Today (December 17) in London History – the Harrods bomb

An IRA detonated a car bomb outside Harrods on December 17th, 1983. It killed six people and wounded 91. This Today in London History podcast tells the horrific tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

Nine. And counting.

And I’m afraid this one’s a look back in sorrow for London. 

It’s December 17th, 1983. Knightsbridge. Harrods to be exact. It’s a Saturday. There’ll be another Saturday before Christmas but that’ll be Christmas Eve. So today is really the big Saturday Christmas shopping day. Brompton Road and Hans Crescent are packed with people. You can hardly move for shoppers. Christmas is coming. It feels like the whole world is at Harrods. It’s a happy, innocent time. And then the car bomb went off outside Harrods. Six people are killed. 91 are injured. 

An eyewitness said, “there was a rumbling noise and the ground moved under my feet. It seemed there was an earth tremor a few miles away but when I looked around to the car where the police officers had been it was erupting into a ball of flames, sending pieces of metal, people and surrounding objects flying. After the first moment the explosion seemed dulled but I was aware that my left ear had gone deaf. The scene became a slow-motion movie of destruction. I knew I should run to safety but I was riveted to the spot. Slow motion moved back into normal play and the vast plate glass windows of Harrods shatteered and began to fall out in great jagged sheets and daggers, clanging like bells.

The eye-witness, Kirstie Hutchison, added that she went on her skiing holiday despite her injuries. She said, “one night we were walking under huge snowflakes. They appeared to me like falling glass and I panicked.”

The three Metropolitan police officers who were killed were Inspector Stephen Dodd, Sergeant Noel Lane and Constable Jane Arbuthnot. Stephen Dodd was 34. Noel Lane was 28. Jane Arbuthnot was 22.

The three other people who were killed were 28-year-old U.S. citizen Kenneth Salvesen, 25-year-old Jasmine Cockran Patrick and 24-year-old Philip Geddes. So, five very young lives – all in their 20s – snuffed out. And a sixth hardly much older.

One of the injured was PC Jon Gordon. He lost both his legs and part of a hand. His police dog Queenie was blown to bits. In 1985 a memorial to the slain police officers was put up outside Harrods. PC Gordon laid the first wreath at the memorial. 

No one was ever arrested for the December 17th, 1983 attack.

A day after the blast the IRA Army Council said its members had planted the bomb but it had not authorised the attack. The IRA statement read: 

“The Harrods operation was not authorised by the Irish Republican Army. We have taken immediate steps to ensure that there will be no repetition of this type of operation again. The volunteers involved gave a 40 minutes specific warning, which should have been adequate. But due to the inefficiency or failure of the Metropolitan Police, who boasted of foreknowledge of IRA activity, this warning did not result in an evacuation. We regret the civilian casualties, even though our expression of sympathy will be dismissed. Finally, we remind the British Government that as long as they maintain control of any part of Ireland then the Irish Republican Army will continue to operate in Britain.”

The bombing badly damaged the IRA’s support due to the civilian deaths and injuries.

Researching this I noticed that December 17th seemed to be something of a red-letter day for the IRA. Nine years earlier they’d set off three bombs in London on December 17th. Coincidence? I don’t think so. December 17th, 1922 was the day British Troops left Dublin after Ireland was declared a free state following the Irish War of Independence.

And there’s one other thing about December 17th that gives you one of those little historical frissons. On December 17th, 1823 Oliver Pollock died in Mississippi.

Oliver Pollock was an Irish immigrant who helped finance operations out west in the American War of Independence. He was born in Northern Ireland. Be interesting to know whether Oliver Pollock was Irish Catholic or what came to be known over there as Scotch-Irish. In any case, Oliver Pollock was the man who created the dollar sign. Which, come to think of it, casts something of a lurid light over the fact that dollars – Irish American dollars, donations – underwrote to some extent the IRA campaigns.

And on that note, let’s go spend some of our pound signs. Here’s your Today in London recommendation. Breakfast at the Ivy. It’s one of London top restaurants. Some people say lunch and dinner are very nice but maybe a little bit overpriced. Breakfast at the Ivy is wonderful. And it’s not going to break the bank. And to that you can add, it’s hard to go wrong in the kitchen with an English breakfast. You’ll like what they serve up. And it’l set you up very nicely for the rest of the day. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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