Siege of Sidney Street: How the dramatic stand-off changed British police, politics and the media forever

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One hundred years ago, a botched robbery in the City of London ended in tragedy

The old buildings that once stood along Houndsditch and the parallel cul-de-sac called Exchange Buildings in the City of London were pulled down after the war, so the paving stones that were once stained with the blood of London bobbies and the bullet holes in the brickwork have disappeared.

But somewhere around what is now Devonshire Square, a dreadful crime was committed, 100 years ago. Three unarmed City of London police officers were shot and killed and two were wounded by a trigger-happy gang of burglars, making 16 December, 1910 the worst day in the history of the British police force. The aftermath of the murders 18 days later included one of the most spectacular gun battles ever fought on London streets, when the police trapped two members of the gang in what became known as the Siege of Sidney Street.

The killers were what we now call asylum seekers – refugees from Latvia, in the Russian empire, a fact which led the Liberal government of the day to revisit immigration law. It also provoked debate about whether the London police should be armed.

The horror of the Houndsditch murders was overshadowed by a similar outrage in 1966, when three London officers were killed in cold blood. As a result, what was one of the biggest crime stories in the capital's folklore is now half-forgotten, but the City of London police has plans this month to revive the memories of the men who died.

This Thursday, a plaque will be unveiled at the intersection of Houndsditch and Devonshire Square to commemorate the dead. The day before, wreaths will be laid at the graves of two of them. An f exhibition covering the murders and its spectacular aftermath opens at the Museum of London on Saturday. [18th]

Joe Hinton, from Surrey, is among the guests invited to witness the unveiling of a plaque, having recently discovered that a tale his grandmother used to tell was true – almost.

"When I was small, my nan used to have a book about Winston Churchill, and in it there was a picture of him in a top hat, at the Siege of Sidney Street, and she would say that a member of our family was killed in the siege. I took this with a pinch of salt," he says.

BIT ABOUT THE SIEGE HERE In fact, the only detail his grandmother got wrong was to confuse the Siege of Sidney Street, on 3 January 1911, with the murders that took place 18 days earlier. But she was right on the main point. Joe Hinton's great grandmother, was the sister of PC Walter Choate, who deserves to be remembered as the real hero of the story, who gave his life in an attempt to capture one of the men who had murdered two of his colleagues.

There was a similar confusion within the Goddard family, most of whom served with the Kent police force. Joan Dibble, who was born into the same family, and now lives in Carmarthen, said that she was told as a girl that a family member was "the only police officer killed at the Siege of Sidney Street".

"When I looked into it, I found that no police officer was killed there, and none of the police officers killed in Houndsditch was a Goddard, so I didn't know what was true until 2001, when a cousin came over from Colorado with loads of documents and a picture of Sergeant Robert Bentley, then it all fell into place." Joan's great grandfather was the brother of the widow of the most senior of the officers who died.

All should have been quiet along Houndsditch on that Friday evening, 16 December 1910, not least because the inhabitants of this part of London included a high proportion of Jewish refugees, who shut up shop for the Sabbath. But the quiet was disturbed by the sound of constant knocking and drilling, coming from the back of a jewellers' shop, HS Harris, at 119 Houndsditch, as if someone was working hard while everyone else was resting.

A man named Max Weil heard the racket when he returned at 10pm to his flat above a fancy goods shop, and reported it to a young beat copper, Walter Piper. PC Piper checked the front of the shop and went round to Exchange Buildings, which backed onto it, to knock on doors. A man with a foreign accent answered the door. The officer though he was suspicious, and reported back to Bishopsgate Police Station, where Robert Bentley was that night's duty sergeant that night. Bentley was a Cockney, a few days short of his 37th birthday, and a former soldier, who had fought in the Boer War. He had heard that some strange immigrants from the Russian empire had recently moved into Exchange Buildings, and assembled a posse of seven uniformed officers and two detectives to investigate.

It did not occur to them that they were walking into danger. They went equipped only with whistles and truncheons. The men inside Exchange Buildings were refugees from Latvia, where the 1905 revolution had been put down with exceptional violence. Their experience told them that uniformed policemen were armed and ready to kill or torture anyone who fell into their hands.

Two sergeants, Bentley and Bryant, tried the door of 11 Exchange Buildings, which was answered by a man who did not appear to understand English. He went inside, apparently to summon assistance. The officers waited, then followed him in, and exchanged a few words with a man standing at the top of the stairs inside. In the dark, with no electricity, they could only see his feet.

