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SIEGE OF SIDNEY ST—AMAZING STREET BATTLE IN MILE END

PUBLISHED: 13:08 25 September 2008 | UPDATED: 13:39 05 October 2010

Churchill (highlighted) at the Seige of Sidney Street, January 3, 1911

Churchill (highlighted) at the Seige of Sidney Street, January 3, 1911

THE 1911 Siege of Sidney Street’ was reported at the time under the East London Advertiser’s headline: AMAZING STREET BATTLE IN MILE END—Guards, Artillery, Armed Police and Firemen Held at Bay—Astounding scenes in attempt to arrest two murderers. This unremarkable turning became one of the most notorious thoroughfares on January 3, 1911, after a 13-hour siege

Researched by Inga Vesper

THE 1911 Siege of Sidney Street’ was reported at the time under the East London Advertiser’s headlines:

AMAZING STREET BATTLE IN MILE END

Guards, Artillery, Armed Police and Firemen Held at Bay.

Astounding scenes in attempt to arrest two murderers.

This hitherto unremarkable turning off the Whitechapel-road, in the former Mile End Old Town district just beyond Whitechaapel, became one of the most notorious thoroughfares in Europe on January 3, 1911, when two anarchists were killed in a 13-hour siege.

Police drew a cordon around the house at 100, Sidney-street, after having received information that two members of Peter Piaktow’s ruthless gang of anarchists were in hiding there, the East London Advertiser reported that week.

Piaktow—better known as Peter the Painter’—and his gang were involved in the gruesome Houndsditch murders two weeks before, which left three brave police officers dead in a shootout.

The criminals were being hunted throughout London when police were told that some of the anarchists were in Martin’s Mansions, Sidney-street. They surrounded the area at 2am to ward off the criminals’ escape.

But the inmates knew what was at hand and were prepared to sell their liberty. A revolver fight ensued, during which Detective Sergeant Leeson was shot in the chest.

Reinforcements were sent for, the number of men now numbering about 1,000, and vigorous fire was maintained on the criminals’ fortress.

Rumours were early afloat and soon a mass of people gathered around the battle scene. Residents in Sidney-street rented out their rooms to the curious folk and the crowd seemed peculiarly unconcerned about the bullets flying about.

All were wholly in sympathy with the police and even the foreign element hoped that the desperados would be captured.

Police resorted to different tactics, one of which involved a dummy policeman which was drawn upright in front of one of the windows opposite and drew a heavy revolver fire from the anarchists.

The “Ping-Pong” of the shots rang out frequently and at 11.30am the Home Secretary, Mr Winston Churchill, arrived at the scene to oversee the progression. He brought with him the military from The Tower and the fire was greatly increased.

The appearance of the Scots Guards aroused much enthusiasm among the bystanders who broke into calls of “Three cheers for Old England.” Hardly less popular were the firemen as they dashed by on their engine and hose carriage.

Eight policemen and two bystanders were injured and a sheepdog and a cat also fell victims to the anarchists’ revolvers. One of the injured, Sergeant Chick, had the honour of being taken to hospital in Mr Churchill’s motorcar.

At 12.50am it was noticed that the house which hid the two assailants was well ablaze. Police expected the two besieged to rush out of the flames, but nothing of the sort occurred.

The Home Secretary deterred the fire brigade from extinguishing the blaze in the hope of chasing the criminals out of their hole.

However, soon it became manifest that no-one could remain alive in the inferno.

At 2.20pm the flames had been subdued and firemen entered the gutted building, where they found a bowler hat.

On the first floor they made the gruesome discovery of a charred body, later identified as Fritz Svaars.

Five hours later, detectives uncovered the second body under a heap of debris. Its identity first remained unproved, but was later established as that of William Sokolov.

No trace was found of the notorious Peter the Painter.

Joseph Perry, a wanted pickpocket, was caught during the incident by the respectable Mr Geoffrey Crush when he put his hands into the gentlemen’s pocket. When Mr Crush caught him by the wrist, Perry exclaimed loudly: “It wasn’t me!”

A party of Royal Engineers had been requested from Chatham to effect an underground entrance to the house, but upon the arrival they found that the house had already burnt down.

The tragic heart attack of a 74-year-old ex-Metropolitan policeman was recorded during the siege. Retired Mr James Buckingham returned home in an excited state after having witnessed the battle. He exclaimed to his wife: “It’s awful”—then sank back into his armchair, dead.

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