Published: 06:00, 25 September 2020
On a quiet Thursday night 45 years ago, Kent was rocked by a terrorist attack, its murderous ambition thwarted only by the quick thinking of a teenage soldier.
Now, 45 years after the IRA bombing of the Hare and Hounds in Maidstone, reporter Rhys Griffiths tells the story of that night through the eyes of the landlord whose pub was targeted.
When Brian Wooster threw open the doors at the Hare and Hounds on September 25, 1975, there was nothing to suggest this evening would be any more eventful than any other week night at this neighbourhood pub.
Used to welcoming a friendly mix of locals and soldiers from the nearby Invicta Park Barracks, the young landlord at the drinking spot, known affectionately by the squaddies as the Dog and Bunny, was preparing for just another evening behind the bar pulling pints.
"I think it was 1972 we took it over," he said. "I was the youngest landlord in the area at the time.
"It's only a small pub, most of the customers were a toss up between squaddies from the barracks or a lot of the lads from Ringlestone who used to come in on their way into the town. If they were coming into the town they had to go past my pub so they would pop in for a few beers.
"It was a good atmosphere, it was like a little local, friendly pub, everybody knew everybody, and sometimes it was quiet, at weekends it was a bit busier. It was a quiet sort of pub really."
On the Thursday night in question, Brian recalls there being around 20 people in the bar, background music would have been playing behind the hum of conversation. Then, at around 9.30pm, it all stopped. Even if what was about to happen was uncertain at first.
"It was between my car and the wall," he recalled. "My car was parked outside the pub.
"In the evening some of the lads from the barracks used to bring their washing over to take to the laundrette in the town.
"Obviously, walking past my pub they would pop in for a pint. Well, that particular night at 6pm when I opened up - because the hours were different in those days - one of the lads came in and he had a holdall with him with his washing in it, and he was on his way down to the town to do it at the laundrette.
"So of course later on in the evening when David Campbell went out and came back in and said 'there's a bag between the wall and car, Brian', I went out to have a look and I thought, wrongly, that it was this guy's washing bag, and I thought 'why's he left it there?'"
But what sharp-eyed Sapper Campbell, a 19-year-old soldier from the nearby barracks, had discovered by chance - having left the pub to try and reunite someone with a coat - was not a comrade’s dirty laundry. It was an IRA bomb.
"It was a bit confusing at the time," the former landlord, whose wife Sandy and two-year-old son Paul were also in the pub that night, remembers.
"But we wasn't sure, and we didn't like the look of it, so we made the right noises - and good job we did.
"We set the alarm off and all that, the police turned up, and we got everybody out of the pub, round the side of the pub, and this police inspector turned up and he said to this policeman who I was standing next to 'have you got a torch?' and he said 'yes' and gave him a torch.
"It was obviously planned for some time before it happened..."
"He crept up to it, knelt over it, unzipped it and shone the torch on it, and he came back and said 'yeah, that's a bomb, it's all wired up to batteries and stuff', so that was when we first knew it was a bomb - and that was it."
A time of Troubles
The discovery of the device outside the pub in Lower Boxley Road that night may have been a shock but it did not come as a surprise.
Since the eruption of the Troubles in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the armed Irish republican movement had begun to prepare and execute a campaign of violence on the streets of Britain.
Mr Wooster knew his pub was in the sights of those committed to using arms against the British state, its soldiers and - by extension - the places where they gathered.
"There was a genuine threat at the time," he said.
"The police came to see me one day and they told me that they had pulled a bloke in Dublin, an IRA fella, and he had had a list on him and my pub was third on the list.
"So it was obviously planned for some time before it happened and there was nothing we could do about it. We just had to keep our eyes open, keep our eyes peeled, and as I say, it was a local pub so we knew everybody that came in, so if someone strange ever came in we'd have been on that straight away."
In those days the pub, essentially three cottages knocked into one, was accessible only through one of the front doors. It was hoped the use of a sole entrance would offer some small measure of protection.
"In those days they used to bring bombs in and put it under a table, and then disappear, you know?
"I thought, well they're not going to do that here, because as soon as they come through the door we'd be on them. I didn't appreciate they could leave one outside and it could blow through the wall."
Once it became clear what the holdall Spr Campbell had discovered really contained, the pub was quickly evacuated and the bomb squad was called from London.
The majority of the drinkers were shepherded around to the side of the building, while the landlord's wife and son were roused and taken further down the street. Then, at approximately 10pm, the bomb exploded.
"When we found the bomb we got my little lad out of bed, and him and my wife went down Lower Boxley Road where my mate's car was parked and he sat her in the back of that with my littl'un. It was a Mk1 Cortina at the time, and when the blast went off it actually blew the back window of the Cortina in on them.
"It didn't break it, it just blew it in off the rubbers, so luckily they weren't hurt.
"The inside of the pub was like a U-shape, if you see what I mean. The bar was in the middle and then the two actual bars went down both sides.
"The blast, as you look at the pub from the front, was on the left-hand side and it blew straight through the pub, which caused a vacuum in the other bar, which sucked the big back door in off its hinges into the bar.
"If anybody had been in there even if the blast hadn't have damaged them, the air pressure could have collapsed their lungs. It was a very close run thing."
A close run thing. Two police officers were injured in the blast but, even with the passing of time, the former landlord has lost none of his conviction that every person in the Hare and Hounds that night would have been killed if it were not for the actions of Sapper Campbell.
'It was all a bit of shock'
During our conversation on the phone from his home in Derbyshire, it becomes clear 73-year-old Mr Wooster is not a man prone to exaggeration or overstatement. Perhaps after 26 years working traffic patrols for Kent Police he has seen much of what there is to see.
"She was still very wary about opening the bar..."
But despite describing an IRA bombing of his business and family home as simply "a bit of a shock", he reflects that in the aftermath there was a toll taken on his young family. And he never set foot behind the bar of the Hare and Hounds again.
"My mum and dad had a pub at Bearsted at the time, the Bell Inn, and so as soon as it happened we went and moved in with them," he said.
"Not long after that the brewery said 'get yourself away on holiday and we'll sort something out'. So we went down to Cornwall, my wife and I and the littl'un, for a week or so and then they found another pub for us down at Blean, near Canterbury.
"We never went back. It was rebuilt but quite a long time after. And I think an ex-policeman took it. We had already taken the other pub by then.
"It frightened my missus, obviously a lot, even when we took the other pub down near Canterbury, which is out in the sticks in the middle of nowhere, she was still very wary about opening the bar, and anybody coming in, so we were only there about six or nine months and then we jacked it in."
'We were very lucky'
A career in the traffic police, serving in Rochester and Maidstone, followed once he left the pub trade. And when retirement from the force came he relocated to Glossop, where he now works part time driving for the ambulance service.
Asked if he thinks often about what happened on that night 45 years ago, the former Maidstone pub landlord laughed. "It only comes up when people like you talk about it. It was a long time ago wasn't it?"
And does he still feel any anger towards the men who tried to murder him, his wife, young son, customers and numerous soldiers on that September night?
"I have mellowed over the years," he reflected. "At the time, we were very lucky. The cell that did my pub, they did a few other pubs where people were killed and stuff.
"There was the Balcombe Street siege where they trapped four IRA guys in a flat, those were the four that did my pub, but they got charged with lots of stuff, murders and all sorts, so really my pub was just minor damage really.
"We were lucky. We were very lucky."