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Siege of Sidney Street

Siege of Sidney Street

On 21st November, 1910, Max Smoller, using the name, Joe Levi, he asked to rent a house, 11 Exchange Buildings. His rent was ten shillings a week, and he took possession on 2nd December. Fritz Svaars rented 9 Exchange Buildings on 12th December. He told the landlord that he wanted it for two or three weeks to store Christmas goods and paid five shillings deposit. Another friend, George Gardstein, borrowed money so that he could buy a quantity of chemicals, a a book on brazing metals and cutting metals with acid.

On 16th December 1910, a gang that is believed to included Smoller, Svaars, Gardstein, Peter Piaktow (Peter the Painter), Yakov Peters, Yourka Dubof, Karl Hoffman, John Rosen and William Sokolow, attempted to break into the rear of Henry Harris's jeweller's shop in Houndsditch, from Exchange Buildings in the cul-de-sac behind. The Daily Telegraph reported: "Some two or three weeks ago this particular house in Exchange Buildings was rented and there went to live there two men and a woman. They were little known by neighbours, and kept very quiet, as if, indeed, to escape observation. They are said to have been foreigners in appearance, and the whole neighbourhood of Houndsditch containing a great number of aliens, and removal being not infrequent, the arrival of this new household created no comment. The police, however, evidently had some cause to suspect their intentions. The neighbourhood is always well patrolled. Shortly before 11.30 last night there were sounds either at the back of these newcomers' premises or at Mr Harris's shop that attracted the attention of the police."

A neighbouring shopkeeper, Max Weil, heard their hammering, informed the City of London Police, and nine unarmed officers arrived at the house. Sergeant Robert Bentley knocked on the door of 11 Exchange Buildings. The door was open by Gardstein and Bentley asked him: "Have you been working or knocking about inside?" Bentley did not answer him and withdrew inside the room. Bentley gently pushed open the door, and was followed by Sergeant Bryant. Constable Arthur Strongman was waiting outside. "The door was opened by some person whom I did not see. Police Sergeant Bentley appeared to have a conversation with the person, and the door was then partly closed, shortly afterwards Bentley pushed the door open and entered."

According to Donald Rumbelow, the author of The Siege of Sidney Street (1973): "Bentley stepped further into the room. As he did so the back door was flung open and a man, mistakenly identified as Gardstein, walked rapidly into the room. He was holding a pistol which he fired as he advanced with the barrel pointing towards the unarmed Bentley. As he opened fire so did the man on the stairs. The shot fired from the stairs went through the rim of Bentley's helmet, across his face and out through the shutter behind him... His first shot hit Bentley in the shoulder and the second went through his neck almost severing his spinal cord. Bentley staggered back against the half-open door and collapsed backwards over the doorstep so that he was lying half in and half out of the house."

Sergeant Bryant later recalled: "Immediately I saw a man coming from the back door of the room between Bentley and the table. On 6 January I went to the City of London Mortuary and there saw a dead body and I recognised the man. I noticed he had a pistol in his hand, and at once commenced to fire towards Bentley's right shoulder. He was just in the room. The shots were fired very rapidly. I distinctly heard 3 or 4. I at once put up my hands and I felt my left hand fall and I fell out on to the footway. Immediately the man commenced to fire Bentley staggered back against the door post of the opening into the room. The appearance of the pistol struck me as being a long one. I think I should know a similar one again if I saw it. Only one barrel, and it seemed to me to be a black one. I next remember getting up and staggered along by the wall for a few yards until I recovered myself. I was going away from Cutler Street. I must have been dazed as I have a very faint recollection of what happened then."

Constable Ernest Woodhams ran to help Bentley and Bryant. He was immediately shot by one of the gunman. The Mauser bullet shattered his thigh bone and he fell unconscious to the ground. Two men with guns came from inside the house. Strongman later recalled: "A man aged about 30, height 5 ft 6 or 7, pale thin face, dark curly hair and dark moustache, dress dark jacket suit, no hat, who pointed the revolver in the direction of Sergeant Tucker and myself, firing rapidly. Strongman was shot in the arm, but Sergeant Charles Tucker was shot twice, once in the hip and once in the heart. He died almost instantly.

As George Gardstein left the house he was tackled by Constable Walter Choat who grabbed him by the wrist and fought him for possession of his gun. Gardstein pulled the trigger repeatedly and the bullets entered his left leg. Choat, who was a big, muscular man, 6 feet 4 inches tall, managed to hold onto Gardstein. Other members of the gang rushed to his Gardstein's assistance and turned their guns on Choat and he was shot five more times. One of these bullets hit Gardstein in the back. The men pulled Choat from Gardstein and carried him from the scene of the crime.

Yakov Peters, Yourka Dubof, Peter Piaktow, Fritz Svaars, and Nina Vassilleva half dragged and half carried Gardstein along Cutler Street. Isaac Levy, a tobacconist, nearly collided with them. Peters and Dubof lifted their guns and pointed them at Levy's face and so he let them pass. For the next half-hour they were able to drag the badly wounded man through the East End back streets to 59 Grove Street. Nina and Max Smoller went to a doctor who they thought might help. He refused and threatened to tell the police.

They eventually persuaded Dr. John Scanlon, to treat Gardstein. He discovered that Gardstein had a bullet lodged in the front of the chest. Scanlon asked Gardstein what had happened. He claimed that he had been shot by accident by a friend. However, he refused to be taken to hospital and so Scanlon, after giving him some medicine to deaden the pain and receiving his fee of ten shillings, he left, promising to return later. Despite being nursed by Sara Trassjonsky, Gardstein died later that night.

The following day Dr. Scanlon told the police about treating Gardstein for gun-shot wounds. Detective Inspector Frederick Wensley and Detective Sergeant Benjamin Leeson arrived to find Trassjonsky burning documents. Soon afterwards, a Daily Chronicle journalist arrived: "The room itself is about ten feet by nine, and about seven feet high. A gaudy paper decorates the walls and two or three cheap theatrical prints are pinned up. A narrow iron bedstead painted green, with a peculiarly shaped head and foot faces the door. On the bedstead was a torn and dirty woollen mattress, a quantity of blood-stained clothing, a blood-stained pillow and several towels also saturated with blood. Under the window stood a string sewing machine, and a rickety table, covered with a piece of mole cloth, occupied the centre of the room. On it stood a cup and plate, a broken glass, a knife and fork, and a couple of bottles and a medicine bottle. Strangely contrasting with the dirt and squalor, a painted wooden sword lay on the table, and another, to which was attached a belt of silver paper, lay on a broken desk supported on a stool. On the mantelpiece and on a cheap whatnot stood tawdry ornaments. In an open cupboard beside the fireplace were a few more pieces of crockery, a tin or two, and a small piece of bread. A mean and torn blind and a strip of curtain protected the window, and a roll of surgeon's lint on the desk. The floor was bare and dirty, and, like the fireplace, littered with burnt matches and cigarette ends - altogether a dismal and wretched place to which the wounded desperado had been carried to die." Another journalist described the dead man "as handsome as Adonis - a very beautiful corpse."

The police found a Dreyse gun and a large amount of ammunition for a Mauser gun in the room. In Gardstein's pocket book was a member's card dated 2nd July, 1910, certifying that he was a member of Leesma, the Lettish Communist Group. There was also a letter from Fritz Svaars: "All around I see awful things which I cannot tell you. I do not blame our friends as they are doing all that is possible, but things are not getting better. The life of the workman is full of pain and suffering, but if the suffering reaches a certain degree one wonders whether it would not be better to follow the example of Rainis (an author of Lettish poems) who says burn at once so that you may not suffer long, but one feels that one cannot do it although it seems very advisable. The outlook is always the same, awful outlook for which we must sacrifice our strength. There is not and cannot be another outlet. Under such circumstances, our better feelings are at war with those who live upon our labour. The weakest part of our organisation is that we cannot do sufficient for our friends who are falling."

Despite the fact that these men were Lettish communists linked to the Bolsheviks, the media continued to argue that they were Russian Anarchists: The Daily Telegraph reported: "Anarchist literature, in sufficient quantities to corroborate the suspicion of the police that they are face to face with a far-reaching conspiracy, rather than an isolated and unpremeditated attack on civil authority, is stated to have been recovered. It is reported, in addition, that a dagger was found and a belt, which is understood to have had placed within it 150 Mauser dumdum bullets - bullets, that is, with soft heads, which, upon striking a human body, would spread and inflict a wound of a grievous, if not fatal character."

The police offered a £500 reward for the capture of the men responsible for the deaths of Charles Tucker, Robert Bentley and Walter Choat. One man who came forward was Nicholas Tomacoff, who had been a regular visitor to 59 Grove Street. He told them that he knew that identities of three members of the gang. This included Yakov Peters. On 22nd December, 1910, Tomacoff took the police to 48 Turner Street, where Peters was living. When he was arrested Peters answered: "It is nothing to do with me. I can't help what my cousin Fritz (Svaars) has done."

Tomacoff also provided information on Yourka Dubof. He was described as "twenty-one, 5 feet 8 inches in height of pale complexion, with dark-brown hair". When he was arrested he commented: "You make mistake. I will go with you." He admitted that he had been at 59 Grove Street on the afternoon of 16th December 1910. He said he had gone to see Peter, who he knew was a painter, in an attempt to find work, as he had just been sacked from his previous job. At the police station Dubof and Peters were identified by Isaac Levy, as two of the men carrying George Gardstein in Cutler Street.

The City of London Police now issued a wanted poster with descriptions of two of the men, Fritz Svaars and Peter Piaktow (Peter the Painter), that Tomacoff had told them about: "Fritz Svarrs, lately residing at 59 Grove Street... age about 24 or 25, height 5 feet 8 or 9 inches, complexion sallow, hair fair, medium moustache - turned up at ends, lighter in colour than hair of head - eyes grey, nose rather small - slightly turned up - chin a little upraised, has a few small pimples on face, cheek-bones prominent, shoulders square but bend slightly forward: dress brown tweed suit (thin light stripes), dark melton overcoat (velvet collar, nearly new), usually wears a grey Irish tweed cap (red stripes), but has been sometimes seen wearing a trilby hat."

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The police did not have the name of the second wanted man: "A man known as Peter the Painter, also lately residing at 59 Grove Street... age 28 to 30, height 5 feet 9 or 10 inches, complexion sallow, hair and medium moustache black, clear skin, eyes dark, medium build, reserved manner; dress brown tweed suit (broad dark stripes), black overcoat (velvet collar, rather old), black hard felt hat, black lace boots, rather shabby, believed to be a native of Russia. Both are Anarchists."

The poster also included a photograph of a dead George Gardstein, who was described as "age about 24, height 5 feet 9 inches, complexion pale, hair brown, slight dark moustache worn slightly up at ends, good physique." The poster also contained the information: "The above reward of £500 will be paid by the Commissioner of Police for the City of London to any person who shall give such information as shall lead to the arrest of these persons, or in proportion to the number of such persons who are arrested."

Several witnesses had seen Nina Vassilleva with George Gardstein. Soon after the murders the police issued the following description: "Age 26 to 30; 5ft 4in; slim build, full breasts; complexion medium, face drawn; eyes blue; hair brown; dress, dark blue, three quarters jacket and skirt, white blouse, large black hat trimmed with silk." It was such a vague description that Isaac and Fanny Gordon, who rented a room to Nina, did not recognise her.

However, they did become concerned when they discovered that she had died her hair a "harsh, ugly black". Isaac Gordon also discovered her burning documents. According to Donald Rumbelow, the author of The Siege of Sidney Street (1973): "She told Isaac that she was the woman who had been living in Exchange Buildings and that she had heard that the police were going to carry out house-to-house searches; she did not want them to find these papers. Isaac pleaded with her to let him have them for safe keeping." Nina told Isaac: "It would have been better if they had shot me, instead of the man they have shot. He was the best friend I had... Without him I might just as well be dead." Nina agreed not to burn anymore documents and gave them to Isaac.

John Rosen went to visit Nina Vassilleva on the 18th December, 1910. She asked him "have you brought trouble". He gave a slight shrug and said "I don't know". Nina refused to let him in and he left the building. Ten minutes later Detective Inspector Wensley arrived. Issac Gordon had given Nina's documents to the police. After she denied knowing George Gardstein Wensley showed her the collection of photographs she had given Gordon that included one of her former lover.

Wensley did not arrest her straight away as he hoped she would lead them to the rest of the gang. Nina decided to flee to France but changed her plan when she discovered she was being followed. She told a friend: "If I go to Russia I shall be killed and if I stop here I shall be hanged." On 23rd December, detectives followed her to St Paul's Cathedral to watch the funeral of the three murdered policemen. They saw her purchase a small black-and-silver memorial card, with wood-block portraits of the three dead men.

Nina Vassilleva was arrested while walking along Sidney Street and she appeared in court on 14th February and was charged with conspiracy to commit a robbery. When the police searched her room they found the blue three-quarter-length coat she had been wearing on the night of the murders, and which still had large patches of dried blood on the front.

John Rosen went into hiding but in early January 1911 he told his girlfriend, Rose Campbell, that he had been involved with the Peter the Painter gang. She in turn confided in her mother, who told her son-in-law Edward Humphreys, who went to the police. Rose denied the story and on 31st January, she married Rosen. Rosen was arrested on 2nd February. His first words were "I know you have come to arrest me." Rosen admitted visiting 59 Grove Street on the day of the murders but said that he had spent the evening with Karl Hoffman at the pictures, and later in his room, before going home. The following day he met Hoffman again but he said he knew nothing about the murders. However, Rosen did tell the police "I could show you where a man and a woman live, or were living, who are concerned in it, but I don't know if they have moved since I have been here."

On 15th February, 1911, Karl Hoffman was charged with conspiracy to break and enter into the Henry Harris's jeweller's shop. When questioned he refused to admit that he knew George Gardstein, Peter Piaktow (Peter the Painter), Yakov Peters, Max Smoller, Fritz Svaars, John Rosen and William Sokolow. Hoffman claimed that on 16th December he had gone to bed at midnight and nobody had visited his room. The only witnesses against Hoffman were Nicholas Tomacoff and the landlady at 35 Newcastle Place, who both seen him, on separate occasions, in Svaars' lodgings.

Theodore Janson, a Russian immigrant and a police informer, claimed that he had asked Hoffman on Christmas Day if Peters and Dubof, who had been arrested, were guilty of the murders. Hoffman had apparently laughed and replied: "No, there were nine men in the plot, none of them are yet arrested. It's a pity the man is dead (meaning George Gardstein), he was the ablest of the lot and leader of the gang. He also managed it that some members of the gang didn't know the others."

On 1st January, 1911, the police was told that they would find the men in the lodgings rented by a Betsy Gershon at 100 Sidney Street. It seems that one of the gang, William Sokolow, was Betsy's boyfriend. This was part of a block of 10 houses just off Commercial Road. The tenant was a ladies tailor, Samuel Fleischmann. With his wife and children he occupied part of the house and sublet the rest. Other residents included an elderly couple and another tailor and his large family. Betsy had a room at the front of the second floor.

Superintendent Mulvaney was put in charge of the operation. At midday on 2nd January, two large horse-drawn vehicles concealing armed policeman were driven into the street and the house placed under observation. By the afternoon over 200 officers were on the scene, with armed men stationed in shop doorways facing the house. Meanwhile, plain-clothed policemen began to evacuate the residents of 100 Sidney Street.

