diamond geezer

 Monday, January 03, 2011

And now a proper East End anniversary. It's 100 years ago today since the Siege of Sidney Street. A group of criminal immigrants hid away in a house with firearms, the police turned up en masse to force them out, and an important member of the Government popped down to help organise things. Events you can still imagine happening today, as well as the Daily Mail headline that would follow. (hang on, why imagine)

The story had begun two weeks earlier, on 16th December 1910. A gang of Latvian thieves broke into the back of a jewellers in Houndsditch, but their scrabbling aroused the suspicions of neighbours who then alerted the police. Attempts to engage the burglars in conversation proved impossible, given the language difficulties, so the police got suspicious and entered the building to find out more. A tense shoot-out ensued, and three of the policemen were killed as the gang tried to escape. The incident shocked the public, who were made even more indignant by the fact that almost all of the thieves managed to get away.

Houndsditch today is a gloomy one-way thoroughfare leading out of the City. The Heron Tower is going up at one end, while at the other is the Aldgate gyratory system. No jewellers, just a lot of midrise offices and places where bankers can spend money on food and drink. In this respect it's like a lot of similar nearby streets, with all character and charmed sucked out by Luftwaffe raids and indiscriminate modern architecture. No obvious sign either of the plaque recently erected to commemorate the centenary of the Houndsditch Murders. For that you have to look one street further back, on the Petticoat Lane side, screwed to a low wall near the entrance to Devonshire Square. The plaque already looks slightly weatherbeaten (for which I blame recent weather), and it's not ideal to have to crouch to read the names of the three dead officers properly. But about time.

Sidney Street's a mile away, on the dividing line between Whitechapel and Stepney. The infamous siege took place on 3rd January 1911 after an informant alerted police that gang members were holed up at number 100. At dawn around two hundred armed officers surrounded the building, part of a three-storey brick terrace of typically poor East End stock. The police should have had the upper hand, but the gang had superior weapons and so a lengthy stand-off developed. A top-hatted Winston Churchill turned up, because he was Home Secretary at the time, and got rather closer to the action than many commentators thought wise. One MP in a top hat, scores of officers in helmets, and huge crowds of spectators in flat caps at the end of the street - the scene was headgear-tastic. The field artillery arrived, at Churchill's behest, but by this time one gang member had been shot and the building was on fire. The Fire Brigade left it to burn, and two charred bodies were later recovered from the remains.

Sidney Street's also completely changed since 1911. The old poverty has been swept away to be replaced by a variety of post-war council housing, none of it lovely. The eastern side of the street is now a bland storage warehouse, overlooked by the bright blue tower of the new Royal London Hospital. 100 Sidney Street's long gone, along with the whole of Hawkins Street (which it was on the corner of). In its place stands Wexford House - a block with five long balconies of the kind that actors in The Bill used to spend all their time chasing criminals along. There's a brick staircase out front where someone could put a plaque, but rest assured nobody will because the past's completely vanished around here.

Newsreels of the event were shown in cinemas across London that evening. The siege captured the public imagination, and helped fuel further anti-immigrant feeling across the East End. Churchill's career went from good to (eventually) better. The Metropolitan Police bought themselves better firearms for future incidents. The rest of the gang bar one were later captured, but acquitted. Their leader, nicknamed 'Peter the Painter', was never found and has since entered anarchist folklore. And all this might seem an age ago, except those newsreels still survive and bring the whole peculiarly savage event to life. Video's been making an impact on newsgathering for 100 years, ensuring that the Siege of Sidney Street can never be forgotten.

There's a small exhibition at the Museum in Docklands at the moment, entitled London Under Siege: Churchill and the Anarchists, 1911. It details the background to Houndsditch and Sidney Street, as well as showing two different contemporary newsreels on a big screen. There are bullets and guns, there's the actual safe-breaking equipment, there's even Churchill's big winter overcoat that he wore on the day of the siege. While I was there some bloke was busy bemoaning that some of the information was incorrect, but you'll probably have a quieter time of it. You'll find the exhibition at the end of the gallery tour until April, or just take the lift to the second floor and there it is.

Commemorating the Siege of Sidney Street
» The full story, in several chapters, at Spitalfields Life
» 1911 article from the Manchester Guardian
» Exhibition at the Museum of Docklands (and Study Day, March 5th)
» Guided Walk: Churchill and the Anarchists (9 Jan, 6 Feb, 19 Mar: £9)
» Resonance FM remembers the Siege (and Peter the Painter)

<< click for Newer posts

click for Older Posts >>

click to return to the main page

...or read more in my monthly archives
Jan18  Feb18  Mar18  Apr18  May18  Jun18  Jul18
Jan17  Feb17  Mar17  Apr17  May17  Jun17  Jul17  Aug17  Sep17  Oct17  Nov17  Dec17
Jan16  Feb16  Mar16  Apr16  May16  Jun16  Jul16  Aug16  Sep16  Oct16  Nov16  Dec16
Jan15  Feb15  Mar15  Apr15  May15  Jun15  Jul15  Aug15  Sep15  Oct15  Nov15  Dec15
Jan14  Feb14  Mar14  Apr14  May14  Jun14  Jul14  Aug14  Sep14  Oct14  Nov14  Dec14
Jan13  Feb13  Mar13  Apr13  May13  Jun13  Jul13  Aug13  Sep13  Oct13  Nov13  Dec13
Jan12  Feb12  Mar12  Apr12  May12  Jun12  Jul12  Aug12  Sep12  Oct12  Nov12  Dec12
Jan11  Feb11  Mar11  Apr11  May11  Jun11  Jul11  Aug11  Sep11  Oct11  Nov11  Dec11
Jan10  Feb10  Mar10  Apr10  May10  Jun10  Jul10  Aug10  Sep10  Oct10  Nov10  Dec10 
Jan09  Feb09  Mar09  Apr09  May09  Jun09  Jul09  Aug09  Sep09  Oct09  Nov09  Dec09
Jan08  Feb08  Mar08  Apr08  May08  Jun08  Jul08  Aug08  Sep08  Oct08  Nov08  Dec08
Jan07  Feb07  Mar07  Apr07  May07  Jun07  Jul07  Aug07  Sep07  Oct07  Nov07  Dec07
Jan06  Feb06  Mar06  Apr06  May06  Jun06  Jul06  Aug06  Sep06  Oct06  Nov06  Dec06
Jan05  Feb05  Mar05  Apr05  May05  Jun05  Jul05  Aug05  Sep05  Oct05  Nov05  Dec05
Jan04  Feb04  Mar04  Apr04  May04  Jun04  Jul04  Aug04  Sep04  Oct04  Nov04  Dec04
Jan03  Feb03  Mar03  Apr03  May03  Jun03  Jul03  Aug03  Sep03  Oct03  Nov03  Dec03
 Jan02  Feb02  Mar02  Apr02  May02  Jun02  Jul02 Aug02  Sep02  Oct02  Nov02  Dec02 

eXTReMe Tracker
jack of diamonds
Life viewed from London E3

» email me
» follow me on twitter
» follow the blog on Twitter
» follow the blog on RSS

my flickr photostream