The Bombing That Shook London 20 Years Ago Today
We spoke to people who were there about the three bombs that exploded around London in 1999.
The Admiral Duncan after being bombed in April of 1999. Photo: Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Stock Photo
"It wasn't like it is in movies," remembers Jonathan Cash. "There wasn't any screaming. No panic. It was silent. I saw shapes whizzing past me, but I mostly remember not knowing where the exit was. I saw a figure of a man walking past me, so I grabbed on to the back of his jeans. I then fell to the floor. But I crawled, on my hands and knees, over rubble, debris and goodness knows what, just hoping I was going the right way. When I looked behind me, I noticed I was leaving a trail of blood…"
Twenty years ago this month, across three successive weekends, three homemade nail bombs – each containing around 1,500 four-inch nails – were packed into holdalls and left in three different areas of London. The first, on Saturday the 17th of April, targeted Brixton's Electric Avenue. The second, on Saturday the 24th, east London's Brick Lane. The third and deadliest of the three was left on the floor of the Admiral Duncan Pub in Soho on Friday the 30th – the start of the Bank Holiday weekend. The targets were blacks, Bengalis and gays. Three bombs; a triumvirate of far-right hate.
Jonathan Cash was in the Admiral Duncan when the bomb went off. He’d arrived just before half past six. His foot even touched the holdall as he made his way to the bar. With two bombs having already gone off in the weeks prior, and a manhunt for the perpetrator underway, the thought this might be another crossed his mind. He ordered a drink. "I thought, 'These things only ever happen to other people…'" he says. "Minutes later, the bomb exploded five metres away from me."
Once in the street, he remembers being pushed out of the way by a young white girl, in her early twenties, coming out of a neighbouring pub. "She was laughing at all these people laying in the street with all sorts of terrible injuries," says Jonathan. "I'll always remember her saying, pint in hand, 'I want to get a better view of the puffs…' My friends took me to A&E at University College Hospital by cab. When I got there, I was given a wristband with the number 42 on it. I remember thinking how terrible it was that there were 41 others like me…"
In fact, there were 82 like Jonathan Cash, 79 of whom were injured. Three died. These were 27-year-old Andrea Dykes, out that night to celebrate her pregnancy with her husband, Julian Dykes, 25, and their friends. Julian was seriously injured. Their friends, Nick Moore, 31, and John Light, 32, both lost their lives.
Prior to the Electric Avenue attack, it had been three years since the last bomb had gone off in London, when the IRA ended their 17-month ceasefire by detonating a truck bomb in London's Docklands area in February of 1996. The capital had let its defences down. When the HEAD-branded sports holdall was discovered in Brixton on the 24th of April by market trader Gary Shilling, it was moved another three times, with each person to find it thinking it was rubbish. It was only when it ended up outside an Iceland supermarket that traders panicked and called the police. They arrived just before half past five. Minutes later, the bomb went off.
"There was a big bang," said Gary Shilling in 2011, who, at the time of the bomb, was only 15. "The windows of the supermarket shattered and everyone was screaming. Then there was a huge cloud of smoke. I looked down and there was a nail in my foot. And then I went into shock…" The Brixton bombing resulted in 48 people being injured, including a two-year-old child who had a nail embedded in their skull. Paul Maskell, the Iceland manager, had to have nails removed from his head, underarm, bottom, legs and penis.
In April of 1999, journalist Justin Davenport was employed as the Crime Editor of the Evening Standard. "There was a sense of London under siege," he remembers today. "Nobody knew where the bomber would strike next. There was real fear in minority communities. The original suspicion was that this was the neo-Nazi terrorist organisation Combat 18… then it became clear that this was the work of a solo fanatic."
The next bomb targeted Brick Lane on Saturday the 24th. Incredibly, it only resulted in 13 injuries and no fatalities. That would most likely have been a different story if the bomber had realised that Brick Lane's busiest day was actually Sunday. The bomb was left in Hanbury Street, this time in a Reebok bag. A man found it. He took it to Brick Lane police station, which was closed. He put it in the boot of his car and parked outside number 42 Brick Lane. Then it went off.
Since 1956, Leo Epstein has run his textiles business, Epra Fabrics, on Brick Lane. As the last Jewish trader in the area, he’s uniquely placed to see how London’s multicultural hub has changed over time. "One of my Bengali neighbours once said to me, 'On Brick Lane we do business, not politics.' If you’re not a tolerant person, you shouldn’t be on Brick Lane."
Leo’s shop had its front torn off in the blast. "The shutters were broken and there was glass everywhere." Leo remembers being angry. "For the first time in my life, I wasn’t open for business. I wanted to get on with it. When we were allowed to start trading again, on the Monday, we were all helping each other rebuild [our] businesses. We weren’t going to let this divide us."
Jonathan Cash has spent the last 20 years fighting to navigate the physical and mental scars the bomb left on him. He wrote a play, called The First Domino, which is concerned with right-wing beliefs and terrorism. It was broadcast on Radio 4, starring the actor Toby Jones, and nominated for the BBC Best Audio Drama Award in 2012.
"I had undiagnosed PTSD for several years," he says. "I couldn’t cope with doing the most basic things. I lost several stone. I resigned from a job and tried to look after myself. I’ve been back to the Admiral Duncan pub a few times. Sometimes it’s OK and sometimes it’s upsetting. Even now, I don’t like crowded rooms or venturing into cities."
It’s hard to find much good that came out of the events of 20 years ago, but the defiance London showed in those two weeks – the capital’s unwillingness to be bowed by bloody destruction – continues to linger long in many people’s minds. "I will never forget," says Justin Davenport, "the day I was at the Admiral Duncan bomb scene and being struck by how London was just going about its business. People coming and going to restaurants and pubs just half a mile from the scene of absolute devastation."
Less than a month after the bombings, 22-year-old David Copeland was arrested on the evening of May 2nd at his home in Hampshire. A member of both the British National Party and the National Socialist Movement, upon the police’s arrival, in a room decorated with swastikas and Nazi memorabilia, Copeland admitted to sole responsibility for the bombings, claiming his desire to instigate a race war. On the 30th of June, 2000, he was convicted of three counts of murder and planting bombs, and given six concurrent life sentences.
Meanwhile, in London, the nation’s capital continues to showcase how an inclusive, harmonious, multicultural metropolis can operate.