From Anarchists To Islamists - A History Of Terrorism In London

By Kate Smith | 12 September 2008
a photo of a news stand with billboard posters

Photograph taken on day of London's remembrance vigil for the Tube and Bus bombings of Thursday 7th July 2005. Photographed by Guy Howard-Evans, 14/07/2005 at King's Cross Railway station. © Transport for London. Collection of London Transport Museum

Young women stride across unfamiliar countryside carrying bottles of paraffin; an Indian man walks into Caxton Hall concealing a loaded gun; an Irishman drives a lorry down Bishopsgate and stops it just outside the 13th century church of St Ethelburga’s. Queen Victoria steps into Westminster Abbey with a nervous Chief of Police.

A Russian with two deep bites in his fingers left by his murder victim, passes through London leaving no trace. A solitary figure explodes at dusk in Greenwich Park; a crowd of spectators watch a house burn in Sidney Street. Around 9am on 7th July 2005, London Underground officials realise that the sudden loss of power in three locations is not an electrical fault.

London’s terrorists have little to associate them but the - usually fiercely contested - label. In terms of sheer destruction, none have managed to halt the clockwork of the city for more than a day or two. The most complete destructions of London have taken place because of conventional war or accident.

But then restraint is often in the interest of the terrorist, as part of negotiations for State attention or even to get public sympathy. Often terrorists believe their actions reflect a moral as well as a political argument – wholesale killing can ironically destroy support even from people who have a measure of sympathy.

oil painting of people fleeing a city in flames across an expanse of water

The Great Fire of London, Dutch School, 1666. © Museum of London

The outsider as destroyer

The Museum of London’s Great Fire of London display describes how mobs roamed the streets of the city during the fire attacking anyone who could not speak good English, believing that foreigners had started the fire which had actually been an accident.

A mad, but innocent Frenchman was later hanged for burning London. 200 years later, many were convinced that Jack the Ripper was foreign, Jewish or a socialist. The Gunpowder plot really was an attempt to reinstate Catholicism in England. As news came out about the July 2005 tube bombings, there was much dismay that the bombers were ‘home grown’ and fierce argument about immigration, integration and multiculturalism.

If terrorism feels like a very modern crime, it’s perhaps because the television camera is as much the terrorists’ weapon as the bomb. Images such as the wrecked Tavistock Square bus become iconic. But a sophisticated media is a double-edged sword: the ‘One London’ campaign in the months after the bombing encouraged Londoners to see themselves as a united body, and to dampen the impulse that led to the lynchings during the Great Fire of London.

painting shows marx, lenin and william morris

A close up of the mural at the Marx Memorial Library. Photo: K Smith.

Russian revolutionaries in London

In the 1840s movements for democracy swept Europe - Italy, France and Poland stood on the brink of revolution and thinkers and activists encouraged the risings. Many of Europe’s revolutionaries ended up in exile in comparatively liberal Britain: it became the home of other people’s ‘terrorists’.

Alexander Herzen was at the heart of a group of Russian exiles. His house still stands at 1 Orsett Terrace. Herzen’s circle were exporters of ideas rather than bombs - especially through his influential London-published magazine, The Bell.

His associate Bakunin was more committed to activism and set off on over-optimistic, failed missions to foment revolution in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Bakunin wrote Catechism of a Revolutionary with his protégé Nechaev in August 1869, including this famous passage:

‘The Revolutionist is a doomed man. He has no private interests, no affairs, sentiments, ties, property nor even a name of his own. His entire being is devoured by one purpose, one thought, one passion - the revolution. Heart and soul, not merely by word but by deed, he has severed every link with the social order and with the entire civilised world; with the laws, good manners, conventions, and morality of that world. He is its merciless enemy and continues to inhabit it with only one purpose - to destroy it.’