The officers decided to go further on into the house, but had hardly taken another step when a gunman burst out of the back room and opened fire. The man on the stairs also started shooting. Both sergeants were hit, but managed to stagger into the street, where a constable named Woodmans ran to help Bentley, and was shot in the thigh. He fainted.

There were two detectives in the line of fire, but the burglars were not frightened of men in plain clothes. They were only interesting in picking off the men in uniform. Two bullets hit Sergeant Charles Tucker, who was killed outright. PC Arthur Strongman, not knowing the sergeant was dead, carried him to safety, followed by one of the gunmen, who kept firing, but missed. In doing so, he stepped under a street light, which meant that the constable was the only one to see any of the killers' faces. The others saw only shadows, and the flashes as guns went off.

Walter Choate, a publican's son who came from a huger family of about 24 children, had been stationed at the end of the cul de sac, and saw a gunman running through the shadows. With almost suicidal courage, he grabbed him and refused to let go even as bullets hit him. His action probably saved PC Strongman's life, because two other burglars now ran to their captured confederate's assistance, firing at PC Choate, until he finally let go. In the melee, one of them accidentally shot the man PC Choate was holding. His friends carried the injured away and disappeared into the night. Witnesses later reported seeing three men and a woman heading towards Whitechapel. They had thought that one of the men was drunk, because his friends were helping him walk.

The outcry that followed can be imagined. With one officer dead, four injured, and the murderers still at large, it was the biggest crime story since the 'Jack the Ripper' murders. "Who Are These Fiends in Human Shape?" ran the headline in the Daily Mirror. Within 24 hours, the death toll had risen to three, when Bentley and Choate died in hospital. Louisa Bentley had to identify her husband's body on the day before their ninth wedding anniversary, when she was heavily pregnant. Her son, Robert, was born a few days later.

There were no state pensions or distress funds in those days for the families of officers killed on duty, but almost immediately money started coming from all over the British Empire. The widows of the two dead sergeants were awarded pensions of 30 shillings (15p) a week for life, provided "they remained of good character and did not remarry." Louisa Bentley was also awarded five shillings a week towards the upkeep of her two young children, to last until they reached the age of 15, though, as it turned out, her son died at the age of four, from diphtheria. Constable Choate died unmarried.

The police had their first lead on the killers' identities when a GP told them that he had been called to a house in Grove Street, within a mile of Houndsditch, to attend to a man who had been shot in the back, but was refusing to go to hospital. When the police arrived, they found a corpse lying in bed, and a horde of guns and ammunition, including a gun used to shoot all three of the murdered officers.

The dead man was George Gardstein, an anarchist from Latvia. Three other anarchists who had been living in the same house had fled. Reward notices were issued, offering £500 for information leading to the capture of an unidentified woman, a Latvian anarchist named Fritz Svaars, and a Russian named Peter Piatkov, known because of his trade as 'Peter the Painter'. The police rounded up a dozen or so Latvian exiles, including Svaars's cousin, Jacob Peters, but did not locate any of the men they were looking for until an informer walked into City police headquarters late on New Year's Day to say that Fritz Svaars and a man named Josef were hiding out at 100 Sidney Street, in Whitechapel.

While the murders had taken place in a dark alley where there were no witnesses other than the surviving officers, the Siege of Sidney Street was a media spectacular. Dozens of reporters and photographers came to watch as armed police and Scots Guards surrounded the house. It was one of the first news stories captured on film, by Pathe News. Winston Churchill, the Home Secretary, treated it as magnificent phot0 opportunity. Afterwards, according to one of his biographers, he remarked to a colleague that "It was such fun!"

Even the men trapped in the building seemed to be playing to the gallery. They opened fire as soon as they knew there were police outside, injured a police sergeant, fired about 400 rounds of ammunition during a six hour siege, and refused to surrender even after the house had caught fire. The man called Josef was shot in the head when he leant out too far to escape the heat. Svaars stayed inside, preferring death by fire to the treatment he assumed the police would mete out if they caught him alive.

Three burglars were known to have escaped from Harris the Jewellers, three men were dead. So far as the authorities were concerned, the case was solved. The other Latvians they had arrested were freed for lack of evidence. But the public was never quite satisfied. Where, people asked, was Peter the Painter? It is assumed that he skipped the country after the murders, and was never found. For many years, he was an almost legendary figure, because of a lingering suspicion that he was the gang leader, the one that got away.

In 1973, a police officer named Donald Rumbelow added a new element to the story by publishing a book which hypothesised that the burglar who fired the shots that killed Bentley, Tucker and Choate was actually Svaars's cousin, Jacob Peters, and that Svaars himself was not at the scene of the crime.

