The 1984 Brighton bombing

At 2.54am, on October 12 1984, a 20-pound gelignite bomb planted by a member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army exploded in room 629 of the Grand Hotel. It was an attempt to assassinate Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her Cabinet, who were attending the Conservative Party conference at the Brighton Centre.

Due to the hotel’s sturdy Victorian brick walls, the blast went downwards, rather than sideways, but a huge chimneystack on top of the building crashed through ceilings and floors. The front of the hotel was ripped open and the central section of eight floors collapsed into the basement, taking guests with it. Masonry was scattered across the streets, ripping the heads off parking meters and destroying a seafront shelter. The Prime Minister’s bathroom was extensively damaged; she said that she would have been in there when the explosion happened, if her private secretary Robin Butler had not asked her to do ‘one more paper’ before she retired for the night. As a result, she was sitting in an armchair, with her back to the window, when the bomb went off.

Five people died as a result of the explosion: Roberta Wakeham, wife of Parliamentary Treasury Secretary John Wakeham; Lady Muriel Maclean (who died five weeks after the bombing), wife of Tory Scottish President Sir Donald Maclean; Eric Taylor, a member of the Conservative national executive committee; Jean Shattock, wife of Western Counties Conservative chairman Sir Gordon Shattock, in room 628, and Sir Anthony Berry, MP for Enfield Southgate (at the subsequent by-election in December 1984, the seat was won by a young Michael Portillo). Several others, including Margaret Tebbit — the wife of Norman Tebbit, who was then President of the Board of Trade — were left permanently disabled. 34 people were taken to hospital, but recovered from their injuries.

The hotel’s sign had been on the balcony outside the room occupied by Norman and Margaret Tebbit. Firefighters used a BBC crew’s arc lights to rescue the Tebbits from the rubble, a dangerous operation that took several hours. Margaret Thatcher was whisked away from the building in a black Jaguar at 3.21am. Lord Gowrie fetched deckchairs from the beach for shaken but unhurt survivors to rest on; others sought refuge at the Metropole next door, where tea and sympathy were dispensed, and TV coverage of the incident could be viewed as it unfolded virtually in front of them. Sir Keith Joseph emerged in dressing gown, holding his ministerial red box. At the suggestion of a female survivor, Lord McAlpine got Marks and Spencer on Western Road to open early, so that those attending conference the next day could ‘get kitted up properly’.

By December 1 1984, police had ascertained that the occupant of room 629 on the nights of September 15 and 18 was a ‘Roy Walsh’ of 27 Braxfield Rd, London SE4; reports said that a woman stayed with him on those nights, but her identity was never discovered. In September 1986, Patrick Magee, then aged 35, was found guilty of planting and detonating the bomb, and of five counts of murder. He had stayed in the hotel as Roy Walsh 24 days prior to the conference and planted the bomb, fitted with a long-delay timer made from video recorder components, under the bath in room 629. Magee received eight life sentences: seven for offences relating to the Brighton bombing, and the eighth for a separate bombing conspiracy. The judge recommended that he serve a minimum term of 35 years; Home Secretary Michael Howard later increased this to ‘whole life’.

Magee was released from prison in 1999, under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. A Downing Street spokesman said that his release ‘was hard to stomach’ and an appeal by then Home Secretary Jack Straw to prevent it was turned down by the Northern Ireland High Court. After being freed, Magee said the attack had ‘made a contribution to the peace process’ and would do the same again, but also that he was sorry for the innocent people who got caught up in the blast.

In November 2000, Jo Berry, daughter of the late Anthony Berry, met Magee; in 2003, they set up Causeway, ‘a healing project that helps individuals address unresolved pain caused by The Troubles’. He explained, ‘I decided to meet Jo because, apart from addressing a personal obligation, I felt obligated as a Republican to explain what led someone like me to participate in the action.’ Ms Berry said, ‘I wanted to meet Pat to put a face to the enemy, and see him as a real human being. At our first meeting I was terrified, but I wanted to acknowledge the courage it had taken him to meet me’. In October 2009, at the time of the 25th anniversary, Magee told the BBC: ‘I have to tell you at the time I would not have lost much sleep about Norman Tebbit. He was a hard-liner. I do very much regret Margaret Tebbit has been confined to a wheelchair ever since. I think a lot about that.’

On 18 October, Magee took part in a Q&A session, alongside Jo Berry, after a screening of the documentary Soldiers of Peace at the Duke of York’s cinema, to launch the charity, Building Bridges For Peace. He told the audience, ‘How could I not be sorry — people have been hurt, killed and damaged by my actions.’ On October 12 2009, a memorial service was held at St Paul’s Church, West St, to mark the 25th anniversary of the bomb attack, attended by Lord Tebbit and his wife Margaret, to pay tribute to those who lost their lives or were injured in the attack.

The church near the Grand Hotel was used in the aftermath of the bombing and has a plaque on its wall listing the names of those who died. After the 6pm service, officiated by Rev Prof Peter Galloway, Lord Tebbit unveiled a memorial plaque inside the Grand Hotel.

The memorial service was organised by Michael Knox-Johnston, general manager of The Grand. Just days before, Tebbit had criticised the Labour Party for allowing Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness to attend its conference in Brighton, shortly before the 25th anniversary of the bombing.

