Siege of Sidney Street

by Ben Johnson

Nowhere in the world is as famous for its murders as the East End of London. Jack the Ripper, the Krays, the Ratcliffe Highway murders of 1811 are all cases for the connoisseur of crime.

Matching these were two related cases which occurred in December 1910 and January 1911; the Houndsditch murders and the Siege of Sidney Street which left three police officers dead and three more seriously injured.

Houndsditch is a long thoroughfare which runs from Bishopsgate to Aldgate High Street. Located at 120 Houndsditch was an import business run by a man named Max Weil. On the night of 16th December 1910 Weil arrived at number 120 to find his sister and their housemaid in a state of agitation. They could hear sounds coming from the jeweller’s shop next door at number 119 which suggested that someone was trying to break in from the rear of the premises.

Number 119 backed onto a tenement at 11 Exchange Buildings. Weil decided to alert the police of a possible break-in to the jewellers from Exchange Buildings. He walked around the corner to Bishopsgate police station and returned with Constable Piper who knocked on the door of number 11. Piper had a brief, unsatisfactory conversation with the man who answered the door and then left, his suspicions now thoroughly aroused, to summon help.

Piper returned with three sergeants and five more constables. One of the sergeants, Bentley, knocked on the door again. It was answered by the same man who had spoken to Piper. After another brief conversation, the man tried to shut the door in Bentley’s face. However, the sergeant was having none of this and he pushed his way into number 11.

All hell erupted. Bentley was met with two gunshots which struck him in the neck. He staggered back through the doorway, stunned and dying. Standing behind him, Sergeant Bryant now saw the gun being turned on him. More shots rang out hitting Bryant in the chest and arm. A constable named Woodhams ran to his assistance only to fall to a bullet in the thigh.

Both Bryant and Woodhams survived their wounds but were invalided out of the police force. Sergeant Tucker was not so lucky. He was shot twice, in the heart and the hip, by a man who appeared in the doorway of number 11. Tucker collapsed dying.

His killer now came scuttling from the building followed by at least two other men and a woman. As they sought to escape, another officer, Constable Choat, reared up out of the darkness at them, grappling with one of the men who responded by firing four bullets into his leg. Another of the gang came up behind Choat and pumped two shots into his back. Choat fell, dragging the man he had grabbed down with him. A third member of the gang now fired at Choat but hit the man he was holding, who was then borne away by his cohorts leaving Choat dying on the pavement.

The slain policemen were from the City of London force, but it was into the heart of the East End, Metropolitan Police territory, that the murder gang fled.

The man who had been mistakenly shot by his cohorts was found dead from his gunshot wounds in his lodgings the following day. His name was George Gardstein, and although that was not his real identity, he turned out to be the de facto leader of the gang, a group of Latvian anarchists who called themselves “Leesma”, meaning flame. They were a small group, around thirteen strong, including two women. Although ostensibly anarchists, subsequent research has pinpointed them as ‘expropriators”, carrying out robberies to fund Lenin and his Bolshevik movement. After the Russian revolution, one of the Leesma members, Jacob Peters, was to become second in command of Cheka, the dreaded Bolshevik secret police. Some modern historians believe that it was Peters who fired the shots which killed Bentley, Tucker and Choat and injured Bryant.

The Metropolitan and City police forces launched a joint operation to hunt down the anarchists and by the end of the year Peters and several others were in custody. Then, on the evening of 1st January 1911 a muffled figure slipped furtively into the City police headquarters at Old Jewry. Although never officially identified he is now known to have been Charles Perelman, former landlord to a number of Leesma members. Perelman had important information to impart. Two of the anarchists, Fritz Svaars and Josef Sokoloff were holed up in a second floor room at 100 Sidney Street. They were, he warned, armed with Mauser pistols.

In the early hours of 3rd January a long file of police officers wound their way through the silent streets of the East End to Sidney Street, which runs from Commercial Street in the south to the junction of Whitechapel and Mile End Roads to the north. The officers had not been told what their mission was but they knew that it was dangerous because the married men had been excluded. Some were armed but their weapons, antique revolvers, tube rifles and shotguns, were more suited to a museum than a gun battle.

On reaching Sidney Street the police evacuated the houses adjoining number 100 and then the first two floors of number 100 itself. By daybreak the stage had been lit for the great drama which was about to unfold over the next few hours.

At 07.30 Svaara and Sokoloff were alerted to their predicament. The front door was banged loudly and pebbles were hurled up at the anarchist’s window. They answered with several shots. Detective Sergeant Ben Leeson collapsed gravely wounded. Like Bryant and Woodhams, he recovered but was invalided out of the police force.

Battle commenced, but despite being so heavily outnumbered it was Svaars and Sokoloff who had the better of the fire fight. Their powerful handguns far outranged the police’s inferior weapons. Hopes that they might not have much ammunition were soon dashed.

The hours passed without discernable benefit for the besieging force. Midway through the morning Home Secretary Winston Churchill gave permission for the army to be used and in a short time a detachment of the Scots Guards turned up. Their participation transformed the situation. Equipped with powerful Lee Enfield rifles the soldiers virtually shot the second floor to pieces, forcing the duo to move downstairs and fire from the first and ground floor windows. But here too they were subject to a galling fire.

At noon Churchill himself came to watch the action, taking up a position close to the firing line. This was to be the subject of controversy. One o’clock and the house was seen to be on fire. The anarchists had not much longer to live. One of them was observed at a back window blazing away with two pistols. A little later one of the pistols was seen to jam.

The fire brigade was summoned but ordered to concentrate purely on preventing the fire from spreading. Now the soldiers redoubled their efforts sending a hail of shots screaming through the windows of number 100. Sokoloff peered out through the maelstrom; a volley of shots ripped his head apart. Svaars mourned him with a barrage of return fire, but it was to be his final flourish because now the burning house had begun to cave in. He was last seen lying on a ground floor bed with his face in a pillow. The ceiling then collapsed and that was the end of him. By 2pm the siege of Sidney Street was over.

Aftermath

There was to be one final fatality resulting from the Houndsditch murders and the siege. On entering number 100 District Fire Officer Charles Pearson was struck by a piece of falling masonry which severed his spine and left him paralysed. He lingered for six months before succumbing to his injuries. On 6th January 2011 a plaque to his memory was unveiled at the site of where number 100 used to stand.

Jacob Peters and three other anarchists, Yourka Dubof, John Rosen and Nina Vassileve were subsequently tried for the Houndsditch murders but were all acquitted apart from Vassileve, who was found guilty of a minor offence which was subsequently quashed on appeal. Rightly or wrongly Gardstein, Svaars and Sokoloff were held to be the main culprits in the killing of the three officers.

It is fascinating to speculate on how different our history would have been had Churchill been shot and killed during the fire fight. Had he not been there in 1940 then Lord Halifax would have become Prime Minister and he was known to favour negotiated peace with the Nazis. Fascinating indeed!

With thanks to William (Bill) Beadle, Chairman of the Whitechapel Society

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