10 London sites associated with Sir Winston Churchill – 8. Sidney Street, Stepney…

April 1, 2015

Sidney-Street

Sir Winston Churchill will be forever associated with this now rather nondescript East London street, thanks to a series of events that occurred when he was Home Secretary.

Known as the Siege of Sidney Street or the Battle of Stepney, the event was sparked when, on 16th December, 2010, a gang of Russian and Latvian exiles attempted to break into a jewellers in Houndsditch by tunnelling from an adjacent property in Exchange Buildings.

Tipped off by a neighbour, the police arrived and in the series of events that followed, a number of officers were shot and three – Sergeant Charles Tucker, PC Walter Choate and Sergeant Robert Bentley – were killed (Sergeant Tucker died at the scene and the latter two later that day in hospital). The event became known as the Houndsditch Murders.

The gang members largely escaped – although one gang member, George Gardstein, was later found dead of wounds he had received during the gunfight – and an intensive manhunt commenced for the gang.

Some two weeks later, on 2nd January, 1911, police were informed that several members of the gang, including the alleged mastermind known as Peter the Painter (who may not have even existed or who may have been a Polish decorator Peter Piaktow), were hiding at a property at 100 Sidney Street.

Expecting fierce resistance, several hundred police officers moved in to surround the property the next day and, at dawn – after encountering heavy fire from the building, the siege began.

When the then 36-year-old Churchill received word of the siege (apparently while taking a bath), he made his way to the site, already attracting crowds of onlookers, to observe and apparently offer advice.

At the scene he authorised the use of the military – including a detachment of Scots Guards from the Tower of London and 13 pounder artillery pieces. These, drawn by the Royal Horse Artillery, had just arrived when a fire began to consume the building (it may have been sparked by a bullet hitting a gas pipe). The fire brigade attended but Churchill apparently refused them entry until the shooting stopped.

The gang members inside the building never attempted to escape the building and the remains of two of them – Latvians Fritz Svaars and William Sokolow – were subsequently found in its ruins.

Along with the thee policemen killed at the attempted burglary, a firefighter – Charles Pearson – was also killed, struck by falling debris. There is a memorial plaque to him at the former site of 100 Sidney Street.

Seven supposed members of the gang were eventually captured by police but all either had the charges dropped, were acquitted or had their convictions quashed.

Churchill’s role at the six hour siege was the matter of some controversy and former PM (and then Opposition Leader) Arthur Balfour was among those who accused him of acting improperly and risking lives.

There’s a famous photo of Churchill – who was recorded by one of his biographers saying the event had been “such fun” – peering around a corner at the scene (there’s a story that a bullet tore through his top hat, almost killing him, during the siege) while the event was also one of the first news stories to be captured on film (by Pathe News).

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