Mulvaney decided that any attempt to arrest the men would be very difficult. He later recalled: "The measurements of the passage and staircase will show how futile any attempt to storm or rush the place would have been, with two men... dominating the position from the head of the stairs and where, to an extent, they were well under cover from fire. The passage at one discharge would have been blocked by fallen men; had any even reached the stairs, it could only have been by climbing over the bodies of their comrades, when they would stand little chance of getting further; had they even done this the two desperadoes could retreat up the staircase to the first and second storey, on each of which, what had occurred below would have been repeated."

At daybreak Detective Inspector Frederick Wensley gave orders for a brick to be thrown at the window of Betsy Gershon's room. The men inside responded by firing their guns. Detective Sergeant Benjamin Leeson was hit and collapsed to the ground. Wensley went to help him. Leeson is recorded as saying: "Mr Wensley, I am dying. They have shot me through the heart. Goodbye. Give my love to the children. Bury me at Putney." Dr. Nelson Johnstone examined him and discovered the wound was level with the left nipple and about two inches in towards the centre of the chest.

Winston Churchill, the Home Secretary, decided to go to Sidney Street. His biographer, Clive Ponting, commented: "His presence had been unnecessary and uncalled for - the senior Army and police officers present could easily have coped with the situation on their own authority. But Churchill with his thirst for action and drama could not resist the temptation." As soon as he arrived Churchill ordered the troops to be called in. This included 21 Scots Guards marksmen who took up their places on the top floor of a nearby building.

Philip Gibbs, was reporting the Siege of Sidney Street for the The Daily Chronicle and had positioned himself on the roof of The Rising Sun public house: "In the top-floor room of the anarchists' house we observed a gas jet burning, and presently some of us noticed the white ash of burnt paper fluttering out of a chimney pot... They were setting fire to the house, upstairs and downstairs. The window curtains were first to catch alight, then volumes of black smoke, through which little tongues of flame licked up, poured through the empty window frames. They must have used paraffin to help the progress of the fire, for the whole house was burning with amazing rapidity."

Assistant Divisional Officer of the London Fire Brigade, Cyril Morris, was told to report to Winston Churchill: "As I arrived at the fire. I was met by one of the largest crowds I have ever seen - thickly jammed masses of humanity. It looked as though the whole of East London must he there. I had to force my car through a crowd at least 200 feet deep in a small street, and as I emerged into the cleared space I was met with a most amazing sight. A company of Guards were lying about the street as far as possible under cover, firing intermittently at the house. from which bursts of fire were coming from automatic pistols. I was told to report to Mr Winston Churchill as he was in charge of operations." Morris was shocked when Churchill told him to "Stand by and don't approach the fire until you receive further orders."

Philip Gibbs described how the men inside the house fired on the police: "For a moment I thought I saw one of the murderers standing on the window sill. But it was a blackened curtain which suddenly blew outside the window frame and dangled on the sill. A moment later I had one quick glimpse of a man's arm with a pistol in his hand. He fired and there was a quick flash. At the same moment a volley of shots rang out from the Guardsmen opposite. It is certain that they killed the man who had shown himself, for afterwards they found his body (or a bit of it) with a bullet through the skull. It was not long afterwards that the roof fell in with an upward rush of flame and sparks. The inside of the house from top to bottom was a furnace. The detectives, with revolvers ready, now advanced in Indian file. One of them ran forward and kicked at the front door. It fell in, and a sheet of flame leaped out. No other shot was fired from within."

Cyril Morris was one of those who searched the building afterwards: "We found two charred bodies in the debris, one of them had been shot through the head and the other had apparently died of suffocation. At the inquest a verdict of justifiable homicide was returned. Much discussion took place afterward as to what caused the fire. Did the anarchists deliberately set the building alight, thus creating a diversion to enable them to escape? The view of the London Fire Brigade at the time was that a gas pipe was punctured on one of the upper floors, and that the gas was lighted either at the time of the bullet piercing it or perhaps afterwards by a bullet causing a spark which ignited the escaping gas."

The police identified the two dead men as Fritz Svaars and William Sokolow. It was believed that Peter Piaktow (Peter the Painter) had escaped from the burning building. The bodies were taken to Ilford Cemetery and carried into the church. When the chaplain was told of their identity he expressed his strong disapproval of their bodies being brought into the church and said that it was an outrage to public decency that they should be buried in the same ground as two of the murdered policemen. Later that day they were buried in unconsecrated ground without a religious service.

Winston Churchill was heavily criticised for the way he had handled the Siege of Sidney Street crisis. Philip Gibbs, reporting for the The Daily Chronicle argued: "Mr Winston Churchill, who was then Home Secretary, came to take command of active operations, thereby causing an immense amount of ridicule in next day's papers. With a bowler hat pushed firmly down on his bulging brow, and one hand in his breast pocket, like Napoleon on the field of battle, he peered round the corner of the street, and afterwards, as we learned, ordered up some field guns to blow the house to bits."

The police were blamed for not bringing out the men alive. Churchill also came under attack from the foreign press. One German newspaper commented: "As for us, a thousand policeman, troops, firemen, and machine-guns, would never be necessary to capture a criminal in Berlin. Our police would also think it their business to take the criminals alive. The action of the London police is comparable to the shooting of sparrows with cannon." According to Donald Rumbelow, the author of The Siege of Sidney Street (1973), an early newsreel of Churchill directing the operations "was nightly received with unanimous boos and shouts of 'shoot him' from the gallery."

In the House of Commons the leader of the opposition, Arthur Balfour, joined in the widespread criticism of his behaviour: "He (Churchill) was, I understand, in a military phrase, in what is known as the zone of fire. He and a photographer were both risking valuable lives. I understand what the photographer was doing. But what was the right honourable gentleman doing?" Churchill's biographer, Clive Ponting, commented: "His intervention attracted huge publicity and for the first time raised in public doubts about Churchill's character and judgement, which some of his colleagues had already had in private, and which were to increase in the next few years."

Cyril Morris, of the London Fire Brigade also criticised the way Churchill handled the situation and disagreed with his order to "Stand by and don't approach the fire until you receive further orders." Morris explained: "While being duly thankful for this order. I never can understand why the then Home Secretary took executive charge of a situation requiring the most careful handling as between the police and fire brigade. and as we shall see in a moment, he gave me a wrong order. Had I been a more experienced officer, I should have taken orders from nobody - advice from the police, yes, Under the conditions, but orders, definitely no."

The Siege of Sidney Street created a backlash against the East End's Jewish community. The Morning Post compared the immigrants to "typhoid bacilli" and the area contained "aliens of the worse type - violent, cruel and dirty". Other newspapers said the British establishment was "in a state of denial" and that East End Jews had not "integrated" and a "threat to our security". The Daily Mail argued: "Even the most sentimental will feel that the time has come to stop the abuse of the country's hospitality by the foreign malefactors."

Winston Churchill later wrote in his memoirs: "We were clearly in the presence of a class of crime and a type of criminal which for generations had to counterpart in England. The ruthless ferocity of the criminals, their intelligence, their unerring marksmanship their modern weapons and equipment, all disclosed the characteristic of the Russian Anarchist."

King George V also became involved in the controversy and asked Churchill if "these outrages by foreigners will lead you to consider whether the Aliens Act could not be amended so as to prevent London from being infested with men and women whose presence would not be tolerated in any country". As the author of Winston Churchill (1994) has pointed out: "Within a fortnight of the siege Churchill circulated a draft Bill to the Cabinet to introduce harsh new laws against aliens. He had dropped a provision that he originally wanted giving the police the right to arrest any alien who had no obvious way of earning a living but had retained one that allowed an alien, if he could not find sureties for good behaviour, to be kept in prison until the Home Secretary, not the courts, was satisfied about his position."

Churchill described this power as "a fine piece of machinery". The Bill also contained what Churchill described to his colleagues as "two naughty principles" of making "a deliberate differentiation between the alien, and especially the unassimilated alien, and a British subject." This would give the Home Secretary the power to deport an alien merely on suspicion even though he had committed no criminal offence. The Bill was introduced into the House of Commons by Churchill at the end of April but MPs refused to pass such an illiberal measure and it had to be withdrawn.

On 23rd January, 1911, A. H. Bodkin, opened the case for the Crown against Yakov Peters, Yourka Dubof and Nina Vassilleva. He made a major mistake in arguing that it was George Gardstein who had shot Robert Bentley and Charles Tucker: "Gardstein was the man who came in flinging open that back door and shot Bentley at his right front; there were also other shots from the man on the stairs.... Several shots were fired at Bentley by the man Gardstein from the back, he advanced to the front door of the house, of that there is no doubt, for we have the hand, according to the evidence of Strongman, protruding through the door of No. 11, so as to sweep the place, firing at Woodhams, Bryant and Martin."

Bodkin based his analysis on the discover of the Dreyse gun in Gardstein's room: "Now Gardstein - under his pillow at 59 Grove Street was found exhibit No. 2, which was a Dreyse pistol. A pistol with a magazine, which on examination had been recently fired. It is difficult to say - for any expert to say - when it had been recently fired. It was a pistol rifled in four grooves, and Mr Goodwin, a gentleman who has kindly examined this pistol... has fired some shots from that pistol into sawdust. The cartridges which can be fired from that pistol are quite common cartridges which are standardised and are used for various automatic pistols, but the peculiarity of this Dreyse pistol is that it has four grooves. It appears that six bullets - two from Tucker's body, two from Bentley's body and two from Choat's body - were fired from the Dreyse pistol as they all have four groove marks upon them.... It is clear that Gardstein was the man who fired, and under his pillow a Dreyse pistol was found, and it seems quite proper to assume that he it was who used the Dreyse pistol. The only one to hit Bentley was Gardstein, and Bentley's bullets were from a Dreyse pistol."

What the prosecuting counsel had difficulty explaining was the lack of Dreyse ammunition in Gardstein's house. As Donald Rumbelow, the author of The Siege of Sidney Street (1973) has pointed out: "Now it has been wrongly assumed from Mr Bodkin's statement that the pistol was under the pillow for Gardstein to defend himself and to resist arrest. In support of this theory it has been alleged that a cap containing a quantity of ammunition was placed by the bed within easy reach of his hand. Certainly there was a cap with ammunition by the bed but none of it could be fired from the Dreyse... If, in fact, Gardstein had owned the Dreyse, it is reasonable to suppose that some ammunition for this weapon would have been found in his lodgings, which were described as an arsenal as well as a bomb factory. None was found." Rumbelow goes on to argue that the only ammunition "consisted of ... 308 .30 Mauser cartridges, some of D.W.M. (German) manufacture, and the other with plain heads; also 26 Hirtenberger 7.9 mm Mauser rifle cartridges". Rumbelow adds that "it is inconceivable, surely, that a man would have over 300 rounds of ammunition for a Mauser pistol which he didn't possess, and none for the Dreyse he is supposed to have used!"

Rumbelow suggested that Yakov Peters had planted his Dreyse gun in the room when along with Yourka Dubof, Peter Piaktow and Fritz Svaars, he had taken Gardstein to 59 Grove Street. Peters realised that Gardstein was dying and that the police would eventually find his body. If they also found the gun that had done most of the killing, they would assume that Gardstein was the man responsible for the deaths of the three policemen.

The case was adjourned when another gang members were arrested in February, 1911. The trial of the Houndsditch murders opened at the Old Bailey on 1st May. Yakov Peters and Yourka Dubof were charged with murder. Peters, Dubof, Karl Hoffman, Max Smoller and John Rosen were charged with attempting to rob Henry Harris's jeweller's shop. Sara Trassjonsky and Nina Vassilleva, were charged with harbouring a felon guilty of murder.

The opening speech of A. Bodkin lasted two and a quarter hours. He argued that George Gardstein killed Robert Bentley, Charles Tucker and Walter Choat and Smoller shot Gardstein by mistake. Justice William Grantham was unimpressed with the evidence presented and directed the jury to say that the two men, against whom there was no evidence of shooting, were not guilty of murder. Grantham added that he believed that the policeman were killed by George Gardstein, Fritz Svaars and William Sokolow. "There were three men firing shots and I think they are dead."

The prosecution's principal witness that linked Peters and Dubof to Gardstein was Isaac Levy, who saw the men drag him along Cutler Street. Levy came under a fierce attack from defence counsel. After his testimony, Justice Grantham said that if there was no other evidence of identification he could not allow any jury to find a verdict of guilty on Levy's uncorroborated statement. After Grantham's summing-up made it clear that none of the men should be convicted of breaking and entering, the jury found them all not guilty and they were set free.

Nina Vassilleva was found guilty of conspiracy to commit a robbery but recommended that she should not be deported. Vassilleva was sentenced to two years' imprisonment, but five weeks later the Court of Appeal quashed her conviction on the ground of misdirection of the jury by Justice Grantham (he was himself to die a few months later).

The Daily Mail reported on 13th May 1911. "Five months have passed since 16 December, when three constables of the City Police were murdered by a gang of armed alien burglars and two more policemen were seriously wounded. Not a single one of their assassins has been punished by the law. Gardstein, one of the murderers, was mortally wounded by a chance shot from one of his confederates. Two more of the gang perished in the Sidney Street battle of January. But it is certain that the persons implicated were numerous. It is no pleasant or satisfactory reflection that several of the principals in the crime and many of their associates have escaped and are still at large."

In 2009 Christopher Andrew published The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5. In the writing of the book he was given complete access to MI5 documents. He found evidence that the Peter the Painter gang was being monitored by MI5 in 1910. Vernon Kell, the head of MI5, described them as "a desperate and very dangerous crowd". Kell told the Home Office that the gang was "closely connected with the Houndsditch murders". The chief suspect was Yakov Peters. Why then did Peters get such an easy ride at the trial?

Richard Deacon, the author of A History of the Russian Secret Service (1972), has argued that Joseph Stalin was in London at this time. He claims "James Burley, of Woodhouse, near Sheffield, recalls that in 1910 he was living in Soho, the Latin quarter of London, and that he spent a lot of time at the Continental Cafe in Little Newport Street, which was a centre of the Nihilist movement." Deacon quotes Burley as saying "The cafe was popular because it was only a short walk from the Communist Club in Charlotte Street. Josef Stalin used the Continental Cafe a lot. Josef Georgi he called himself. He was a bombastic little man, not very big. But there was always an air of mystery about him." Burley believes that Stalin was involved in the planning the Houndsditch robbery: "He was looked up to as one of the leaders and I'm sure he had a hand in planning the burglary which was the cause of the police investigations in the first place. Stalin was the leader of the group and it was he who was keeping a close watch on the mystery figure known as Peter the Painter."

It is true that Stalin did organize bank robberies in Russia to help fund Bolshevik political activities. Stalin was also in London to attend the Party Congress in April 1907. According to Robert Service, the author of Stalin: A Biography (2004): "In April 1907... Stalin joined the mass of delegates in the East End, Jewish immigrant families from the Russian Empire lived there in their thousands at the turn of the century (and, like the Irish, were a substantial minority). This was the best spot for delegates to avoid attention from the Special Branch."

