The Fenians simply wheeled a barrel of gunpowder up to the wall of the facility when they expected the inmates to be at exercise in the adjacent yard. The explosion blasted a 60-foot gap in the wall; the inward-collapsing rubble might easily have been the death rather than the salvation of the prospective beneficiaries, except that they weren’t actually in the yard at all — nobody was, and nobody escaped Clerkenwell. However, numerous working-class families lived in tenements opposite the gaol, and in fact Clerkenwell had a reputation for political radicalism and Fenian sympathy.
This ‘infernal machine’ tore through Clerkenwell homes, leaving 12 people dead, over 120 injured and numerous buildings clinging to collapse, while windows and chimneys shivered to pieces all up and down the block. Improvised struts shore up damaged buildings opposite the wall of Clerkenwell gaol reduced to rubble by the Fenian bombing.
Karl Marx, a strong supporter of the Irish cause, despaired this counterproductive turn towards terrorism: ‘The London masses, who have shown great sympathy towards Ireland, would be made wild and driven into the arms of a reactionary government. One cannot expect the London proletarians to allow themselves to be blown up in honour of Fenian emissaries’.
English reformer Charles Bradlaugh agreed. ‘The worst enemy of the Irish people could not have devised a scheme better calculated to destroy all sympathy’.
The day before the explosion, the Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, had banned all political demonstrations in London in an attempt to put a stop to the weekly meetings and marches that were being held in support of the Fenians, with a similar vice-regal declaration in Ireland. Disraeli had feared that the ban might be challenged, but the explosion had the effect of turning public opinion in his favour.
The bombing was later described as the most infamous action carried out by the Fenians in Great Britain in the 19th century.
Considering the magnitude of the crime, someone would have to pay for it.
Image: Punch magazine depicts the Clerkenwell bomber(s) as the ‘Fenian Guy Fawkes’.