The Docklands bomb: 15 years on

How quickly time passes – IanVists reminds me today is 15 years since the IRA bomb at South Quay station on the Isle of Dogs, killing the two men who ran the newspaper stall and causing millions of pounds worth of damage. As Ian says, there’s still empty premises following that explosion, and one of the flagship developments of the time had to be torn down and rebuilt.

It’s a Friday night I remember vividly. I was working at a pub in Southwark at the time, and we had an Australian woman alongside us who was living in the Isle of Dogs – I remember Janelle running around in a panic, telling everyone the news, and trying to contact her boyfriend, who worked in another pub.

The only radio in the place was in the kitchen, and we skipped our duties to turn it to a news station to find out what the hell was going on. My own home in Greenwich hadn’t been damaged (we were too far away, but all I could think of was the widespread devastation after the Bishopsgate bomb) but I was told the explosion was certainly heard.

Then there was another problem – how was Janelle going to get home? And what about her boyfriend, across central London?

The whole Isle of Dogs had been sealed off by police, the Docklands Light Railway closed, the Jubilee Line not finished, and here were wide-eyed Australians without a clue about London beyond the pubs they worked in and the flat they rented, in a newish development on the Millwall side of the island.

Janelle’s boyfriend was snuck into our pub after hours, and I got them both back by night bus as far as Greenwich town centre, walking them back to the foot tunnel. They made it back okay, but my clearest memory is of walking home along the river, at about 2.30am, standing outside the naval college and looking at the flashing blue lights across the river, fearing what horrors could come next.

But the next – and final – IRA incident in London was more Keystone Kops than freedom fighters, as a hapless terrorist blew himself up by accident on top of a 171 bus at the Aldwych, injuring eight others.

As Ian notes, James McArdle was convicted of the South Quay bombing, but was released from prison in 2000 under the Good Friday Agreement.


  1. I was working in South Quay at the time and knew the two newsagents. They’d been asked to leave but were so immune to hoaxes, just carried on cashing up. I was put out by the fact that the DLR station was closed, a typical Friday night occurence which meant that I had to schlep to Canary Wharf and would yet again be late for my girlfriend. I didn’t realise that I was walking past a live bomb, and that 15 minutes later it would detonate.

  2. By chance that night I had, unusually, come home via Canning Town rather than coming down the Tunnel Approach from Bow. On a previous occasion I had only missed the Coleman Street bomb by minutes.
    However, I seem to think that the two South Quay office blocks which were shattered and later demolished, were among the many speculative Docklands buildings which were no one ever moved into

  3. I too knew Inan and John, having worked around Mill Harbour intermittently over the previous decade; South Quay was my DLR stop, many of my friends, too.

    Thanks for reminding me of them.

  4. I cant think why for the life of me I was still in work at 7pm on a Friday but I remember looking up from my desk after hearing the explosion – Beaufort House near Aldgate – and watching the windows rattle even from there. Then I finished up and ran across to the bar across the road and got the manager to put the telly on to try and find out what had happened. Was it a telly or now I’m thinking was it the radio? Mind’s gone blank… can remember the Manager well!

  5. The office block directly across the road from the blast was not speculative. It was created by the Builder Group of magazines long before the tax-driven rush into Docklands. Nor was it empty, as shown by pictures splashed all over the news of blood-spattered survivors. Luckily, no-one there was badly hurt by a hurricane of shattered glass sweeping the offices. I was even luckier, as I had left work 15 mins earlier.

  6. My father worked for the Builder Group too, however I can’t remember if he was simply not in that day or had gone freelance and was working from home by that date. However a couple of summer before I had done some work for him there so it hit home to me as well. I remember the guys that worked in the newsagents.
    One of the other buildings was Citigroup’s backup offices, 1000 empty desks, all ready and waiting for use if there was an event elsewhere, so although empty, it was tenanted.

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