It is an interesting and carefully argued theory, but does not explain why Svaars behaved like a man with a lot on his conscience while Peters meekly allowed himself to be arrested and put his faith in British justice. There is also the detail Gardstein and Svaars were anarchists, and Peters was not. Exiles from the Russian empire took these distinctions very seriously, making it unlikely that Peters would have been involved in an anarchist escapade. He was a Bolshevik, which is what gave Rumbelow's theory its Cold War appeal. Peters went on to be a founder of the Cheka, forerunner of the KGB, and is still a very honoured figure in Russia. But, in truth we will never know for certain who murdered Sergeants Bentley and Tucker and the courageous Constable Choate.

graves of two of them. An exhibition covering the murders and its spectacular aftermath opens at the Museum of London this Saturday. Joe Hinton, from Surrey, is among the guests invited to witness the unveiling of a plaque, having recently discovered that a tale his grandmother used to tell was true – almost.

"When I was small, my nan used to have a book about Winston Churchill, and in it there was a picture of him in a top hat, at the Siege of Sidney Street, and she would say that a member of our family was killed in the siege. I took this with a pinch of salt," he says.

In fact, the only detail his grandmother got wrong was to confuse the Siege of Sidney Street, on 3 January, 1911, with the murders that took place 18 days earlier. But she was right on the main point. Joe Hinton's great grandmother was the sister of PC Walter Choate, and deserves to be remembered as the real hero of the story, who gave his life in an attempt to capture one of the men who had murdered two of his colleagues.

There was a similar confusion within the Goddard family, most of whom served with the Kent police force. Joan Dibble, who was born into the same family, and now lives in Carmarthen, said that she was told as a girl that a family member was "the only police officer killed at the Siege of Sidney Street".

"When I looked into it, I found that no police officer was killed there, and none of the police officers killed in Houndsditch was a Goddard, so I didn't know what was true until 2001, when a cousin came over from Colorado with loads of documents and a picture of Sergeant Robert Bentley, then it all fell into place." Joan's great-grandfather was the brother of the widow of the most senior of the officers who died.

All should have been quiet along Houndsditch on that Friday evening, 16 December, 1910, not least because the inhabitants of this part of London included a high proportion of Jewish refugees who had shut up shop for the Sabbath. But the quiet was disturbed by the sound of constant knocking and drilling, coming from the back of a jeweller's shop, HS Harris, at 119 Houndsditch, as if someone was working hard while everyone else was resting.

A man named Max Weil heard the racket when he returned at 10pm to his flat, which was above a fancy goods shop, and reported it to a young beat copper, Walter Piper. PC Piper checked the front of the shop and went round to Exchange Buildings, which backed on to it, to knock on doors. A man with a foreign accent answered the door. The officer thought that he was suspicious, and he reported back to Bishopsgate Police Station, where Robert Bentley was duty sergeant that night. Bentley was a cockney, a few days short of his 37th birthday, and a former soldier who had fought in the Boer War. He had heard that some strange immigrants from the Russian empire had recently moved into Exchange Buildings, and assembled a posse of seven uniformed officers and two detectives to investigate.

It did not occur to them that they were walking into danger. They went equipped only with whistles and truncheons. The men inside Exchange Buildings were refugees from Latvia, where the 1905 revolution had been quashed with exceptional violence. Their experience told them that uniformed policemen were armed and ready to kill or torture anyone who fell into their hands.

Two sergeants, Bentley and Bryant, tried the door of 11 Exchange Buildings, which was answered by a man who did not appear to understand English. He went inside, apparently to summon assistance. The officers waited, then followed him in, and exchanged a few words with a man standing at the top of the stairs inside. In the dark, with no electricity, they could only see his feet.

The officers decided to go further on into the house, but they had hardly taken another step when a gunman burst out of the back room and opened fire. The man on the stairs also started shooting. Both sergeants were hit, but managed to stagger into the street, where a constable named Woodmans ran to help Bentley, and was shot in the thigh. He fainted.

There were two detectives in the line of fire, but the burglars were not frightened of men in plain clothes. They were only interested in picking off the men in uniform. Two bullets hit Sergeant Charles Tucker, who was killed outright. PC Arthur Strongman, not knowing the sergeant was dead, carried him to safety, followed by one of the gunmen, who kept firing, but missed. In doing so, he stepped under a street light, which meant that the constable was the only one to see any of the killers' faces. The others saw only shadows, and the flashes as guns went off.