However, after the conference, he returned to Russia and became involved in revolutionary activity in Baku. Stalin later wrote: "Two years of revolutionary work among the oil workers of Baku hardened me as a practical fighter and as one of the practical leaders. In contrast with advanced workers of Baku... in the storm of the deepest conflicts between workers and oil industrialists... I first learned what it meant to lead big masses of workers. There in Baku... I received my revolutionary baptism in combat." However, he was caught by the Okhrana and put in prison. In November 1908 Stalin and Gregory Ordzhonikidze were deported to Solvychegodsk, in the northern part of the Vologda province on the Vychegda River. He remained there during the Houndsditch Murders and the Siege of Sidney Street and did not escape until 1912.

Although Joseph Stalin was not in London at the time he, or some other senior figure in the Bolsheviks might have been controlling the Peter the Painter gang. Despite the claims that the men were anarchists, they were in fact Bolsheviks. In fact, after the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II in March, 1917, Yakov Peters returned to Russia and took part in the successful Russian Revolution. Three months later he was appointed deputy to Felix Dzerzhinsky, head of the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage (Cheka). In one month in 1919, Peters sentenced 400 anarchists to death. He boasted that in the first year the Cheka shot only 6,000 people but that was because they were too inexperienced.

In A History of the Russian Secret Service (1972), Richard Deacon gives another reason why the Russians were not convicted of crimes they had clearly committed in 1910. Deacon argues that Gerald Bullett investigated the Sidney Street affair in some detail, stated that there was a "certain amount of corroborative evidence that Peter the Painter so far from being the leader of the gang was in fact an agent of the Russian Government, entrusted with the delicate and dangerous task of posing as a comrade of the anti-Tsarist conspirators, and of persuading them to engage in criminal activities such as housebreaking, which would attract to them the attention of the London police and ensure their ultimate deportation to Russia."

The use of agent provocateurs was a common tactic used by the Okhrana, the Russian secret police, during this period. However, why would the British government do as much as it did to cover this up? They would of course do this if their own intelligence service was employing a similar tactic. We now know that MI5 were very well informed about the activities of Russian revolutionaries in London. Is it possible that Yakov Peters was working as an agent provocateur for MI5? Was he promised his freedom in exchange for his silence during the trial?

If this was the case, it helps to explain Winston Churchill's behaviour during the Siege of Sidney Street. The Daily Telegraph reported on the day after these dramatic events: "Yesterday a scene unparalleled in the history of English civilisation was witnessed in the very heart of one of the most congested parts of the East End of London. For about four hours what amounted to a pitched battle was waged between about 1,000 armed police and military and two or three Anarchists who are believed to have been connected with the Houndsditch outrage of three weeks ago."

There is no doubt that this dramatic event did result in newspapers calling for an end to immigration. Winston Churchill did what he could by introducing harsh new laws against aliens but these were rejected by the House of Commons. However, this was not an end to the matter. On the outbreak of the First World War Parliament passed the 1914 Aliens Restriction Act. The primary aim of the 1914 Act was to target "enemy aliens" resident in Britain during the war.

At the end of the war the government passed the 1919 Aliens Restriction Act. This continued these restrictions into peace-time and extended them. It restricted the employment rights of aliens resident in Britain, barring them from certain jobs (in the civil service, for example), and had a particular impact on foreign seamen working on British ships. It also targeted criminals, paupers and ‘undesirables’, and made it illegal for aliens to promote industrial action. As one historian has pointed out, this act "ended mass immigration to England for more than three decades."

Yakov Peters was made Chief of Internal Defence and on 14th June 1919 Pravda printed an order by Peters that the wives and grown-up children of all officers escaping to the anti-Bolshevik ranks should be arrested. The following day he ordered the disconnection of all private telephones in Petrograd and the confiscation of all wine, spirits, money above £500 and jewels. In Petrograd he insisted that all citizens had to carry identity cards issued by Cheka. He also had three thousand hostages transported to Moscow.

Arthur Ransome was a journalist working in Petrograd who got to know Peters during this period. He described him as being "a small man with a square forehead, very dark eyes and a quick expression... he speaks fair English, though he is gradually forgetting it. He knows far less now than a year ago." Ransome enjoyed the company of Peters and described him as a man of "scrupulous honesty". Peters told Ransome that his methods was keeping crime under control: "We have now shot eight robbers, and we posted the fact at every street corner, and there will be no more robbery. I have now got such a terrible name that if I put up a notice that people will be dealt with severely that is enough, and there is no need to shoot anybody."

Lenin defended the work of Peters and Cheka by publicly stating: "What surprises me about the howls over the Cheka's mistakes is the inability to take a large view of the question. We have people who seize on particular mistakes by the Cheka, sob and fuss over them... When I consider the Cheka's activity and compare it with these attacks, I say this is narrow-minded, idle talk which is worth nothing... When we are reproached with cruelty, we wonder how people can forget the most elementary Marxism.... The important thing for us to remember is that the Chekas are directly carrying out the dictatorship of the proletariat, and in this respect their role is invaluable."

Peters went on to loyally serve Joseph Stalin: During the Red Terror it is claimed by Richard Deacon, the author of A History of the Russian Secret Service (1972): "Peters conducted interrogations daily and when he was not engaged in this work he was furiously signing death warrants, often not looking to see what he was signing. During one visit a visitor from a neutral country noticed that Peters signed an order to shoot seventy-two officers without even glancing down at the paper. His amiability had gone and he snapped out his replies to questions." One source heard him say "I am so tired I cannot think. I am worn out signing orders for executions." In his book Deacon goes onto defend Peters: "But to portray Peters solely as a monster is to give a one-sided picture of the man. He was a dispassionate operator, dedicated more to efficiency and speed than to sadism. He was quite unlike some of the animalistic executioners of the Terror: he took no pleasure in his grim work and indeed he often berated his men for prolonging torture and death as a needless waste of time. Those who knew him testified to many small kindnesses which he performed when off duty: he delighted in speaking English on every possible occasion and, in fact, his pro-British and pro-American prejudices caused suspicion among his colleagues."

In 1937 Stalin ordered the arrest of a large number of Bolsheviks who were accused of working with Leon Trotsky in an attempt to overthrow the Soviet government with the objective of restoring capitalism. This included Yakov Peters, Yuri Piatakov, Karl Radek, Grigori Sokolnikov, Nickolai Bukharin, Alexei Rykov, Genrikh Yagoda, Nikolai Krestinsky and Christian Rakovsky. Peters was executed on this trumped up charge on 25th April, 1938. It was over 27 years since he had murdered three brave London policeman, Robert Bentley, Charles Tucker and Walter Choat.

Bentley stepped further into the room. The shot fired from the stairs went through the rim of Bentley's helmet, across his face and out through the shutter behind him. 'Gardstein' by now had closed to within three or four feet and was firing just across the table. At point-blank range he could not miss. Bentley staggered back against the half-open door and collapsed backwards over the doorstep so that he was lying half in and half out of the house. Bryant, who had been standing partly behind him, glimpsed the pistol turning towards him and put out his hands instinctively, as he said later, "to ward off the flashes". He felt his left hand fall to his side and then, stumbling over the dying Bentley, he fell into the street. He had only a hazy recollection of what followed but he remembered getting up and staggering along the pavement. Fortunately he walked away from the entrance to the cul-de-sac, which probably saved his life. He was very dazed and fell down again. He regained consciousness some minutes later and found himself propped up against the wall of one of the houses. He had been shot in the arm and slightly wounded in the chest.

Constable Woodhams saw Bentley fall backwards over the doorstep and ran to help him. He could not see who was doing the shooting. Suddenly his leg buckled beneath him as a Mauser bullet shattered his thigh bone and he fell unconscious to the ground. Constable Strongman and Sergeant Tucker saw him fall but neither could see who was doing the shooting. Only a hand clutching a pistol protruded from the doorway. "The hand was followed by a man aged about 30, height 5 ft 6 or 7, pale thin face, dark curly hair and dark moustache, dress dark jacket suit, no hat, who pointed the revolver in the direction of Sergeant Tucker and myself, firing rapidly. P. S. Tucker and I stepped back a few yards, when the sergeant staggered and turned round.' Strongman caught him by the arm and Tucker staggered the length of the cul-de-sac before collapsing in the roadway. He had been shot twice, once in the hip and once in the heart. He died almost instantly.

Martin, who like Strongman was in plain clothes, had been standing by the open door when the shooting started. As Bentley then Bryant staggered back bleeding from gun wounds, he turned and ran for the partly open door behind him. Bessie Jacobs' first thought when she heard the opening shots was that the high wind had blown the chimney pot off. But then she saw the gun flashes through the tops of the shutters. She pulled her nightclothes tighter round her and as she reached the door it burst open and Martin leaped inside. He slammed the door behind him as she began to scream. He covered her mouth with his hand. `Don't scream, I'm a detective,' he pleaded. `I'll protect your mother and I'll protect you.'

In the darkness, some of the targets were little more than shadows, and bullets splintered and gouged the wooden fronts of the houses as the gang raced for the entrance. Twenty-two shots were fired. Gardstein had almost reached the entrance when Constable Choat caught hold of him by the wrist and fought him for possession of his gun. As Gardstein pulled the trigger repeatedly Choat desperately pushed the pistol away from the centre of his body and the shots were fired into his left leg. Others of the gang rushed to Gardstein's assistance and turned their guns on Choat. He was a big, muscular man, 6 feet q4 inches tall, and in spite of the darkness a target impossible to miss. He was shot five more times. The last two bullets were fired into his back. As he fell backwards he dragged Gardstein with him and a shot, fired at Choat, hit Gardstein in the back. Choat was kicked in the face to make him release his
grip on Gardstein, who was seized by two of the group and dragged away. But already he was a dying man.

I heard a smash of glass at No. 11. A man then opened the door, I did not see his face, I only saw his arm and heard a report of a firearm and immediately saw the policeman fall into the doorway. A man then ran out of the door with a revolver in his hand and fired about eight shots at the officers and four of them fell. Sergeant Bentley ran towards the man and caught hold of him by the shoulders and threw him to the ground. The man caught hold of the Sergeant's legs and pulled him down. They struggled and the man got on top of P.C. Bentley. Another man, whom I cannot describe, ran out of No 11 and fired at Bentley, the bullet struck the man in the back and he fell backwards with his arms up in the air. I then went inside my house where I remained until the firing ceased. I heard about 15 shots fired in quick succession.

Some two or three weeks ago this particular house in Exchange Buildings was rented and there went to live there two men and a woman. They are said to have been foreigners in appearance, and the whole neighbourhood of Houndsditch containing a great number of aliens, and removal being not infrequent, the arrival of this new household created no comment.

The police, however, evidently had some cause to suspect their intentions. Shortly before 11.30 last night there were sounds either at the back of these newcomers' premises or at Mr Harris's shop that attracted the attention of the police.

The street door opens into a narrow and ill-lighted passage, in which badly washed and ragged clothing was hanging from bits of string. Towards the end of the passage a sharp turn to the left led me on to a narrow and almost perpendicular staircase, without handrail. Here was more washing suspended from the ceiling. At the top of a staircase was a small landing, and immediately in front was the room in which the assassin died.

The room itself is about ten feet by nine, and about seven feet high. On the bedstead was a torn and dirty woollen mattress, a quantity of blood-stained clothing, a blood-stained pillow and several towels also saturated with blood.

Under the window stood a string sewing machine, and a rickety table, covered with a piece of mole cloth, occupied the centre of the room. The floor was bare and dirty, and, like the fireplace, littered with burnt matches and cigarette ends - altogether a dismal and wretched place to which the wounded desperado had been carried to die.

All around I see awful things which I cannot tell you. I do not blame our friends as they are doing all that is possible, but things are not getting better.

The life of the workman is full of pain and suffering, but if the suffering reaches a certain degree one wonders whether it would not be better to follow the example of Rainis (an author of Lettish poems) who says burn at once so that you may not suffer long, but one feels that one cannot do it although it seems very advisable. The weakest part of our organisation is that we cannot do sufficient for our friends who are falling. For instance, such an incident occurred last week. I had to send 10 roubles to Milan Prison for S. German who is to be transferred to another prison. I also had to secure the necessary for Krustmadi, and this evening I received news from Libau prison that one of our friends of last summer has been taken there without any money. We ought to help but we have only 33 kopecks and the treasury of the Red X is quite empty. It is terrible because the prisoner may think we will not help him!

Anarchist literature, in sufficient quantities to corroborate the suspicion of the police that they are face to face with a far-reaching conspiracy, rather than an isolated and unpremeditated attack on civil authority, is stated to have been recovered.

It is reported, in addition, that a dagger was found and a belt, which is understood to have had placed within it 150 Mauser dumdum bullets - bullets, that is, with soft heads, which, upon striking a human body, would spread and inflict a wound of a grievous, if not fatal character.

The measurements of the passage and staircase will show how futile any attempt to storm or rush the place would have been, with two men... The passage at one discharge would have been blocked by fallen men; had any even reached the stairs, it could only have been by climbing over the bodies of their comrades, when they would stand little chance of getting further; had they even done this the two desperadoes could retreat up the staircase to the first and second storey, on each of which, what had occurred below would have been repeated.

As I arrived at the fire. from which bursts of fire were coming from automatic pistols.

I was told to report to Mr Winston Churchill as he was in charge of operations. His order to me was 'Stand by and don't approach the fire until you receive further orders.' While being duly thankful for this order. and as we shall see in a moment, he gave me a wrong order.

Had I been a more experienced officer, I should have taken orders from nobody - advice from the police, yes, Under the conditions, but orders, definitely no. At a Fire in London the Chief Officer of thc LFB or his representative
is granted by Act of Parliament absolutely full plenary powers. There can be no officer who has such a wide authority under normal peacetime conditions, and this authority is very necessary at times when immediate decisions have to he made involving the protection of' perhaps millions pounds worth of property.

After receiving this order I took stock of the position. The front rooms on the first and second floors were starting to emit dense clouds of smoke, which shortly turned to flames. The firing from the house was gradually ceasing. Shortly afterwards the flames reached the roofs, which blazed up, the fire spreading to the adjoining roofs, this being one of a row of terraced houses. By this time we in the Brigade were to say the least getting somewhat restless. How far would the fire spread before we could start to attack it? The LFB Superintendent kept urging me to do something, but the Home Secretary was a very important dignitary to a junior officer, so I sat tight while the fire continued to spread.

The houses all had a projecting back addition containing two rooms. As the front windows had been broken by shots before the fire started. the draft from the fire had carried it to the front and in all probability the back two rooms were intact. No sooner had we realised what we might he up against - a burst of firing from the back of the house as soon as we approached it - than the order came "You can now approach the fire."

So up we dashed with our lines of hose, through adjoining property to the back of the house followed by Mr. Wensley of the Metropolitan Police and we found the rooms absolutely intact, not even filled with smoke. Fortunately by that time the criminals were no longer in a position to fire on us. As we made our way through the back of the house the order was given to turn on the water.

While our party approached the back, another hose line was taken along the side of the street, up an adjoining house and on to the roof to attack the fire from above. By this time the house was well alight. The fire had travelled right down to the ground floor and the roofs of the houses on each sided had caught. In a few minutes the fire would have spread right along Sidney Street along both sides of the house we were attacking...

