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‘Islington’s 1982 Blitz’: The story of when secret agents bombed ANC offices in Penton Street

PUBLISHED: 09:00 29 October 2017

Debris littered the road as police worked after the explosion that damaged the African National Congress office in Penton Street. Picture: PA Archive

Debris littered the road as police worked after the explosion that damaged the African National Congress office in Penton Street. Picture: PA Archive

PA Archive/PA Images

Did you know Islington was subjected to a bomb attack 35 years ago?

'THE DAY THE BOMB WENT OFF': How the Gazette reported the African National Congress blast in its March 19, 1982 edition. Picture: Islington Local History Centre 'THE DAY THE BOMB WENT OFF': How the Gazette reported the African National Congress blast in its March 19, 1982 edition. Picture: Islington Local History Centre

We only ask because even the Gazette didn’t consider it much of a big deal at the time – it got just 300 words of coverage on page 2.

On March 14, 1982, agents working for the South African government detonated a 10lb bomb at the rear of the African National Congress’s (ANC) London HQ.

It was located in 28, Penton Street: a modest office block in the heart of Islington, sandwiched between Chapel Market and Pentonville Road.

Miraculously – for a blast that was heard in Stoke Newington – no one was killed.

But why was this humble office blown up?

The ANC moved its London HQ to Islington in 1978. It had been exiled by South Africa’s white ruling National Party, meaning it was forced to plot its overthrow of the apartheid regime 9,000 miles away in Penton Street.

Avril Nanton, an Islington tour guide specialising in black history, speculates: “On that day, there was supposed to be an ANC march. That could be the reason they planted the bomb – to stop the march and stop the flow of publicity.”

Nine South African security policemen admitted to the attack, and were granted amnesty in 1999.

In the Gazette’s words on March 19, the attack “revived wartime memories of the Blitz”.

Vernet Mbatha, an African National Congress researcher, was in the Penton Street building at the time of the blast. He escaped with an injured foot. Picture: PA Archive Vernet Mbatha, an African National Congress researcher, was in the Penton Street building at the time of the blast. He escaped with an injured foot. Picture: PA Archive

Thankfully, the number of casualties wasn’t on the same level.

An ANC researcher, 28-year-old Vernet Mbatha, was asleep in the building when the bomb went off. He suffered slight injuries to his foot.

Most of the damage was done to buildings in White Lion Street, with The Lord Wolseley pub and White Lion Free School having all of their windows blown out. Windows were shattered up to 400 yards away from the scene.

Sheila Steventon, meanwhile, was cleaning her pub, the Queen’s Arms in Penton Street, when it happened. She narrowly escaped serious injury from flying glass.

“It really shook me up,” she told the Gazette at the time. “One of our windows was blown in by the force of the explosion. If I had been near it at the time, I wouldn’t be here now.”

Ms Steventon added the “incredibly efficient” police officers on the ground were treated to beers on the house after the scene was cleared up.

What became of the ANC in Penton Street?

After the bombing, it continued to plot against apartheid (which ended in 1991) in the same building. The ANC moved out of Islington in 1994, when Nelson Mandela was elected president in South Africa’s first democratic election.

Islington Council unveiled a green plaque at the block in 2010 to commemorate the ANC’s 16 years in Penton Street.

A plaque on the site of 28 Penton Street, the London headquarters of the African National Congress from 1978 to 1994. Picture: Polly Hancock A plaque on the site of 28 Penton Street, the London headquarters of the African National Congress from 1978 to 1994. Picture: Polly Hancock

Then Lib Dem council leader Terry Stacy gushed: “It’s hard to believe these modest offices in an Islington back street were the ANC’s nerve centre in the UK and momentum behind the most important political change in Africa.

“The ANC’s time in Islington is part of the rich diversity that gives our borough and its people their unique spirit and character.”

It’s not to say the ANC was entirely noble. Its military wing was involved in a series of attacks on the apartheid government in the ‘70s and ‘80s – which led to a number of civilian deaths.

A bomb and a car insurance scam

The ANC bomb had unexpected consequences for John Stevens, a metal cutter from Stamford Hill.

The Gazette reported how eight months earlier, he had dumped his broken down red Triumph in Penton Street.

As a result of the increased police presence after the blast, a routine check was carried out on the vehicle – and Mr Stevens was hauled before the courts.

Clerkenwell Magistrates’ heard Mr Stevens, 31, had collected £250 (equivalent of £650 in today’s terms) insurance on the car after “deliberately losing” it. He said the car had been stolen.

Mr Stevens told the court it had broken down on the way to work, and as it was too expensive to repair, he decided to dump it.

He pleaded guilty to obtaining money by deception and was ordered to pay £250 compensation to the insurance company, as well as receiving a £75 fine.

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