Even if many don’t know the precise events, the Siege of Sidney Street is something that most Londoners have heard of due to its tragic events and dramatic ending, On the 3rd January 1911 two Latvian anarchists held out in an East End tenement for seven hours against more than 200 armed police and a detachment of soldiers.
How did it come to be that the might of the Empire turned against two desperate young Jewish men in an ordinary East End street as thousands of Londoners came to watch. In his typical way of leading from the front and sniffing out the action, Winston Churchill who was then the Home Secretary (responsible for the police) was at the scene too and a stray bullet even passed through his top hat. It’s hard to imagine a very senior politician today going to the scene of an ongoing siege or acts of terrorism.
The drama had really begun three weeks before, on December 16 1910 when 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.
The revolutionaries had planned this carefully: renting rooms in the building which backed onto the rear of the shop. They even had bought a 60 foot length of India rubber gas hose so they could use gas from their own building to burn through the jeweller’s safe.
There was just one flaw in their plan, they had picked Friday night for the robbery, in a largely Jewish neighbourhood. The unexpected noise on the Jewish Sabbath disturbed residents who promptly called the police.
Two sergeants, Bentley and Bryant, tried the door of 11 Exchange Buildings, which was answered by a man who did not appear to understand English. He went inside, apparently to summon assistance. The officers waited, then followed him in, and exchanged a few words with a man standing at the top of the stairs inside. In the dark, with no electricity, they could only see his feet.
The officers decided to go further on into the house, but had hardly taken another step when a gunman burst out of the back room and opened fire. The man on the stairs also started shooting. Both sergeants were hit, but managed to stagger into the street, where a constable named Woodmans ran to help Bentley, and was shot in the thigh. He fainted.
There were two detectives in the line of fire, but the burglars were not frightened of men in plain clothes. They were only interesting in picking off the men in uniform. Two bullets hit Sergeant Charles Tucker, who was killed outright. PC Arthur Strongman, not knowing the sergeant was dead, carried him to safety, followed by one of the gunmen, who kept firing, but missed. In doing so, he stepped under a street light, which meant that the constable was the only one to see any of the killers’ faces. The others saw only shadows, and the flashes as guns went off.
The gang fired on the unarmed officers. Three were killed, two injured and it remains 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 Latvian revolutionaries 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.
Incredibly 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 to come 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 and 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 were burned alive. It’s possible that they thought they may have been tortured by the police if they had surrendered as was often the case in Tsarist Russia. Whilst that would not have happened it is likely they would be put on trial for the murder of police officers which if found guilty would certainly have resulted in the Death Penalty. Perhaps that is even why they fired on the police in the first place.
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.”
Churchill did not change the laws.
Whilst Sidney Street remains, there is no evidence of these dark events accept for a red plaque on a block of flats that remembers Charles Pearson, a fireman who died at Sidney Street when part of the building collapsed on him.
There is also a memorial to the three police officers who were murdered at Houndsditch.