The Victorian war on terror

In the 1880s Irish republicans terrorised London with a diabolical new invention - dynamite. The Home Office hit back with a new weapon of its own, Britain’s first secret police force, writes Shane Kenna.

This article was first published in the November 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine

A policeman feels the full force of a blast in this illustration from 1884.

As a train entered London Underground’s Praed Street station on 30 October 1883, a bomb was thrown from a first-class carriage. It exploded as a third-class carriage passed. The driver, Stephen Harris, recalled that every light on the train was extinguished and there was a loud shriek of horror among the passengers.

The force of the blast threw the station signalman, Henry Hartrupp, towards a nearby wall. His signal box was shattered by the impact of the explosion. As the foggy dust bellowed out of the tunnel, terrified Metropolitan line commuters stampeded out of the station in hysterical confusion. Station workers ran toward the wrecked carriage as the injured were treated at the station or in the nearby St Mary’s Hospital. Dozens were hurt, with injuries including shock, facial wounds, burns and deafness.

Within minutes a further explosion was heard halfway across the city, this time at Charing Cross. Another bomb had been thrown toward the lower carriages as a train left for Westminster. Such an audacious bombing attack on public transport had never been experienced before in western Europe, and the following day hundreds of commuters avoided the Underground network as a sense of terror swept through London. Addressing this fear, 600 Underground railway workers denounced the bombings and called upon commuters to go about their daily lives unintimidated. As the home secretary Sir William Vernon Harcourt despondently lamented: “Things were never worse than they are now.”

Further attacks followed. On 25 February 1884, time-delayed explosives were deposited in luggage bags in several railway cloakrooms, including Victoria, Ludgate Hill, Charing Cross and Paddington. With the exception of the bomb at Victoria, each timer failed. At Victoria, the force of the blast annihilated the cloakroom. The station’s ticket office was badly damaged and the glass veranda roof was shattered. Such was the devastation that 30 trucks were required to take away the debris. Once again the public was terrified. Alarming rumours suggested that the Royal Courts of Justice, St Pancras station and the British Museum had been the subject of further attacks.

Panic-stricken Londoners flee from Praed Street station following a Fenian bomb attack, October 1883. (© Mary Evans Picture Library)

Rushing to other railway stations throughout London in the aftermath of the blast, police and railway staff frantically searched cloakrooms and tore open baggage, discovering the remaining explosives. The stations were saved by the malfunctioning of the bombs, and the Home Office praised “a most miraculous escape”.

These explosions were part of the 1881–85 Fenian dynamite campaign. This had the aim of bringing the Irish question to the heart of British politics, a prelude to the establishment of an Irish Republic. To meet the Fenian challenge a new detective department was formed at Scotland Yard under Adolphus Williamson and Inspector John Littlechild on 17 March 1883.

 

Political policing

Known as the Special Irish Branch, the new force initially consisted of four CID officers and eight uniformed policemen. Its very existence represented a remarkable innovation because there was no tradition of detective work within British policing. This in turn was partly because the liberal political culture of the era in Britain was antithetical to secret or political policing, which were regarded as dangerously immoral, intrusive and unambiguously continental, best left to the French or Russians. However, the approach of Special Irish Branch was still shaped by this liberal tradition. Rather than employing agents, it sought to prevent Fenian attacks by using a strategy peculiar to Victorian Britain: picketing. This involved identifying individuals as threats to national security.

Once identified, plain-clothes policemen would maintain a brief surveillance of the suspect, with no attempt to incubate informers. After monitoring a suspect’s movements, the officers would follow their observations with an arrest and questioning of those believed to be ‘dynamitards’. If the evidence was solid against a prisoner, and he could not account for himself, he was charged. Foremost in this strategy was a preference for openly recorded arrests and clear evidence.

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In the aftermath of the Victoria bombing, Special Irish Branch carried out a thorough investigation, but was unable to find the dynamitards. At the Home Office, Sir William Vernon Harcourt was growing increasingly frustrated with the police response to the Fenian conspiracy, and he looked towards Ireland for a new approach.