We found two charred bodies in the debris, one of them had been shot through the head and the other had apparently died of suffocation. Did the anarchists deliberately set the building alight, thus creating a diversion to enable them to escape? The view of the London Fire Brigade at the time was that a gas pipe was punctured on one of the upper floors, and that the gas was lighted either at the time of the bullet piercing it or perhaps afterwards by a bullet causing a spark which ignited the escaping gas.

For some reason, which I have forgotten, I went very early that morning to the Chronicle office, and was greeted by the news editor with the statement that a hell of a battle was raging in Sidney Street. He advised me to go and look at it.

I took a taxi, and drove to the corner of that street, where I found a dense crowd observing the affair as far as they dared peer round the angle of the walls from adjoining streets. Heedless at the moment of danger, which seemed to ridiculous, I stood boldly opposite Sidney Street and looked down its length of houses. Immediately in front of me four soldiers of one of the Guards' regiments lay on their stomachs, protected from the dirt of the road by newspaper "sandwich" boards, firing their rifles at a house halfway down the street. Another young Guardsman, leaning against a wall, took random shots at intervals while he smoked a Woodbine. As I stood near he winked and said, "What a game."

It was something more than a game. Bullets were flicking off the walls like plugging holes into the dirty yellow brick, and ricocheting fantastically. One of them took a neat chip out of a policeman's helmet, and he turned, and he said, "Well, I'll be blowed!" and laughed in a foolish way...

It was a good vantage point (on the roof of the "The Rising Sun"), as we should have called it later in history. It looked right across to the house in Sidney Street in which Peter the Painter and his friends were defending themselves to the death - a tall, thin house of three storeys, with dirty window blinds. In the house immediately opposite were some more Guardsmen, with pillows and mattresses stuffed into the windows in the nature of sandbags as used in trench warfare. We could not see the soldiers, but we could see the effect of their intermittent fire, which had smashed every pane of glass and kept chipping off bits of brick in the anarchists' abode.

The street had been cleared of all onlookers, but a group of detectives slunk along the walls on the anarchists' side of the street at such an angle that they were safe from the slanting fire of the enemy. They had to keep very close to the wall, because Peter and his pals were dead shots and maintained something like a barrage fire with their automatics. Any detective or policeman who showed himself would have been sniped in a second, and these men were out to kill.
The thing became a bore as I watched it for an hour or more, during which time Mr Winston Churchill, who was then Home Secretary, came to take command of active operations, thereby causing an immense amount of ridicule in next day's papers. With a bowler hat pushed firmly down on his bulging brow, and one hand in his breast pocket, like Napoleon on the field of battle, he peered round the corner of the street, and afterwards, as we learned, ordered up some field guns to blow the house to bits.

That never happened for a reason which we on "The Rising Sun" were quick to see.

In the top-floor room of the anarchists' house we observed a gas jet burning, and presently some of us noticed the white ash of burnt paper fluttering out of a chimney pot.

"They're burning documents," said one of my friends.

They were burning more than that. They must have used paraffin to help the progress of the fire, for the whole house was burning with amazing rapidity.

"Did you ever see such a game in London!" exclaimed the man next to me on the roof of the public house.

For a moment I thought I saw one of the murderers standing on the window sill. But it was a blackened curtain which suddenly blew outside the window frame and dangled on the sill.

A moment later I had one quick glimpse of a man's arm with a pistol in his hand. The inside of the house from top to bottom was a furnace.

The detectives, with revolvers ready, now advanced in Indian file. No other shot was fired from within. Peter the Painter and his fellow bandits were charred cinders in the bonfire they had made.

At both ends of Sidney Street the Scots Guards were in position, taking cover behind the angle of the houses. Around them were groups of policemen in uniform armed with shot-guns, and numbers of plain clothes detectives with heavy revolvers. In the shadow of doorways and archways men crouched down with barrels of rifles and pistols pointed towards the house next to the doctor's surgery, with its shattered window-panes and broken brickwork. Looking down into the backyards of the houses opposite Martins Buildings, I could see soldiers and armed policemen moving about, climbing over fences, and getting up tall ladders, so that they could fire between the chimney pots.

On the roof of a great brewery on the same side of the way as the Rising Sun public-house were scores of the work people, and as far as the eye could see across the sloping roofs, the chimney-pots and parapets, the sky-line was black with heads, while in the streets below, as far as a quarter of a mile away, there were vast and tumultuous crowds, kept back by lines of mounted policemen. The voices of those many thousands came up to me in great murderous gusts, like the roar of wild beasts in a jungle. It seemed as if the whole of London had poured into Whitechapel and Stepney to watch one of the most deadly and thrilling dramas that has ever happened in the great city within living memory.

But my eyes were now fixed upon one building, and no other impression could find a place in my mind. The anarchists' had the horrible fascination of a house of death. Bullets were raining upon it. As I looked I saw how they spat at the walls, how they ripped splinters from the door, how they made neat grooves as they burrowed into the red bricks, or chipped off corners of them. The noise of battle was tremendous and almost continuous. The heavy barking reports of Army rifles were followed by the sharp and lighter cracks of pistol shots. Some of the weapons had a shrill singing noise, and others were like children's pop guns. Most terrible and deadly in sound was the rapid fire of the Scots Guards, shot speeding on shot, as though a Gatling gun were at work. Then there would come a sudden lull, as though a bugle had sounded "Cease fire", followed by a silence, intense and strange, after the ear-splitting din.
It reopened again when a few moments later there came the spitting fire of an automatic pistol from the house next to the surgery. From my vantage point I could see how the assassins changed the position from which they fired. The idea that only two men were concealed within that arsenal seemed disproved by the extreme rapidity with which their shots came from one floor and another. As I watched, gripped by the horror and drama of it, I saw a sharp stabbing flash break through the garret window. The man's weapon must have been over the edge of the window-sill. He emptied his magazine, spitting out the shots at the house opposite, from which picked marksmen of the Scots Guards replied with instant volleys. A minute later by my watch shots began to pour through the second floor window, and before the echo of them had died away there was a fusillade from the ground floor.

So this amazing duel went on, as a distinct clock chimed the quarters and half hours. From 11 o'clock until 12.30 there were not scores or hundreds of shots fired, but thousands. It seemed that the assassins had an almost inexhaustible supply of ammunition.... Blazing timbers were flung into the street, masses of masonry crashed down, fiery splinters, like shooting stars, were hurtled a hundred yards or more. Broken glass fell upon the pavement again and again with a dreadful sound of destruction. And into all this turmoil and fury there poured a terrific artillery of shots. The soldiers were volleying now from every window and every roof on the opposite side of Sidney Street, and their shots had thunderous echoes, for other soldiers and many police were firing into the back of the blazing house from the yard.

Gardstein was the man who came in flinging open that back door and shot Bentley at his right front; there were also other shots from the man on the stairs.... 11, so as to sweep the place, firing at Woodhams, Bryant and Martin. That man Gardstein advanced further, for you will remember in the evidence of Strongman he said he came out and fired at him and Sergeant Tucker while they were in the roadway of Exchange Buildings....


Now Gardstein - under his pillow at 59 Grove Street was found exhibit No. has fired some shots from that pistol into sawdust.

The cartridges which can be fired from that pistol are quite common cartridges which are standardised and are used for various automatic pistols, but the peculiarity of this Dreyse pistol is that it has four grooves. The only one to hit Bentley was Gardstein, and Bentley's bullets were from a Dreyse pistol.

Immediately I saw a man coming from the back door of the room between Bentley and the table. I must have been dazed as I have a very faint recollection of what happened then....

The door was opened by some person whom I did not see. P.S. Bentley appeared to have a conversation with the person, and the door was then partly closed, shortly afterwards P.S. Bentley pushed the door open and entered, about a minute later I heard several shots and saw P.S. Bentley fall from the doorway across the step. Other shots followed in quick succession and a hand holding a revolver, firing rapidly, protruded from the doorway of No. 11 Exchange Buildings and was pointed at P.C. Woodhams who I saw fall forward into the carriageway. That hand was followed by a man age about 30, height 5' 6" or 7", pale thin face, dark curly hair, and dark moustache, dress dark jacket suit, no hat, who pointed the revolver in the direction of P.S. Tucker and myself, firing rapidly. Tucker and I stepped back a few yards when the P.S. staggered and turned round. I caught him by the right arm, and we walked towards Cutler Street. I looked over my left shoulder and saw the man fire two more shots in our direction, then he turned and went back in the direction of No. I i Exchange Buildings. The whole of the shooting appeared to be over in ten seconds.

In court he expanded on some details. He was standing with Sergeant Tucker when I heard 3 or 4 shots fired, and we made a step towards the door, when I saw a hand holding a pistol protrude from the street doorway of No. 11, firing rapidly, pointing towards P.C. Woodhams, who was opposite No. 11 Exchange Buildings. I saw P.C. Woodhams fall towards the carriageway; this man came out of the doorway still holding the pistol and pointed it towards Sergeant Tucker and myself, firing rapidly all the time. We stepped back, Sergeant Tucker turned round and staggered. Seeing he was wounded I put my arm round his and led him towards Cutler Street. I looked over my left shoulder and saw the man fire two more shots in our direction, and I could also see the flashes coming from the doorway of No. He turned and went back in the direction of No. 11.... I could only see the barrel as he came under the lamp and it looked a long thin one. The shooting only lasted about 10 seconds and may have been less.

It is not generally known that Stalin himself was involved in Bolshevik activities in London and that he paid surreptitious visits to that city under the name of Josef Georgi. Indeed, Stalin, as much as anyone, was a leading figure behind the scenes in the affair of the Siege of Sidney Street in 1910.

This incident which resulted in a five-hour rifle battle between Anarchists and Scots Guards provided an excellent example of Russian counter-espionage techniques as used abroad. A police sergeant, investigating a report of "strange noises" coming from a house in Sidney Street, Houndsditch, called there and was shot dead. When other police surrounded the house and demanded that the occupants surrendered they were met by a barrage of fire from automatic pistols. Two more police were shot dead and Winston Churchill, then the Home Secretary, ordered out the Scots Guards to assist the police. One thousand police, supported by the Guards, kept up a fire on the house, which was eventually burnt down.

It was established afterwards that the "Sidney Street Gang", as they became known, were recruited from a small colony of about twenty Letts from Baltic Russia, but the identity of their leader was never officially confirmed. This mysterious character was known as "Peter the Painter" and long afterwards the Soviet Government alleged that he was Serge Makharoff, the Czarist agent provocateur.

But was he? There are varying points of view. Mr. James Burley, of Woodhouse, near Sheffield, recalls that in 1910 he was living in Soho, the Latin quarter of London, and that he spent a lot of time at the Continental Cafe in Little Newport Street, which was a centre of the Nihilist movement. "The cafe was popular," states Mr. Burley, "because it was only a short walk from the Communist Club in Charlotte Street. But there was always an air of mystery about him."

Mr. Burley claimed that Stalin knew all about the events which led up to the Sidney Street affair several days before it happened. "He was looked up to as one of the leaders and I'm sure he had a hand in planning the burglary which was the cause of the police investigations in the first place. Stalin was the leader of the group and it was he who was keeping a close watch on the mystery figure known as "Peter the Painter."

Stalin returned to Russia shortly afterwards and it may be that he was keeping "Peter the Painter" under surveillance, or that he actually aided and abetted his escape. Gerald Bullett, who investigated the Sidney Street affair in some detail, stated that there was a "certain amount of corroborative evidence that Peter the Painter so far from being the leader of the gang was in fact an agent of the Russian Government, entrusted with the delicate and dangerous task of posing as a comrade of the anti-Tsarist conspirators, and of persuading them to engage in criminal activities such as housebreaking, which would attract to them the attention of the London police and ensure their ultimate deportation to Russia.

"This, I think, is by far the likeliest explanation of the mystery of Peter the Painter.... In all probability it was Peter the Painter, agent provocateur, employed by the police of Tsarist Russia, who by elaborate trickery encompassed the defeat and dispersal of the Houndsditch murderers. It was at his instigation, I suggest, that the jewel robbery was planned."

The reference to the "jewel robbery" is explained by the fact that the immediate cause of the Sidney Street siege was the planning of the burglary of a jeweller's shop in Houndsditch. An ex-officer of the Ochrana had stated that the jeweller in question had been entrusted with the safe custody of treasure belonging to the Romanoffs. That this statement was a distortion of the facts is more than likely. This is the kind of story a Czarist agent would be likely to invent to incite the revolutionaries to burgle the jeweller's premises.

The most overtly dramatic moment of Churchill's time at the Home Office came in January 1911 when a gang of burglars (believed to be Latvians), who had shot three policemen and wounded two others during a break-in at a jeweller's shop in Houndsditch the previous month, were tracked down to a house in Stepney. It was the beginning of the notorious Sidney Street siege. At 10.45am on 3 January Churchill, who was still at home in Eccleston Square, was asked to approve the use of troops with rifles to deal with the burglars who were firing on police from the house. He agreed and arrived half an hour later at the Home Office where nothing more was known. Together with Edward Marsh he set off for Stepney, where he arrived just before midday and characteristically took charge of the operation - calling up artillery to demolish the house and personally checking on possible means of escape. When the house caught fire he ordered, probably with police consent, the fire brigade not to attempt to put it out. When the fire burnt itself out, two bodies were found and Churchill left the scene just before 3pm. His presence had been unnecessary and uncalled for - the senior Army and police officers present could easily have coped with the situation on their own authority. But Churchill with his thirst for action and drama could not resist the temptation. His intervention attracted huge publicity and for the first time raised in public doubts about Churchill's character and judgement, which some of his colleagues had already had in private, and which were to increase in the next few years.

As Choat's leg buckled beneath him, he was shot twice, with two carefully placed shots in the back, from the same Dreyse that had already killed Bentley and Tucker. He fell backwards dragging Gardstein with him, and as they fell Gardstein was accidentally shot in the back by Max Smoller.

Now the importance of Strongman's evidence becomes obvious. Under the street light he had noticed not only the curly hair of the man firing the Dreyse but that he was wearing a jacket suit. It could not have been Gardstein firing the Dreyse because he was wearing an overcoat when he was shot. It was found with the bullet hole in the back, just under the bloodstained left shoulder, and matching the wound in his body. Clearly it was impossible for Gardstein to have been grappling with a man who was not only bigger but nearly a foot taller than himself, to have fired four shots into his leg with a Mauser pistol which the policeman was trying to take away, and in the same instant that he himself was shot in the back to have got behind his opponent who was dragging him to the ground and killed him with a completely different gun!

Who was firing the Dreyse, then? Who was the man who killed Bentley, Tucker and Choat? It could not have been Max because he shot Gardstein with a Browning. Besides he was clean-shaven, and whoever was firing the Dreyse was similar enough in appearance to Gardstein to be mistaken for him by both Bryant and Strongman - they had described him as "age about 30, height 5' 6" or 7", pale thin face, dark curly hair and dark moustache." This only leaves Jacob Peters and Yourka Dubof. Both were of similar height and build to Gardstein - there was only 11 inches difference between all three - and both had moustaches. But, as can be seen from the photographs taken after their arrest, only Peters had the dark curly hair and moustache to be mistaken for Gardstein. Dubof's light-coloured moustache barely shows.

