It was the afternoon of Thursday 15 February 1894. Martial Bourdin, a 26-year-old Frenchman, left his lodgings in Fitzroy Street, west of London’s Tottenham Court Road. He dined, then walked to the tram terminus at Westminster Bridge, near the Houses of Parliament. There, he climbed aboard one of the horse-drawn trams which ran every few minutes, buying a through ticket all the way to the end of the line at East Greenwich.
A little later, two of the Royal Observatory assistants – William Thackeray and Henry Hollis – were at work in one of the computing rooms, at the top of the hill overlooking the northern reaches of Greenwich Park. Also on-site at the Observatory besides the assistants was the gate porter, William McManus. All three men heard the explosion. Smoke was seen rising from the trees near the Observatory’s front terrace. McManus ran towards the explosion site, seeing Thackeray and Hollis do likewise.
First on the scene, though, were two local schoolboys. At the site of the explosion they found a man, later identified as Martial Bourdin, kneeling on the path by the railings, perfectly still. His head was bowed. The Park keeper on duty that afternoon was next to arrive, followed by McManus, Thackeray and Hollis. At that moment, Bourdin was seen to sink to the ground. The witnesses had by now discovered that the man’s left hand had been blown off; sinews and tendons were hanging down out of the bloody stump. He had a massive wound in his stomach, out of which some of his intestines were spilling, and he had a hole under his right shoulder blade with bone protruding. The gathered party took Bourdin to hospital where he died twenty-five minutes later from shock and loss of blood. He never said what had happened.
McManus, Thackeray and Hollis returned to the Observatory and performed a search of the area between its buildings and the path nearby, where Bourdin had been found. It was a gruesome experience. They found many fragments of his hand, including a two-inch piece of blackened finger-bone. Blood and clothing fragments littered the scene and, the following day, detectives discovered pieces of tendon wrapped around nearby railings, and two knuckle-joints from Bourdin’s left thumb. Martial Bourdin, an anarchist terrorist, had accidentally blown himself up with a bomb right outside the Observatory buildings.
This is an abbreviated extract from Ruth Belville: The Greenwich Time Lady, by David Rooney, published by the National Maritime Museum, 2008 ISBN 978-0-948065-97-2.