Tuesday, January 03, 2012

The IRA bombed Leicester station in 1939

Take out your copy of Leicestershire's Stations: An Historical Perspective by Andrew Moore and turn to page 46.

What's that?

Really, if you are not prepared to do the reading there is no point in your coming to these seminars.

Let me try a different tack. I bought Moore's book some years ago and was intrigued by what I found on page 46:
From the [booking] hall, passengers pass the site of the ticket barrier, in use until the station became 'open' on 1 October 1984. At this point a large IRA bomb exploded in July 1939, causing much damage, especially to the show-cases (advertising Leicester's diverse trades) which were once a permanent feature on the adjacent, enclosed bridge that spans the lines.
I tried to research this terrorist attack on the net, but could find nothing about it. The Wikipedia entry on the S-Plan (the IRA campaign of which the Leicester explosion formed a part), for instance, quite wrongly says the attack of 3 July took place in Birmingham.

But I have now found that a full account of the events of that day was published in the Leicester Mercury in 2010.

After detailing the earlier bombings in the campaign, the report says:
Then, early in the morning of Sunday, July 3, the IRA strike here. 
A suitcase had been left in the ticket collector's cabin by a man from Birmingham at 7pm the previous evening, the Mercury reported. 
No-one, despite the IRA's activities, seemed to think too much of it. Until it started smoking. 
A second before the bomb went off, ticket collector Charles Venn was standing nearby, talking to a Mr C Thompson, of Willow Street, said the Mercury account. 
Mr Thompson was awaiting the arrival of an excursion from Brighton. 
He looked down and felt a lurch of shock as he saw his shoe being seared by flames. Puzzlement gave way to panic. This was no stray flicked fag end. It was a fuse sizzling into the suitcase. 
"Neither man had time to do anything but fly for his life," said the Mercury. "As they ducked out of the door, speeding in opposite directions, the cabin became engulfed in smoke and flames. 
"Almost simultaneously, there was the deafening explosion that echoed and re-echoed through the building while fragments of woodwork, slot machines and windows hurtled through the air. 
"Holes gaped in the high ceiling of the hall and whole sections of boarding were torn from the train times and departures board. 
"Windows high in the walls and in the roof in all parts of the booking hall, blown out by the concussion, crashed in fragments on the floor. 
"Of the collector's cabin, where a moment before the two men had stood talking, nothing was left but a pile of debris barely visible through the suffocating clouds of dust and smoke." 
A taxi driver on the rank outside heard the hissing of the bomb and went to investigate. 
"He got no further than the entrance when everything was blotted out by the explosion and glass crashed down from a window above him. 
"Two companions were just behind him and for a second all three stood rooted to the spot, unable to move. "Literally deafened by the terrific noise, which still buzzed in their eardrums, they conquered their panic and ran for help.
"Not knowing whether the whole building was about to collapse or not, someone set about moving the motors out of the yard while one taxi driver drove with all haste to the City Police headquarters."
An IRA bomb in Coventry the following month was to kill five people and wound 50, but casualties in Leicester that day were few:
The blast gouged huge chunks out of the station and its fittings, sending glass, wood and metal flying towards staff and passengers. 
Lucky ticket collector Mr Venn escaped with a severe gash across his back, a cut across the bridge of his noise, and a couple of bad bruises. 
"My cap has gone and I haven't seen it since, so I suppose that must have been blown to shreds," he told the Mercury after being released from hospital. 
Everyone else was walking wounded. 
It could have been worse, much worse, had it not been for a stroke of good fortune. 
The station should have been packed with holidaymakers climbing off the Brighton train. It was 45 minutes late. "Lives saved because it was not on time", said the Mercury. 
Children returning from a trip to Southend had just left the building.
IRA bombs were not to return to Leicester until February 1990. Then, for reasons best known to himself Keith Vaz, still one of the city's Labour MPs today, suggested the bomb may have been planted by the Army at its own recruiting office.

My illustration shows the old bookstall from Leicester station, which would have been in place in 1939. Ticket barriers were restored to their old position some years ago.

1 comment:

Manfarang said...

I wonder whether that bookstall was used to sell newspapers in the 1930s?
It looks like one that used to be at an old station I commuted from years ago.