On 6 May 1882, Lord Frederick Cavendish, the newly appointed chief secretary for Ireland, and his assistant Thomas Henry Burke, the most senior civil servant in Ireland, were assassinated in Dublin’s Phoenix Park. The two were murdered by Fenians known as the Invincibles. In the aftermath of the killings, the Irish police force was reorganised. At its apex was a permanent secret service department known as the Office of the Assistant Undersecretary for Police and Crime. This department sought to neutralise conspiracies through intelligence. To this end, it employed spies and agents provocateurs.

 

Secret service

Edward George Jenkinson headed the new unit. Jenkinson had formerly served in India, where he rose swiftly through the ranks of the colonial administration before his career was cut short by ill-health. He returned to Britain to work as private secretary to Lord Northbrook and then the Irish viceroy, Earl Spencer. It was Spencer who appointed him to head the secret service, believing that, as a former official in India, Jenkinson had an understanding of colonial policing alien to Victorian Britain. Harcourt was impressed by Jenkinson and demanded the spymaster be co-opted to the Home Office to counter Fenian dynamitards. However he understood that any official appointment would be incredibly unpopular in Britain because of the widespread suspicion of secret policing – so Jenkinson’s employment was strictly unofficial.

Edward Jenkinson. (© Getty Images)

Settling into his new office in room 56 of the Home Office Building in London, Jenkinson, with a cabal of officials working alongside him, represented a significant threat to Special Irish Branch. Regarding British police as “second-rate detectives” who had no experience with political violence, Jenkinson’s operation was entirely reliant on a circus of spies, informants and agents provocateurs. It was maintained outside the rule of law and veiled in secrecy. On Jenkinson’s instructions, his operatives were to have no communications with Scotland Yard. Unknown to Special Irish Branch, Jenkinson’s agents were handled by detectives of the Royal Irish Constabulary, officially in London to advise and support Scotland Yard in counter-Fenian activity.

That this secret policing network was regarded as a serious threat to Victorian understandings of liberality is confirmed by the mournful comments of one contemporary. “Besides the terrible results to person and property from the use of dynamite,” the  commentator lamented, “there is arising a most serious, and possibly long enduring injury to liberty… in England a new secret political police under the special direction of the Home Office, is developing to meet the new form of monstrous pervasion of chemical knowledge as an agency in political warfare.”

On the ground, this “political warfare” called for someone to act as an agent spotter, locating potential informers within Fenian circles. This role fell to Jenkinson’s deputy, Major Nicholas Gosselin, an Irish Royal Magistrate from County Cavan and former Royal Welch Fusilier.

One of the new police unit’s most audacious agents was ‘Red’ Jim McDermott. On the face of it, McDermott was a vocal supporter of bombing campaigns, who famously exclaimed at a Fenian conference in America: “Not a cent for blatherskite [talk] but every dollar for dynamite.” Yet, in reality, he was an agent provocateur who’d used secret service money to bomb Britain and had been employed by Jenkinson to push potential conspirators towards taking action.

With secret service backing, McDermott worked up a conspiracy to carry out simultaneous attacks on Ireland, Scotland and England. This resulted in the arrest of several Fenians across Britain and Ireland. To save face McDermott was arrested in Liverpool, where he had arrived from the USA, supposedly to rescue the Fenians he had allegedly entrapped. With Home Office support, he was tried for his role in the supposed bombing conspiracy, but following official intervention, the case collapsed for lack of evidence. On Jenkinson’s initiative, Nicholas Gosselin shuffled McDermott out of Britain to Europe, where he assumed the name Count de Neonlier.

The weekly newspaper The Graphic shows a bomb exploding outside Westminster Hall. In 1885, the Fenians targeted some of the major symbols of British power. (© British Library Newspapers)

Between 1883 and 1884, Nicholas Gosselin secured the services of a Liverpool Irishman named Daniel O’Neill. O’Neill told him that a Fenian living in Birmingham, John Daly, planned to assassinate the British government by throwing grenades from the visitor’s gallery in the House of Commons. Jenkinson investigated O’Neill’s claims, and discovered that the bombs were due to arrive from America in April 1884.

