On the afternoon of Thursday 15 February 1894, that is.
Two members of the Observatory staff were still in the building at 4.45 p.m. This they described as working "late" - all the other staff had left by that time. Mr Thackeray and Mr Hollis were both in the Lower Computing Room when they were startled by a "sharp and clear detonation, like a shell going through the air". They looked out to see the door porter running across the courtyard and rapidly followed him so as to be able to look down the hillside North of the Observatory into Greenwich Park. They saw a park-warden and some school-boys running towards a figure that appeared to be crouched on the zig-zag path below the Observatory.
Racing down, their first thought was that the man had shot himself, but the scene they encountered was unexpected and horrific. The park-warden was holding a man who, despite massive injuries, was still alive and able to speak. The man's left hand was completely missing and he had a gaping hole in his stomach. Soon a doctor and stretcher were fetched from the nearby Seaman's Hospital, to where he was carried. The man died about 30 minutes later, having said nothing about who he was or what had happened.
Subsequent investigations - as this account shows - revealed that the bomber was a Frenchman by the name of Martial Bourdin. He was a member of the London-based Club Autonomie, which attracted foreign anarchists. After the Greenwich incident many of its members were deported, though none was charged with a criminal offence. (There is an account of Bourdin's funeral here.)
It is hard to discern any rational purpose behind the bombing, and later anarchist sympathisers have generally put it down to the influence of an agent provocateur. Certainly, Bourdin's brother-in-law was widely believed to be a police agent.
Today Greenwich would be a historical curiosity if it were not for the influence it had on Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent. This novel tells the story of a young man who is duped into taking a bomb to Greenwich and trips and falls, setting it off, before he can plant it. The instigator is his brother-in-law, ostensibly an anarchist but in reality the paid agent of a foreign agency.
I might have written "contains spoilers" here, but Conrad spells out all this, or allows you to guess it, early on. The book's real interest is in the fate of the characters left behind and in its satire of wider society.
Here there are certainly contemporary resonances. The Secret Agent was published in 1907 and nominally deals with events 20 years or so earlier, but it is not hard to detect the anxieties of the Edwardian age in it.
Then, just as today, foreign governments were complaining that the British authorities were lax and allowed radicals and terrorists too much freedom to operate here. The confidence of the Victorian period, when such protests would be ignored, was already ebbing, and in 1911 Churchill would superintend his extraordinary Siege of Sidney Street. (See also his defence of his conduct.)
A particularly memorable character in the novel is The Professor - a thwarted scientist and expert in explosives who makes himself a walking bomb, always holding the detonator in his hand. Only this can make him feel powerful, and Conrad generally sees terrorists and radicals as morally weak - though he is little kinder to any other sector of society.
In painting terrorism as the resort of damaged characters rather than the work of some fiendish criminal mastermind, Conrad shows affinity with the general line the Spiked website has taken on the London bombings.
As Brendan O'Neill says in his essay "Creating the enemy":
Conrad was too sceptical about politicians to think things are that easy, but he would surely share O'Neill's rejection of the platitudes of the "War on Terror".
The real problem of terrorism, in terms of both its origins and its impact on contemporary society, begins at home, in the struggle for moral consensus and moral authority. Instead of launching wars in far-off lands, surely what our societies need are debates about what we stand for and why; about the values we hold dear and wish to pass on to future generations; about our vision of the Good Society and how we might achieve it. Such debates might help to move us away from the deep moral uncertainties that can give rise to nihilistic violence, and make us more resilient against those who execute such violence.