The Guildford Four spent 15 years in prison after wrongly being convicted of instigating the 1974 pub bombings that decimated the Horse and Groom and Seven Stars pubs in central Guildford. This was one of Guildford’s darkest hours, not only for the tragic loss of life that the explosions caused, but also for the police corruption and malpractice that saw four innocent people incarcerated for a total of 60 years.
The Pub Bombings of October 1974
Patrons of the Horse and Groom pub and Seven Stars were used to seeing army personnel in their midst as both pubs were popular with the soldiers stationed at the barracks in nearby Pirbright and Aldershot. No one at either pub on that terrible Saturday night, could have predicted that it would end with such bloodshed after being targeting by the IRA.
The first bomb to go off detonated in the Horse and Groom pub at 8.30pm where the front of the pub was destroyed and the street became filled with broken glass, as the windows of neighbouring shops shattered following the blast. The pub was packed out, as had been expected for a Saturday night and the device (consisting of six pounds of high explosive) had been stashed under a seat.
This first explosion took the lives of civilian Paul Craig, 22, two members of the Women’s Royal Army Corps and two members of the Scots Guards, with sixty five others also being injured, some severely. Following the initial blast, pubs, restaurants and the cinema were quickly closed and evacuated and so fortunately, when the second bomb went off in the Seven Stars at 9pm, no one was hurt.
What no one knew at the time was that these attacks were just the beginning. Fortunately for Guildford the town was not targeted again, but the Guildford bombings were the first attacks in a year- long campaign by an IRA Active Service Unit.
The following investigation
Following the bombings, the Metropolitan Police found itself under great pressure and scrutiny. The country and especially Guildford watched and waited for those responsible to be brought to justice. In December 1974, the police arrested three men and one woman. They would come to be known as ‘The Guildford Four’. They were soon identified as: Gerry Conlan, Paul Hill, Patrick Armstrong and Carole Richardson and they were charged with direct involvement of the IRA attacks on Guildford.
The four suspects all confessed to being responsible for the bombings during intense police interrogation, however, the police are believed to have used torture during the procedure. Though ‘The Four’ later retracted their statements, this ‘evidence’ still formed the basis of the case brought against them in court. The Guildford Four later alleged that the confessions that they had made were nothing more than the result of coercion by the police, from intimidation to torture to drug withdrawal and even included threats against their family members.
The conviction of The Guildford Four
‘The Four’ were convicted in October 1975 for charges including murder and then sentenced to life imprisonment, despite there never having been any evidence that they were involved with the Provisional IRA.
The Guildford Four did not even fit the profile in terms of lifestyle. For example, Paddy Armstrong and Carole Richardson (who was an Englishwoman) lived in a squat and were reportedly involved with petty crime and drugs. Conlon in fact stated in his autobiography that the IRA would not have taken him because of his past record for petty crime and because he had been kicked out of Fianna Eireann, a Republican youth organisation with strong links to the IRA. Paul Michael Hill was the child of a mixed-religion marriage and born and raised in Belfast.
As well as failing to fit the profile or having any proven links with the IRA, the Guildford Four even had alibis… Carole Richardson was in London seeing a band and witnesses even came forward to support this. Paul Michael Hill was in Southampton and a witness placed Gerry Conlon at a hostel in London. This evidence, for unknown reasons, was never presented at trial.
Despite the lack of substantial evidence and alleged coercion by the police, the Guildford Four were convicted to life imprisonment. They tried to appeal their convictions immediately and a growing number of people pushed to have the case re-examined, however, a year after the pub bombings, in October 1975, the Guildford Four began their sentences.
The Guildford Four acquitted by the Court of Appeal
In February of 1977, four IRA members instructed their lawyers to “draw attention to the fact that four totally innocent people were serving massive sentences”, referring to the Guildford Four. This took place during the trial of the Balcombe Street ASU and even though the four IRA members claimed responsibility for the attacks, they were never formerly charged. The Guildford Four remained in prison for another twelve years.
It wasn’t until 1989, when a detective looking at the case found some irregularities, that an appeal was finally granted. The detective discovered that typed notes from Paul Armstrong’s police interview had been heavily edited. Deletions had been made as well as additions, all of which suggested that the hand written notes were made after the interviews had been conducted. That would then mean that the evidence that the police presented at trial was heavily corrupted; the police having potentially manipulated the notes to fit with the case that they wanted to present.
During the appeal, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Lane, said of the police transcripts: “they were a fabrication by the police from start to finish, invented by some fertile Constabulary mind.” It was concluded that the police had lied, which rendered the entirety of the evidence given by the police as unreliable. The Guildford Four were released on October 19, 1989, after their convictions were finally quashed.
Emerging from the Appeal Court a free man, Mr Conlon (as pictured above) declared: “I have been in prison for something I did not do. I am totally innocent.” And In 2005, the then Prime Minister Tony Blair issued a public apology to the Guildford Four for the miscarriage of justice they had suffered.
Though the bombings never resulted in legitimate convictions, they are believed to have been the result of the Balcombe Street Siege gang, who had claimed responsibility and declared the Guildford Four innocent. At the time they were serving life sentences but were then released under the Good Friday Agreement. Three British police officers were charged after the Guildford Four were released but they were each found not guilty.
Five people killed, sixty five people injured and four innocent people imprisoned. From the moment that the very first bomb exploded in the Horse and Groom, lives were shattered and left in ruins. Not just those hurt or killed by the initial blast, but their loved ones, the accused and their friends and family. Even though responsibility was never officially taken following the tragic events of October 5, 1974, Guildford and its people nonetheless rebuilt their buildings and their lives.
Charli Aisha Harris
Images sourced from: http://tinyurl.com/jwsc8fw and http://tinyurl.com/kg9r262 and http://tinyurl.com/kkfa8w9