The Clapham Society Local History Series — 28

Letter Bomb Inventor Lived in Clapham
by Derrick Johnson

This article first appeared in the South London Press on 12 August 2017
(Entitled: ‘Brilliant inventor or possible murderer’)

Martin Ekenberg
Martin Ekenberg

The Clapham Society recently received an enquiry, through its website, from a Swedish TV producer, Tobias Bjorling. He requested information on a house called ‘Fairlawn’. This was a substantial villa built as part of his Clapham Park Estate by the prolific developer Thomas Cubitt (1788-1855) who was also responsible for much of Belgravia and for Osborne House, Queen Victoria’s residence on the Isle of Wight. ‘Fairlawn’ was situated on Clarence Road (now Clarence Avenue). Tobias was particularly interested in the occupants during the first decades of the last century. Using local directories we discovered that from 1908 ‘Fairlawn’ was occupied by Martin Ekenberg, a Swedish national, and a company called Techno Chemical Laboratories.

When asked the reason for his interest Tobias told us that Ekenberg was a very gifted chemist, engineer and inventor. Among the projects which he worked on were methods of condensing milk and producing coffee powder and the first fish cleaning machine – all advanced ideas for the time. However, he also had a tendency to deceive, claiming qualifications he did not have, and he had been expelled from the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm for cheating. He acquired a reputation as a pathological liar and confidence trickster.

Fairlawn, Sketch by Kronstrand
Fairlawn, Clarence Road, Clapham Park
Sketch by Kronstrand

In 1904 Ekenberg left Sweden for London and established himself at ‘Fairlawn’. There he decided to take his revenge on those in Sweden whom he felt had not appreciated or developed his inventions. He did this by sending a series of letter bombs. The first of these was sent to Karl Fredrik Lundin, a director of Separator a company which had built an experimental factory based on Ekenberg’s designs. Lundin received a package which, when opened, exploded causing him serious injury. The next bomb, disguised as a perfume bottle, did not reach its destination, but exploded in a post office in Stockholm and seriously injured several postal officials. A third bomb reached Stockholm in 1909 addressed to John Hammar an export association director. When opened, it exploded and he lost the thumb and index finger of his right hand.

At first the Swedish police suspected Russian nihilists were responsible, but despite attempts to divert suspicion elsewhere a former colleague recognised Ekenberg’s handwriting and detectives were sent to London. They visited ‘Fairlawn’ where they discovered evidence of letter bomb manufacture. Ekenberg was arrested and sent to Brixton Prison to await extradition. It was there that he died probably committing suicide with a poison that he had earlier boasted was impossible to detect. He is buried in West Norwood Cemetery. He had been married twice and both of his wives had died in mysterious circumstances.

Laboratory at Fairlawn
Laboratory at Fairlawn. Sketch by Kronstrand

Despite his genius and talent for invention well in advance of the time the only reminder of Ekenberg today is an exhibit in the Police Museum in Stockholm showing him and John Hammar’s severed thumb. ‘Fairlawn’, together with many other large houses on the Clapham Park Estate became derelict during World War Two and was demolished in the 1950s. The area was redeveloped as the new Clapham Park Estate.

Following the information we provided for Tobias Bjorling he sent a television crew to Clapham, to photograph the probable location of the house. It turned out that his research into Martin Ekenberg was in connection with a hugely successful, humorous but educational, Swedish TV quiz show. Each season the programme makers visit 40 cities around the world (and in Sweden of course) and ask the contestants questions about these. In each city they produce three short films which tell a story – and ask questions. I wonder if this Swedish connection with south London will confound the contestants?