• March of the Women

The Oxted Railway Station Suffragette Bomb, 1913

Police case file relating to the Oxted Station bombing 1913
SHC ref CC98/11/2.

Finding the station bomb

On the morning of Friday 4 April 1913, 28 year old Edwin Mighell left his wife and small children and walked the short distance to Oxted Railway Station where he worked as a railway porter. At 6.15am he discovered a bomb had damaged the gentleman’s toilet located on the ‘up’ platform. The Surrey Mirror reported that the walls were bulging, slates on the roof smashed, the doorway splintered and the window broken.

The station master, Mr Henry Holder, called the police, Supt. Edwin West and Sgt. Boshier attended. Inside the toilet they found a rush basket measuring 20” x 11” x 9” deep which contained a 2 gallon can of Shell petrol, an alarm clock still running and showing the correct time, battery, firelighters, an empty half pint tin of Rotex cycle oil, cotton wool and a cardboard box that had probably contained gunpowder. There was also a piece of brown paper bearing part of an address. In the urinal they found a gent’s soft felt hat and nearby a 16” long pistol. The pistol barrel was separated from the stock, when these were connected the cartridge exploded but no one was injured. Sgt. Boshier took many of the items found to Scotland Yard for inquiries. No Suffragette paraphernalia was found as was often the case in such atrocities.

Suspects spotted

Supt. West reported that at 1.35am that morning PC Peet had spoken to a man who was adjusting the wheel of a bicycle about 200yds west of the station. He informed the constable that he had been to a party at Limpsfield and was going to Godstone. At 3.15am Sgt. Miles stopped the same man on the Croydon side of Caterham, he informed him that he had come from Blindley Heath and was on his way to Croydon.

At 3am PC Peet stopped two men one mile west of Oxted, they were both well-spoken and said they were undergraduates on a night walk from Redhill to Croydon, one had long hair, a foreign accent and no hat. The same men stopped in Caterham at approximately 4.20am and called on Mr J Kilby, livery stable proprietor, where they required him to take them to Croydon; he charged them £1 which they readily paid. While Mr Kilby was getting the horses ready the men seemed agitated and anxious, the taller man several times walked up to the entrance and looked up the Godstone Road. They were very wet from the heavy rain and told him that they had started out for a midnight walking match but got so wet “that they could stick it no longer”. They would not let him take them direct to any address and asked to be set down on the corner of Whitgift Street and the High Street.

Investigations made

The damage to the station could have been far worse if the petrol had ignited; there was a strong north-east wind and had there been a fire the oil store adjoining could have also ignited resulting in the whole station being destroyed. As there was an opening above the door, some force of the explosion was lost and the damage was comparatively slight.

The clock had been set to trigger the bomb at 3am. The pistol was found to be a German made: a .410 Dedles pistol, a gas pistol designed to ‘stupify’ (the cartridges being loaded with a few grains of black powder and lycopodium and pepper).

The hat was a ‘Homburg’ hat that had been purchased in Manchester but no further information could be gained and it was not possible to ascertain who purchased the can of petrol either.

The brown paper bore a Junior Army and Navy Stores label addressed to ‘Mrs Watkins ….Sea Pk Road’, it also recorded the date, telephone number and store department number. The store informed the police that the parcel had been sent to Mrs Watkins, 120 Battersea Park Road, London, on 20 March. The paper was then used by Mr Watkins, a jeweller and watch repairer, to cover a parcel containing an item repaired and delivered on 3 April to Miss F Kerry, 50 Overstrand Mansions, Prince of Wales Road, Battersea. Miss Kerry was not at home and the parcel was handed to Mr B L Lion who was lodging at the address.

Further investigations

Miss Frida Kerry was interviewed, she lived with her parents and flatly refused to say who the man that took in the parcel was. She said that the paper was used to cover a Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) collecting box that was sent to Lincoln’s Inn House the same afternoon. Supt. West reported that Miss Kerry and her parents were connected to the Suffragette Movement and were antagonistic towards the police inquiries. Supt. West was happy that Mr B L Lion was not at Oxted on the night of 3 April.

