite capable of suppling the means.
The anarchist speaker and writer, David Nicholl, wrote a pamphlet in 1897 claiming that Bourdin’s brother-in-law, H.B Samuels, was a government agent (spy) and had provided the materials to Bourdin to make a bomb. According to David Nicholl, Bourdin idolised his brother-in-law, one of the leading Autonomie Club members, and wouldn’t have thought anything of it if Samuels had supplied the ingredients. The question has to be asked, though – why, if Samuels was a spy, would he provide the materials to kill people? Was Bourdin just a casualty of Samuels ambition, along with any people he could have potentially killed?
Such cloak and dagger were not uncommon. During the period, the police used informants as a matter of course.
There are many reasons for Nicholl’s theory in accusing a fellow anarchist of being a spy – two of which may have been jealousy and dislike, for Samuels took over David Nicholl’s role as editor to the anarchist pamphlet – The Commonweal – for some time. Samuels was also (apparently) a bit of a dislikeable man with an arrogant temper.
These things aside, there are some convincing arguments too.
Samuels boasted amongst his anarchist colleagues and even through the press (immediately after the bombing) and Commonweal, of his intimacy with Bourdin. He even stressed that he met and walked with him on that fateful morning. Yet it is curious that Samuels seems to have been largely ignored by the subsequent police investigation (though he might have had a better chance than most of knowing which of the anarchists supplied Bourdin with the explosives). Along with other key figures, he was ignored, while the Autonomie Club was raided, and a number of innocent anarchists held.
So, there is some merit to the fact that Samuels was of little interest to the police, despite his proximity to Bourdin on the day, his position as editor to the anarchist’s main source of information sharing, and his relationship as a brother-in-law.
In his 1887 pamphlet (an original format I currently can’t find), Nicholls also highlights that Samuels stole a fair bit of explosive materials from a laboratory, which he then distributed generously to many other anarchists. This could support Nicholl’s theory that it was Samuels who supplied his brother-in-law, Bourdin. The interesting part of this theory is that Samuels was known to have stolen the explosives, but he was never arrested for the crime, yet those receiving the gifts were.
Rumoured along with this theory was that Samuels handed out dodgy bomb-making explosives in an attempt to knock off some of the anarchists, including his brother-in-law Bourdin – an expendable relation. The problem with this theory is that it would be surmount to murder. Even though Samuels sounds like a fairly narcissistic fellow, it doesn’t necessarily make him a murderer.
These theories weren’t gracefully kept between members – they were publicly spouted without an etiquette filter, and there was quite a spat between Nicholl and Samuels during the years following the Greenwich bombing – like a public slanging match from EastEnders, only in the written form and without the ‘sling your ‘ook’ Cockney accent (doof doof).
Colonel Vivian Magendie was the Government explosives expert at the time of the bomb explosion. His view was that the dishonourable anarchist, Bourdin, had wanted to blow up the Observatory, and this was also the conclusion of the coroner’s inquest.
The Autonomie Club, which had been under observation by the Scotland Yard Special Branch for some time, defended itself, stating that ‘he [Bourdin] could not have contemplated the destruction of the Greenwich Conservatory, which they regard as of value to society as an educational institution.’
Colonel Magendie argued that there was no way Bourdin could have stumbled and thus set the bomb off. His evidence included details of what would have happened to Bourdin’s body if this had been the case – more mutilation and body fragmentation, rather than the direct hit to the bomber’s hand and stomach.
What happened next?
On Friday 16th February at around 9.00 p.m., armed police raided the Autonomie Club, led by Chief Inspector Melville.
Exists were blocked, and everyone inside the Club was detained and questioned. Documents were searched and confiscated, but according to the Evening News reporting on the event, all this was done with ‘remarkable quietude.’
The newspaper sources also stated that more and more members of the Club turned up, ready to be interviewed and to see what was going on, and it wasn’t until nearly midnight when Melville finished the swoop.
Despite the raids, no one was charged with assisting Bourdin but the anarchist clubs across London, already viewed with much suspicion, became the source of more conspiracies, especially by the press. This created a media frenzy for quite a few years after the event, and many members began to drift away from the clubs in fear that they would be connected with other terrorist attempts. As with all movements and displays of anarchy (rightly or wrongly), the clubs faded away over time, and membership decreased.
Bourdin’s body was held with the undertaker in Chapel Street, just off Edgware Road. On 23rd February, a crowd gathered outside – a mix of anarchists, policemen, reporters, supporters, and protesters. The government had even discussed the funeral in parliament, questioning whether they should allow it to take place publicly or should do it themselves to avoid any more public attention.
