Washington Society for Churchill
By Chris Sterling
Washington Society for Churchill members convened at Laura and Chris Harmon’s home for a lovely selection of desserts and an informative talk and discussion about Churchill and Sidney Street-the infamous 2-3 January 1911 confrontation between anarchists and London police (and more than a few soldiers as well). Film and photos survive showing the well-dressed young Home Secretary observing events on the third, during the long shoot-out (in the East London area now known as Stepney) where two anarchists were killed. The face-off grew out of a botched anarchist bank robbery on Cutler Street on 16 December 1910-which London authorities have just marked with an historic bronze plaque.
Dr Harmon played some of that historical film as part of his talk on what took place that day 100 years ago-and why. And he highlighted the five decisions Churchill made concerning the event to authorize the use of force, to go to the scene himself on January 3rd and to let the building burn despite fire department concerns, to re-arm London police as a matter of policy, and to harden his position on reform legislation concerning alien rights. For example, letting that Sidney Street building (from which the anarchists were shooting) burn out underlined tensions between fire and police authorities. Churchill backed the latter’s concern for police lives. Ninety years later, on 9/11, fire and police authorities disagreed about using helicopters to land atop the World Trade towers in an attempt to rescue those trapped there. The functions of the two public services during crises often pull them in different directions.
An animated discussion ensued about how the anarchists of a century ago relate (and in some crucial ways do not relate) to the terrorist movement of today. Both were networks of dedicated and sometimes desperate men and women who seek to topple the political power structure. But while religion drives many terrorists today, anarchists then were against any religion at all. How the actions of such extremists impact legislation concerning alien rights was also as much an issue then as it is today.
And Churchill? Reconsidering his own actions years later, he admitted he probably should have stayed in the office.