Commentary: Bombing Trains Is Nothing New-It Is What 19th-Century Anarchists Did. Moreover, Their Deeds Were Immortalised in Fiction. Tom Armitage on the Forgotten Genre of the "Dynamite Romance"

By Armitage, Tom | New Statesman (1996), August 8, 2005 | Go to article overview

Commentary: Bombing Trains Is Nothing New-It Is What 19th-Century Anarchists Did. Moreover, Their Deeds Were Immortalised in Fiction. Tom Armitage on the Forgotten Genre of the "Dynamite Romance"


Armitage, Tom, New Statesman (1996)


Following last month's terrorist bombings in London, commentators have searched for comparisons in history. Inevitably, many have turned to 11 September 2001, others to the IRA terror campaign. But an antecedent for these events can be found further back, in the anarchist bombings of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which eventually were immortalised in fiction.

The anarchists sought to abolish the state and put in its place a society based upon the voluntary organisation of individuals. Like Marxism, anarchism was an international movement, with tentacles in a number of different countries. In the 1870s anarchists promoted the concept of "propaganda by the deed"--the belief that a mass uprising could be triggered by action. A spate of assassination attempts was made on European heads of state: in 1881, Tsar Alexander II of Russia was killed. Soon, the anarchists began targeting civilians as well, and took to planting bombs in public places. Opera houses, stations, town halls, government offices and private clubs all came under attack.

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The anarchists preferred bombs to firearms (perhaps because of their chaotic and unpredictable nature), and their explosive of choice was dynamite. Invented in 1866 by Alfred Nobel, dynamite was notable for being hugely powerful but also very stable. Far more destructive than black powder or gunpowder, it was the ideal weapon for those who wanted to make portable, deadly and easily concealed devices. When Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators attempted to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605, they stashed 36 barrels--about two and a half tonnes--of gunpowder under the House of Lords. One man could easily carry enough dynamite to match the explosion they planned to set off. The attraction for the anarchists was obvious. Armed with home-made bombs, they conducted a sporadic campaign of terror across London.

The job of recording their activities fell to HM Inspector of Explosives, Colonel Vivian Dering Majendie. His accounts show how the anarchists' targets were not so very different from those of today's terrorists. Majendie records frequent attacks on stations, noting on 27 February 1884 "the discovery of a bag containing some Atlas Powder A, with clockwork and detonators, at Charing Cross Station". On the following two days, "similar discoveries" were made at Paddington and Ludgate Hill Stations. More eerily prescient, however, are the two attacks of 30 October 1883 on the then-named Metropolitan Railway. One explosion, "between Charing Cross and Westminster", was "unattended with personal or serious structural injury". …

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Commentary: Bombing Trains Is Nothing New-It Is What 19th-Century Anarchists Did. Moreover, Their Deeds Were Immortalised in Fiction. Tom Armitage on the Forgotten Genre of the "Dynamite Romance"
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