Had work not taken me to the Netherlands this week (a brief and bizarre trip to a lovely country, about which I will blog soon) then I would have spent yesterday at a brief ceremony unveiling a memorial plaque to honour the deaths of three City of London policemen, who were shot and killed in 16 December 1910, in one of the most infamous and intriguing cases in British criminal history.
The Siege of Sidney Street is well known, mainly because of the role of a young Winston Churchill. Little remembered are the incidents leading up to the siege. On 16 December a group of Latvian revolutionaries attempted to rob a jeweller's shop in Houndsditch, seeking to raise funds to help their fellow revolutionaries back home and in Russia. The heist was meticulously planned; the group had hired rooms at the back of the shop, and had got hold of a 60 foot rubber hose to use gas from their building to burn through the door of the safe. Unfortunately, in one of those nice little twists beloved of crime novelists, they chose to act on a Friday night, and their planning had not taken into account they were in a Jewish nieghbourhood and the following morning, the Jewish Sabbath, the unexpected noise alerted residents who then called the police.
There followed a shoot-out, a rather unfair one because the police were unarmed, and three were shot dead, still the worst fatal incident suffered by British police in peace time. One of the gang was killed, but the others - it was unsure how many there were - escaped. For the next few weeks, the story gripped the nation, and a huge manhunt was launched.
Winston Churchill was the Home Secretary. When he received news, on January 3rd 1911, that the police had been tipped off that the revolutionaries were hiding out in rooms on Sidney Street, east London, he raced from his office to Whitehall to the scene, dressed in his Astrakhan-collared coat and top hat (which, it is said, was hit by a stray bullet, passing clean through it), and watched the siege unfold from the front. It drew huge amounts of opprobrium from his political opponents who, probably rightly, believed Churchill to be thrusting himself centre stage, eager to gain all the political and public credit when the the men were apprehended, while showing himself to be a man of action and purpose. It worked; his photograph, peering around a corner, appeared on the front pages of every newspaper. One witness at the scene said that at one stage he heard Churchill offer some target advice to one of the snipers. The whole incident was captured on newsreel, and became a sensation. While he apologised for his rashness, there are those who believed the siege was the making of Churchill. It certainly imprinted him on the public's consciousness
The gang held out for seven hours against more than 200 armed police and a detachment of soldiers, before they eventually succumbed when the house burned down and they were killed by fire. Two bodies were found in the charred wreckage, though it was thought others might have escaped. One, known as 'Peter the Painter', was for many years the most wanted man in Britain, and took on a sort of mythic quality. British Intelligence was still looking for him in the 1920s; there were rumours of him moving to the States, others had him working for Lenin's secret police, while others, Keyser Soze-style, have doubted if he even existed.
The incident created a wave of fear towards immigrants, followed by inevitable calls for tough laws to be introduced to prevent a repeat. Churchill, to his credit, resisted any draconian measures, swayed by a letter written by fellow Liberal MP Josiah Wedgewood, just three days after the siege ended. New laws might be understandable, he wrote, 'but lower the whole character of the nation.'
'You know as well as I do that human life does not matter a rap in comparison with the death of ideas and the betrayal of English traditions.'
Food for thought in these equally turbulent times.