Rolla Richards – The New Cross Post Office Bomber

There was an explosion at around 10:15 pm on Tuesday 14 August 1894 at the then Post Office at 177 New Cross Road – today a nondescript shop front

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A man was seen passing the Five Bells pub, about 30 metres from the Post Office, carrying a small parcel, then hurrying away down Hatcham Park Road soon after and followed by a small explosion at the Post Office. It caused ‘considerable noise which greatly alarmed those in the immediate vicinity.’ (1)

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At the Post Office, the police had found the remains of a tube upon which were written (2)

In memory of Ravachol, Vaillant, Bourdin, Polti, Santo.  Vive L’Anarchie.

All were well known anarchists who had died or been imprisoned as part of their activities – Bourdin had blown himself up, probably unintentionally in Greenwich, this was covered in Running Past in 2014; Vaillant had been responsible for the bombing of the French Chamber of Deputies.  So it was rather odd that it was reported that ‘the authorities do not entertain the theory that the explosion was the work of Anarchists.’ (3)  Some press reports though did make the clear and obvious linkage – referring  to it as an ‘anarchist outrage’ (4).

This wasn’t the only Post Office explosion in south east London in the 1890s – there was another in Lewisham High Street in January 1896. The small post office ‘filled with smoke and the smell of gunpowder was noticeable.’ While fittings were damaged by the ‘sardine tin shaped bomb’, there seemed to be no structural damage.  The perpetrator was described as a ‘dastardly scoundrel’ and the Illustrated London News hope that a ‘heavy punishment would be meted out to the bomb ruffians’ (5).  There was no mention of anarchists at all on this occasion, despite press reports linking it with the New Cross bombing.

This approach continued after the forensic results were made public – when it was reported that ‘The authorities at first thought that the outrage was the work of an anarchist. They now believe that it was committed by some imbecile or other irresponsible person.’ (6)

This official line didn’t seem to help the police with their inquiries, there was a further attack on a Post Office on Trafalgar Road in East Greenwich in January 1897, which seems to have received little publicity at the time (7).  However, it appears that the police started to infiltrate the relatively large Deptford anarchist group who met at Deptford Broadway – their meetings occasionally got mentions in the left leaning Reynolds News (8).

These meetings led the police to a watchmaker, Rolla Richards (the court reports incorrectly call him Rollo), who had been heard talking about effectiveness of different explosives in late January 1897 and they raided his home at 136 Edward Street in Deptford.

Richards1Gunpowder and various other bomb making equipment was found at Edward Street (pictured, left (9) and Richards was charged with ‘Feloniously causing an explosion by gunpowder on August 14th, 1894, likely to endanger life.’ Initially he was changed with all three explosions but the Old Bailey record only covers the New Cross Road charge, although it notes that ‘There were two other indictments against the prisoner for similar offences.’.

Richards was linked to the New Cross explosion by pieces of card and paper from the parcel bomb, more of which was found at Edward Street A handwriting expert identified some of the surviving fragments of writing which were quoted above as being in the ‘hand’ of Richards,

Richards2

Richards, pictured above from a sketch at his trial (10), was sentenced to seven years hard labour, which according to 1901 census records he spent at Parkhurst Prison on the Isle of Wight. He was released on a conditional licence in 1903. He seems to have moved to the Bromley area on release, he married Emma Jane Macneale there in 1904.  They were living in Melrose Road in Biggin Hill in 1911, although neither were working.  He died in 1929 in the Bromley area and someone of the same unusual name bequeathed money to provide bells and a clock for the tower of St Peter & Paul, Cudham in 1931.

Notes

  1. Daily News (London, England), Thursday, August 16, 1894; Issue 15094
  2. Ibid
  3. Ibid
  4. Birmingham Daily Post (Birmingham, England), Thursday, August 16, 1894; Issue 11282.
  5. The Penny Illustrated Paper and Illustrated Times (London, England), Saturday, January 18, 1896; pg. 38; Issue 1808
  6. The Morning Post (London, England), Tuesday, February 25, 1896; pg. 3; Issue 38600.
  7. Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales), Wednesday, February 3, 1897; Issue 8643
  8. For example – Reynolds’s Newspaper (London, England), Sunday, April 5, 1896; Issue 2382
  9. Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper (London, England), Sunday, February 7, 1897
  10. Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper (London, England), Sunday, April 11, 1897; Issue 2838

Census and other related data are from Find My Past.

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5 thoughts on “Rolla Richards – The New Cross Post Office Bomber

    1. runner500 Post author

      I only found a few mentions of the Deptford Anarchist group when searching for Richards, there was a mention in a radical walk of New Cross and Deptford and a couple of references in theses, and in the link below, but there isn’t very much. I stumbled on it by accident when finding a mention of some post office bombs when I was reading up about the better known Greenwich bomb.
      https://archive.org/stream/confessionsofana00hartrich/confessionsofana00hartrich_djvu.txt

      Reply
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