The Greenwich Observatory Bombing

Authors: Rebecca Katz and Briana Burke

I. Author: Rebecca Katz

            On February 15, 1894, the Royal Observatory in Greenwich Park, London was targeted by French anarchist Martial Bourdin. Had the bomb he was carrying not detonated in his hands, it is presumed he would have thrown it at the Observatory. Bourdin’s reason for targeting this particular institution is unknown.
            Throughout the final two decades of the 1800s, many other anarchist attacks took place across Europe.  The Greenwich attempt was considered by many to be the first terrorist plot in Britain. At approximately 4:45 p.m., two members of the Observatory staff, who were working late, heard the detonation outside. After rushing outside, they came upon a horrific sight. The bomber, later identified as Bourdin, was missing his left hand and had a gaping hole in his stomach. Bourdin was taken to the nearby Seaman’s Hospital, but later died (“Propaganda by Deed”).
            Investigators determined that the 26-year-old Frenchman had taken the tram from Westminster to Greenwich. Witnesses attest to the fact that the man was carrying a parcel when he entered the park. After a few minutes had passed, the deadly explosion took place. No one can say for sure why the bomb went off at that time. Some say it was due to a “mischance or miscalculation or some clumsy bungling” (“Propaganda”). Whatever the case, Bourdin was never able to explain his purpose before he lost his life. Interestingly, a large sum of money was found on his person, which insinuated his imminent departure for France after setting off the bomb.
            That same day, police raided the Club Autonomie, a meeting spot for many foreign anarchists. Newspaper accounts suggest that French terrorist Emile Henry, who threw a bomb into the Parisian Café Terminus, had obtained his explosives from this institution (
"Raid on London Anarchists").
            One major mystery remains concerning the event: why Bourdin would choose the Observatory as his target. The bomb that he had on hand was small and would not have caused any serious damage. In addition, the Observatory was a vastly different location than previous targets. Other French anarchists had targeted crowded opera houses and cafes, not scientific buildings. Some suggest that Bourdin was tricked into carrying the bomb or that he was journeying to France and wanted to leave the bomb before entering his country. Whatever the true reason, no one will ever know (“Propaganda”).
            This incident, about which very little is written, is thought to be the inspiration of Joseph Conrad’s novel, The Secret Agent. In the book, a secret agent, Adolf Verloc is enlisted by the First Secretary of Russia’s embassy to destroy the Greenwich Observatory using a bomb.  Like Bourdin, the character who ends up carrying the bomb into the park is killed when it detonates prematurely.

Bibliography for Further Research
“Conrad among the Anarchists: Documents on Martial Bourdin and the Greenwich Bombing.” Burgoyne, Mary. The Secret Agent: Centennial Essays. New York. 2007: 147-185.
"The Fate of Bourdin." New York Times (1857-1922): 4. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times (1851-2008). 1894. Web. 4 Apr. 2012 .
Gibbard, Paul. ‘Bourdin, Martial (1867/8–1894)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Jan 2008.
Malia, Jennifer Lynn. “Romancing the Bomb: Gothic Terror and Terrorism in Late Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Century Literature.” University of Southern California. 2009.
"Raid on London Anarchists." New York Times (1857-1922): 5. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times (1851-2008). Feb 17 1894. Web. 4 Apr. 2012 .
"Tracing Anarchist Bourdin." New York Times (1857-1922): 5. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times (1851-2008). 1894. Web. 4 Apr. 2012 .
Weir, David. "Reactions: Anarchism as Cultural Threat." Anarchy and Culture: The Aesthetic Politics of Modernism. USA: Braun-Brumfield, Inc. 1997. 42-86. Print.
Williams, M. Kellen. “‘Where All Things Sacred and Profane Are Turned Into Copy’: Flesh, Fact, and Fiction in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent.” Journal of Narrative Theory. 32.1 (2002): 32-51.