Rather than moving in immediately, Jenkinson and Gosselin allowed the bombs to reach Britain unmolested by police and the customs service. Their plan was for O’Neill to give the bombs to Daly in order to facilitate his arrest. The operation went smoothly and Daly was sentenced to life imprisonment. Nicholas Gosselin remembered him as “the most bloody-minded fanatic since Guy Fawkes”.

 

Escape to Australia

O’Neill was internally tried by the Fenians for his role in the counter-conspiracy, but Jenkinson had employed one of O’Neill’s inquisitors as an agent, and the Irishman escaped into anonymity in Australia. In the 1890s the nature of Daly’s arrest was exposed and the Home Office launched an investigation into allegations of illegal activity. Under interview, Gosselin protested: “In justice to me, an exhaustive inquiry having been made… the case should be, as far as the Home Office is concerned, closed forever.”

April 1884 saw the emergence of a significant threat to Jenkinson’s methods – in the form of a new commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, James Monro. Like Jenkinson, Monro had Indian experience and had previously worked to undermine secret societies in Bengal. There, however, the similarities between the men ended. Monro detested Jenkinson’s reliance on secrecy, declaring that it had no place within British policing. The assistant commissioner also argued that Jenkinson’s clandestine operations endangered the credibility of the law and encouraged moral corruption.

Monro complained to the Home Office that two police forces were operating against each other, a legal force and an illegal one. He found that Jenkinson (pictured below) was continuously trumping Scotland Yard, and remonstrated about the use of spies and agents provocateurs within existing Fenian conspiracy. He thought these secret operations were dangerous because they left open the real possibility that Fenian dynamitards could carry out an attack, and he argued that Jenkinson’s intelligence strategy was systematically designed to undermine the rule of law.

What’s more, Monro was prepared to back up his words with action, ordering that Jenkinson’s people be shadowed and arresting several key individuals in his operation.

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Monro eventually won the day. Jenkinson was dismissed in 1887, his secret operation  disbanded and his clandestine network replaced by the Special Irish Branch.

Burning his papers rather than handing them over to Monro, Jenkinson destroyed a potentially hugely important archive of shared British and Irish history. Jenkinson himself was largely forgotten but it’s perhaps time we looked anew at his legacy, to see him as someone who represents the first emergence of a British secret service with a heavy interest in political intrigue.

In 1909, the War Office officially established the Secret Service Bureau. Its director, Irishman William Melville, had been an active participant in the battle against Fenian dynamitards. Ironically, though, he wasn’t one of Jenkinson’s men – someone who operated in the shadows – but a founder member of the Special Irish Branch.

 

Who were the Fenians?

Established in 1858 as an international conspiracy among the Irish and Irish diaspora, Fenianism was the most important revolutionary tradition in Ireland. The Fenians sought to establish an Irish republic and rejected the union between Britain and Ireland (which had come into effect in 1801). Fenians were motivated by a belief in the power of violence to coerce the British government to consider Irish independence (which it had so far refused to countenance). In 1867, following a failed uprising in Ireland, they reorganised, and from 1881–85, mounted a bombing campaign in Britain.

Known as the Fenian dynamite campaign, it was inspired by advances in science – particularly the invention of dynamite, which was perceived to redress a power imbalance and offer a cheap mode of warfare. The dynamite campaign was maintained by two Irish-American Fenian groups, Clan na Gael and a smaller dissident organisation, the Skirmishers.

While the Skirmishers were responsible for several small-scale bombings between 1881 and 1883, they launched their most noteworthy attack on Whitehall, the administrative centre of the British government. Their bombing campaign forced the larger Clan to adopt a similar campaign or face an increasing lack of authority in Irish America. Resolving to employ “a system of warfare characterised by all the signs of Nihilism”, the Clan launched a bombing campaign across London in the winter of 1882/83.

Dr Shane Kenna holds a PhD in history from Trinity College, Dublin. He is the author of War in the Shadows: The Irish American Fenians Who Bombed Victorian Britain (Merrion, 2013).

On 25 February 2017, BBC History Magazine will be returning to Bristol's M Shed for a day of talks exploring the Victorian period. To find out more about our Victorian Day, and to buy tickets, click here.

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