By Stanley Smith
Finest Hour 43
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!”
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