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The Siege of Sidney Street, January 1911

Film, postcards and map

The Siege of Sidney Street (also known as the Battle of Stepney) reached its end on 3rd January 1911 and was one of the most notorious events at the time in the East End. It was one of the worst days in the history of British policing and was considered to be the biggest criminal event in the East End since ‘Jack the Ripper’. It actually began three weeks earlier, on 16 December 1910.

The 16th December was a Friday night. Along Houndsditch, everything should have been quiet, especially as it was Shabbat and it was a neighbourhood with a high proportion of Jewish residents. But noise of knocking and drilling was coming from behind HS Harris, a local jewellery shop, at 119 Houndsditch. The noise was brought to the attention of the local policeman patrolling on foot. He reported it to Bishopsgate Police Station.

The duty sergeant that evening had heard that some strange immigrants had recently moved into Exchange Buildings. He decided to investigate and assembled a posse of seven uniformed officers and two detectives, armed only with their whistles and truncheons. They went to the Buildings and eventually went in. Inside the Buildings were refugees from Latvia, where the 1905 revolution had been put down with exceptional violence. That experience convinced the men that the police must be armed and ready to kill or torture them if they were captured.

As they entered further into the Buildings, shooting started.  A police sergeant was killed immediately and four others injured. Within days, two of those four also died. During the attack, the policemen exhibited great bravery, putting themselves at fatal risk as they tried to help each other. The assailants, one woman and three men, escaped. There was enormous public outcry at the death and injury of the policemen.

The police had their first lead when a local GP reported being called to a house to treat a man who had been shot and had refused to go to hospital. They found him dead and a considerable amount of guns and ammunition, including the gun used to shoot the three policemen. The dead man was George Gardstein, an anarchist from Latvia. Three others had fled the scene. Rewards were offered – up to £500 – a huge sum of money in 1910. The police were soon looking for an unidentified woman, Fritz Svaars and a Russian called Peter Piatkov, also known as Peter the Painter as that was his trade.On New Year’s Day 1911, a man walked into the police station with information that Svaars and another man, called Jacobs, were holed up at 100 Sidney Street.

 

The Siege of Sidney Street was a modern day media spectacular. Dozens of photographers and film makers from British Pathé News – it was one of the first news stories captured on film – all assembled. You can view both postcard photographs of the events, below, and actual British Pathé newsreel, above, on We Were There Too.  Winston Churchill, then the Home Secretary, realising the political opportunity of the press being there,  arrived in person and became involved in operations. You can see various postcard photographs of Churchill. One legend is that the assailants shot at him and the bullet went through his top hat.

The police were out-gunned. Churchill sent for the army. A detachment of Scots Guards arrived from the Tower of London. This contributed to the legend of the ‘Battle of Stepney’. Eventually, the building the suspects were in caught fire. The fire brigade were to be called but one story is that Churchill stopped that from happening - something he denied. Fire eventually completely consumed the building. But were all the assailants caught? Two bodies were found. Neither was a woman’s body and what of the man called Peter the Painter? He assumed almost legendary status, the gang leader, the one that got away? Or, did he even exist?

You can read an extract from the Police report of events.

‘This gun battle, in which troops were brought in to assist the police, was unprecedented in the history of the Met. Although the Gardstein gang, (Latvian immigrant burglars), had already killed three policemen and injured two others when fighting their way out of the interrupted Houndsditch robbery, nobody envisaged the two men in 100 Sidney Street opening a gun battle and fighting to the death when they were surrounded with no possibility of escape.

The Metropolitan Police received information that two of the Gardstein gang were sheltering in Mrs Betsy Gershon's flat in Sidney Street. The combined force of Met and City Police cordoned off the area and evacuated other residents. The gunmen had removed Mrs Gershon's skirt and shoes to prevent her from leaving the building, but she was permitted to go downstairs, where the police rescued her.

Inspector F. P. Wensley, commanding the H Division (Whitechapel) police, went with several officers to knock on the door. Receiving no answer he threw pebbles at the window, from which there immediately came a volley of pistol shots, one of which hit Detective Sergeant Ben Leeson. Leeson needed immediate hospital treatment, and since the only way to carry him there out of the line of fire was to take him on the roof, Wensley, unarmed, supervised his removal.

The police were armed with bulldog revolvers, shotguns and rifles fitted with .22 Morris-tube barrels for use on a minature range, but these proved completely inadequate for flushing out the gunmen, whose Mauser pistols were capable of rapid and deadly fire. The Home Secretary Winston Churchill gave permission to send for troops before going himself to Sidney Street to take command.

Twenty one volunteer marksmen of the Scots Guards arrived from the Tower of London. Three were placed on the top floor of a nearby building, from which they could fire accurately into the second storey and attic windows from which the gunmen had been shooting. The gunmen were driven down to the lower floors where they came under fire from more guardsmen positioned in houses across the street.

Churchill arrived just before midday and decided heavier artillery was needed. Before it could arrive, smoke was observed rising from the building, and one of the gunmen emerged from a window, then fell back suddenly, almost certainly having been shot. The rate of fire then slowed considerably.

The building burst into flames, and although the Fire Brigade arrived they were forbidden by Churchill to extinguish the blaze. The last shots from 100 Sidney Street were heard at 2.10pm. Fire gutted the building, and the roof caved in. Firemen were at work to prevent damage to other buildings when a wall collapsed, burying five people, one of whom died in hospital. Two bodies were discovered inside the house, one on the first floor where he had been shot, and the other on the ground floor where he had been overcome by smoke.

The failure of the police marksmen and their equipment was duly noted, and improved firearms were ordered with better training for officers. This was a very rare case of a Home Secretary taking police operational command decisions.’

 

Compiled from extracts from:
1. ‘Siege of Sidney Street: How the dramatic stand-off changed British Police, politics and the media forever.’ The Independent, 11 December 2010;
2. Sidney St: The siege that shook Britain, BBC News Today programme, 13 December 2010;
3. The Siege of Sidney Street, Metropolitan Police archive.

 

About this Collection

London-based private collector, Adrian Andrusier, has for over 40 years been collecting postcards and postal history of Jewish life especially in the 1890-1940 period. 

Adrian is keen that educational organisations and other not-for-profit bodies freely use the images. Other, unauthorized use and for commercial purposes are not permitted and permission should be obtained in advance from Carla Drahorad at carla.drahorad@btopenworld.com

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London Jews in the First World War - We Were There Too

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