Walter Choate, a publican's son who came from a huge family of about 24 children, had been stationed at the end of the cul-de-sac, and saw a gunman running through the shadows. With almost suicidal courage, he grabbed him and refused to let go even as bullets hit him. His action probably saved PC Strongman's life, because two other burglars now ran to their captured confederate's assistance, firing at PC Choate, until he finally let go. In the melée, one of them accidentally shot the man PC Choate was holding. His friends carried the injured away and disappeared into the night. Witnesses later reported seeing three men and a woman heading towards Whitechapel. They had thought that one of the men was drunk, because his friends were helping him walk.

The outcry that followed can be imagined. With one officer dead, four injured, and the murderers still at large, it was the biggest crime story since the "Jack the Ripper" murders. "Who Are These Fiends in Human Shape?" ran the headline in the Daily Mirror. Within 24 hours, the death toll had risen to three, when Bentley and Choate died in hospital. Louisa Bentley had to identify her husband's body on the day before their ninth wedding anniversary, when she was heavily pregnant. Her son, Robert, was born a few days later.

There were no state pensions or distress funds in those days for the families of officers killed on duty, but almost immediately money started coming from all over the British Empire. The widows of the two dead sergeants were awarded pensions of 30 shillings (15p) a week for life, provided "they remained of good character and did not remarry". Louisa Bentley was also awarded five shillings a week towards the upkeep of her two young children, to last until they reached the age of 15, though, as it turned out, her son died at the age of four, from diphtheria. Constable Choate died unmarried.

The police gained their first lead on the killers' identities when a GP told them that he had been called to a house in Grove Street, within a mile of Houndsditch, to attend to a man who had been shot in the back, but was refusing to go to hospital. When the police arrived, they found a corpse lying in bed, and a horde of guns and ammunition, including a gun used to shoot all three of the murdered officers.

The dead man was George Gardstein, an anarchist from Latvia. Three other anarchists who had been living in the same house had fled. Reward notices were issued, offering £500 for information leading to the capture of an unidentified woman, a Latvian anarchist named Fritz Svaars, and a Russian named Peter Piatkov, known because of his trade as "Peter the Painter". The police rounded up a dozen or so Latvian exiles, including Svaars's cousin, Jacob Peters, but did not locate any of the men they were looking for until an informer walked into City police headquarters late on New Year's Day to say that Fritz Svaars and a man named Josef were hiding out at 100 Sidney Street, in Whitechapel.

While the murders had taken place in a dark alley where there were no witnesses other than the surviving officers, the Siege of Sidney Street was a media spectacular. Dozens of reporters and photographers came to watch as armed police and Scots Guards surrounded the house. It was one of the first news stories captured on film, by Pathé News. Winston Churchill, the Home Secretary, treated it as a magnificent photo opportunity. Afterwards, according to one of his biographers, he remarked to a colleague that "It was such fun!".

Even the men trapped in the building seemed to be playing to the gallery. They opened fire as soon as they knew there were police outside, injured a police sergeant, fired about 400 rounds of ammunition during a six-

hour siege, and refused to surrender even after the house had caught fire. The man called Josef was shot in the head when he leant out too far to escape the heat. Svaars stayed inside, preferring death by fire to the treatment he assumed the police would mete out if they caught him alive.

Three burglars were known to have escaped from Harris the jewellers, three men were dead. So far as the authorities were concerned, the case was solved. The other Latvians they had arrested were freed on lack of evidence. But the public was never quite satisfied. Where, people asked, was Peter the Painter? It is assumed that he skipped the country after the murders, and was never found. For many years, he was an almost legendary figure, because of a lingering and persistent suspicion that he was the gang leader, the one that got away.

In 1973, a police officer named Donald Rumbelow added a new element to the story by publishing a book which hypothesised that the burglar who fired the shots that killed Bentley, Tucker and Choate was actually Svaars's cousin, Jacob Peters, and that Svaars himself was not at the scene of the crime.

It is an interesting and carefully argued theory, but does not explain why Svaars behaved like a man with a lot on his conscience while Peters meekly allowed himself to be arrested and put his faith in British justice. There is also the detail that Gardstein and Svaars were anarchists, and Peters was not. Exiles from the Russian empire took these distinctions very seriously, making it unlikely that Peters would have been involved in an anarchist escapade. He was a Bolshevik, which is what gave Rumbelow's theory its Cold War appeal. Peters went on to be a founder of the Cheka, forerunner of the KGB, and is still a very honoured figure in Russia. But, in truth, we will never know for certain who murdered Sergeants Bentley and Tucker and the courageous Constable Choate.

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