London Under Siege: Churchill and the Anarchists
Criminal gangs, immigration, political unrest on the streets, populist politicians and a media panic: given the recent street protests, this explosive combination may sound all too familiar to today’s Londoners. It was a century ago, however, when part of the East End, quite literally, combusted at the Siege of Sidney Street. A new exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands adds hard facts and historical context to the urban myths of a now infamous series of events.
A London Home
While the actual siege occurred in 1911, its roots lie in the abortive Russian revolution of 1905. Latvians, like their Petersburg brethren, took the opportunity of military defeat in the Russo-Japanese war, to rise up against their Tsarist ruler. Resistance was savagely crushed and the participants scattered across Europe. As John Slatter recorded, in this article from October 2003,
in Britain they sought, and mostly found, a kind of official indifference. They were neither celebrated nor persecuted so long as they did not continue their revolutionary activities on British soil.
London boasted a network of exotic political malcontents. Lenin published Iskra in London from 1903. He lived alongside European anarchists such as Enrico Malotesta and Peter Kropotkin. An 1890 political poster bill lines the walls of the exhibition. Among the speakers at the advertised event in Mile End are the designer and socialist William Morris, Irish party MP and ex-Fenian prisoner Michael Davitt, as well as Karl Marx’s daughter, Eleanor Marx Aveling. London, and specifically east London, was a natural base of operations.
Click on image for slideshow.
Activists... or Criminals?
Seeking funds for continued resistance against the Tsars, the Latvians saw armed robbery as a likely source of ready cash. John Slatter notes how:
the new refugees drew little distinction between revolutionary and criminal activity: ‘expropriations’ for the cause (i.e. robberies) and ‘courts of honour’ (‘kangaroo courts’) for errant comrades were viewed as justified in pursuit of the overall aim
A bungled attempt at robbery in January 1909 saw two Latvians, or ‘Letts’, as they were known, flee the scene, shooting as they went. Their subsequent deaths, by their own hands, added to that of a policeman and an unfortunate passing child, led to the interest of the press. The ‘Outrage of Tottenham’, as it was christened, resulted in a barrage of scornful and panic-inducing headlines. The press identified seditious foreign political groups as a significant threat to public safety. Needless to say, blanket coverage of events such as the ‘Outrage of Tottenham’ also helped to sell newspapers.
Nearly two years later, on the night of 16th December 1910, a small group of anarchist ‘Letts’ attempted another robbery. This time, a jeweller’s shop in Houndsditch was targeted. Upon their activity being discovered, the gang shot and killed three policemen, injuring two more. These murders remain the highest loss of police life on a single day. Predictably, the public outrage among politicians, the press and ordinary Londoners at such an act was considerable.
Less than a month after the Houndsditch murders, two of the gang members were reported to be hiding out in a house in Sidney Street. The resultant siege lasted for nearly two days. Shots were fired from the house and returned by the waiting police. The Scots Guards were called in, crowds gathered and eager newsmen encircled the street. In a bizarre turn of events, the youthful home secretary, a certain Winston Churchill, arrived on the scene. Subsequently a fire broke out, engulfing the burglars’ lair. The anarchists died in the blaze, their accomplices were later acquitted, but the furore they had helped to cause would last for many years to come.
The Museum of London Dockland’s exhibition does much to clearly and concisely link together the major historical themes surrounding these events. Immigration, xenophobia, terrorism and the fascination of the media with crime sprees and exotic criminals are all central to understanding why the Sidney Street siege has accumulated such infamy. No less important are the roles played by two central figures.
Peter the Painter
A semi-mythical figure, ‘Peter the Painter’ is said by local legend not only to have led the violent Latvian anarchist gangs and master-minded the failed burglary in Houndsditch, but to have then escaped and continued his acts of terror. Various real people, among them an acquitted gang member called Jacob Peters, have been suggested as the basis of this story. However, what underlies this urban myth is the definitively English working class theme of anti-hero worship. ‘Peter the Painter’ joins Robin Hood, the Krays and Jack the Ripper among an exclusive group of mythologised yet mysterious criminals.
As Clive Bettington from the Jewish East End Celebration Society says,
“the siege of Sidney Street is part of East End and socialist folklore and the area at the time was home to radical political groups, most of whom had come from Eastern Europe thus helping to exaggerate people’s imaginations about immigration and other cultures.”
Then, there is Churchill. For both contemporary peers and latter-day historians, his appearance on the scene is a mystery, as is the authenticity of the alleged bullet hole through his top hat (sadly, only his luxurious Astrakhan coat is on show at the exhibition).
What is on show, however, are detailed plans of Sidney Street, a three dimensional model of the Houndsditch jewellers, guns, bullets, knives, tools and clothes used in the robbery, some stunning British Pathé footage of the siege, and not to mention a wealth of press and amateur photography.
The focus of the media on Churchill is a key theme to emerge from the events. As Nicholas Hiley wrote for History Today in 1993, a famous photograph taken at the scene by Edward Zimmermann of Central News Photos,
appeared in numerous papers including the Daily Mail, Daily Mirror, Daily Express, and Daily Sketch. By circulating this dramatic image to millions of readers the illustrated newspapers helped to focus public attention on Winston Churchill's behaviour. 'I understand what the photographer was doing', noted Arthur Balfour in the House of Commons, 'but what was the Right Hon. Gentleman doing?' It was a question that would follow Churchill for many years.
Whether the Home Secretary felt a personal connection to the resolution of the affair, or was wooing the attentions of the press, is not known. What the exhibition does suggest, however, is a clear lineage between Churchill and each event leading up to the siege.
At the exhibition opening, historian Clive Bloom noted how the ‘Outrage of Tottenham’ had occurred, nearly two years earlier, within Churcill’s Commons constituency. Photos of the Houndsditch police funerals clearly show the home secretary in attendance.
As Julia Hoffbrand, curator of the exhibition, said, “the top hat Churchill wore at the siege may still exist somewhere and it would be really interesting to find it. So if anyone you know has a battered top hat in their attic with an unexplained bullet hole in it, please let us know!”.
London Under Siege: Churchill and the Anarchists, 1911 opens on 18 December 2010 and runs until April 2011 at the Museum of London Docklands. Entry is free.
Nicholas Hiley's Candid Camera of the Edwardian Tabloids (1993)
John Slatter's Our Friends from the East (2003)
Victor Bailey's Churchill as Home Secretary (1985)
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