The centenary of the Siege of Sidney Street is a reminder of a rather different age of radicalism.
By Mick Hume
This week marks the centenary of the bloody events that led to a blazing political gun battle in London’s East End, known as the Siege of Sidney Street. The coincidence puts the current hysteria about protests in the capital in some historical context.
It is a reminder of a time when ‘anarchy in London’ meant much more than some ‘A’ for anarchist symbols painted on walls with broken windows; when the London authorities sought to crush their opponents with guns and real artillery rather than kettles and water-cannons; and when the Liberal government’s home secretary – Winston Churchill – appeared at the barricades to supervise the siege rather than at press conferences to fire soundbites at the media.
One hundred years ago, on 16 December 1910, a group of Latvian anarchists and radicals were disturbed during an attempted robbery of a jeweller’s shop in Houndsditch in the City of London. They opened fire on the police, killing three officers and seriously wounding two others. To this day these remain the worst casualties sustained by the Metropolitan Police in a single incident. The officers killed are being commemorated this week.
The killings sparked a major backlash, aimed particularly at the Eastern European political refugees who had fled to London’s East End. ‘Who are these fiends in human shape?’ demanded the Daily Mirror headline, while the authorities offered a sizeable £500 reward for the capture of named suspects. In the days that followed, the police found one of the robbers dead, having been accidentally shot by his comrades during the clash, and rounded up several other Latvian anarchists and revolutionaries.
A fortnight after the shootings the police received information that the last two or three of the wanted men were holed up in a house in Stepney. In the early hours of 3 January 1911, the Siege of Sidney Street began. Hundreds of armed officers surrounded the building, occupied the local area and began pouring gunfire into the house, while crowds hung out of windows to watch the spectacle and the media gathered to report it; it was one of the first news stories to be filmed live, by Pathé News, for the newsreels shown in cinemas.
However, the story did not go to script. The rump of anarchists turned out to be better armed than the entire Met, with German Mauser automatic pistols and plenty of ammunition. The authorities called in the Irish Guards, armed with rifles, to join the battle. By now Churchill, the home secretary, had turned up at the scene to direct operations, looking like a caricature of a visiting toff in his fur-collared overcoat and silk top hat. At his suggestion an artillery gun was wheeled in to shell the anarchists. Before it could be deployed, the house in Sidney Street caught fire. Churchill refused to allow firefighters near the blaze, and the Latvians refused to come out. The bodies of two of them were found in the ruins.
After the fiasco of the siege, attention quickly turned to the fate of the mysterious ‘Peter the Painter’, one of the men named on the reward posters and allegedly the leader of the Latvian group. Many believed he had somehow escaped from the Sidney Street conflagration, though there is no evidence that he was ever in the house and indeed no certainty that he even existed. Nevertheless, Peter the Painter became something of a rebellious folk anti-hero around the East End and beyond; the Mauser pistols used by the Latvians were reportedly referred to as Peter the Painters during the Irish War of Independence against the British Empire.
Nobody was ever convicted of killing the three policemen. One of those tried and acquitted, Jacob Peters, returned to Russia where, after the Bolshevik Revolution, he became a leading player in the Cheka, Lenin’s secret police. Peters was executed by Stalin during the purges of the 1930s. Donald Rumbelow, a British former policeman and real crime author, has long claimed that it was Peters who fired the fatal shots in the Houndsditch police killings, though others see this claim as tinted by the Cold War worldview.
Whatever the truth about who did what, the legend of Peter the Painter and the Siege of Sidney Street offers a reminder of a very different age of radical politics and state repression. The elusive ‘Peter’ has been described as ‘the Osama bin Laden of his time’, but these revolutionaries were not terrorists as that term is understood today – although their hard schooling in the autocratic empires of the east meant they were not averse to violence and armed robbery where deemed necessary. Many of the thriving communities of East European anarchists and communists in London at that time had been involved in the popular 1905 revolution against Tsarist Russia, and had gone into exile to escape the repressive regime of terror, torture and executions that followed. In 1907 Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin and other leading Russian revolutionaries attended a congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in an East London church.
In recent years, another British author, Phil Ruff, has concluded that the most likely candidate for ‘Peter the Painter’ is Janis Zhaklis, a leading member of Latvia’s revolutionary Social Democratic movement who reportedly took part in armed attacks on the Tsarist regime’s prison and secret police department in Riga in 1905-6 before being forced into exile. Zhaklis’ commitment to armed struggle over political struggle apparently led him to split from the Social Democrats and move in a more anarchistic direction. In exile his political group, like others, raised funds for their struggle against autocratic oppressors through ‘expropriations’ – aka robbing the rich. The young Stalin was a noted bank robber for the Bolsheviks, arguably his most useful contribution to the revolutionary cause. (Zhaklis is also said to have given Lenin some of the funds from an ‘expropriated’ Helsinki bank.) Before the abortive raid on the Houndsditch jewellers, Peter the Painter’s group of Latvians had staged another failed robbery in north London in January 1909, this time of a factory’s wages. The ‘Tottenham Outrage’ as it became known culminated in a six-mile armed police chase across the Lea Valley that left two dead and two dozen injured.
Although the Latvian anarchists were eventually routed, the disastrous Siege of Sidney Street of a hundred years ago was to act as a catalyst bringing British policing, politics and the media closer to the modern era. The authorities’ embarrassment at being outgunned by two (or three?) opponents led to the rearming of the Metropolitan Police Force with more modern weapons. The turning of a policing operation into a major media spectacle, complete with running film, was a step towards the phenomenon of news-as-theatre with which we are now over-familiar. And at the centre of this show was Churchill, an Edwardian imperialist-turned-celebrity statesman who liked nothing better than spectacle and always wanted to be in the front line of events (even trying, as an elderly wartime prime minister, to join the Allied forces crossing the Channel on D-Day in 1944). On his return from the siege, according to Martin Gilbert’s biography, Churchill told his horrified secretary that ‘It wath such fun!’, his excitement for once causing him to let slip his lisp.
However, Churchill was to be widely ridiculed for his preposterous appearance at the Sidney Street debacle, both by the jeering public and his rivals in the political establishment. Tory opposition leader Arthur Balfour noted in parliament that, ‘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?’ That is one question current Tory home secretary Teresa May is unlikely to have had to answer when grilled by MPs over the policing of the recent London protests. But then I suppose the anarchist wall-daubers she is hunting are not quite Peter the Painter.
An exhibition about the Houndsditch murders and the Siege of Sidney Street opens at the Museum of London Docklands this week.