Sites for Further Exploration
            This is the official website for the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. It provides information about the current state of the Observatory such as the numerous exhibits and shows offered to visitors. In addition, there is an in-depth history section that provides such information as when and by whom the Observatory was founded, as well as an analysis of the building’s location. In the Royal Observatory fact files, readers can explore topics such as Tycho Brahe’s star maps, the 28-inch photo-visual refractor (the seventh largest telescope in the world), as well as the 1894 bombing of the institution.
            The article that deals directly with the bombing can be found at: Royal Museums Greenwich. Propaganda by Deed: the Greenwich Observatory Bomb of 1894. 15 Aug 2005.
+ This is the only site for further exploration that I thought would be acceptable for our blog. Other interactive sites I found did not focus on the Greenwich Observatory nearly enough, if at all. For example, the Royal Parks website lists the numerous parks throughout the London area, but does not offer a background of Greenwich Park, nor does it even mention the attempted bombing of the Observatory. The website is geared more toward tourists, as it lists upcoming activities scheduled in the area. I found the same to be true for the Visit Greenwich website. It offered a variety of places to visit around the area, but provided nothing relevant to our class. My quest to locate websites that focused on 19th century anarchists and/or French anarchists failed as well. The searches yielded only scholarly articles or websites that were suspect with regard to authenticity (personal blogs, Wikipedia, etc).  
Janus Database
"Papers of William Christie." Janus. N.p., 2002. Web. 11 Apr 2012. < 7/58>.
            While this site is not very interactive, I found it of incredibly value when I was trying to find archival materials. It lists all of the articles written shortly after the Greenwich bombing, along with the newspapers from which they came and the date they were published. Although there are no links to access the papers from this site, most of the articles listed can be read on the British Library’s website: Without these two sites, I would have had an extremely difficult time locating artifacts that surfaced around the time of the explosion.
"British Newspapers." British Library. Gale Centage Learning, 2009. Web. 11 Apr 2012. <>.
Scholarly Article
Mulry, David. "Popular Accounts of the Greenwich Bombing and Conrad's "The Secret Agent"." Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature. 54.2 (2000): 43-64. Web. <>.

            As indicated by the title, this article offers viewpoints of the bombing from newspapers written at that time. In addition, Mulry makes it a point to set up a parallel between the characters in Conrad’s novels and their real-life counterparts. Besides providing readers with background information regarding the bombing, Mulry includes clips from newspaper accounts. He suggests that the accounts read by Conrad, featured in such papers as The Times and The Pall Mall Gazette, would have been highly exaggerated. According to Mulry, the press distorted much of the events. For example, reporters transformed the Autonomie Club into a frightful location when it was actually a “perfectly legal meeting place” (46). Throughout the remainder of the article, Mulry cites a number of other articles written after the bombing. It is interesting to read the quotations because it gives us a better understanding of the events that took place and the reactions they incited. I thought that this was an interesting and relevant scholarly article to include on the website, as it connects The Secret Agent, a book we have recently finished reading, to the historical events that inspired Conrad.   

Archival Materials
"Bent on Destruction." Boston Daily Globe (1872-1922): 5. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Boston Globe (1872 - 1979). 19 Feb. 1894.
            This is a very short article that appeared in the Boston Globe on February 19, 1894. It is an interesting artifact, as it includes commentary from Martial Bourdin’s brother-in-law, H.B. Samuels. Prior to Samuels’ account, no one could attest to Bourdin’s reasoning for targeting the observatory. In the text, Samuels states that Bourdin held the belief that the “only way to better society was to destroy the present system and build up another.” This is a significant assertion, as the definite reason for the bombing was never discovered. Interestingly, Samuels believes that this bombing was “only the beginning of an anarchist campaign which had been carefully planned, and would be executed despite all precautions of the police.” This suggests that Bourdin was actively involved in a plot of mass destruction. This would not have been a one-time explosion in London. Had Bourdin lived, more bombings would have likely followed. 
"Anarchist Blown to Pieces." New York Times (1857-1922): 1. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times (1851-2008). 16 Feb. 1894. Web.
            This is an article printed in the New York Times on the 16th of February, the day after the bombing took place. Unlike other articles published at the time, it clearly depicts the aftermath of the explosion in vivid detail. Readers learn that two park keepers discovered “a man mutilated and groaning with pain… His legs were shattered. One arm had been blown from his body…” When this man, later determined to be foreign anarchist Martial Bourdin, gained consciousness, he asked the men to either help him or kill him. He was taken to the nearby Seaman’s Hospital, where he died approximately 10 minutes later. In addition to a recounting of the event, the article also mentions the Autonomie Club, of which Bourdin was a member. The author connects this particular Club and its membership to Emile Henry, the Frenchman who threw a bomb into the Café Terminus in Paris days prior. According to the article, it is believed that Henry had obtained his explosives from Bourdin’s club. The author is suggesting that this club had a widespread and influential membership.