Jacob Peters was the killer of Bentley, Tucker and Choat. And he was in custody. But the whole of the prosecution's case rested on the mistaken assumption that it was Gardstein who killed Tucker, Bentley and Choat. Though Mr Bodkin realised that there were doubts about the firearms the police had described, he glossed over their statements. He said that one could well understand that these officers - he thought Bryant was one - were wrong in saying that the man who was firing at Bentley had a "long thin barrel pistol". "I hope I may never have to observe the kind of pistol a person is firing at me."

Now even a cursory examination of the basic statements would have shown that the Dreyse was most emphatically not found under the pillow and, by inference, within easy reach of Gardstein's hand to defend himself. The officer who had found the Dreyse when the room was searched was Detective Sergeant Leeson who had subsequently been wounded in the opening shots of the "Siege". Because of his lung wound he had been promoted and pensioned off with the higher pension. In his official report he wrote, "Between the mattress and the palliasse I found one magazine pistol containing seven cartridges, two magazines (one containing seven and one containing six cartridges)."

Inspector Thompson, who searched the room with him, confirmed this: "Between the mattress and the palliasse at the head of the bed was also found a revolver loaded with seven cartridges, also two clips, one containing seven and the other six cartridges." Ernest Goodwin, the prosecution's ballistics expert, was equally specific. "The cartridges in the Dreyse pistol No. 7065, found between the mattress and palliasse of the bed on the first floor at Grove Street, E., those in the two clips found in the same place, and in Gardstein's clothing are 7.65 Belgian cartridges of F.N. manufacture."

Now it has been wrongly assumed from Mr Bodkin's statement that the pistol was under the pillow for Gardstein to defend himself and to resist arrest. Certainly there was a cap with ammunition by the bed but none of it could be fired from the Dreyse! According to the ballistics expert the cap held "six .297/230 short cartridges for Morris tubes and small rook rifles, six .30 Mauser pistol cartridges and seventeen 7.9 mm Mauser rifle cartridges of Hirtenberger (Austrian) 1904 manufacture". According to Luba Milstein's evidence the cap was not there when Fritz, Joseph, Peter and Max left. Since she didn't put it there and Gardstein couldn't, it could only have been put there by Sara Trassjonsky when she was gathering up evidence to destroy. The ammunition was put in the cap for convenience as she bustled about the room and was never meant to be fired; it was meant to be thrown away.
If, in fact, Gardstein had owned the Dreyse, it is reasonable to suppose that some ammunition for this weapon would have been found in his lodgings, which were described as an arsenal as well as a bomb factory. None was found. The only ammunition "consisted of ... [German] manufacture, and the other with plain heads; also 26 Hirtenberger 7.9 mm Mauser rifle cartridges". It is inconceivable, surely, that a man would have over 300 rounds of ammunition for a Mauser pistol which he didn't possess, and none for the Dreyse he is supposed to have used!

if everybody who knew Fritz Svaars is presumed to have been implicated in this burglary, I am afraid his friends would not be safe. Hoffman knew Fritz and was seeing him constantly but this did not prevent you from discharging him. Federoff knew him. The other prisoner, Trassjonsky, has been discharged. She was acquainted with Fritz, and according to two or three witnesses was seen actually taking down the shutters and doing some work there. The fact that Trassjonsky had been seen in Exchange Buildings did not induce you to send her for trial. The evidence, such as it is, of Federoff having been seen in Exchange Buildings, is not that upon which any jury would convict him.

Five months have passed since 16 December, when three constables of the City Police were murdered by a gang of armed alien burglars and two more policemen were seriously wounded. It is no pleasant or satisfactory reflection that several of the principals in the crime and many of their associates have escaped and are still at large.

The police can hardly be congratulated upon their success in dealing with this formidable conspiracy; but, in excuse, it must be remembered that in the vast alien population of East London it is a matter of peculiar difficulty to obtain evidence or run down the offender.


Peter the Painter (Janis Zhaklis) and the siege of Sidney Street

In October 2003 the Latvian press carried a number of articles about the Latvian anarchist Janis Zhaklis. These were largely based on the work of Philip Ruff who, after twenty years of research into the Siege of Sidney Street has identified Zhaklis as the most famous Latvian in London: Peter the Painter. His hunt through the archives continues but before the full story is published we thought it worth posting this article to whet your appetites. Pauls Bankovskis, who wrote this piece is a well-known journalist and novelist. His 2002 novel, Mister Latvia, was based on some of the characters involved with the events around Sidney Street.


The siege of Sidney Street

Home Secretary Winston Churchill (in top hat) watching the Siege of Sidney Street, part of the Pathé’s Animated Gazette’s coverage, ‘Battle of London’, from British Pathé

On the night of 16 December 1910 a group of Latvian revolutionaries attempted to rob a jeweller’s shop at 119 Houndsditch in the City of London. Their aim was to obtain funds to support revolutionary activity in Russia (and to support themselves), but their efforts to break in were overheard and nine policemen were called to the scene. The Latvians were armed the policemen were not, and in the ensuing confrontation three of the police were shot dead and two injured.

The public was horrified by what swiftly became known as the Houndsditch Murders, which followed on from the ‘Tottenham Outrage’ of the previous year when two Latvians had shot dead a constable and a child following an interrupted robbery. One of the Houndsditch gang, George Gardstein, had died of his injuries, having been shot accidentally by a confederate, but a huge manhunt built up to track down all of the gang, a number of whom were arrested before two (neither of whom it is now thought were present at the Houndsditch burglary) were tracked down to 100 Sidney Street, Stepney in London’s East End.

Sidney Street, from the Andrew Pictures coverage. No. 100 is on the far right-hand side of the street, below the number 3 of the ITN Source ID number

The Siege of Sidney Street (or the Battle of Stepney) that was to follow took place 100 years ago on 3 January 1911. It has gained lasting fame for unprecedented scenes that brought armed police and troops onto the streets of London to conduct a siege with desperate revolutionaries, all of which took place before the startled (and undoubtedly thrilled) eyes of the public and the press. Among those recording the events as they happened were five film companies, and it is their story that forms the reason for this centenary post.

The besieged Latvians were Fritz Svaars and William Sokoloff, known as Joseph. They had taken refuge at 100 Sidney Street only for their position to be given away by an informer late in the evening of New Year’s Day. Detectives were sent under cover of darkness to watch over the building while they tried to determine the two men’s movements by contact with a lodger and the informant. Keen not to have the men slip out their grasp, but knowing they would be armed, the police felt they had to act. In the early hours of Tuesday 3 January, armed police were positioned in houses and shops surrounding the block in which contained 100 Sidney Street. By 3.00am there were 200 policemen in place. It was realised that storming the building by its staircase would be foolhardy as the two men would have the advantage by firing down on the police officers, so the adjacent buildings were cleared of other people and the police waited for daylight.

Soldier firing from a shop door, part of the Pathé coverage, from British Pathé

As dawn broke, people started to gather around the police cordon, trying to find out what was happening. The police threw stones at the second-floor window where they believed the two men were hiding. Nothing happened. Then someone threw a brick and smashed a window pane. From the floor below shots fired out and a policeman was hit. A hail of bullets followed as they tried to move the wounded man. The two men were well-armed (they were better munitioned than the police, certainly) and well-positioned. An order was sent to bring in troops from the Tower of London. Scots Guards were sent, on the authority of the Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, who thought upon hearing the news that it would be not interesting if he were to go along and see things for himself.

By this time the press had got wind of the story, and reporters, photographers and newsreel cameramen were arriving on the scene. Five film companies were present: Pathé, Gaumont, Andrews Pictures, Co-operative and the Warwick Trading Company. Pathé (Pathé’s Animated Gazette), Gaumont (Gaumont Graphic) and Warwick (Warwick Bioscope Chronicle) had each recently established a newsreels and were companies with well-established newsfilm credentials. Co-operative specialised in Shakespeare productions, so it is something or a surprise to see them involved, while Andrews Pictures was a small-scale film renter and exhibitor. Presumably any firm who got wind of what was happening and had a camera operator at the ready made the most of the opportunity. Three of the five films taken that day survive: those of Pathé, Gaumont and Andrews.

Frame stills from the lost Sidney Street siege films made by Co-operative (left, showing the arrival of a fire engine) and Warwick (showing crowds in the area after the siege), from an article on the siege films in The Bioscope 5 January 1911, p. 9

The troops assumed positions around the building and began firing (it was by now around 11.00am). The barrage of fire from both sides was relentless and was to continue for around two hours. The crowds around the perimeter were now considerable, and policemen had a difficult time holding them back, as the newsreel films make clear. The films showed the heaving crowds, the troops getting into position, policemen armed with rifles, and gunfire coming from the buildings either side of Sidney Street.

Gaumont’s coverage shows police gunfire from the buildings opposite 100 Sidney Street, from ITN Source

The Home Secretary had not been able to get the better of his curiosity. He arrived by car at midday and positioned himself at the corner of Sidney Street and Lindley Street, peering round to see what was happening. It was an extraordinarily foolhardy action, one which would soon lead to much criticism (and regret on Churchill’s part) but at the time the idea went round that he was directing operations. Pathé’s cameraman gained a huge scoop by obtaining close shots of Churchill (though the story that film was taken of a bullet going through his top hat is quite false). It seems that no other newsreel filmed him – Gaumont certainly did not, as they were positioned on the other side of the street, while Andrews resorted to deceit, declaring that its footage of men looking down at the siege included a rear view shot of Churchill (Churchill did not take up any rooftop position).

Then 100 Sidney Street caught fire. The gunfire ceased momentarily as wisps and plumes of smoke started to pour out of the building, which is vividly shown in the film record. Flames could seen from the windows, then the shooting started up again – not just from the soldiers because, extraordinarily, the men inside were still returning fire. Joseph may have been shot dead at this time (the fire started around 1.00pm), while Fritz Svaars died in the flames when the roof caved in and part of the first floor collapsed. Soldiers fired further volleys, then ceased. No one had escaped from the building and it was clear no one could have survived such an inferno. Fire engines arrived and poured water on the charred remains. As firemen entered the building, part of a wall collapsed and one of them died of his injuries – the third and final death caused by the siege of Sidney Street.

Pathé’s Animated Gazette’s coverage, showing 100 Sidney Street on fire, from British Pathé

The bodies of Fritz Svaars and Joseph were discovered inside, the second only as late as 8.00pm, by which time the newsreel films had been processed, printed and were on show in some London cinemas, scooping much of the press. In the manner of newsreels at this time, the films let the pictures do the talking. Intertitles on the extant films are matter-of-fact and offer little in the way of explanation, though they do employ loaded terms such as ‘assassins’, ‘murderers’ ‘aliens’ and ‘outrage’. The sensational nature of the films was all that was needed. Detailed description and background speculation was for the newspapers the newsreels had simply to show audiences what the event looked like, to present the moving pictures of what everyone was talking about. The audience themselves would supply the rest.

These were the Houndsditch Murderers, or at least their associates, and most of the public would not have been greatly interested in their affiliations and what drove them to such desperate actions. Their war was not with the British authorities per se, but rather with Tsarist Russia. They (and there were a dozen or so associated with Houndsditch and Sidney Street) were refugees in Britain, which they used as a base for fund-raising and plotting revolution back in Russia. They had strong ideological motivation, and would have been contemptuous of the British police and army as tools of the oppressors. For the popular press they were all anarchists, but most had Social Revolutionary or Marxist affiliations, and had fought in terrible encounters with Tsarist forces, some of them undergoing savage beatings and torture. They believed they would receive similar brutality from the British police should they be caught, which helps explain some of their actions (Fritz Svaars in particular feared that he would break under torture after beatings he had received in Riga a year before). They used robbery to raise funds to support themselves and associates at home, and in some cases for gun-running or the production of propagandist literature.

Most were Jewish, and were part of the wave of refugees driven out of Russia by the pogroms of the late 1800s and the savage reprisals that followed the failed 1905 revolution. Britain had a reputation as a haven for such refugees, though most ended up in the sweatshops of the East End, desperately poor and roundly despised by the rest of society as ‘aliens’. British film contributed to this climate of hostility. Hepworth produced The Aliens’ Invasion (1905), in which English workmen were shown being thrown out of work because of Jewish immigrants accepting low wages the Precision Film Company produced Anarchy in England (1909), which recreated the Tottenham Outrage while Clarendon made The Invaders (1909) in which armed foreign spies occupy a British house disguised as Jewish tailors. However, most often films portrayed anarchists as figures of fun, as in Walturdaw’s The Anarchist and his Dog (1908) – he throws his bomb, but the dog retrieves it. The siege of Sidney Street itself was not dramatised at the time, but the basic details contribute to the climactic scenes of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and a close recreation was attempted in Hammer’s The Siege of Sidney Street (1960).

The causes that drove the revolutionaries of 1911 have faded into history, even if terrorism on British shores inspired by overseas conflict and a different set of beliefs has not. But the films remain, and the press reports, and the photographs, and the many picture postcards that were produced, as tragedy was turned into commerce. The films not only show extraordinarily exciting things happening on the streets of London, but they show us an area of London never before visited by the motion picture camera. The wretched, run-down area of Stepney of 1911 would not have attracted cameras in the normal course of events, but humble Sidney Street, its environs and inhabitants gain some sort of fleeting immortality each time we run the films again, before disappearing back into history as the cameras once more turn to focus elsewhere.

Map of the Sidney Street area showing the besieged building (marked with red dot) and main camera positions of Andrews (A), Gaumont (G) and Pathé (P). Original map from http://www.jewisheastend.com

Three of the five newsreels made of the Sidney Street siege exist at the BFI National Archive, with further copies of these at British Pathé and ITN Source. Each runs for two to three minutes in length. Happily versions of all three can be found online:

The Battle of London (Pathé)
Copies held by the BFI National Archive and British Pathé. There are two films on the British Pathé site – one is a dupe of the BFI film, the other is not Pathé’s film at all – it is Andrews’ (see below). The Pathé film, shot mostly from the north end of Sidney Street, shows police and troops taking positions (some shots look like they were staged afterwards), Churchill viewing the scene, the building catching fire (front and rear views), the fire brigade, and crowds in the streets afterwards. The intertitles read: “Battle of London. Houndsditch Assassins at bay, Besieged by soldiers and Armed Police” … “Troops firing at the murderers in Sydney [sic] Street” … “Mr. Winston Churchill, Home Secretary, watching the battle with the chiefs of Police and Detectives” … “The Besieged House catches Fire” … “Removing the bodies of the murdered and injured firemen”

The Great East End Anarchist Battle (Gaumont)
Copies held by the BFI National Archive and ITN Source. The version on the ITN Source begins with the Gaumont film then at 2.43 turns into the Andrews film (see below). The film shows crowds and police to the south end of Sidney Street, police pushing back the crowds, views of either side of Sidney Street with smoke from gunfire, police holding back crowds with difficulty, view of the building on fire from rooftop of building opposite. The Gaumont intertitles on the ITN copy read: [No main title] … “The police pushing back the crowd at the commencement of the firing” … “The fire – and after”.

