Friday, November 10, 2017

Is this the Walsall Bomb?

"One aspect of this case that is especially interesting is the State's determination to resist disclosure at every level..."

(Guest blog from Christopher Draper – 1.)

John Quail’s account of “The Walsall Anarchists” in his classic “The Slow Burning Fuse” remains unchallenged after almost forty years but it left some unanswered questions.
  1. What became of the physical evidence presented at the 1892 trial?
  2. What was the ultimate fate of the imprisoned anarchists after their release?
  3. Who exactly was Auguste Coulon, the “Secret Agent” mysteriously absent from the trial proceedings?
 The Evidence
Over the intervening years I’ve researched these questions and turned up some interesting leads that I’ll describe in this and two subsequent posts. Here I’ll deal with that first question and submit this picture of “the bomb” for your consideration. Contemporary press reports make extensive, if somewhat inconsistent, reference to numerous artefacts employed by the Walsall anarchists in their alleged enterprise, including - “a sketch of a bomb with instructions (in French) how to make the bomb”, “wooden pear-shaped patterns”, “plaster core-stocks”, “a quantity of clay mixed with hair, evidently for moulding purposes”, “a coil of miner’s fuse”, “a hollow brass casting”, “a leaden bolt” and a “bomb, a conical iron shell four or five inches long”. I’ll deal with issues of guilt or innocence in the second article, here I simply ask if this is really, as claimed by its inscription, the Walsall Anarchist Bomb”?
  
                                                         
 Where’s that Bomb?
The leading role of the Metropolitan Police Special Branch in securing the conviction of the Walsall anarchists is well recognised and prompted post-Quail researchers to focus their attention on MPSB archives but as I’ll discuss in my piece on Coulon this yielded vital but limited results. As my parents lived for years in Walsall I was curious whether their local police might have retained some evidence from the case.
Following reorganisation, Walsall is now part of the “West Midlands Police Force” which has a small police museum accommodated in Smethwick Police Station. Aware of my interest in the case a local contact sent me the above illustration which prompted me to wonder if “the bomb” might be gathering dust in the WMP museum. Although the museum was developed and maintained as more of a part-time hobby pursuit by an enthusiastic (and now deceased) copper than as an academic or legal resource nonetheless it comes under the auspices of WMP and therefore is open to Freedom of Information Requests (FOIR). 
                                                           

 The Crucible
Investigating Black Country history I also came across an illustration (above) that was said to be the very crucible that cast the Walsall Bomb. There was no suggestion that it had ever been taken into police custody as it had been effectively and deliberately concealed. Like the police museum, Walsall’s civic museum is moribund but nonetheless the local authority are subject to FOIR, so I sent them an email.
Walsall Museum Service duly confirmed that they do indeed hold this object which is catalogued as, “Height 29.7cm; Diameter 18cm - A casting crucible that was found under the floorboards at a foundry. It is alleged to have been used in casting the bomb casings of the Walsall Anarchists Bomb Plot of 1892.”  I was further informed that the find-site was Algernon Street (now the Crown Wharf Development) which suggests it was concealed beneath the Faraday Works which is ironic as the conspirators initially claimed they were merely contriving “electrical lubricators”.
The recorded dimensions of the crucible are too imprecise to make an informed judgement but they are not out of line with the size of the “bomb” described in court proceedings.

 Un-FOIR Response from WMP
On 4th September 2017 I submitted the following FOIR to West Midlands Police, “I request copies of all information and artefacts held by WMP relating to what became known as the “1892 Walsall Anarchist Bomb Case”
Initially WMP suggested I cancel my FOIR and instead make informal inquiries of their “Heritage Project”. When I declined to go down that route WMP refused to supply any substantive information, claiming FOI exemption “by virtue of S14(1) (Vexatious Requests)”.
On the 18th October 2017 I invoked the WMP internal appeals procedure. If they do not come up with the goods within a week I will appeal to the Information Commissioner (IC). Yet even now I haven’t entirely drawn a blank, in the course of exchanging emails WMP disclosed that, “The information that we hold in respect of your request is a very old, large, fragile and very rare document”, and tantalisingly it might well offer unique insight into the case.
The law more or less requires compliance with FOIR unless it would cost authorities more than £450 (18hrs labour) to do so. It seems unlikely that photographing this document and sending me jpegs would prove excessively burdensome and I think they are trying it on and will eventually be overruled by the IC. If they intended to facilitate (as obliged by legislation) rather than frustrate my FOIR it is curious that they also admit, “that we do hold a summary of the document and could supply this electronically” yet steadfastly refuse to do so. I’ll let you know how this pans out and meanwhile I ask comrades not to intervene with WMP until I’ve exhausted the official appeals procedure.

 Where are we Now?
We now know WMP holds substantive previously unexamined archival evidence on the Walsall anarchists. It is likely they also have the, “Walsall Anarchist Bomb” illustrated, although they were careful neither to confirm nor deny this in our email exchanges. Walsall Museum Service retains the “bombers’ crucible” and the exact significance of this object might itself become clearer once I obtain copies of the information detailed in WMP’s “large, fragile and rare document”.
So is this really the bomb? Well I seriously doubt it. As West Midland police officers examined this evidential exhibit over the last century or so they probably congratulated one another on their courage and moral worthiness in capturing fiends that could produce such a devilish device. And conspiratorial fiends they were too but not anarchist fiends for only one viable bomb casing was ever presented in evidence and its makers were identified in a particularly detailed account of the final day of the trial published in the Birmingham Daily Post of Tuesday April 5th 1892 (incidentally, Frederick Brown was an associate of the Institute of Civil Engineers and Colonel Arthur Ford R.A. Home Office Inspector of Explosives); “From the evidence of Brown and Colonel Ford there was evidence that the iron casting which they had seen, and which had been made by the police from the original patterns of the prisoners would cause such an explosion” (my emphasis)!
So the police themselves almost certainly manufactured, Walsall Anarchist Bomb – 1892”. What other evidence they manufactured in 1892 might soon be revealed by the Walsall Papers WMP seem so determined to keep secret. I’ll keep you posted.

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