The Sidney Street Siege was one of the most notorious confrontations in East End criminal history – an affair wrapped in myth and confusion, it prompted the ill-advised intervention of a publicity-hungry Winston Churchill.
And it was to give rise to no less than three feature films: two by East London’s own master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock; a third starring sixties cult TV hero Peter Wyngarde as the mysterious Peter the Painter.
The build up to the dramatic events of 3 January 1911 had begun nearly three weeks before, when PC Piper knocked on the door of 11 Exchange Buildings in Houndsditch. Banging and tunnelling noises had been reported by neighbours. The constable couldn’t have expected what lay inside. A gang had been steadily tunnelling through to a neighbouring jeweller’s shop. Caught in the act they decided to shoot their way out, leaving Sgts Bryant and Tucker and Constable Choat lying dead.
The gang escaped, though one of their number, George Gardstein, was badly wounded. Amazingly, other members managed to drag him half a mile through the night-time streets of Whitchapel to their lodgings in Grove Street. A Dr Scanlon was called, and told the gang that Gardstein needed urgent hospital treatment. Unsurprisingly they refused. The doctor then left and immediately phoned the police.
It was midnight by the time the police got to Grove Street, and a story began to emerge which was much stranger than a mere failed burglary.
Along with the body of the now-dead Gardstein, they found a room filled with guns, ammunition and anarchist revolutionary literature. They quickly learned that the robbery had been designed to raise funds for a group of Russian and Latvian anarchists, aiming to fuel revolution in Russia.
But if the anarchists were stunningly inept, the police didn’t perform much better. They failed to find any proof that the five they had arrested had fired the fatal shots. Worse, they knew that the key figures in the robbery had slipped through their fingers. Fritz Svaars and Joseph Marx, along with the shadowy figure of Peter Piatkow (Peter the Painter) were hiding somewhere in the East End. The problem was that the Eastern Europeans who lived in the area were saying nothing. Their experiences of police were coloured by the bullying and brutality they had experienced back in the pogroms of Russia and Latvia. And with feelings running high against their countrymen they were scared of reprisals; they closed ranks.
But on 2 January 1911, the police got a tip off that Svaars and Marx were hiding at 100 Sidney Street. Once again the Met’s approach was bizarrely naïve. As the gang were armed and dangerous, only unmarried officers were call up for the raid. But the same officers were then armed with single-shot rifles fitted with .22 calibre practice rounds, as well as revolvers and shotguns. It was a fatal error – the revolutionaries had Mauser semi-automatics, high velocity and quick and easy to reload. Then, in a misguided show of fairplay, Sergeant Ben Leeson was sent to throw pebbles at the windows of No 100, to attract the anarchists’ attention and invite them to surrender. The response was a hail of fire, and Leeson was hit twice.
More firepower now arrived in the shape of Scots Guards from the Tower of London. Home Secretary Winston Churchill also arrived. Soon after, flames were seen from the building. Along came the Fire Brigade, but they were forbidden by Churchill to extinguish the blaze. Churchill was later criticised for his dramatic intervention.
Two bodies were discovered inside the house, one on the first floor where he had been shot, and the other on the ground floor where he had been overcome by smoke. An unfortunate neighbour was killed by a collapsing wall.
Two decades later, Alfred Hitchcock was to use the siege for the climax of his 1934 film The Man Who Knew Too Much. A dark and creepy Wapping is the scene for the anarchists’ showdown, featuring the suitably sinister Peter Lorre. 22 years later, Hitchcock remade the movie in starring James Stewart and Doris Day – losing the eerie East End climax along the way.
But the 1960 film The Siege of Sidney Street (cranked up a notch for the US as Siege on Hell Street) was much closer to home. Though much fictionalised, with Donald Sinden as an undercover police inspector, it offers its own, highly speculative view of Peter the Painter’s escape (assuming he was ever in the house at all). But the film of police and troops on the East End streets are remarkably similar to photographs of the siege, though by 1960, the producers had to use Dublin locations – No 100 Sidney Street was long gone.