II. Author: Briana Burke

            Over one hundred years later, the events surrounding Martial Bourdin’s death remains a mystery.  On February 15, 1894, Bourdin was just hundreds of feet from the Greenwich Observatory in London when he dropped a bomb on himself. Hearing sounds of an explosion, two Observatory workers, Mr. Thackeray and Mr. Hollis, came across Bourdin disemboweled yet still alive (The Times, New York Times, Ashburton Guardian, Sydney Mail). Bourdin remained alive for thirty minutes and was transported to the Seamen’s Hospital without uttering a single word (Royal Museums Greenwich). Police quickly discovered the 26 year old Frenchman was a member of the notorious Autonomie Club, an anarchist group in London (Malia).
In The Lighter Side of My Official Life (1910), Sir Robert Anderson, the Assistant Commissioner of Crime for Scotland Yard at the time (the London police force) describes that he had “never spent hours of greater anxiety” because of the mysterious circumstances and lack of motive for the attack. The bombing was one of many in Europe in the late nineteenth century, yet Bourdin stood out because he left behind no clues as to his objective target or motives. However, it is widely accepted that he was targeting the Greenwich Observatory and simply tripped on the path (Malia). Many have also speculated that the bomb was organized by Bourdin’s brother H.B. Samuels. Samuels was reportedly “in pay of the police”, but also acted as editor for Commonweal, an anarchist publication begun by the Socialist League in 1885 (Woods 39). This is of course the premise for Joseph Conrad’s novel The Secret Agent (1907).

Newspapers all over the world cast headlines about what was commonly referred to as “Bourdin’s Folly” for weeks (Mulry 44). Yet, in Romancing the Bomb (2009), Jennifer Malia asserts that the recounts in newspapers were often dramatized and inconsistent, “One encounters a variety of conflicting details concerning the affair, including the intended target of the bombing, the condition of the victim’s body, the complexity of the bomb being carried, and even the extent of the Anarchist conspiracy.” (15) This trend is apparent across the globe, and accounts of Martial Bourdin’s death varied drastically. The Graphic, an illustrated weekly newspaper, produced drawings of the events that insinuated the police had control over the situation and had gained considerable information from the anarchists of the Autonomie Club.  On the other hand, The Times repetitively suggested that Bourdin was a member of a larger conspiracy in London (Malia 16). The Ashburton Guardian went as far as to suggest that the bombing was part of a continent wide attack. Martial Bourdin was essential in the cultivating the sense of fear and paranoia that was already sweeping the European continent. 

Scholarly Essays
Murly, David. “Popular Accounts of the Greenwich Bombing in Conrad’s ‘The Secret Agent’.” Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association 54.2 (2000): 43-64. JSTOR. Web. 19 April 2012. 
Malia, Jennifer. (2009). Romancing the Bomb: Gothic Terror and Terrorism in Land Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Century Literature. (Doctoral Dissertaion). University of Southern Carolina. Web. 22 April 2012.

Online Sources

ROG Learning Team. “Propaganda by Deed: the Greenwich Observatory Bomb of 1894.” Royal Museums of Greenwich. Np. 15 August 2005. Web. 19 April 2012.

Balston, Rose. “15 February 1894 – First International Terrorist Attack at Greenwich Park.”  London Calling. London Calling Arts Ltd. Nd. Web. 19 April 2012. 

Archival Elements


                                    “A Struggle for Liberty.”  24 February 1894. The Graphic. Web. 22 April 2012

Underneath the image reads a short caption, “As a rule, the Anarchists were quiet, but one or two struggled desperately and had to be handcuffed.” This image is one of several featured in The Graphic, an illustrated weekly newspaper in London on February 24, 1894. This drawing shows one anarchist being held down by two police officers; meanwhile a group of anarchists linger in the background watching. The officers appear to hold down the anarchist down with ease, while the anarchist is disheveled and desperate on the floor, attempting to break free. This depiction seems to favor the police force, as they are the ones who appear in complete control of the situation whereas the anarchists are either standing by inactive, or thrashing about helplessly on the floor. The Graphic, like many mainstream publications, gives a negative impression of anarchists through visual representation.


Anderson, Sir Robert. The Lighter Side of My Official Life. London: London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1910.