Houndsditch Murderers (Andrews Pictures)
Copies held by the BFI National Archive, British Pathé and ITN Source. The BFI has two versions, one with English and one with German titles, Anarchistenschlat in London. The version online at ITN follows immediately after the Gaumont film the version online at British Pathé is listed separately (though not as an Andrews film). The film shows views of Sidney Street from the south end with gunfire and police holding back crowds, rooftop view of the building on fire, further gunfire and police holding back crowds, rear view of men on rooftop (intertitles falsely state that Churchill is one of them), rooftop view of building catching fire and arrival of firemen who aim hoses at the building, a number of firemen scale a ladder. [Note: the ITN version is complete and in the correct order the British Pathe copy is jumbled and incomplete] The intertitles on the ITN copy read: “Houndsditch Murderers. The Great Aliens Outrage at Mile End Shewing the Actual Scenes” … “Police and Soldiers Firing From Alleyways and Windows” … “Rt. Hon. Winston Churchill Directing Operations” [the German version in the BFI does not have this title] … “The Besieged House In Flames” … “Back View and Detectives Firing On Besieged Building” … “Arrival of Fire Brigades From All Parts of London And Entering House”

The BFI also has a Pathé’s Animated Gazette newsreel item on the December 1910 funeral of the policemen whose deaths led to the Sidney Street siege, Funeral in London of the Policemen Murdered by Burglars in Houndsditch (1910).

For further information on the Sidney Street siege, there is one essential source. Donald Rumbelow’s The Houndsditch Murders and the Siege of Sidney Street (1973, revised 1988) is the classic account, outstanding in the dramatic detail and in its understanding of both police procedure and the revolutionaries’ motivations.

The Metropolitan Police Service has a short history of the siege from its point of view on its website. For an anarchist viewpoint, try www.siegememory.net, an interactive documentary on the siege currently in development [update: the site is no longer online, but can be traced via the Internet Archive].

The Museum of London Docklands currently has a small exhibition showing artefacts from the siege, examples of which can be view here. The exhibition runs until April 2011. The Independent has another image gallery, using exhibition artefacts and pictures from Donald Rumbelow’s collection.

Note: Originally published on The Bioscope 2 January 2011, and reproduced here with some small emendations.


The Edwardian Press & Melodrama in the Aftermath of the Sidney Street Siege

The 1911 Sidney Street siege in London marked a particular juncture in the history of British immigration, tying together Victorian concerns about the urban environment, along with modern fears surrounding immigration and the supposed impact of ‘foreign’ elements on British society. In the light of recent growing concerns around immigration it seems a pertinent time re-evaluate the events of Sidney Street and the connections between 1911 and the events of 2011. The emotive language surrounding immigration is highly resilient, and the grumblings of a carpenter’s wife noted by John Law in the late nineteenth century, ‘London ain’t what it used to be it’s just like a foreign city… why should all them foreigners come here to take our food out of our mouths?’ (1) might not look out of place in today’s climate.

As one of the first social crises to be reported in the mass circulation press, I will suggest that the siege was a complex event that highlights important issues that link the Victorian nineteenth and the Edwardian twentieth century to our own twenty-first century. It raised fears over immigration and political radicalism, and also was a vital part of a period that fostered a culture of melodramatic sensationalism as a vital form of popular journalism.

Fig. 1: The Houndsditch Murders - Daily Graphic, 19 December 1910

The events leading up to the siege began on the night of 16 December 1910, when a loud banging and drilling were heard from the back of H. S. Harris’s jewellers shop, located on Houndsditch. The area had become synonymous with foreign immigrants and political criminality, with The Times exclaiming in a leading article that it ‘harbours some of the worst alien anarchists and criminals who seek out too hospitable shores’ (2) and the People describing the area as ‘the natural lair of the foreign gaol-bird’ (3) . In total seven policemen were sent to investigate the noises and as they entered the shop from the Exchange Buildings at the back, they were met with gunfire. Two policemen were injured, disabled for life, and three were killed, in what remains the highest loss of police life in London on a single day. The men escaped, disappearing into the back alleys of the East End.

The search for the perpetrators of the Houndsditch murders led the police to Sidney Street, which linked the Whitechapel Road to Commercial Street, in the heart of the traditional Jewish East End. The street itself was wide and relatively modern – flanked on each side by large three-storey houses, which housed a wide mix of well-to-do British-born Jews and recent Eastern European and Russian immigrants (4) .

Fig. 2: Image from Donald Rumbelow, The Houndsditch Murders and the Siege of Sidney Street (The History Press, 2009).

At 4 a.m. on 3 January, as police began to encircle the house (Fig.2) where they believed the men who had perpetrated the Houndsditch murders were hiding, the street was transformed into a quasi-warzone as shots were fired down on the policemen below. It quickly became clear that the rifles that the police were traditionally equipped with did not match the range and power of the modern Mauser pistols that the two men inside the house were using. As large crowds began to fill the street, the Scots Guards and even cavalry-drawn artillery were called in, but to no avail. The Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, watched on as the two men pinned down both the police and soldiers below. After six hours of fighting, smoke began to creep up from the upper-floor windows. The house went up in flames, but the two men, later identified as Fritz Svaars and William (Joseph) Sokoloff – who had been present during the Houndsditch murders, never appeared out of the front door, with the flames left to burn by the firefighters until the two men inside were dead. Their charred remains were found inside – one killed by a bullet wound, the other by smoke inhalation.

With the growth of more affordable forms of journalism available to the wider reading public in the late nineteenth century, melodrama in its literary form became a vital tool. This is clear in the siege reports, with racial and political fears providing the drive for the melodramatic narrative. Thus reports reproduced the traditional melodramatic plot that, as historian Judith Walkowitz suggests, ‘reinforced the sense of destiny out of control for the most time, the villain remained firmly in total command, ultimately overthrown not by reason but by chance’ (5) .

The melodramatic writing style that dominated the narratives of the siege suggests that there was a persistence of the rhetorical representation of alien immigrants that was influenced by Victorian social journalism and an imagined cultural geography of the East End of the nineteenth century – dramatically pictured as a labyrinth of dangerous streets, tangled alleys and dark courts. The creation of this particular image of the East End landscape was greatly affected not only by Victorian social investigation, but also by the Jack the Ripper murders of 1888, that heightened the fear of the area as enclosing a dangerous and violent subculture of London. Depictions of the buildings in the reports show a tension between the influence of this traditional historical image of the East End, and a desire to portray the modernization of twentieth-century Edwardian London. The house itself was described by the Daily Graphic as one of ‘a superior red-brick group’ (6) and the Telegraph similarly promoted the fact that Sidney Street was part of the redevelopment of the East End (7) . At the same time, however, journalists appear to have found it difficult to detach themselves completely from the gothic influence of the nineteenth-century East End, the Daily Graphic referring to Sidney Street as ‘one of many streets of small sordid houses’, with the house itself surrounded by ‘murky neighbours’ (8) . This image was far from the truth, as can be seen not only from a contemporary image of the street, but also from large collection of images produced by the newspapers at the time (Fig. 1).

Fig. 3 The headline for the Sidney Street siege, Daily Telegraph, 5 January 1911, p.11.

The Sidney Street siege thrust the East End back into the public limelight, making it, as one journalist proposed, ‘the theatre of sordid London drama’ (9) . The headlines of the papers themselves are reminiscent of a theatre playbill, sensationally setting out the scene, the action and the major characters in punchy, breathless statements (Fig.3). The narratives are split up into short scenes, with equally dramatic subsections, extending the sense of a scenic and dramatic narrative that had its roots in the Victorian theatre. Similarly, the characters involved in the event provided the extremes of the ‘villain’, the ‘victim’ and the forces of ‘law and order’ that are central aspects of the melodramatic rhetoric. This highlights the growth of the late-nineteenth century journalistic rhetoric of ‘religious emotion, dramatized characterization, graphic descriptions of poverty and hazy statistics’, (10) through the dramatizations of the Sidney Street siege in the post-Edwardian press, and further, into reports of dramatic events in our modern-day press (Figs. 4 & 5). The ambiguities surrounding many aspects of the siege – who exactly the two men were, what the final outcome might be, and the unexpected nature of the fire that finally took hold of the house, allowed a certain degree of dramatic licence to be applied to narratives of the action.

Fig. 4: The Illustrated London News, 7 January 1911, p.7.

Police, crowds and journalists themselves were depicted as being in the firing line, and the ‘anarchists’ themselves, as it was presumed they were, were elevated by journalists to the same level of East End ‘anti-hero’ that Jack the Ripper had been, for their faces were never seen throughout the entire day’s fighting. In contrast to Jack the Ripper (who was never identified), the two men finally met their death in a very public way, providing a concrete end to the ambiguities of the siege. The gruesome relish with which the writers described the condition in which the two men were found, one with no head, and another with ‘both legs left arm amputated’ reveals an anxiety and aggressive desire to prove that this was indeed the end to a series of events that had started the previous year (11) .

As well as the forms of nineteenth-century melodrama there were also new types of media involved in the dissemination of the siege rhetoric. The extensive use of photography (Fig.4) suggests that this was a representation that was visual in its quality. Most newspaper reports tended to provide a full page of photographs from the start to the end of the day – a format that had only been available since the turn of the century for use in the mass circulation press. The siege also allowed new forms of news reporting to enter the area, with a large amount of newsreel filmed on location at the siege by companies such as British Pathé. This allowed the event to be shown to audiences that night in institutions such as the Palace Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue (12) , and made for a greater immediacy than traditional forms of paper press.

Fig.5: The Guardian front page following the London riots, 9 August 2011. Photograph: Kerim Okten/EPA

Of course, this immediacy of news reporting seems almost second nature to us in the twenty-first century, due to advances in technology and the advent of social media sites such as Twitter. The Sidney Street siege allowed forms of nineteenth-century melodrama, along with innovative technologies that were revolutionizing the world of media reporting to flourish into forms that show a remarkable similarity with the ways in which the current-day media report shocking periods of violence and disorder. I would argue that the Sidney Street siege offers an opportunity to compare not only the cause and effects of the social protest and violence, as Jerry White suggested in his article on this site on 18 October 2011 (13) but also on the forms that these reports of dramatic events on the streets of London took during the siege, due to dramatic changes in media technology around the early Edwardian period. The late Victorian and early Edwardian eras were vital in the creation and solidification of these dramatic styles of reporting during events such as the Sidney Street siege.

Consequences

Visiting the site of the Sidney Street siege today, it is surprising how little remains of the three-storey red brick houses (Fig. 6). In the same way their construction hid the unglamorous urban history of the Victorian East End, the 1950s estate that has now taken its place obscures the history of the fear of foreign immigration, anarchism and violence that continued into the early twentieth century. When 100 Sidney Street was demolished in 1956, a Stepney council spokesman announced: ‘We do not consider the house historic or famous.’ (14) . This research suggests the opposite: that the Sidney Street siege has been undervalued as a filter through which to understand a particular juncture in the history of British immigration that was caught between the influence of the Victorian past and a concern over an evolving form of modern, professional criminality and Britain’s ability as a nation to evolve with it.

Fig 6. Sidney Street 2011 (authors own photo), compared to a photo in 1911. The houses in the siege have since been demolished.

In the short term, the Sidney Street siege clearly resulted in a radicalization of popular sentiment over the status of the immigrant in London. The Manchester Guardian feared that the result of the agitation of the London Press was ‘the outbreak of anti-semitism’, and ‘the assumption that dangerous criminal tendencies exist among poorer foreign Jews’ (15) , epitomized by a poem that appeared in the People in the immediate aftermath:

But I think it’s time to plead once more
To get rid of the cursed breed
Of alien Jews who seem to have been
The authors of the deed.
Remember Tottenham! Foreign Jews
Were the coward murderers there,
And it’s pretty certain that aliens held
The guns on the Houndsditch stair.

(16) The People, 25 December 1911

Politically, the press outcry revived the complaint that the Liberal government had ‘weakened’ the Aliens Act, allowing criminals to see Britain as a haven and to enter the country masked as refugees (17) . George VI’s private secretary wrote to Churchill in the immediate aftermath stating [the king] ‘hopes that these outrages by foreigners will lead you to consider whether the Aliens Act could be amended so as to prevent London from being infested with men and women whose presence would not be tolerated in any other country’ (18) , Whilst publicly attempting to distance himself from the siege (19) , in private, Churchill recognized its significance, admitting to the Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, ‘I think I shall have to stiffen the administration and the Aliens Act a little’ (20) . Although this proposed act was not passed, it shows a knee-jerk reaction from Churchill, who had been criticized in 1905 for his weak stance on restricting immigration, in response to this dramatic event.

Churchill in the line of fire (highlighted), from Donald Rumbelow, The Houndsditch Murders and the Siege of Sidney Street.

Press narratives during the Sidney Street siege also reveal the difficulty journalists had in distancing themselves from the legacies of an East End ‘heart of darkness’ within the Victorian metropolis. It also reveals however, the changes that had occurred since the late Victorian period. These narratives of dramatic events such as the siege reveal a shift away from the representation of the immigrant and the East End of London as a sanitary problem of destitution, and towards a more modern construct of global issues of immigration and criminality. As one of the first major domestic scandals to receive all forms of press coverage, the siege was reported well outside the borders of Britain in print, photography and newsreel, with some quick-witted entrepreneurs setting up souvenir shops outside No. 100 selling bricks that had been peppered with bullets (21) .

Although Sidney Street itself serves as an important historical parallel for contemporary debates over immigration, it also functions as a window through which to view the emerging influence of the press and how new forms of media served to influence the way in which dramatic events were written about in early Edwardian Britain. The characteristics of modern day news reporting that we take for granted have their roots in events such as the Sidney Street siege, which drew on the residual forms of melodrama and sensationalism, along with the new cultural technologies of mass circulation press and newsreel, to create a modern news event.

1. John Law, Out of Work , London, 1888, p.64.

2. The Times , 19 December 1910, p.10.

3. The People , 18 December 1910, in:

4. From an interview with Alice Burleigh, who lived at 106 Sidney Street at the time of the siege, by Alan Dein, 1989.

5. Judith Walkowitz, City of Dreadful Delight , Chicago, 1992 , p.86.

6. Daily Graphic, 4 January 1911, p.11.

7. Daily Telegraph , 4 January 1911, p.11.

8. Daily Graphic, 4 January, 1911, p.11.

9. Daily Graphic , 5 January 1911, p.11.

10. P. J. Keating, ‘ Fact and Fiction in the East End ’ , in H. J. Dyos and M. Wolff, The Victorian City , London, 1973, p.589.

11. Daily Telegraph , 4 January 1911, p.4.

13. Jerry White, Riots in London 1780 – Present Day , at http://www.historyworkshop.org.uk/riots-in-london-1780-present-day/

14. John G. Bennett, E1: A Journey through Whitechapel and Spitalfields , Nottingham, 2009, p.13.

15. ‘Crime and the Alien ’ , Manchester Guardian , 10 January, 1911.

16. ‘ The Lessons of Houndsditch’, The People, December 1911, as cited in Rogers, The Battle of Stepney, p.51.

17. David Feldman, Englishmen and Jews: Social Relations and Political Culture, 1840 – 1914 , Yale , 1994, p.360.

18. Randolph Churchill, Winston S. Churchill: Companion, Vol. II: Young Statesman, 1910 – 1914, London, 1967, pp.410 – 11.

19. Reynolds s Newspaper published a letter from Churchill to Sir Henry Dalziel MP suggesting that he should not

be blamed for either the tactics or the outcome of the siege.

20. Churchill, Companion, Vol. II , p. 433.

21. ‘ Sidney Street Visitors ’ , Daily News , 12 January 1911, p.2.