Nothing more was gained from the Police inquiries and the perpetrators were not caught.

What we know now

Bruno Leonard Lion was born in Hamburg, Germany and had been living with Frida’s parents since at least 1911. Supt West was happy that Bruno wasn’t involved but one of the suspects did have a foreign accent and why was Frida reluctant to say who he was?

Image of Harold Laski by Elliott & Fry, nd (© National Portrait Gallery, London)

Harold Laski by Elliott & Fry, nd
(© National Portrait Gallery, London)

Miss Frida Kerry was in fact Mrs Frida Kerry Laski, born Winifred Mary Kerry, in Suffolk, in 1884 to wealthy Christian parents. In December 1909 she was working as a physiotherapist and masseuse in Halesowen where she met Harold Joseph Laski. Harold was born in Manchester in 1893 to middle class Polish Jewish parents, he was a student and recovering from an appendix operation, she was 25 at the time and he was 16. They both had an interest in eugenics and Harold had begun to question his Jewish faith; they began a relationship without parental approval. The 1911 census lists 17 year old Harold with his parents in Manchester, however it would appear that Frida may have boycotted the census, she was an ardent suffragette and friend of Sylvia Pankhurst, the younger daughter of the suffragette leader, Emmeline Pankhurst. Many suffragettes believed that “If women don’t count, neither shall they be counted”, hence the boycott. Shortly after Harold turned 18 in June that year the couple eloped and married in Scotland.

After graduating from Oxford University Harold failed medical tests to fight in the First World War. He and Frida went to America where Harold lectured at McGill and Harvard Universities. They returned to England in 1920 and he continued teaching including at the London School of Economics. He became heavily involved in the Labour Party, serving as chairman in 1945-6. He died in 1950.

Sometime after his death Frida admitted that it was Harold who had planted the bomb. She said that after he had planted the bomb she drove him to Dover and he spent a few nights in Paris.

Limpsfield Lawn Tennis Pavilion

On the 16 May 1913 the Surrey Mirror reported an incident at the Limpsfield Lawn Tennis Club. It stated that the pavilion was a built just over a year earlier and was used as a badminton court in the winter. It was a large wooden structure of a pretty rustic design with a thatched roof.

At 5 O’clock on Monday 12 May 1913, George Cook, the grounds man, arrived to find a suspicious looking object under the verandah. He soon recognised that it was a bomb, in the form of an 18” cylinder 4 or 5 inches in diameter, there were wires attached to each end which were connected to a clock which was still going. He quickly fetched a bucket of water and carefully placed the bomb in it, although one end was still not under water. He then summoned the police who quickly arrived from Oxted station.

It was no laughing matter for George, who was well known in the village as a humorous performer, “I have never had such a turn” he told a press representative when interviewed, “for the clock was ticking, and I didn’t know when it was going off”.

Suffragette literature was found around the bomb including a copy of The Vote edited by Charlotte Despard. The bomb was found to contain a jelly-like substance believed to be nitro-glycerine.

Contributed by Annette Hughes, ‘The March of the Women’ project volunteer

Sources:

Ancestry- 1911 Census

British Newspaper Archive, Surrey Mirror, 11 Apr 1913 and 16 May 1913

M. Newman, Harold Laski: A Political Biography, 1993

Surrey Constabulary papers relating to the bombing of Oxted Railway Station (SHC ref CC98/11/2)

Wikipedia- Harold Laski

An American newspaper account of the Oxted bomb can be found at, Sacramento Union, Volume 170, Number 35, 5 April 1913

The papers of Harold and Frida Laski can be found at Hull University Archives

The oral history interview with Frida Laski in August 1966

Discover more about suffragette activism in Surrey

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Search the suffrage indexes from local newspapers and periodicals here

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