            Sir Robert Anderson was the Assistant Commissioner of Crime in London from 1888-1901. Before serving in England, Anderson spent his career as an advisor of political crime against the Fenians, an Ireland-based group dedicated to the creation of an Irish Republic. After leaving his post, he went on to work for Scotland Yard, another name for the Metropolitan Police Service of London. In 1910, Anderson published The Lighter Side of My Official Life, an autobiographical account of the crime he saw in his position in the Scotland Yard. In one chapter, Anderson describes that he had “never spent hours of greater anxiety” than during the afternoon of the 1894 bombing (176). Anderson’s memoirs illustrate the fear and opinions of the police force combating anarchy in London during the late nineteenth century. His account of the bombing is interesting because it displays the lack of understanding and mysteriousness of Bourdin. He reflects on the confusion of the Scotland Yard and lack of understanding for his choice of path and actions that afternoon. This work was published nine years after he left the force, and 16 years after the bombing. 

Newspaper Articles:

1. "Anarchist Blown to Pieces." New York Times (1857-1922). 16 February 1894. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.  Web. 22 April 2012.

This article is one of the first accounts in America after the bombing; it was published on February 16th in the New York Times on the front page. The article is brief and relays the fatal injuries Bourdin suffered, as well as his actions during the morning leading up to the bombing. Interestingly, the author concludes by putting a heavy focus on Bourdin’s clothing and physical appearance, describing him as a young, “well dressed man” with a large amount of gold in his pocket (1). This article reflects the initial confusion and horrific scene of the bombing.

2. H.F. "Bomb Throwers in Peril: Driven From England They Flee to Sweden to Escape Jail." The New York Times (1857-1922) 18 February 1894. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Web. 22 April 2012.

This article was published three days after the bombing in the New York Times, and reveals the rising animosity between police and anarchists, particularly foreign anarchists. The article begins by the common occurrence of foreign clubs (similar to the Autonomie Club Bourdin was a part of) and their practice of informing their respective governments about police and political activity in England. The article is extremely anti-anarchist and describes Bourdin as “an ignorant, sad little tailor, with no work and money of his own.” (1) He then goes on to describe anarchists “those who wish to live without working and to kill without fighting.” (1) This article is also interesting because H.F. asserts that Bourdin was not trying to blow up the observatory, but was trying to bury the bomb instead. This article also reveals a discrepancy in reports of the bombing; he claims that Bourdin had 65 in his pockets while other primary accounts report 13.

3. “Anarchists in Great Britain. Police Raids. Important Disclosures.” The Sydney Mail 24 February 1894. Google News. Web. 22 April 2012.

            This newspaper article was published the week following the bombing, and gives a brief timeline describing the incidents that have occurred each day since the bombing. Published in Australia, this article reveals the publicity and importance of the bombing. The article recounts some important details to the reader: the gruesomeness of the bombing, the search of Bourdin’s home which yielded numerous anarchist papers, and the activities of the Autonomie Club. The most significant aspect of this article is the sense of paranoia it evokes. It describes a member of the Autonomie Club who was arrested and “was found to have in his possession a list of 120 anarchists.” (1) The entire article seems to be an attempt to quell the public’s fear of another attack by asserting that they are entirely informed on the Autonomie Club’s activities. 

4. “The Anarchists.” Ashburton Guardian 17 February 1894. Google News. Web. 22 April 2012.

            The Ashburton Guardian is a New Zealand based newspaper, and this article was published just three days after the bombing.  The article gives a brief recount of the gruesome scene outside of the Greenwich observatory, then goes on to describe the police and anarchist activity in London. The article generates strong feelings of paranoia and fear, claiming that there were bigger plans from anarchists in the future. The article relays a rumor, “An anarchist has left London with a million francs in his pocket to strike a great blow on the continent.” This article in particular demonstrates the heightened fear of the public in anarchist activity.

Bibliography for Further Research
Burowitz, Albert. Terrorism For Self-Glorification: The Herostratos Syndrome. Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2005. Print.
Butterworth, Alex. The World That Never Was: A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists and Secret Agents. New York: Random House Inc, 2010. Print.
Parkes, Adam. A Sense of Shock: The Impact of Impressionism on Modern British and Irish Writing. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Print.
Sherry, Norman. “The Greenwich Bomb Outrage and ‘The Secret Agent’.”The Review of English Studies 18.72 (1967): 412-428. JSTOR. Web. 19 Apr. 2012.
Shpayer-Makov, Haia. “Anarchism in British Public Opinion 1880-1914.” Victorian Studies 31. 4 (1988): 487-516. JSTOR. Web. 19 Apr. 2012.
Weir, David. Anarchy and Culture: The Aesthetic Politics of Modernity. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2008. Print.
Woods, Brett F. Neutral Ground: A Political History of Espionage Fiction. New York: Algora Publishing, 2008. Print.


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