Bomb Attack at the Royal Observatory Edinburgh

Suffragette Bomb Fragment on display at the Royal Observatory

A fragment of the bomb is now
on display in the visitor centre,
not far from where it exploded
100 years ago

A hundred years ago this week, on the night of the 21st of May 1913, the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh was bombed. The attack was part of a wider militant suffragettes’ campaign seeking rights for women that targeted Government institutions and other representations of ‘the establishment’. As the Dalkeith Advertiser reported the next day, ‘The bomb exploded about one o’clock in the morning, causing considerable damage… The perpetrators left behind them a ladies’ handbag of the kind used for shopping. It contained a few currant biscuits wrapped in paper, a couple of safety pins, and in the grounds were found two pieces of paper. On one of them was written in ink “How beggarly appears argument before defiant deed. Votes for women.”

Although the more moderate ‘suffragists’ deplored the use of violence, a breakaway movement, the Women’s Social and Political Union spearheaded by Mrs Pankhurst and her daughter, started a campaign of destruction across Great Britain at the beginning of 1913. This included attacks on Ayr racecourse, Kew Gardens, Regents Park, and the Tower of London. Post boxes had acid poured into them, train carriages were set on fire and telephone lines were cut. As Mrs Pankhurst said about the WSPU’s activities, ‘We don’t intend that you should be pleased,’ and the then Astronomer Royal for Scotland, Ralph Sampson, certainly was not. He described the attack as ‘an outrage’.

Evening News newspaper clipping from the 21st May 1913

Evening News report
on the bombing at the
Royal Observatory 1913

Although the bomb cracked the masonry of the West Tower, broke some windows and splintered the middle floor inside, the telescope itself was not damaged. The perpetrator(s) appeared to have been injured, as blood was found at the scene, but nobody was ever charged with the attack so it’s not known whether the Observatory was targeted simply because it was a publicly funded institution or because at the time it only employed men. Today things are very much changed, the new custodian of the Observatory, the Science and Technology Facilities Council, has worked hard to improve the gender balance in its science, engineering and technology workforce and employs women in a number of senior posts, indeed the director of the UKATC, which evolved from the original ROE, is Professor Gillian Wright.

John Davies (UK ATC) & Pippa Goldschmidt (Visiting Writer)