How Did The City of London Recover From The Bishopsgate Bombing?

Dan Dodman

Twentieth Century
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Our views on terrorism are now overshadowed by the complex world created post September 11th and the July 2007 bombings, the recent London Bridge attacks forming the latest in a string of assaults against the general populace. Many of these seem to strengthen our sense of identity rather than undermine it.

The City does, however, have a long history with terrorism, a notable episode of which took place at 99 Bishopsgate.

(Credit: Own Work).

A history of terror

In 1867, a group of Fenians, seeking the establishment of an independent Ireland, bombed Clerkenwell prison to rescue prisoners. A series of dynamite explosions followed in 1883 -1884 when Scotland Yard, Whitehall and the Times were all targeted.

At the beginning of the 20th century, in common with many countries, there rose an increasingly violent anarchist movement in the UK. It culminated in the infamous Sidney Street siege where Winston Churchill, aided by the army, set about attacking a group of anarchists who shot three policemen and retreated to a hideout.

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By the early 90s, the main threat of terrorism in the UK was the mainland bombing campaign undertaken by the IRA. The relative peace brought by the Good Friday Agreement makes it hard to remember or imagine the scale of the damage caused by the bombing campaign carried out across the UK. Warnings were regularly dialled in by the IRA causing mass evacuations and disruptions.

These disruptions reached the City in 1992 on the site of the Gherkin, in the Grade II listed Baltic Exchange. Between 1900 and 1903 most of the world’s cargo and freight was arranged here. It is estimated that half of the world’s ships were sold in the building.

On 10 April 1992, an IRA bomb exploded outside the Exchange, killing three people and damaging significant sections of the building. Despite a good deal of controversy, it was decided that London’s last Edwardian trading floor would need to be dismantled and sold.

The City appears evacuated during the UK lockdown (Credit: Own Work).

Much of the building ending up in barns around Cheshire and Kent before finally being bought by an Estonian businessman who shipped it to Tallinn for reconstruction. Financial delays have slowed this project and the remnants have sat in shipping containers for over 10 years. The irony of the exchange where shipping cargo space was traded ending up in cargo space should not be lost.

The financial impact on the City was significant, as was the architectural. Without the IRA bombing of the Baltic Exchange, there would have been no Gherkin. Seeing the effect, the IRA campaign continued to focus on the City and a second bomb outside 99 Bishopsgate.

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The Bishopsgate Bombing

Despite a phoned warning and the fact that the bomb was planted on a Sunday, when the bomb was set off on 24 April 1993, 44 people were injured and one person, a News of the World photographer who had rushed to the scene, was killed.

The IRA warning “there’s a massive bomb clear a wide area” turned out to be a massive understatement. The one tonne bomb (held in a stolen truck) blasted a 15 foot crater in the street and blew out many of the windows of Tower 42, which neighbours number 99. Opposite number 99, St Ethelburga church was destroyed, it has now been rebuilt in the original style.

Tower 42 after the bombing (Credit: Paul Stewart/Getty).

The total cost of the damage was £350 million. Some historians have suggested, however, that the financial damage linked to the string of bombings that targeted England’s financial centres was downplayed for political reasons.

The bomb was tiny compared to World War Two standards. The typical area bombing load of a single Lancaster bomber was one 4,000lb high explosive bomb (a “cookie”) followed by 2,832 4lb incendiary bombs. The cookie alone was almost twice the size of the IRA bomb at Billingsgate. Hundreds of these fell on German cities every night.

St Ethelburga and Bishopsgate after the bombing (Credit: Public Domain).

The reaction in the City was pretty immediate as was the desire to secure the area from future damage. The City of London’s Chief Planning Officer called for the demolition of Tower 42 and a host of 1970s buildings, and their replacement with something better.

In spite of this, the buildings around 99 Billingsgate have remained very similar to what they were previously. In Manchester, in contrast, the city centre was redesigned following the destruction of the Arndale Centre and surrounding streets by the biggest bomb exploded by the IRA on the mainland.

The City of London police set up the “Ring of Steel”.  Routes into the City were closed and checkpoints set up, small police boxes followed by a kink in the road, many of which remain to this day. They look less like a Ring of Steel and more like a set of lonely and forgotten sentries from a forgotten period of our history.

One of the Police boxes of the Ring of Steel today (Credit: Own Work).

Some contemporary working practices are directly influenced by the bombing. The introduction of clear desk policies were a direct result of Bishopsgate, as the blown out windows scattered thousands of pages of confidential client information across the City.

The bombing was also largely responsible for the introduction of disaster recovery systems across the City.

Despite the cost of the damage almost causing the collapse of Lloyds of London, City life returned to normal and the IRA ceased their bombing operations in England shortly after, until the Canary Wharf bombing in 1996. As before, huge damage in the Square Mile had little affect on people going to work.

The view from Holborn Viaduct (Credit: Own Work).

Lessons for today

Even as the UK lockdown lifts, the City is still quiet and empty – it’s difficult to imagine that people are going to be in any hurry to get back to the rush hour, and the Tube remains largely off limits. The world has changed during lockdown.

The City has proved that it can work remotely, people have spent more time with their families and perhaps claimed back an element of work/life balance and the joy that goes with working flexibly.

The City has endured rebellion, fire, financial collapse and an awful lot of bombs. It has changed and adapted just as we all have done over the past few weeks. It will continue to do so.

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If there is anything that we can learn from the incredible events that have dominated the financial centre over the last 800 years, it’s that nothing is really new and that, however bad things appear now, someone else has probably had it worse.

More importantly, despite the massive adversity individuals in the City have faced, they helped rebuild the district into one of the major financial centres of the world. We should do the same.

Dan Dodman is a partner in Goodman Derrick’s commercial litigation team where he specialises in civil fraud and shareholder disputes. When not working, Dan has spent most of lockdown being taught about dinosaurs by his son and tinkering with his (growing) collection of film cameras.

Dan Dodman