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.