The Bevendean Road Neighbourhood

Did you know the Bevendean neighbourhood can be traced back to the last millenium? The Domesday Book of 1086 recorded the manor of Bevendean, ‘Beofa’s valley’, to be worth £6 and held by one Walter from William de Warrenne.

It was eventually divided between two estates, Lower and Upper Bevendean, which were acquired by the corporation in November 1913 and January 1940 respectively; the whole Bevendean area was annexed by the county borough from Falmer parish on April 1 1928.

Lower Bevendean Farm was originally accessed from Bear Rd by a trackway now known as Bevendean Rd and had an 18th-century farmhouse, but the buildings were later demolished to provide the open space now known as Farm Green between Auckland Drive and Bevendean School. However, Upper Bevendean Farm survives, and has a late 19th-century farmhouse approached from Warren Avenue, Woodingdean.

The first development of the Lower Bevendean estate came in the early 1930s, when the corporation extended its housing from South Moulsecoomb up the valley onto Bevendean land: thus 85-123 and 110-120 The Avenue (eastwards from the cross roads at the western end of Manton Rd), plus Lower Bevendean Avenue, Upper Bevendean Avenue and Manton Rd, are now a part of Bevendean.

At about the same time, the Widdicombe Way/Bevendean Crescent area was developed privately and was also known as part of the Bevendean estate, but it is now normally counted as part of the Moulsecoomb district. With a pressing need for new homes in the post-war period, the greater part of the Bevendean housing estate was rapidly developed higher up the valley from 1948 by the corporation, which named the roads after English castles.

Bevendean Barn, at the corner of Auckland Drive and Heath Hill Avenue, was used as a chapel for the estate from 1953, but was replaced in 1963 by the Church of the Holy Nativity, a Modern-style building in brick, mottled knapped-flint and cobbles by Richard Melhuish.

The Hyde Business Park was developed from 1955; the first factory was Elizabeth English shoes, followed by Hibberd Furniture, Brighton Sheet Metal Works, Redifon and Canada Dry; current businesses include Big Box Storage and West Instruments. Bevendean is a relatively deprived ward within the city — more than three quarters of its population are on a low income — and has been the recipient of Neighbourhood Renewal funding. It has a relatively high percentage of residents living in council accommodation — 24% — while 13% live in housing association homes.

Skeletons in the church

The Brighthelm United Reformed Church and Community Centre backs onto North Rd, and is adorned with a sculpture by John Skelton, depicting the loaves and fishes story. Built as a new home for the Central Free Church, it incorporates the former Hanover Chapel, which was built in 1825 as an Independent chapel for the Revd M Edwards, and then used by the Presbyterian Church from 1844 until 1972, when it combined with the Union Church. The chapel was then used as a Greek church until 1978, and the church hall in North Rd became a resource centre; it was gutted by fire in 1980. The southern facade of the Chapel, with twin porches, Tuscan columns and giant pilasters, has been preserved and restored.

In 1845, Queen’s Rd was constructed over the western edge of the Hanover Chapel’s burial ground, but the cemetery’s boundary wall and railing remain on the western side of Queen’s Road as a raised pavement. The churchyard became the corporation’s responsibility following the 1884 Brighton Improvement Act; it was laid out as a public garden, the Queen’s Rd Rest Garden, in 1949 when the gravestones were removed to line the perimeter walls.

In 1989, the churchyard was remodelled with access from Queen’s Rd. An obelisk monument in the garden has a very faint inscription to Dr Struve of the Royal Spa in Queen’s Park.

On August 15 1982, The Argus published a story, ‘Mystery of 500 bodies’, which revealed that a crypt containing hundreds of crumbling coffins and bones had been discovered underneath the remains of the resource centre when the Brighthelm Centre was being built. The chambers were first discovered on December 15 1981, when the roof of one of the chambers fell in. The subsequent excavation revealed many chambers, containing coffins of different types and from different eras – those commemorated with stone plaques were in fairly good condition, due to being lined with lead, and had been placed on separate shelves within chambers or in family groups within the chambers. The earlier, wooden coffins had mostly crumbled to pieces and there were no plaques or other memorials to indicate whose remains they had contained.

The discovery of the remains were kept largely secret from the public – apart from an advert in the local paper, asking for any surviving relatives to come forward and reclaim the remains, which yielded no replies. The excavation of the graves was carried out from April 1 to July 28 1982, and the remains were subsequently re-interred in a mass grave at Lawn Memorial Park, Warren Rd, Woodingdean.

Records were made of all the identified remains and kept on file, along with maps and photographs made by the Brighton Borough Surveyor, by the staff at Woodvale Lodge. It was believed the unidentified remains found amongst the crumbled wooden coffins may have been those of people who died as the result of some common illness, and probably dated back to the late 1700s.

At that time, scarlet fever was a serious health problem for adults and children throughout England. Later burials, from the 1820s onwards, included the family of William Wigney, a linen-draper; Harriet Stevens of North St; Stephen, Ann and Polly Ayling of Sussex St; Charlotte George, 11 Richmond Place; John Samuel Shepheard Spyring, 3 Western Place; Thomas Judson, Craven Cottage, Queens Road and Mary Rogers, 1 Upper Rock Gardens. Designed by John Wells-Thorpe (whose other designs included the new Hove Town Hall and St Patrick’s Church, Woodingdean), the Brighthelm Centre was opened on October 10 1987.