One hundred years ago today an incident occurred in east London that brought to the public’s attention a man that 28 years later would lead Britain in its fight against Hitler. In the first decade of the 20th century London had become a hotbed for Latvian revolutionaries. In an uprising some five years earlier 14,000 men, women and children had been massacred in reprisal by the Russian army, when an uprising to overthrow the Tsarist regime was foiled.
With a deep distrust of their own police who had tortured their ringleaders the survivors had come to London to organise another revolution and to raise funds for their cause. Armed they had held up banks, shops and factories and two robbers had been killed the previous year in a London robbery which had left seven policemen wounded and two innocent bystanders dead.
At 10pm on 17th December 1910 a shopkeeper living above his premises in Houndsditch heard noises from downstairs, fearing a break-in at the jewellers next door he alerted a nearby policeman, who was joined by two constables, three sergeants and two plain clothed colleagues (in those days burglary was taken seriously). Knocking on the door they were let in by a man pretending not to understand, who was instructed to fetch someone who could speak English. The police did not know at the time but they had stumbled on the compatriots of last years’ bungled robbery, who were in the process of breaking through a wall trying to get to the jewellers safe.
What ensued can only be described as a massacre as the anarchists opened fire on the unarmed policemen, leaving three dead and two crippled for life.
For the local predominantly Jewish population, it was as if the terror they had fled from in Eastern Europe had emerged on the Sabbath amongst their own community. Within days two of the gang had been arrested and a third was suspected of fleeing the country.
In the early hours of 3rd January 1911 following a tip off 200 police officers surrounded a house in Sidney Street and a six hour gun battle ensued.
The Home Secretary, Winston Churchill (highlighted in the picture) arrived on the scene and characteristically he led from the front, directing the police (a style of leadership sadly lacking in today’s politicians), and when the criminals inside set fire to the house to cover their exit he refused to allow the fire brigade to extinguish the flames. Eventually two bodies were found in the ashes and one fireman died from falling debris.
The two arrested were subsequently put on trial but acquitted through lack of evidence as most of the witnesses were either dead or had fled the country.
One of the acquitted, Jacob Peters, remained in London returning to Russia in 1917 and became deputy head of the Cheka, the Soviet Secret Police. Thousands were killed on his orders and many of the executions he personally carried out gaining the nickname ‘The Executioner’.