On Saturday afternoon of 24 January 1885, Police Constable William Cole was on duty in the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft (the Crypt Chapel), the final point on the public vistor route. A visitor alerted him to a smoking black bag on the lower steps leading up from the Chapel into Westminster Hall.
On examining the bag, he saw that it contained dynamite and a lighted fuse. He immediately rushed up the steps with it into Westminster Hall, intending to deposit the device in New Palace Yard. But before he could reach the door, a hot substance from the bag scolded his hand, causing him to drop it, and as he did so it exploded.
Cole and a colleague, PC Cox, who had rushed to assist, caught the full force of the blast and were thrown into the large crater torn into the floor of the Hall. Seconds later, another device exploded in the empty chamber of the House of Commons causing extensive damage.
Both explosions, and a third at the Tower of London, were the work of Fenians (Irish nationalists who oppose British rule in Ireland) who had been carrying out similar attacks at other public buildings in the capital.
Unconscious and badly injured, Cole and his colleague were taken to hospital where they were visited by the Home Secretary, Sir William Harcourt. Cole's prompt action had clearly saved the lives of bystanders and had saved Westminster Hall from extensive damage. Harcourt recognised Cole's gallantry in 'knowing full well the terrible risk he incurred', and immediately sought the Queen's approval for him to receive the Albert Medal. The award was duly gazetted just a week after the occurrence.
Cole, who had been promoted to sergeant, was presented with the Albert Medal on 26 March by Sir William Harcourt at an impressive gathering in Westminster Hall attended by the Prime Minister, W.E. Gladstone, the Speaker (Arthur Wellesley Peel), and many members of the Lords and Commons.
Unfortunately, Cole's injuries were severe and he lived most of his remaining years virtually as an invalid nursed devotedly by his wife. He was pensioned out of the Force in 1886. He died aged 60 on 21 November 1900 after undergoing further surgery at Westminster Hospital. His widow was granted a Civil List pension of £30 p.a. by King Edward VII.