David Rooney talks about the Greenwich bomb

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David Rooney talks about the Greenwich bomb

David Rooney recounts the day a bomb was brought to Greenwich, and how the Royal Observatory had a lucky escape.

Natasha:
Hello, I’m Natasha Waterson.

David:
And I’m David Rooney, the Curator of Time Keeping at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich.

Natasha:
Now, today, we are standing outside the Royal Observatory on a spot that made Greenwich hit the headlines for months back in 1894.

David:
Yeah, we are standing at the top of a path, a steep path just outside the Royal Observatory buildings. We’ve got Flamsteed House, the original observatory beside us and there is a path which dives down to the road that goes through to the edge of the park. And here in 1894 Greenwich really did hit the headlines in the most dramatic way.
Let me tell you what was going on there. It was February 1894, and there was a 26-year-old Frenchmen called Martial Bourdin. He was lodging in Fitzroy Street, which is near Tottenham Court Road if you know that bit of London.

On 15th of February, 1894, he leaves his lodgings. He goes and has a spot of lunch and then walks to a tram terminus at Westminster Bridge, just near the Houses of Parliament, gets on board one of the horse-drawn trams that run every few minutes there and got a through ticket all the way to East Greenwich.

So he is on this tram, it’s a very quiet tram because it’s sort of mid-afternoon. He looks a bit agitated. He is attracting attention. All of this comes out in the inquest later. A bit agitated, he gets out at East Greenwich. It’s almost as if he is in a hurry and he has gone further than he is expecting.

He calls out to the staff of the tram terminus, ‘Can you direct me to Greenwich Park?’ He was duly directed and hurries his way with a package under his arm.

All of this was reported to the police after the incident. So, here we are at the Royal Observatory, there were three people working here at the time: William Thackerary, William McManus and Henry Hollis and they worked doing the calculations astronomers do. About 4:45 in the afternoon they heard the explosion. They saw some smoke rising from the trees and they hurried out to see what had shattered the calm of the observatory that afternoon in 1894.

Natasha:
So what had happened?

David:
It was pretty gruesome actually. These three men ran to the scene on this path, we are standing on the top of it. It’s actually not a path anymore, it’s now winder growth. It has not been used as a path for many decades.
Two school boys actually who were on their way home from school were first on the scene and they found the man on his knees with his head bowed on this path just below the Royal Observatory. It wasn’t good. They lifted him gently upright and said to him, ‘What have you done?’ And there is no answer.

Natasha:
What had he done?

David:
Well, he had blown himself up. The package he was carrying under his arm was a bomb. This was Martial Bourdin, the guy who had come on the tram. It was a bomb and he had blown himself apart. He wasn’t dead at this point. As the witnesses lifted him up, he just murmured, he said, ‘Take me home, take me home, fetch me a cab,’ that’s all he ever said, never explained what had gone on.
They found then that he had blown his left hand off. So, there were sinews, tendons hanging out of his stub there and a huge wound in his stomach, some of his intestines were spilling out of that and a hole under his right shoulder blade, which had his shoulder sticking out of.

One of the boys was sent to a hospital nearby to fetch a doctor. It wasn’t the doctor he needed at this stage. A little bit of brandy was rubbed on to his lips. He was taken to the nearby hospital and died 25 minutes later from loss of blood and he never said what had happened.

Natasha:
So what had happened?

David:
Well, he never explained it. McManus, Thackeray and Hollis returned to the observatory to piece together what they could find and they carried out a fingertip search of the path that we are standing on now.
When I say fingertip search, it was a fingertip search – they found the tip of one of his fingers. They found several fragments of his hand and two inches of one of his fingers, they never worked out which. Martial Bourdin had come to Greenwich that day with a bomb under his arm and it had gone off. It wasn’t a suicide bomb, it had gone off by mistake and he had blown himself to pieces.

Natasha:
That’s a gruesome story.

David:
It was a terrible story. So, the question is why did he do it? He was a young man, he was an idealist, he was an anarchist. There was a lot of anarchist activity in London at the time – this is 1894. People who have a problem with government control and it seems to me that although we have got no firm evidence of why he came to Greenwich to the Royal Observatory with a bomb, it seems to me that this was a very clear answer of why it would be plausible for him to do that.
And that’s because 10 years before, in 1884, the Royal Observatory, the time kept here, Greenwich Mean Time had been selected as the prime time for the world. The Meridian of Greenwich was chosen as the prime meridian. All of time and space for the world is measured from the prime meridian in the courtyard just near where we are standing.

Now, what an imperial act that must have looked if you didn’t like control, if you didn’t like government control or social control to say that the time on this line was the time that we would all march to wherever we were in the world. It must have seemed monstrous to some people.

The path that he is on, as you know Natasha, leads round the front to the front of the Observatory. It only leads there and it leads to the very famous gate clock in our wall that you can still see, which was the first clock in the world to show Greenwich Mean Time to the public.

It was there in 1894. My suggestion is that Martial Bourdin came that afternoon with a bomb to very publicly, very violently and very symbolically stop Greenwich Time by blowing that clock up. He never succeeded because he tripped up on a tree root and killed himself and nobody else. If that hadn’t happened, then the world might be a different place today.

Natasha:
David, thank you for telling us that story.

David:
Thank you, Natasha.

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