The Times stated:
The crowd consisted of the roughest of the rough, and its characteristic feature was a sullen silence as of men who had a purpose; but that purpose was not to demonstrate in favour of Anarchy.
At one o’clock, a glass-sided hearse and a single mourning carriage arrived at the undertakers. Police cordoned off the area, and as Bourdin’s coffin was brought out into the public, the crowds hissed and roared. Two anarchist flags were raised, but the crowds tore them down and into pieces.
The route was kept a secret, even from the undertaker, but it is thought the anarchists intended to proceed through Fitzroy Square. Medical students (who always love a good rebellious rally) stepped up and created a disturbance great enough for them to be arrested, which pushed the procession in a different direction so the anarchists couldn’t get their symbolic wish of taking the funeral through the heart of their community. The Times claimed that had it not been for the police escort, the hearse would have been wrecked, and Bourdin’s body would have been torn to pieces (he’d already done that to himself, though).
Once through the angry mob, the hearse reached St Pancras Cemetery, where Bourdin was buried in an unmarked un-consecrated grave.
Not quite. Although we will never know the truth behind Bourdin’s actions, he will be forever memorialised in literature, particularly Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907). If you ever get a chance to read it, you’ll see the similarities – a slow-witted but idealistic character blown up after having been duped into planting a bomb outside the Royal Observatory by his agent-provocateur brother-in-law. Quite a few academic papers suggest Conrad had a lot of inside knowledge about the Greenwich bombing, but that’s for another blogger to unravel.
As Conrad wrote on the bombing, it ‘is impossible to fathom its origin by any reasonable or even unreasonable process of thought.’ And as one anarchist wrote:
If you’d like to see a video of what might have happened on the day, had Bourdin been successful, Greenwich Ground Degree Zero created the below (or click here if the video doesn't work)
In the next blog (Tuesday, November 23rd ), we are looking at the history of Caroline of Brunswick, the injured queen who took refuge in Blackheath/Greenwich.
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The website is still a work in progress as everything is checked against the primary sources (as far as possible) rather than relying on Google, so thank you for sticking with me.
 https://www.rmg.co.uk/stories/topics/astronomers-anarchist-bomber  Moses, Jonathan. History and Theory: The Texture of Politics: London’s Anarchist Clubs,1884 – 1914. Royal Holloway University London, 2016  The Lancet: The Medico-Legal Aspect of The Case of Martial Bourdin, March 10th, 1894  Penny Illustrated, Saturday 24th February 1894  Kentish Mercury - Friday 23 February 1894  https://www.rmg.co.uk/stories/topics/astronomers-anarchist-bomber  Civil & Military Gazette (Lahore) - Monday 19 March 1894  East Anglian Daily Times - Monday 19 February 1894  https://www.rmg.co.uk/stories/topics/astronomers-anarchist-bomber  Bondeson, Jan. Strange Victoriana: Tales of the Curious, the Weird and the Uncanny from Our Victorians Ancestors. 2016. Stroud  https://www.rmg.co.uk/stories/topics/astronomers-anarchist-bomber  Kentish Mercury - Friday 23 February 1894  Bondeson, Jan. Strange Victoriana: Tales of the Curious, the Weird and the Uncanny from Our Victorians Ancestors. 2016. Stroud  Mulry, David. Popular Accounts of the Greenwich Bombing and Conrad's "The Secret Agent" Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature, 2000, Vol. 54, No. 2 (2000), pp. 43-64  ibid  Kentish Mercury - Friday 23 February 1894  The Evening Star, Saturday 17th February 1894  The Times, The Anarchist Funeral, 24 February 1894
Wirth Max. The Crisis of 1890, Journal of Political Economy, Mar. 1893, Vol. 1, No. 2 pp. 214-235
Jones, Toby. The Guardian: The real story of the Secret Agent and the Greenwich Observatory bombing | https://www.theguardian.com/science/the-h-word/2016/aug/05/secret-agent-greenwich-observatory-bombing-of-1894
Paul Gibbard, ‘Bourdin, Martial (1867/8–1894)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, January 2008
Manchester Guardian, 16 February 1894 (‘The Foreign Anarchists in London’), 20 February 1894 (‘The Anarchist Plots in London’), 24 February 1894 (‘The Anarchists in London: A Scene at Bourdin’s Interment’), 27 February 1894 (‘The Bomb Explosion in Greenwich Park’)
Propaganda by Deed: The Greenwich Observatory Bomb of 1894
The Times, 20 February 1894 (‘The Greenwich Explosion’), 21 February 1894 (‘Parliament: House of Commons: The Anarchist Bourdin’), 24 February 1894 (‘The Anarchist Funeral’), 27 February 1894 (‘The Anarchists’ and ‘Inquest on Bourdin’)