Suffragette Bombs in the City of London Police Museum

Author
Howard Benge

In 1913 one of the founders of the Women’s Political and Social Union (known as Suffragettes), Christabel Pankhurst, wrote that;

“If men use explosives and bombs for their own purpose they call it war, and the throwing of a bomb that destroys other people is then described as a glorious and heroic deed. Why should a woman not make use of the same weapons as men? It is not only war we have declared. We are fighting for a revolution”

As part of a national campaign in April and May 1913 two bombs were left in the City. The first was left on April 14 outside the Bank of England on Bartholomew Lane. It was in a milk tin, the kind people used to put outside to be filled up by the milkman. The second was found on 7 May under the Bishop’s Throne in St Paul’s Cathedral, wrapped in brown paper and ticking loudly. It was in a mustard tin with an alarm clock on the top that was set to go off at midnight.

The Milk Can Bomb

This bomb is known as the Milk Can Bomb and was placed outside the Bank of England on the Bartholomew Lance entrance (which is now the Bank of England Museum), on 14 April 1913. It is an oval shaped tin that contained gunpowder with and electrical firing system. The Bank of England and the surrounding area was a strategic location, it was busy with people and represented the financial centre of the United Kingdom. If the bomb has gone off, it could well have caused much injury and many deaths.

Reports tell how a City of London Police Officer, PC Ralph, discovered the bomb on his beat. He dealt with the bomb himself, some reports saying he ran with it to a nearby fountain in front of the Royal Exchange, some saying he took it to Cloak Lane Police station where it was rendered harmless.

It was concluded that it was a bomb made by the suffragettes. The bomb was a very sophisticated design, so must have been created by a person who was serious about it going off. It only failed because of a single flaw in its design. It was of a similar design to a bomb that had exploded a few days previously at Oxted Railway Station, where it was also believed to have been made by suffragettes.

One newspaper wrote “The opinion that the attempted outrage was the work of women, presumably Suffragettes, is strengthened by the fact that the police are in possession of two hatpins, which were used in connection with the fixing of the bomb.”

The Two Suffragette Bombs on display ©The City of London Police Museum

Mustard Tin Bomb

On 8 May 1913, around a month after the discovery the Milk Tin Bomb, an explosive device was found near the Bishop’s Throne in the chancel of St Paul’s Cathedral. It was wrapped in brown paper and pages from The Suffragette, the militant newspaper of the women’s campaign for votes.  

The bomb was found by a Mr Harrison who, when cleaning the area, became aware of a quiet ticking sound. On investigation, he found the brown paper parcel which he took to the Dean’s Verger. It was placed in a bucket of water and taken to one of the City of London Police officers stationed outside the Cathedral.

The device was transported to the City Police’s Bridewell Police Station where it was later examined by Major Cooper-Key of HM Inspectorate of Explosives. He stated that the device had been timed to explode the previous midnight, but failed probably due to a poor contact. Had the bomb exploded as planned it would have caused extensive damage and possibly started a significant fire.

Inside the Keen’s Genuine Imperial Mustard tin was another tin that contained the explosive filling, the key constituent of which was potassium nitrate. A simple on-off switch on top of the tin was the arming system.

In June 1914, the following year, a suffragette bomb exploded in Westminster Abbey. It was placed under the 700-year-old Coronation Chair, which survived, but was slightly damaged.

Both of these bombs, now safe, are on display in the museum. As far as we know, they are the only surviving Suffragette bombs.

A metal turning switch system, resembling a tap, attached to the top of a metal tin bomb.
The Switch System on the Mustard Suffragette Bomb ©The City of London Police Museum

References

Bomb Explosion in Westminster Abbey, The Daily Telegraph, 12 June 1914.

Jones, Ian,2016, London: Bombed, Blitzed and Blown Up: The British Capital Under Attack Since 1867

Riddel,Fern, 2018, Suffragettes, violence and militancy, British Library.