Home » Human Life » The Strange Story of an Infernal Machine in Limehouse Cut in 1882

The Strange Story of an Infernal Machine in Limehouse Cut in 1882


Tower of London Explosion 1885

Regular readers will know that I am always on the lookout for unusual stories about the local area and recently I came across the following newspaper report from 1882. As usual when looking into the past we find that many of what we think of as modern problems, in fact have a long history.

Supposed Infernal Machine in the Regent’s Canal.

Extraordinary scenes

As a man named William Peacock, a lighterman of 110, White Horse Street, Stepnev, was rowing his barge down what is known as the Limehouse Cut, he noticed under one of the bridges, an extraordinary looking object lying right in the track of his barge. There was a kind of crackling noise proceeding from it, and he saw or fancied he saw, small flames  darting upward from the mysterious body. he brought his craft to anchor, waited for a short time, and was presently joined by several other men who were navigating their barges down the cut. He pointed out to them what he had seen, and they, after looking for themselves bought their craft to anchor, none of them daring to pass the uncanny looking article under the bridges. By degrees there, was quite a fleet of barges lying moored near the spot.

Whilst the men in charge of them lined the banks watching the phenomena that none of them could explain, and none of them cared to get too close in case of an explosion. At last one of the number suggested that the police should be communicated with, and one of them went and fetched a constable, Joseph Chapman, 93K. After some consideration the constable determined to go and investigate the phenomena, and asked one of them to lend him a boat. He was strongly presented against it. but persisted in his intention. Once a boat being bought, the constable rowed out towards the article which had caused so much commotion. In spite of the ominous cracklings and the fire which was proceeding from it, Chapman lifted the thing into his boat, and rowing to the bank, jumped out, and ran as hard as he could towards the Pigott Street Police Station,, amid the ringing cheers of the lightermen, who regained their barges and got them under way.

On his arrival at the station, Chapman placed the object in the yard, and called Inspector Nelson and Nunan to examine it. As the thing was still blazing away, a large quantity of earth was then shovelled on top of it until it was completely buried. After about an hour the earth was removed and it was that found that the flames had been put out. The article was examined with great caution being exercised . It was found to consist of a large piece of wood, about 18in. by 28in. ; a round hole was cut in the centre of this, and sunk in the hole was a large tin canister about 4inches in diameter and 12in long. In the upper end of it a very small hole was bored, and it was through this that the small flames and the peculiar crackling noises proceeded. The top of the tin was removed with very great care and it was found to be filled with some chemical composition, the exact nature of which is not known at present, ? but it is believed to be Greek fire. The tin, however, is to be taken to a chemist to analyse its contents. It cannot be conjectured why the machine should have should have been placed where it was found unless it was the intention of the person who put it there to blow up some of the crafts as they passed up and down. A threat of this kind was made 12 months ago, the police are strictly investigating the matter.


Scotland Yard Bombing 1883

Whilst the modern reader may find the incident quite amusing, however, a little bit of background research suggest more sinister motives may have been at work. Infernal machines generally referred to bombs or explosive devices made and used by anarchists or terrorists as they would be termed today. The Fenians mounted a bombing campaign from 1881 to 1885 when they set off a series of explosions in a number of British cities including explosions in the Tower of London, Westminster Crypt and the Chamber of the House of Commons in 1885 in an event immortalised as ‘Dynamite Saturday’. Also at this time, anarchists set off bombs all over Europe to further their own particular ends.

Although these type of attacks were not unknown in the past, the wholesale use of infernal machines being used in such a concerted way was the forerunner of terrorist campaigns in the 20th and 21st centuries.

The Fenians had a lot of support in America and bomb campaigns had been undertaken in the United States after the the Civil war when a industry for the construction of infernal machines began to develop. If this was not bad enough, the availability of cheap scientific journals to the general public saw a rise in the home manufacture of explosives by individuals who would then use them for a variety of reasons. Disgruntled employees were often the perpetrators of a number of ‘infernal machine’ incidents. The ‘Greek Fire’ referred to in the report was a chemical that reacted with water to create an explosion on the water.

Whether the Limehouse Cut incident was part of a wider campaign or a disgruntled loner, we will probably never know. However it had been only a few years previously  that a barge carrying gunpowder exploded on the Regent’s Canal causing a number of deaths and widespread destruction. This was not a terrorist attack but gives some indication of the dangerous materials being bought through the city at the time and provides evidence that working on the canal had its own particular dangers.



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