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Siege Of Sidney Street

Winston Churchill, the Home Secretary at Sidney Street during the siege.

Today is the 100th anniversary of The Siege of Sidney Street.

On 16 December 1910, a gang of Latvian revolutionaries attempted to break into the rear of a jeweller's shop in Houndsditch. An adjacent shopkeeper heard their hammering and informed the police. Nine unarmed policemen went to the scene.

Two policemen knocked at the next door house to the jewellers and the gang's leader opened the door. When he did not answer their questions the police assumed he did not understand English and told him to fetch someone who did. The leader left the door half-closed and disappeared.

The house consisted of a single ground-floor room, into which the front door directly opened, with a staircase leading to the upper floors on the left, and a door to the open yard at the back on the right. It was later deduced that leader must have moved left towards the staircase, since if he had gone right and out of the yard door he would have been seen by another policeman standing outside, who had a clear view of that side of the room.

Growing impatient, the two sergeants entered the house to find the room apparently empty, before they became aware of a man standing in the darkness at the top of the stairs. After a short conversation, another man entered through the yard door, rapidly firing a pistol, while the man on the stairs also started shooting.

Both officers were hit as was a third who went to their aid.

The gang then attempted to break out of the house and another policeman was shot. In the confusion the gang's leader was also hit by one of his accomplices. The Latvians, dragging their wounded leader, made their escape.

The gang's leader died the next day as did two of the shot policemen.

An intense search followed, and a number of the gang or their associates were soon arrested.

On 2 January 1911, an informant told police that two or three of the gang, were hiding at 100 Sidney Street, Stepney. Worried that the suspects were about to flee, and expecting heavy resistance to any attempt at capture, on 3 January, two hundred officers cordoned off the area and the siege began. At dawn the battle commenced.

The defenders, though heavily outnumbered, possessed superior weapons and great stores of ammunition. The Tower of London was called for backup, and word got to the Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, who arrived on the spot to observe the incident at first hand, and to offer advice. Churchill authorised calling in a detachment of Scots Guards to assist the police. Six hours into the battle, and just as the field artillery piece that Churchill had authorised arrived, a fire began to consume the building. When the fire brigade arrived, Churchill refused them access to the building. The police stood ready, guns aimed at the front door, waiting for the men inside to attempt their escape. The door never opened. Instead, the remains of two members of the gang were later discovered inside the building.

Of seven supposed members of the gang captured by the police, five men and two women were put on trial, but they all either had their charges dropped, were acquitted, or had their convictions quashed.

One of those involved, Yakov Peters, later returned home and after the Russian October Revolution served as deputy head of the Cheka, the Soviet state security organisation and an important military and security arm of the Bolshevik communist government. He perished during the Stalinist purges in 1938.

The role Churchill played in the Sidney Street Siege was highly controversial at the time, and many accused him of having acted improperly. A famous photograph from the time shows Churchill peering around a corner to view events. A politician asked, "He [Churchill] and a photographer were both risking valuable lives. I understand what the photographer was doing but what was the Right Honourable gentleman doing?"

The gang's superior firepower led the police to drop the Webley Revolver in favour of the Webley semi-automatic in London.

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