The historian E H Carr suggests that for the warm-hearted Bakunin, this was mere oratorical theory. Not so for Nechaev: three months later, he crept back into Russia claiming to be the leader of a great revolutionary movment abroad, organised a network of Russian students, and then murdered one of them, I Ivanov, on suspicion of being a traitor. Then he fled back to Europe.

He stayed for three months in London producing a magazine called The Commune which survived for two issues – no other trace of his stay here remains. He was eventually recaptured by the Russians and died aged 35 in a Tsarist jail. He has variously been regarded since then as an amoral fantasist and a hero of the revolution.

The Marx Memorial Library contains many books and original manuscripts about the history of socialism and left liberationist movements, including stories of the Russian exiles. At the turn of the 20th century, Lenin worked in a small room that is now part of the library.

The anarchists

A small number of anarchists lived in Britain in the late 19th century. The majority in the small movement were peaceful and argued for a somewhat utopian ideal of ‘no ruler’. However terrorist anarchists abroad and two violent incidents in London meant that anarchists were the ‘red under the bed’ of their day, with tabloid headlines suggesting a fifth column of 3000 anarchists lurking in London.

In February 1894 a 26 year old French anarchist Martial Bourdin blew himself up close to the Royal Observatory in Greenwich Park. It’s still not known what he planned to do with the bomb: a large amount of money on his body suggested that he was intending to flee after planting it. Documents describing the incident exist in the Greenwich Observatory archive and there is a detailed summary here.

Twenty years later, the Sidney Street siege was the result of the murder of a London policeman by Latvian anarchists during a burglary on a jewelers’ shop. The two anarchists subsequently tracked down to 100 Sidney Street were not in fact the murderers. The police besieged the building, which eventually caught fire. Both anarchists and a fireman died.

The free Mediatheque at the National Film Theatre holds footage of all-male crowds jostling to watch the Sidney Street siege. The NFT wryly notes that the going rate for a rooftop view was half a sovereign. Four news companies filmed the events.

a black and white early photo of a tube station with gas lamps and curved glass roof

Aldersgate Street station, Metropolitan line (re-named Aldersgate and Barbican in 1923, Barbican in 1968). Photographed by Henry Dixon, 22 Apr 1880. The 1897 Aldersgate bomb had fatal consequences. © Transport for London. Collection of London Transport Museum

Victorian tube bombings

A small display in the London Transport Museum tells the story of the earliest bombings on the tube. Irish nationalists planted two bombs on the inner circle line in 1883 and 1885, but it was the 1897 Aldersgate bomb that had fatal consequences - killing one and injuring sixty. The Times records ‘the four inside compartments were smashed... almost the whole roof of the carriage has been blown off’.

Carriage 93 was later fully repaired - with some of the damaged material idiosyncratically turned into an inkstand

‘Dynamite Saturday’

The Irish situation has brought terrorism to London for more than 100 years. Besides the tube bombings, Irishmen twice tried to shoot Queen Victoria and on ‘Dynamite Saturday’ in 1885 they attempted to blow up the House of Commons and the Tower of London.

Like the Bishopsgate bomb planted by the IRA a century later, the attacks were clearly intended as demonstrations of power against icons of Britishness. However, their attempt to spectacularly blow up Westminster Abbey during the Golden Jubilee celebrations of 1897 was effectively foiled by British spies.

The House of Commons collection includes the Albert Medal awarded to Police Constable William Cole who found one of the House of Commons bombs, fuse already burning, and attempted to run out of the building with it. It exploded, injuring him and throwing him into a deep crater.

There’s more about Irish terrorism in Britain on the Moving Here website.

drawing shows sufragettes waving brollies in front of the houses of parliament

An anti-suffragette postcard: note the 'mannish' tie of the woman at the front. Courtesy of the Museum of London, which has extensive material on the suffragette movement.


