Ross McWhirter and the Balcombe Street gang

IRA explosion on Campden Hill Square

IRA explosion in Campden Hill Square, Holland Park

On the 22nd October 1975, the very same day that the Guildford Four were wrongly convicted of a pub-bombing, a man telephoned the large Holland Park home of the Conservative MP Hugh Fraser and his wife, the author Antonia Fraser, and asked what time the MP left in the morning.

The cook, who had answered the telephone, innocently told the caller that it was usually around nine. During that night someone planted a bomb underneath one of the wheels of Fraser’s Jaguar XJ6 that always stood outside his house in Campden Hill Square.

The next morning Professor Gordon Hamilton-Fairley, a neighbour of the Frasers and an internationally renowned cancer specialist, was out walking his two dogs. He noticed a strange device underneath Fraser’s car and bent down to investigate. He accidentally activated the bomb’s ‘anti-handler’ micro-switch and, along with his two poodles Benny and Emmy Lou, he was killed instantly.

Sir Hugh Fraser and Antonia Fraser in 1959

Sir Hugh Fraser and Antonia Fraser in 1959

Had Jonathan Aitken not called at 8.45am that morning, delaying the departure of Fraser and his guest Caroline Kennedy (she was in London attending an art appreciation course at Sotheby’s), they would have died instead.

The world's press on the morning of the explosion at Campden Hill Square

The world's press on the morning of the explosion at Campden Hill Square


This bomb was only one of 40 explosions set off in the capital by the Provisional IRA in a 14 month bombing campaign over 1974-5. It left 35 people dead and many more injured. The IRA Active Service Unit that was responsible for the Professor’s death in Campden Hill Square was actually responsible for the bombings for which the Guildford Four were infamously tried and wrongly convicted.

Edward Butler, Hugh Doherty, Martin O’Connell and Harry Duggan were all in their early twenties and all from the Irish Republic (which meant that they were more difficult to trace by the British police).

After the Campden Hill Square mistake the ASU reverted their attention to prominent ‘ruling class’ restaurants such as the Trattoria Fiore in Mount Street, W1 which they bombed on the 30th October, injuring 17 people, and Walton’s restaurant in Walton Street in Chelsea where they killed two diners.

The bloody aftermath of the Mount Street bomb, 29th October 1975

The bloody aftermath of the Mount Street bomb, 29th October 1975

Police at the scene of the IRA Walton Street bomb

Police at the scene of the IRA Walton Street bomb

At this stage the inhabitants of London, if not panicking, were starting to think twice about going for something to eat in the West End and the restaurants were becoming virtually empty. At a news conference the right-wing Ross McWhirter, one of the twins who created the Guinness Book of Records, offered £50,000 for information leading to the arrest of the terrorists.

Not long after on the 27th of November Duggan and Doherty staked out McWhirter’s house and shot him with an Astra Magnum revolver when he answered the door expecting his wife. One of the gunmen said:

“He thought it was the Wild West. He put a price on our head. The man thought he was living in Texas”

Ross and Norris McWhirter in 1953, a year before the first Guinness book of Records was published.

Ross and Norris McWhirter in 1953, a year before the first Guinness book of Records was published.

Ross McWhirter in the year he was murdered.

Ross McWhirter in the year he was murdered.

Margaret Thatcher and Airey Neave arriving at Ross McWhirter's memorial service

Margaret Thatcher and Airey Neave arriving at Ross McWhirter's memorial service

By now the IRA ASU were acting as if it WAS the Wild West. They were seemingly able to drive round bombing and shooting at ‘ruling class’ restaurants and hotels at will.

However on the 6th December 1975 their luck ran out. The gang had stolen a blue Cortina and were spotted by an observant policeman who noticed that they were driving unnaturally slowly. Following them, he incredulously watched them brazenly open fire at the Mount Street restaurant they had attacked only a few weeks earlier.

