Today (January 3) in London History – the Police Were Outgunned

Today, January 3rd, is the anniversary of the famous Siege of Sidney Street. It’s the topic for today’s Today in London History podcast.


London Calling. January 3rd. This day in London history it’s January 3rd, 1911. We’re in Sidney Street.

East London. Immigrants’ London. Russian London. Jewish London. Watching a siege play out. Local residents evacuated. A gun battle going on for hours. Police forces outgunned by two desperate, holed-up, Latvian revolutionaries and having to call for military assistance. The Home Secretary – one Winston Churchill – turning up in a silk top hat and getting in on the act. The events filmed by Pathe News, making it the first siege in Britain to be caught on camera. 

Yes, it’s January 3, 1911. It’s the Siege of Sidney Street coming to its extremely violent end. So no getting out of this one. 

The story’s well known – there’s a good account on Wikipedia. And there have been several books about it, including one by the distinguished crime historian – and into the bargain emeritus London Walks guide, Donald Rumbelow. As the Jack the Ripper A to Z – the bible of Ripperology – puts it “Donald Rumbelow is Internationally recognised as the foremost expert on Jack the Ripper.” And happily for us and especially our Ripper guides Don still acts as a consultant for our Ripper walk, mentors it, etc.

Anyway, that’s an aside. The point here is that I’ve talked Don into letting me interview him for a podcast on The Siege of Sidney Street. That’ll go up later this month. So I’ll do no more than make this little podcast a scene-setter. 

The main thread of the Siege of Sidney Street can be traced back to a botched burglary on December 16 of a jeweller’s shop at 119 Houndsditch. The robbers were heavily armed. The Police effectively caught them in the act but the police weren’t armed. Three policemen were gunned down. One gang member was killed. The gang scattered. Two of them went to ground at 100 Sidney Street. The others – well, we’ll leave that loose end to Donald. Eventually the police tracked the two down. I’ve this evening tracked down the neighbours. The neighbourhood was 99 percent Russian, 99 percent Jewish. It was a piece of Eastern Europe in the East End of London. The people were all hard working. Many of them were in the rag trade: tailors, dressmakers, that sort of thing. By way of example, just across the street and a few doors along from 100 Sidney Street, in two rooms lived Nathan Moscovitz, a 27-year-old cooper from Romania. He lived there, in those two rooms, with his wife Sarah, their four-year-old son Lazarus, their infant daughter Rebecca, their 22-year-old boarder Rosie Brook – she must have Anglicized her name – Rosie was a machinist from Russia. And there was another boarder, 19-year-old Milly Hyman, a furrier from Poland. And one more – one of only two neighbours in the 20 or so houses in the immediate vicinity – who was English. 48-year old William Henry Collins, another boarder. William Henry was a butcher’s assistant from Birmingham. Seven people in two rooms. Romanian, Russian, Poland and English. Well, you get the idea. 100 Sidney Street – ethnically, linguistically, it probably seemed a pretty safe lair for the two escapees.

Wasn’t though. Well, not after the Scots guards with their heavy firepower arrived from the Tower of London. In the end the building went up in flames. Both of the anarchists died. One of them was shot dead at a window. The building burned down. Last point. The 1911 Census Return was taken three months after the siege of Sidney Street. In the census there’s a 92 and a 94 and a 96 and a 98 and a 102 and a 104 and a 106 Sidney Street. But there’s no 100 Sidney Street. The rubble of the burned-out building will have been all but still smouldering when the Census Man went down that street on that April Day in 1911. And the memories would have been – I suspect – visible in the haunted, haggard looks on the faces of those eastern European immigrants. 

Good night from London.

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