By 1913, some suffragettes had been campaigning for the vote for more than 50 years. The Franchise Reform Bill had just been thrown out of Parliament and this was the tipping point for many who decided that peaceful protest wasn’t working. For the suffragettes it was a politically delicate business: they were at pains to emphasise their femininity and their responsibility as citizens. Sylvia Pankhurst’s list of suffragette destructive acts is almost comically genteel for much of its length:

“Women, most of them very young, toiled through the night over unfamiliar country, carrying heavy cases of petrol and paraffin…Street lamps were broken, Votes for women was painted on seats at Hampstead Heath, keyholes were stopped with lead pellets, house numbers were painted out... old ladies applied for gun licenses to terrify the authorities. A large envelope containing pepper and snuff was sent to every Cabinet minister... the press reported they all fell victims to the ruse. Empty houses and other unattended buildings were sought out and set on fire... bombs were placed near the Bank of England.”

However suffragettes also destroyed entire empty buildings, including the moment when Emily Wilding Davison burned down Prime Minister Lloyd George’s half completed house. She later became the movement’s first martyr when she died trying to stop the King’s Horse at Epsom.

Sylvia Pankhurst’s activist list segues into accounts of suffragettes being force fed in prison with resulting suffocation, vomiting, torn gums and broken teeth. The government claimed that nothing amounting to torture was taking place - echoing the modern debates around waterboarding terrorist suspects.

The Museum of London and the Women’s Library have a substantial archive on the history of the suffragette movement. The former MP Tony Benn put up a plaque to Emily Wilding Davison in a House of Commons’ cupboard where she once hid. More formally, parliamentary archives contain material about her activism.

shows a colour photograph of a brick tower on the corner of a Victorian style hall building.

Today Caxton Hall has been renovated as an office and flats complex. © 24 Hour Museum

Udham Singh

In 1919 the British General Dyer was responsible for the Amritsar massacre in which hundreds of unarmed people were killed or injured. He died in his bed, but his superior Michael O’Dwyer was killed in a revenge attack more than 20 years later, while giving at talk at Caxton Hall, London.

The killer, Udham Singh made no attempt to escape and was hanged in prison in 1940. His reputational afterlife has been complex - his action was deplored by Nehru and Gandhi at the time, but his remains were taken to India in 1975 at the request of the government. See more at

The revolver used by Singh is held by the Metropolitan Police’s Crime Museum (not open to the public).

St Ethelburgas and the Bishopsgate bomb

IRA campaigns in London reignited from the 1970s. Among the most noted was the Bishopsgate bomb - a large lorry filled with explosives left outside the 13th century church of St Ethelburga’s in 1993. The explosion caused billions of pounds of damage in the City and completely destroyed the 700 year old church. There was one fatality, a freelance photographer, Ed Henty.

Initially eyed up as valuable real estate, St Ethelburga’s was eventually rebuilt as an interfaith peace centre, recognising religion as the cause of war as well as a route to peace. Its destruction and resurrection has occurred in a time where one long-standing cause of terrorism - Irish sovereignty - is subsiding and another - Islamism and the situation in the Middle East – has emerged as the main terrorist threat facing London.

Islamist terrorism

The 7th July 2005 bombings, and the failed attempt a fortnight later, had several of the ingredients of historical terrorist attacks and others that made them stand apart. Issues about the ‘alien terrorist’ intensified.

Angela West from St Ethelburga’s says “certainly many Muslims in the city feared how they would be treated in the wake of the attacks.” There were arguments that too-liberal attitudes to proponents of terror like Abu Hamza had allowed terrorist ideas to gain ground in British mosques. These echo the laidback official attitude to the presence of proselytising European revolutionaries in London 100 years before.

In other ways, the very diversity of modern London makes the July 7th attacks seem uniquely immoral. A book commemorating many of the 52 people who died in the explosions on display at the Museum of London includes people from Italy, Poland, Turkey, India, New Zealand, Iran and Romania.

The old equivalence of location with nationality and political position no longer holds true. The killing of such a diverse and random body of people, taking public transport to unassuming jobs seemed like an attack on tolerance and ordinariness itself, by men with a narrowing vision of life.

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