I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
As 1910 ticked over into 1911, a drama played out on the streets of London’s East End that gripped the nation. Three unarmed London policemen had been killed by a gang of burglars with connections to Russia’s Bolsheviks. Some of the crooks were tracked down to a building in Sidney Street. What followed was a massive gun battle the like of which the British capital had not seen before.
The Houndsditch Burglary
The story began in the evening of December 16, 2010 on Houndsditch, a street just to the east of Central London. The people in the neighbourhood were mostly Jewish immigrants and on this Friday evening the shops were closed for the Sabbath.
Neighbours started to hear what sounded like hammering and drilling coming from the H.S. Harris jewellery shop. Police were sent for and nine officers arrived.
As the officers, armed only with truncheons, entered the building, the men inside opened fire. As they ran from the building, the would-be burglars kept firing. Constable Walter Choate grabbed one of the gang, but his pals shot the policeman and in the process also shot their friend. They gathered up their wounded comrade and escaped.
Sergeants Robert Bentley and Charles Tucker were dead along with Constable Choate. Two other policemen were wounded and invalided out of the force.
The Hue and Cry
Such criminal violence had never been seen in Britain before. The Daily Mirror asked in a headline “Who Are These Fiends in Human Shape?”
The first break in the investigation came early. A doctor reported being called to attend to a man with a bullet wound who refused to go to hospital. When police got to the address given they found a corpse and a cache of guns. One of the weapons turned out to be the one that had been used to murder the policemen.
The dead man went by the alias of George Gardstein and was thought to be the leader of a group of anarchists from Latvia, which was then part of Russia. The group called themselves “Leesma,” which means flame. The police theory was that it was Gardstein who was the murderer.
Police started rounding up Latvian immigrants but the other suspected gunmen evaded capture.
A Crucial Tip
A disguised person went into a local police station and said he knew where the missing men were. He directed police to 100 Sidney Street a few blocks east of Houndsditch. The informant warned the men, Fritz Svaars and Josef Sokoloff, were armed and desperate.
The authorities mustered a considerable force to deal with the would-be burglars. In the early morning of January 3, 1911, armed police and men from the Scots Guards surrounded the tenement. The Royal Horse Artillery arrived with 13-pounder guns but they were too late to join in.
A rising young politician named Winston Churchill showed up to observe in his capacity of Home Secretary. Some accounts say Churchill took charge of the affair, others that he simply watched and offered suggestions. In any event, a stray bullet passed through his top hat.
Let Battle Commence
During darkness, police quietly evacuated the other tenants in the building. At about 7.30 a.m. an officer knocked on the door and the men inside opened fire hitting another policeman in the chest.
Svaars and Sokoloff had automatic Mauser hand guns and a large supply of ammunition. The police were equipped with totally inadequate weapons such as pocket revolvers, with an effective range of 15 yards, and shotguns. The greater firepower of the army was needed.
Svaars and Sokoloff held their position until about 1 p.m. when smoke was seen billowing from the building. Sokoloff poked his head out of the window of the smoke-filled room to get some fresh air and an army sniper did what he was trained to do.
By 2.30 p.m. no more shots were coming from the house and part of the roof fell in. After the fire was put out, the bodies of Svaars and Sokoloff were found.
A huge crowd of spectators had gathered as well a dozens of reporters and photographers. Movie cameramen from Pathe News showed up to capture the action on film; it was one of the first “breaking news” stories to be so recorded.
Did the Cop Killer Escape?
The police knew three men had been interrupted in their attempt to burgle the Harris jewellery store. Now, they had three dead bodies, so, was that case closed?
The public wanted more. So, four of the Latvians caught in the sweep after the failed burglary were put on trial for aiding the Leesma gang members. One of them was Jacov Peters, a cousin of Fritz Svaars. He and his co-accused were found not guilty.
Donald Rumbelow is a retired London police officer and crime historian. In his 1973 book The Houndsditch Murders he makes the case that Jacov Peters was the man who shot and killed the three policemen at the jewellery shop. He says that Fritz Svaars was not even part of the burglary crew.
He also points out that making George Gardstein the cop killer is flawed. The calibre of Gardstein’s weapon was not the same as that of the bullets removed from the police officer’s bodies.
More than a century after the events, we are still left with many unanswered questions.
- Jacov Peters turned up later in Russia as a founder of Cheka, a forerunner of the KGB secret police. Cheka was a vicious and brutal arm of the Communist revolution and Peters was at the head of it. However, in 1937, he fell out of favour with dictator Joseph Stalin, was sent to a labour camp, and was executed in April 1938.
- Another mysterious character appears in the narrative of the events described above. He was known as Peter the Painter and might have been Piotr Piatkow, a Russian revolutionary; that's if he existed at all. He was rumoured to head a criminal gang in London’s East End that cared nothing for human life and extorted money to finance efforts to overthrow Russia’s monarchy. The British Dictionary of National Biography notes that none of what is known about him “… is altogether reliable.” Some accounts put him at the scene of the burglary of Henry Harris’s jewellery shop. One theory is that Peter the Painter was playing for the Tsarist team. This hypothesis suggests he was organizing mayhem among Russian émigrés in London in order to discredit them and get them deported back to Russia where they could be bumped off. After the siege, Peter the Painter vanished and some believe British intelligence services helped him disappear.
- One of Winston Churchill’s biographers wrote that after attending the Siege of Sidney Street he told a friend “It was such fun,” despite the fact that he came close to having his head blown off.
- In 1960, a movie was made that was called, unsurprisingly, The Siege of Sidney Street. It was very loosely based on the real events and this clip features the very well-dressed men holed up in 100 Sidney Street.
- “Siege of Sidney Street: How the Dramatic Stand-Off Changed British Police, Politics and the Media Forever.” Andy McSmith, The Independent, December 11, 2010.
- “Siege of Sidney Street.” Ben Johnson, Historic U.K., undated.
- “Sidney St: The Siege That Shook Britain.” Sanchia Berg, BBC, December 13, 2010.
- “Siege of Sidney Street: The Strange Case of Peter the Painter.” Kim Seabrook, History Revealed, December 29, 2013.
- “Peter Piaktow (Peter the Painter).” John Simkin, Spartacus Educational, August 2014.
© 2018 Rupert Taylor
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on October 18, 2018:
Hello, Rupert, historical as the story may be, I enjoy every bit of it. It is a read.