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Sidney St: The siege that shook Britain

Winston Churchill (in top hat) directed operations from the scene
Winston Churchill (in top hat) directed operations from the scene

By Sanchia Berg
Today programme

A hundred years on, the Siege of Sidney Street still resonates. The third of January 1911 was the day two Latvian anarchists held out in an East End tenement for seven hours against more than 200 armed police and a detachment of soldiers.

The might of the Empire turned against two desperate young Jewish men in an ordinary street. Thousands of Londoners came to watch. Winston Churchill, Home Secretary was at the scene too, in his distinctive Astrakhan collared coat: a stray bullet passed through his top hat.

The drama had really begun three weeks before, on December 16 1910, which is why the Museum of London Docklands opens its Sidney Street exhibition this week. A gang of Latvian revolutionaries tried to rob a jeweller's shop in Houndsditch.

It was one of a series of "expropriations" to raise funds for propaganda and help their fellow activists in Russia and Latvia.

They'd planned this carefully: renting rooms in the building which backed onto the rear of the shop. In the Museum of London is a 60 foot length of India rubber gas hose, bought by the would be burglars so they could use gas from their own building to burn through the jeweller's safe.

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In video: The Sidney St siege

But they had picked Friday night for the robbery, in a largely Jewish neighbourhood. The unexpected noise on the Jewish Sabbath disturbed residents: the police were called.

The gang fired on the unarmed officers. Three were killed, two injured. It's still the single worst incident for British police in peacetime.

The shock reverberated across Britain. Such extreme violence was new, characterised as being "alien" and "foreign" like the dangerous terrorists themselves.

One of the Latvians was hurt too. His friends carried him away, but he later died. The police were tipped off by an informant about the survivors: two men were hiding out in rooms at 100 Sidney Street, in the heart of Stepney.

In the overcrowded Edwardian East End, naturally they were not the only occupants of the house. There were fourteen occupants of the building including two families with small children.

The rubber hose used by the men  to burn through the safe
The rubber hose used by the men to burn through the jeweller's safe

Oddly, the police managed to evacuate them all at dawn, leaving the two gunmen on the second floor.

Then the armed officers moved in, more than two hundred of them. They shot at the house, trying to get the men out.

A detachment of Scots Guards were brought in to help. Jack Fudger, a young teenager at the time, was going to work as a cashier in a local tea shop when he found himself caught up in the siege.

"I goes across the road and all of a sudden 'Ping! Ping!' Good Lord! I see the dust coming out of the wall as the bullets were hitting the wall and then I see this policeman shot in the chest."

People sheltering in a stonemason's yard pulled Jack Fudger inside, and he watched as for hours the shooting continued. Speaking to the BBC over 50 years later, he recalled seeing Winston Churchill give some target advice to one of the snipers.

The Latvians were well armed: with the most modern weaponry of the time, Mauser automatic revolvers. They had plenty of ammunition.

Immigration fears

The police and soldiers were unable to get them out of the house : the siege only ended when the house caught fire, and the anarchists burned.

Julia Hoffbrand, curator of the new exhibition at the Museum of London, believes the Latvians feared capture.

"Nobody knows who started the fire," she explains. "It could have been the gunmen themselves, burning some of their anarchist literature. It may have been they didn't want to be taken alive.

"They'd come from Tsarist Russia, where if you were captured by the police you'd be tortured: they probably thought the same thing would happen here."

The police did arrest several people who were alleged to have helped the gunmen. They were put on trial and acquitted. One of them was Jacob Peters, later to become a leading figure in the Soviet secret police.

The siege was a media sensation of its time. Newsreel cameras had been rolling throughout, and the first films were showing in West End cinemas that same evening.

Mixed with relief that the siege was over and the gunmen dead was a sense of anxiety about the immigrant community in the East End, mostly Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe. Many called for tough new rules on immigration.

Not the Liberals though, who were in government. Josiah Wedgwood MP wrote to Churchill, just two days after the siege, urging him to oppose draconian measures: "It is fatally easy to justify them but they lower the whole character of the nation.

"You know as well as I do that human life does not matter a rap in comparison with the death of ideas and the betrayal of English traditions."

The laws were not changed.


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