Along with fellow officers who had heard his radio call, the policeman followed the four members of the ASU, now on foot after abandoning the car, to Balcombe Street near Marylebone Station. On the way, the gang and the police were now exchanging gunfire at each other with shocked members of the public diving out of the way.

Meanwhile at number 22b Balcombe Street, John and Sheila Matthews were watching an episode of Kojak both presuming, unsurprisingly, that the gun shots they could hear were coming from the television. Suddenly the gunmen burst in through the door and took the couple hostage, unfortunately Telly Savalas was nowhere to be found, and an epic six day siege had started.

The seige was a carefully directed Metropolitan Police operation and they were determined not to create ‘martyrs’ of the gang. On the sixth day, with the gang becoming hungrier and hungrier, some sausages, brussels sprouts, potatoes and tinned peaches and cream were lowered down to the flat by the police and with 25 minutes the whole gang surrendered.
The Balcombe Street siege December 1975

The Balcombe Street siege December 1975


The IRA ASU eventually received 47 life sentences between them and were subsequently given the suitably Wild West style moniker of the Balcombe Street gang. One of the members read out a statement in court:
“As volunteers in the IRA we have fought to free our oppressed nation from its bondage to British imperialism of which this court is an integral
The Balcombe Street gang were in the end responsible, in a ferocious burst of IRA activity during five months in 1975, for fifteen murders. The no-warning attacks included the Guildford and Woolwich pub bombings which together killed seven utterly innocent people.
Relatively soon after the IRA bomb had accidentally killed her neighbour in Campden Hill Square, Antonia Fraser left her husband for Harold Pinter, eventually marrying him in 1980. The couple lived in the same house in Campden Hill Square until Pinter died in 2008. Her former husband, Sir Hugh, died of lung cancer in 1984.
The murdered professor has a plaque in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral, the inscription of which reads:
“Gordon Hamilton-Fairley DM FRCP, first professor of medical oncology, 1930-75. Killed by a terrorist bomb. It matters not how a man dies but how he lives.”
In 1998, a fortnight after the Good Friday Agreement, the Balcombe Street gang made a dramatic appearance on the platform of a special Sinn Fein conference in Dublin (they were now in prison in Ireland but the Irish Government gave them a special day-release for the conference). There was ‘stamping feet, wild applause and triumphant cheering’ while the four men stood grinning with clenched fists in the air. At the conference Gerry Adams described them as ‘our Nelson Mandela’s'! They had come home as heroes. Hmm.
Survivors of the Mount Street restaurant bombing 29th October 1975

Survivors of the Mount Street restaurant bombing 29th October 1975


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16 Responses to “Ross McWhirter and the Balcombe Street gang”

  1. [...] have updated the story of Ross McWhirter and the Balcombe Street gang with some extra pictures and some great [...]

  2. aria says:

    That was interestng – I knew that one of the McWhirter twins had been kiled but wasn’t sure why (I was young at the time). Now I know. your website is great!

  3. aria says:

    ..sorry, I meant killed!

  4. wimble says:

    Your finished with a hmm, it does not seem to want to realise that when people are oppressed and robbed of their rights, dignity, land and their part in ruling their, not your, society, some of those people will do the most awful things to halt the oppression, 700 years of it. One day, some century, you will find another excuse to have another go, then your pomposity will suffer another defeat. There is nothing nice about these people, but unlike the British(London)Government, they don’t seem to need to pretend to be.
    You like the airbrush technique, just like all apologists for a big lie, Gibraltar, all the kids in Derry, Michael Tighe and many others. That would amount for normal I suppose.

  5. nickelinthemachine says:

    Oh shut up you idiot. I have total sympathy for the Irish situation over the last few hundred years. I just don’t like murderers who consider themselves heroes. And nor does any other decent person.