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5 Comments

I enjoyed this. Here is a footnote to footnote 1.
‘John Law’ was the pen name of Margaret Harkness (1854-1923). Out of Work was one of her three novels of slum life (along with City Girl, 1877, and Captain Lobe, 1889). She also edited and in some cases wrote a series of reports on female labour in the metropolis for a progressive Christian paper called the British Weekly. Ellen Ross (Slum Travellers, 2007, p. 89) describes her as ‘an energetic and prolific writer’ and notes her sustaining friendship with Beatrice Potter and a number of other single women who worked or wrote in London in the 1880s, such as Amy Levy, Annie Besant, Eleanor Marx and Olive Schreiner. Seth Koven (Slumming, 2004, p. 167-8) refers to her as ‘an outspoken, unsettled and unsettling figure in the philanthropic landscape of Victorian London’, and comments that in her ‘bleak vision of the city’ ‘hunger, unregulated sexuality, and sin are the by-products of capitalism unchecked by Christian principles’ .

Margaret Harkness, as John Law, also wrote a novel called ‘George Eastmont, Wanderer’ – not among her best known works, but a wonderful account of the socialist movement in London in the late 1880s, the dock strike, and the personalities and rivalries. George Eastmont seems to have been based on one of the more enigmatic (though influential) of the socialist leaders, Henry Hyde Champion – and represented his Gissing-like marriage to a much poorer woman who died (the novel suggests) in part due to drink and drugs.

But to Sidney Street … it’s a live issue whether the Sidney Street gang were anarchists or social revolutionaries or simply desperadoes. There certainly was a thriving Jewish anarchist movement in the East End a century ago. Many years back, I interviewed a veteran of that movement, Nellie Dick (born Naomi Ploschansky), then in her nineties. She recounted how she had met the Sidney Street group at the Jubilee Street anarchist club. They were new migrants and asked Nellie if she would come round and give them English lessons. Nellie’s mother insisted that she couldn’t go round there unchaperoned, so nothing came of the idea.

And then there is the enduring mystery about the real identity of the most prominent of the group, ‘Peter the Painter’, and what happened to him.

Anyone seeking an answer to these questions might spare a moment to read this article in Sestdiena, which was published in Riga on 10 March 2012. English translation here: http://www.katesharpleylibrary.net/doc/janis-zhaklis-peter-painter-article

There’s more from Phil,Ruff about Sidney Street here on resonance Radio:

I think you’ve given some truly interesting info. Not too many people would actually think about this the way you just did. Im really impressed that there’s so much about this subject thats been uncovered and you did it so well.


The Siege of Sidney Street A Bizarre Escapade of Churchill Derring-Do

On 16 December 1910, a resident of Sidney Street in London’s East End heard mysterious hammering noises at a house nearby and notified the Police. This was the beginning of a bizarre incident in which the Home Secretary, Winston S. Churchill, would take a direct hand – incurring no little criticism and ridicule at the time, and for years afterward. It was, like several other Churchillian escapades, only partly understood and greatly misinterpreted. Nevertheless, it makes for an exciting story.

The most thorough account of “The Siege of Sidney Street” and the events leading up to it is a book by that title written by Donald Rumbelow, a City of London policeman. Rumbelow gives detailed accounts of the gang of refugees from Russian Latvia who were responsible for this and other sensational crimes in London during 1909-1911. There was the “Tottenham Outrage” of 1909, the Houndsditch murders of 1910, and the famous gun battle on New Year’s Day 1911, around the Sidney Street house in which two of the gang’s members were barricaded.


The story began with the “Tottenham Outrage.” On 23 January 1909, two Latvian refugees of London’s East End assaulted a messenger carrying the wages for a local rubber factory. In the course of the struggle shots were fired and overheard at a nearby police station. A police chase ensued, the armed robbers enjoying a substantial advantage initially, as the use of firearms by police or criminals was then virtually unknown. The police hastened to arm themselves, however, and ran the criminals to earth after a six-mile pursuit in which two people were killed and 27 injured.

Rumbelow describes the Latvian refugee society in London’s East End, of which the robbers were part. Many Latvians had fled to London following the suppression of the revolt in their country in 1905. There they continued revolutionary and propagandist activity, staying in funds largely through “expropriations,” their euphemism for what we today call “ripping off.” Several of these refugees, in the course of transient existences, formed a loose association under the leadership of “Peter the Painter,” an historically controversial and possibly fictitious man whom Rumbelow identifies as Peter Piaktow. Churchill himself later described “Peter the Painter” as “one of those wild beasts who, in later years, amid the convulsions of the Great War, were to devour and ravage the Russian State and people” (THOUGHTS AND ADVENTURES/AMID THESE STORMS, 1932, Woods A39).

The complex welter of aliases used by the gang members reflects credit on Rumbelow’s careful research. The principal members were Jacob Fogel (or Jan Sprohe), William Sokolow (or Joseph), Fritz Svaars, Mouremtzoff (or George Gardstein), Nina Vassilleva (Gardstein’s mistress), Luba Milstein (Svaars’ mistress), Jacob Peters, Max Smoller (or Joseph Levi), and Piaktow. Together they made plans to rob the safe of a jeweller’s shop in Houndsditch by renting an adjacent building and tunnelling through.

On the evening of 16 December 1910, a neighbor heard the hammering caused by the tunnelling and advised the police. Several unarmed constables responded. One, Bentley, entered the building rented by the gang and was fatally shot. In an ensuing battle on the street, Constables Strongman, Choat and Tucker were killed by gunfire, and Gardstein was accidentally shot and mortally wounded. Peters, Vassilleva, and a hired locksmith named Dubof escaped, dragging Gardstein along, and finally made their way to Svaars ‘ room. There Gardstein, tended by a peripheral and tragic member of the gang, Sara Trasslonsky, was left to die.

The murders of the policemen sparked outrage throughout Britain. With the help of evidence in Gardstein’s room and a few informants, London police captured several gang members over the next few weeks. On New Year’s Day, 1911, an informant whom Rumbelow believes was “almost certainly” Charles Perelman, the gang’s former landlord, told police that two members of the gang were hiding at 100 Sidney Street. This set the stage for the famous Siege.

Rumors that the two were preparing to change lodgings spurred the police to organize a force to capture the criminals in the teeth of expected fierce resistance. By two o’clock in the morning of January 3, two hundred men had cordoned off the block. Armed officers were posted in shops and buildings surrounding the house of refuge.

Daylight brought the start of the battle. The superiority of the weapons of the besieged quickly became apparent, and their supply of ammunition seemed inexhaustible. A call went out for troops from the Tower of London – a call that reached Home Secretary Churchill in his morning bath. Dripping wet, Churchill hurried to the telephone and granted permission to use whatever force was necessary. Once dressed, he went to the Home Office for more news, but found little.

“In these circumstances,” wrote Churchill later, “I thought it my duty to see what was going on myself, and my advisers concurred in the propriety of such a step. I must, however, admit that convictions of duty were supported by a strong sense of curiosity which perhaps it would have been well to keep in check.”

On to Sidney Street be went! Crowds had gathered behind the cordon lines by the time WSC arrived. There were several cries of “‘Oo let ’em in?” referring to the Liberal Government’s lenient immigration policies. Churchill’s party made its way to the neighborhood of the besieged house, where the Home Secretary, wearing a top hat and fur-collared overcoat, viewed the action.

The gunfire continued its fierce reverberations. A company of Scots Guards from the Town occupied a building behind #100 and riddled the upper floors of the house with bullets. Amazingly, but in good British fashion, everyday life went on as normal nearby, and a postman actually made his rounds a few houses away.

Churchill now found himself in an embarrassing position. He had no wish to assume personal command of operations at the scene, but his high office inevitably attracted responsibility. “I saw now,” he wrote, “that I should have done better to have remained quietly in my office. On the other hand, it was impossible to get into one’s car and drive away while matters stood in such great uncertainty, and moreover were extremely interesting.”

As usual, Churchill was full of ideas. He suggested dragging up heavy artillery batteries, or storming the house from several directions simultaneously or advancing up the staircase behind a steel shield. A search for such a shield was begun in nearby foundries. An unexpected solution, however, soon presented itself. Wisps of smoke began drifting from the upper windows, and soon the top floor was ablaze. Slowly the conflagration made its way down to the lower levels, driving the gunmen before it.

The presence of the Home Secretary now became very useful. A fire brigade, determined to do its duty as it saw it, rushed up to the police barricades and demanded to be allowed through to extinguish the flames. The police refused to accommodate them, and a heated argument ensued. Churchill intervened and forbade the fire brigade to approach the house. But he enjoined them to stand by should the fire threaten to spread to adjacent buildings.

The crisis, however, was now past. The fire engulfed the ground floor, the ceiling and upper floors collapsed, and the existence of life in what was left of the building clearly became impossible. Scores of guns were trained on the front door, which never opened. At last, the police lines dissolved, the fire brigade was unleashed, and the Home Secretary went home. The charred bodies of Svaars and Joseph were recovered.

Over the next several weeks, Churchill was hooted and jeered for the personal part he took in the Siege. In Parliament, Arthur Balfour said: “We are concerned to observe photographs in the illustrated newspapers of the Home Secretary in the danger-zone. I understand what the photographer was doing, but why the Home Secretary?”

Did Churchill act improperly in going to the scene? Churchill himself afterwards believed so, and called Balfour’s comment “not altogether unjust.” Rumbelow indicates agreement without discussing the question at any length. They are probably right, on the general principle that those in high command should remain at the nerve centers of control and communication rather than direct events at the front. In this instance, however, certainly no great harm was done by Churchill’s appearance at Sidney Street, and he may have saved the lives of several.

His motives need particular exoneration. He was accused at the time of grandstanding, or “playing to the gallery.”

Certainly, Churchill never lacked a sense of the dramatic. His impulse, though, was not one of publicity but rather a strong, genuine curiosity and desire to see the action firsthand. Though still young, he was an old campaigner and war correspondent. After more than a decade away from fields of martial strife, he must have found the attraction of a gun battle in the heart of London irresistible. It is delightful to observe that the same impulse nearly prompted him many years later to accompany Allied liberating forces across the Channel on D-Day, an action from which he was barely dissuaded only at the last moment.

The trial of the remaining gang members implicated in the Houndsditch murders, described well and in detail by Rumbelow, was shambles for the prosecution. The case of Mr. Bodkin, the chief prosecutor, rested on the premise that the dead Gardstein had shot Bentley. Rumbelow makes a convincing circumstantial argument that the real killer was Jacob Peters. As a result of Bodkin’s fumblings and a series of curious judicial rulings, the prosecution’s case crumbled to pieces and those on trial were released, Peters returned to Russia and, after 1917, rose high in the murderous circles of the Bolshevik government before apparently falling in the purges of the late 1930’s.

Rumbelow’s book is an excellent, carefully-presented work of a minor but fascinating incident in the career of WSC.

Editor’s footnote: As a fourth-generation part-Latvian, I think it worth observing that Latvia did get its independence from Russia in 1918 (only to have it quashed again, via the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, in 1940) and that when it did, it established a parliamentary democracy. Nevertheless, it is true that some of Lenin’s most ardent supporters were Latvians (Letts), and indeed that his tenuous hold on the Moscow government in 1918 was largely due to a Latvian regiment. I should also mention that the name “Piaktow” isn’t Latvian. The only two mentioned that are Svaars and Peters.

A further footnote is amusing to recall. According to Martin Gilbert’s biography, Churchill’s secretary Charles Masterman was horrified that the Home Secretary should have personally attended the “siege.” When WSC got back to the Home Office, Masterman sternly accosted him: “What have you been doing, Winston?” Churchill was still so invigorated by the excitement that he forgot his usually well-disguised lisp: “Now Charleth, don’t he croth it wath such fun!”


The Bioscope

Home Secretary Winston Churchill (in top hat) watching the Siege of Sidney Street, part of the Pathé’s Animated Gazette’s coverage, ‘Battle of London’, from British Pathé. Bioscope regulars will be delighted to note the stray dog in the bottom left-hand corner

On the night of 16 December 1910 a group of Latvian revolutionaries attempted to rob a jeweller’s shop at 119 Houdsditch in the City of London. Their aim was to obtain funds to support revolutionary activity in Russia (and to support themselves), but their efforts to break in were overheard and nine policemen were called to the scene. The Latvians were armed the policemen were not, and in the ensuing confrontation three of the police were shot dead and two injured.

The public was horrified by what swiftly became known as the Houndsditch Murders, which followed on from the ‘Tottenham Outrage’ of the previous year when two Latvians had shot dead a constable and a child following an interrupted robbery. One of the Houndsditch gang, George Gardstein, had died of his injuries, having been shot accidentally by a confederate, but a huge manhunt built up to track down all of the gang, a number of whom were arrested before two (neither of whom it is now thought were present at the Houndsditch burglary) were tracked down to 100 Sidney Street, Stepney in London’s East End.

Sidney Street, from the Andrew Pictures coverage. No. 100 is on the far right-hand side of the street, below the number 3 of the ITN Source ID number

The Siege of Sidney Street (or the Battle of Stepney) that was to follow took place 100 years ago on 3 January 1911. It has gained lasting fame for unprecedented scenes that brought armed police and troops onto the streets of London to conduct a siege with desperate revolutionaries, all of which took place before the startled (and undoubtedly thrilled) eyes of the public and the press. Among those recording the events as they happened were five film companies, and it is their story that forms the reason for this centenary post.

The besieged Latvians were Fritz Svaars and William Sokoloff, known as Joseph. They had taken refuge at 100 Sidney Street only for their position to be given away by an informer late in the evening of New Year’s Day. Detectives were sent under cover of darkness to watch over the building while they tried to determine the two men’s movements by contact with a lodger and the informant. Keen not to have the men slip out their grasp, but knowing they would be armed, the police felt they had to act. In the early hours of Tuesday 3 January, armed police were positioned in houses and shops surrounding the block in which contained 100 Sidney Street. By 3.00am there were 200 policemen in place. It was realised that storming the building by its staircase would be foolhardy as the two men would have the advantage by firing down on the police officers, so the adjacent buildings were cleared of other people and the police waited for daylight.

Soldier firing from a shop door, part of the Pathé coverage, from British Pathe

As dawn broke, people started to gather around the police cordon, trying to find out what was happening. The police threw stones at the second-floor window where they believed the two men were hiding. Nothing happened. Then someone threw a brick and smashed a window pane. From the floor below shots fired out and a policeman was hit. A hail of bullets followed as they tried to move the wounded man. The two men were well-armed (they were better munitioned than the police, certainly) and well-positioned. An order was sent to bring in troops from the Tower of London. Scots Guards were sent, on the authority of the Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, who thought upon hearing the news that it would be not interesting if he were to go along and see things for himself.

By this time the press had got wind of the story, and reporters, photographers and newsreel cameramen were arriving on the scene. Five film companies were present: Pathé, Gaumont, Andrews Pictures, Co-operative and the Warwick Trading Company. Pathé (Pathé’s Animated Gazette), Gaumont (Gaumont Graphic) and Warwick (Warwick Bioscope Chronicle) had each recently established a newsreels and were companies with well-established newsfilm credentials. Co-operative specialised in Shakespeare productions, so it is something or a surprise to see them involved, while Andrews Pictures was a small-scale film renter and exhibitor. Presumably any firm who got wind of what was happening and had a camera operator at the ready made the most of the opportunity. Three of the five films taken that day survive: those of Pathé, Gaumont and Andrews.

