‘Infernal Machines’ in London

Infernal Machine

The rudimentary bombs used in the 1880s ‘Dynamite War’ were known as ‘infernal machines’. This one is held in the crime museum in London and was found at the scene of the Scotland Yard bombing, May 1884

As a historian working primarily on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries I don’t expect my daily newspapers to regularly publish articles that directly reflect my research. Recently, depressingly, this has begun to happen. A few weeks ago I wrote about the ‘Dynamite War’ of the 1880s and how members of the Fenians and Clan na Gael were being disingenuous when they claimed that setting off bombs in public places was never intended to harm innocent bystanders. This was in response to claims made by Michael Hayes (who was actively involved in the IRA in the 1970s) that the those behind the IRA’s Birmingham bombing in 1974 had never intended to kill anyone.

Yesterday, I read in The Guardian that terrorist incompetence is saving lives. It’s an article prompted by the explosion on a train at Parson’s Green station. And it’s certainly true that there would be a lot more fatalities had would-be bombers been more competent. The article makes references to Chris Morris’ Four Lions film – a comedy about incompetent terrorists.

It’s not just recently that those attempting to launch politically motivated attacks have been foiled by their own incompetence. In the late 1860s and early 1870s the Fenians planned three invasions of Canada from the United States. All three failed because of poor planning, lack of support, lack of arms and ammunition and lack of secrecy. There were some concessions to secrecy in planning with invisible ink and a cipher used by some. However the code was a ridiculously simplistic system in which letters were substituted for the one that came after it alphabetically. ‘Ireland’ became ‘Jsfmboe’, ‘England’ was ‘Fohmboe’ and ‘Revolutionary’ became ‘Sfwpmoujposbsz’. Invisible ink was made from a “weak solution of yellow prussaite of potash” on “rough unglazed paper” with a “quill pen.” The written word would later be revealed by dipping the letter in “a solution of copperas”. Intercepted letters were quickly and easily deciphered.

In August 1884 William Mackey Lomasney, his brother-in-law Peter Mahon and John Fleming sailed to England. They planned to take part in the ‘Dynamite War’ which was a war against British control of Ireland, largely waged by Irish republicans based in the United States. The ‘Dynamite War’ targeted many locations in London – Scotland Yard, London Bridge, Tube stations, the offices of The Times, left-luggage rooms of train stations, Tower of London, Houses of Parliament, the Carlton Club and the foot of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square. Lomasney’s mission was to blow up London Bridge.

Lomasney, was in many ways the archetypal Irish republican hero. He was born into an Irish republican family in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1841. His grandfather had reputedly been a United Irishman who was killed during the failed rebellion of 1798 and Lomasney joined the Fenians as a young man, later becoming a member of the Clan. After serving in the Union Army Lomasney went to Ireland where he was promptly arrested, imprisoned and banished from Britain and Ireland. After a brief spell back in the United States he returned to Ireland in 1867 where he quickly gained fame and notoriety for a series of dramatic and successful raids on coastguard stations and police barracks. He was captured in Cork in February 1868, tried and sentenced to twelve years’ penal servitude. He was released in 1871 and settled in Detroit.

Yet it was not long before he found himself once again involved in Irish republican activity. He joined Clan na Gael and was strongly in favor of Parnell, believing he was “eminently deserving of our support, and that he means to go as far as we do in pushing the business”, but he was unwilling to entirely forgo the prospect of using force against the British if it might bring success. By late 1880 he began to experiment with dynamite. though, as he told John Devoy, “I scarcely think there will be need for what I am preparing for, but it is best to be ready, and none will be better pleased than myself if there never happens to be use for what I am preparing.”  Yet, despite his reservations, when Alexander Sullivan, the leader of Clan na Gael, embarked on the ‘Dynamite War’ Lomasney chose to follow. He claimed that his aim was to “strike terror into the British ruling class” without “hurting a hair on an ordinary Englishman’s head.”


On the night of December 13, close to 6pm, Lomasney, Mahon and Fleming boarded a small boat, rowed out to London Bridge, attached a bomb to iron gratings and lit the fuse. As the men prepared to row away, the bomb exploded prematurely, blowing the men “to atoms”, destroying the boat and shattering windows, but leaving London Bridge largely undamaged. Lomasney and his associates hadn’t hurt “a hair on an ordinary Englishman’s head”, but only because they had failed in their mission. Had the bomb exploded as had been intended there is a very strong chance that many would have been killed or injured.