  6. tony says:

    I was a young boy at the time of the Mount street bomb about 13 years old, my nan was the housekeeper at a block of flats a few doors down from the Tratoria, lucky for us we were all in Manchester when it went off, lucky as nan used to eat there quite regularly

  7. McKay Edwards says:

    I was an American college student living in Onslow Gardens, South Ken in 1975. I think I may have heard the Walton’s Restaurant bomb on November 18th. Do you know the time of day that it went off? Evening sometime? I remember the dates because Bruce Springseen was playing Hammersmith Odeon on the 18th and 19th – I went on the 19th. Strange how normal life was in London during the bombings – tribute to the British “stiff upper lip”.

    Best regards to my English friends,

    McKay Edwards, Moab, Utah USA

  8. Dan says:

    Wimble you have yet again a very simplistic view of the hero Irish and the Evil British. You American by any chance. What amazes me is 9/11 comes along and everyone wants a war on terror, the same people that used to give money to these filth.
    I know many in the south of Ireland who detest the IRA and you should read their agenda, it isn’t just ‘getting the North back’ (although if you knew Irish History you would also know Ulster has always been fiercely independemt even back to the hound of Culann and King Conchobar. It is about taking over Ireland, these people also made quite efficient Gangsters, murdering any Irishman that opposed them.
    As for Gibralter, it wants to be British, not Spanish FACT.
    British Imperialism has a lot to answer for as does American Imperialism both in its attrocoties against the Natives and also in its handling of Iraq, Nam etc. It is the human way.
    Whatever though it does not excuse blowing up innocent people or do you think the twin towers also deserved what they got. I don’t

  9. graham warley says:

    It was very interesting to read this blog. I was a young salesman with a patch that covered businesses in Central London during the IRA campaign at this time. You are entirely correct in calling the comments by Wimble idiotic.

    Terrorism contributes nothing to the cause, merely pain and suffering to innocent people.

    I well remember the fear I felt as I walked the London streets wondering if the next parked car I passed had a bomb under it. I was close to Fleet Street on the day when a bomb went off outside an office block near the Old Bailey and the panic caused was horrific.

    As a born and bred Londoner congratulations on a very interesting series of blogs.

  10. [...] have updated the story of Ross McWhirter and the Balcombe Street gang with some extra pictures and some great [...]

  11. Tony says:

    Thanks for fixing the link. The Deputy Headteacher of my old school died a month or so ago after a long and valuable life teaching hundreds of children. Alf Knott had survived being shot by the IRA in Greenwich in the mid-1970s. I don’t know if it was the same people as the Balcombe St Gang. Why was he shot? Oh, the IRA had got the wrong house and intended to shoot an army officer in the same road.

  12. Peter says:

    Interesting stuff. Did John and Sheila give their account of what happened, do you know? Greatly appreciate your writings by the way. Most blogs are dross, but this is a class apart. Several classes actually.

  13. nickelinthemachine says:

    Thank you.

  14. Clayton says:

    Thank you for your blog, in particular you’ve used some really interesting photos. Could you let me know where you found the Mount Street, Campden Hill Square, Walton Street and Balcombe Street photographs, or where they are originally from if possible? Many thanks.

  15. "Digory Kirke" says:

    Interesting stuff, and indeed stuff that the modern Sinn Fein doesn’t want to talk about. I remember as a kid, watching the nice McWhirter brothers on Record Breakers on BBC1 in County Kildare and then wondering why family members in London were panicking about would they have to have an identity card and register with the Police. It wasn’t a nice time to be Irish in England, especially if you were law abiding and had no time at all for political violence, or indeed violence of any kind. Little bigots didn’t distinguish the good from the evil in those days.

  16. Paul Thomas says:

    As a Londoner I remember well this period that you so admirably encapsulate here. And at the end of the dramatic 6-day siege that had gripped the world the immortal first words of the arresting officer to the criminals as they lay face down on surrender ‘Right. let’s be ‘aving you’ – those familiar words so dreaded by all common criminals. Wimble be assured the Balcombe Street gang were no Nelson Mandellas!

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