Frame stills from the lost Sidney Street siege films made by Co-operative (left, showing the arrival of a fire engine) and Warwick (showing crowds in the area after the siege), from an article on the siege films in The Bioscope 5 January 1911, p. 9

The troops assumed positions around the building and began firing (it was by now around 11.00am). The barrage of fire from both sides was relentless and was to continue for around two hours. The crowds around the perimeter were now considerable, and policemen had a difficult time holding them back, as the newsreel films make clear. The films showed the heaving crowds, the troops getting into position, policemen armed with rifles, and gunfire coming from the buildings either side of Sidney Street.

Gaumont’s coverage shows police gunfire from the buildings opposite 100 Sidney Street, from ITN Source

The Home Secretary had not been able to get the better of his curiosity. He arrived by car at midday and positioned himself at the corner of Sidney Street and Lindley Street, peering round to see what was happening. It was an extraordinarily foolhardy action, one which would soon lead to much criticism (and regret on Churchill’s part) but at the time the idea went round that he was directing operations. Pathé’s cameraman gained a huge scoop by obtaining close shots of Churchill (though the story that film was taken of a bullet going through his top hat is quite false). It seems that no other newsreel filmed him – Gaumont certainly did not, as they were positioned on the other side of the street, while Andrews resorted to deceit, declaring that its footage of men looking down at the siege included a rear view shot of Churchill (Churchill did not take up any rooftop position).

Then 100 Sidney Street caught fire. The gunfire ceased momentarily as wisps and plumes of smoke started to pour out of the building, which is vividly shown in the film record. Flames could seen from the windows, then the shooting started up again – not just from the soldiers because, extraordinarily, the men inside were still returning fire. Joseph may have been shot dead at this time (the fire started around 1.00pm), while Fritz Svaars died in the flames when the roof caved in and part of the first floor collapsed. Soldiers fired further volleys, then ceased. No one had escaped from the building and it was clear no one could have survived such an inferno. Fire engines arrived and poured water on the charred remains. As firemen entered the building, part of a wall collapsed and one of them died of his injuries – the third and final death caused by the siege of Sidney Street.

Pathé’s Animated Gazette’s coverage, showing 100 Sidney Street on fire, from British Pathe

The bodies of Fritz Svaars and Joseph were discovered inside, the second only as late as 8.00pm, by which time the newsreel films had been processed, printed and were on show in some London cinemas, scooping much of the press. In the manner of newsreels at this time, the films let the pictures do the talking. Intertitles on the extant films are matter-of-fact and offer little in the way of explanation, though they do employ loaded terms such as ‘assassins’, ‘murderers’ ‘aliens’ and ‘outrage’. The sensational nature of the films was all that was needed. Detailed description and background speculation was for the newspapers the newsreels had simply to show audiences what the event looked like, to present the moving pictures of what everyone was talking about. The audience themselves would supply the rest.

These were the Houndsditch Murderers, or at least their associates, and most of the public would not have been greatly interested in their affiliations and what drove them to such desperate actions. Their war was not with the British authorities per se, but rather with Tsarist Russia. They (and there were a dozen or so associated with Houndsditch and Sidney Street) were refugees in Britain, which they used as a base for fund-raising and plotting revolution back in Russia. They had strong ideological motivation, and would have been contemptuous of the British police and army as tools of the oppressors. For the popular press they were all anarchists, but most had Social Revolutionary or Marxist affiliations, and had fought in terrible encounters with Tsarist forces, some of them undergoing savage beatings and torture. They believed they would receive similar brutality from the British police should they be caught, which helps explain some of their actions (Fritz Svaars in particular feared that he would break under torture after beatings he had received in Riga a year before). They used robbery to raise funds to support themselves and associates at home, and in some cases for gun-running or the production of propagandist literature.

Most were Jewish, and were part of the wave of refugees driven out of Russia by the pogroms of the late 1800s and the savage reprisals that followed the failed 1905 revolution. Britain had a reputation as a haven for such refugees, though most ended up in the sweatshops of the East End, desperately poor and roundly despised by the rest of society as ‘aliens’. British film contributed to this climate of hostility. Hepworth produced The Aliens’ Invasion (1905), in which English workmen were shown being thrown out of work because of Jewish immigrants accepting low wages the Precision Film Company produced Anarchy in England (1909), which recreated the Tottenham Outrage while Clarendon made The Invaders (1909) in which armed foreign spies occupy a British house disguised as Jewish tailors. However, most often films portrayed anarchists as figures of fun, as in Walturdaw’s The Anarchist and his Dog (1908) – he throws his bomb, but the dog retrieves it. The siege of Sidney Street itself was not dramatised at the time, but the basic details contribute to the climactic scenes of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and a close recreation was attempted in Hammer’s The Siege of Sidney Street (1960).

The causes that drove the revolutionaries of 1911 have faded into history, even if terrorism on British shores inspired by overseas conflict and a different set of beliefs has not. But the films remain, and the press reports, and the photographs, and the many picture postcards that were produced, as tragedy was turned into commerce. The films not only show extraordinarily exciting things happening on the streets of London, but they show us an area of London never before visited by the motion picture camera. The wretched, run-down area of Stepney of 1911 would not have attracted cameras in the normal course of events, but humble Sidney Street, its environs and inhabitants gain some sort of fleeting immortality each time we run the films again, before disappearing back into history as the cameras once more turn to focus elsewhere.

Map of the Sidney Street area showing the besieged building (marked with red dot) and main camera positions of Andrews (A), Gaumont (G) and Pathé (P). Map from http://www.jewisheastend.com.

Three of the five newsreels made of the Sidney Street siege exist at the BFI National Archive, with further copies of these at British Pathé and ITN Source. Each runs for two to three minutes in length. Happily versions of all three can be found online:

  • The Battle of London (Pathé)
    Copies held by the BFI National Archive and British Pathé. There are two films on the British Pathé site – one is a dupe of the BFI film, the other is not Pathé’s film at all – it is Andrews’ (see below). The Pathé film, shot mostly from the north end of Sidney Street, shows police and troops taking positions (some shots look like they were staged afterwards), Churchill viewing the scene, the building catching fire (front and rear views), the fire brigade, and crowds in the streets afterwards. The intertitles read: “Battle of London. Houndsditch Assassins at bay, Besieged by soldiers and Armed Police” … “Troops firing at the murderers in Sydney [sic] Street” … “Mr. Winston Churchill, Home Secretary, watching the battle with the chiefs of Police and Detectives” … “The Besieged House catches Fire” … “Removing the bodies of the murdered and injured firemen”
  • The Great East End Anarchist Battle (Gaumont)
    Copies held by the BFI National Archive and ITN Source. The version on the ITN Source begins with the Gaumont film then at 2.43 turns into the Andrews film (see below). The film shows crowds and police to the south end of Sidney Street, police pushing back the crowds, views of either side of Sidney Street with smoke from gunfire, police holding back crowds with difficulty, view of the building on fire from rooftop of building opposite. The Gaumont intertitles on the ITN copy read: [No main title] … “The police pushing back the crowd at the commencement of the firing” … “The fire – and after”.
  • Houndsditch Murderers (Andrews Pictures)
    Copies held by the BFI National Archive, British Pathé and ITN Source. The BFI has two versions, one with English and one with German titles, Anarchistenschlat in London. The version online at ITN follows immediately after the Gaumont film the version online at British Pathé is listed separately (though not as an Andrews film). The film shows views of Sidney Street from the south end with gunfire and police holding back crowds, rooftop view of the building on fire, further gunfire and police holding back crowds, rear view of men on rooftop (intertitles falsely state that Churchill is one of them), rooftop view of building catching fire and arrival of firemen who aim hoses at the building, a number of firemen scale a ladder. [Note: the ITN version is complete and in the correct order the British Pathe copy is jumbled and incomplete] The intertitles on the ITN copy read: “Houndsditch Murderers. The Great Aliens Outrage at Mile End Shewing the Actual Scenes” … “Police and Soldiers Firing From Alleyways and Windows” … “Rt. Hon. Winston Churchill Directing Operations” [the German version in the BFI does not have this title] … “The Besieged House In Flames” … “Back View and Detectives Firing On Besieged Building” … “Arrival of Fire Brigades From All Parts of London And Entering House”

The BFI reportedly also has a Pathé’s Animated Gazette newsreel item on the December 1910 funeral of the policemen whose deaths led to the Sidney Street siege, Funeral in London of the Policemen Murdered by Burglars in Houndsditch (1910). (It is not listed on the current catalogue but is given in its 1965 Silent News Films catalogue, cat. no. N.323) [Update: The film exists – see comments]

For further information on the Sidney Street siege, there is one essential source. Donald Rumbelow’s The Houndsditch Murders and the Siege of Sidney Street (1973, revised 1988) is the classic account, outstanding in the dramatic detail and in its understanding of both police procedure and the revolutionaries’ motivations.

The Metropolitan Police Service has a short history of the siege from its point of view on its website. For an anarchist viewpoint, try www.siegememory.net, an interactive documentary on the siege currently in development (do check out the video trailer which claims that the mysterious ‘Peter the Painter’ – one of the ‘anarchist’ gang – is an ancestor of David Beckham).

The Museum of London Docklands currently has a small exhibition showing artefacts from the siege, examples of which can be view here. The exhibition runs until April 2011. The Independent has another image gallery, using exhibition artefacts and pictures from Donald Rumbelow’s collection.


Siege of sidney street

Just read a crap account of the siege in last Saturdays independent magazine, good photos though. Can anyone point me in the direction of a good article?

Apparently city of london is doing a plaque in memory of dead police in houndsditch tomorrow.

Not an article but a comrade of mine brought this to my attention.

I always thought it was kind of cool that Peter the Painter has two buildings named after him in Tower Hamlets. Thing is no one really knows who he actually was, and there is pretty much no solid proof that he was involved in the Sidney Street siege. Still, a nice piece of East End folklore.

Cheers for that link flaneur I love the comparison with David Beckham.

Had this emailed to me from Phil Ruff, writer and researcher on Latvian anarchism:


Today Weekdays 6-9am and Saturdays 7-9am

A hundred years on, the Siege of Sidney Street still resonates. The third of January 1911 was the day two Latvian anarchists held out in an East End tenement for seven hours against more than 200 armed police and a detachment of soldiers.

The might of the Empire turned against two desperate young Jewish men in an ordinary street. Thousands of Londoners came to watch. Winston Churchill, Home Secretary was at the scene too, in his distinctive Astrakhan collared coat: a stray bullet passed through his top hat.

The drama had really begun three weeks before, on December 16 1910, which is why the Museum of London Docklands opens its Sidney Street exhibition this week. A gang of Latvian revolutionaries tried to rob a jeweller's shop in Houndsditch.

It was one of a series of "expropriations" to raise funds for propaganda and help their fellow activists in Russia and Latvia.

They'd planned this carefully: renting rooms in the building which backed onto the rear of the shop. In the Museum of London is a 60 foot length of India rubber gas hose, bought by the would be burglars so they could use gas from their own building to burn through the jeweller's safe.

In video: The Sidney St siege

But they had picked Friday night for the robbery, in a largely Jewish neighbourhood. The unexpected noise on the Jewish Sabbath disturbed residents: the police were called.

The gang fired on the unarmed officers. Three were killed, two injured. It's still the single worst incident for British police in peacetime.

The shock reverberated across Britain. Such extreme violence was new, characterised as being "alien" and "foreign" like the dangerous terrorists themselves.

One of the Latvians was hurt too. His friends carried him away, but he later died. The police were tipped off by an informant about the survivors: two men were hiding out in rooms at 100 Sidney Street, in the heart of Stepney.

In the overcrowded Edwardian East End, naturally they were not the only occupants of the house. There were fourteen occupants of the building including two families with small children.

Oddly, the police managed to evacuate them all at dawn, leaving the two gunmen on the second floor.

Then the armed officers moved in, more than two hundred of them. They shot at the house, trying to get the men out.

A detachment of Scots Guards were brought in to help. Jack Fudger, a young teenager at the time, was going to work as a cashier in a local tea shop when he found himself caught up in the siege.

"I goes across the road and all of a sudden 'Ping! Ping!' Good Lord! I see the dust coming out of the wall as the bullets were hitting the wall and then I see this policeman shot in the chest."

People sheltering in a stonemason's yard pulled Jack Fudger inside, and he watched as for hours the shooting continued. Speaking to the BBC over 50 years later, he recalled seeing Winston Churchill give some target advice to one of the snipers.

The Latvians were well armed: with the most modern weaponry of the time, Mauser automatic revolvers. They had plenty of ammunition.

The police and soldiers were unable to get them out of the house : the siege only ended when the house caught fire, and the anarchists burned.

Julia Hoffbrand, curator of the new exhibition at the Museum of London, believes the Latvians feared capture.

"Nobody knows who started the fire," she explains. "It could have been the gunmen themselves, burning some of their anarchist literature. It may have been they didn't want to be taken alive.

"They'd come from Tsarist Russia, where if you were captured by the police you'd be tortured: they probably thought the same thing would happen here."

The police did arrest several people who were alleged to have helped the gunmen. They were put on trial and acquitted. One of them was Jacob Peters, later to become a leading figure in the Soviet secret police.

The siege was a media sensation of its time. Newsreel cameras had been rolling throughout, and the first films were showing in West End cinemas that same evening.

Mixed with relief that the siege was over and the gunmen dead was a sense of anxiety about the immigrant community in the East End, mostly Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe. Many called for tough new rules on immigration.

Not the Liberals though, who were in government. Josiah Wedgwood MP wrote to Churchill, just two days after the siege, urging him to oppose draconian measures: "It is fatally easy to justify them but they lower the whole character of the nation.

"You know as well as I do that human life does not matter a rap in comparison with the death of ideas and the betrayal of English traditions."

The laws were not changed.

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When Winston Churchill oversaw a gun battle in the streets of London

On December 16, 1910, a robbery attempt was reported at a jewelry store in the Stepney district of East London.

When police arrived, they found a gang of men armed with pistols, who opened fire on the unarmed officers. Three policemen were killed and two seriously wounded. As the burglars fled, one of them was wounded by friendly fire, and later died.

The gang, led by a man called "Peter the Painter," were thought to by Latvian Anarchists hoping to use the stolen jewelry to fund their cause in Latvia.

On January 2, an informant suggested that some of the gang members were hiding out in a house on Sidney Street.

Taking no chances, the police came with 200 heavily armed officers, overseen by none other than Home Secretary Winston Churchill. At dawn, a firefight began. With superior weaponry and a stockpile of ammunition, the gang was able to hold off the police for hours.

Marksmen from the Scots Guards were summoned, and Churchill (who received a bullet hole in his top hat in the battle) ordered the deployment of 13-pounder field artillery cannons.

Before the house could be shelled, a fire started. Churchill forbade the fire brigades from attempting to put out the blaze until the shooting stopped. Police waited, guns drawn, for the shooters to emerge, but they never did.

The bodies of Fritz Svaars and William Sokolow were found in the house, ending the Siege of Sidney Street, which was also called the Battle of Stepney in the sensational media accounts of the event.


Watch the video: The Siege of Sidney Street - UK theatrical trailer 1960 (January 2022).