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The Siege of Sidney Street


John Simkin
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On 16 December 1910, a gang attempted to break into the rear of a jeweller's shop at 119 Houndsditch in London. An adjacent shopkeeper heard their hammering, and informed the police. When the police arrived, the robbers burst out, shooting three officers dead. The gang leader, a Latvian, Poloski Morountzeff, was accidently shot in the back by another gang member, and died later.

Winston Churchill, the Home Secretary, immediately announced that the police was looking for a gang of Jewish anarchists. It was also important to the government that the incident did not cause anti-Jewish feeling and the coroner made a point of stressing "in justice and fairness to the Jewish community" that he was uncircumcised.

Acting on a tip-off, police surrounded 100 Sidney Street in Stepney on 2nd January 1911. Churchill hurried to the scene in order to direct operations. He was greeted by cries of "who let them immigrants in?" Churchill authorised the deployment of 124 soldiers. The Manchester Guardian reported: "The firing came in spurts. The murderers would shoot first from the ground floor, then the window above … then there would be a barking of rifles in reply. Close on one o'clock an especially sharp fusillade rattled like a growl of exasperation …. a little feather of smoke curling out of the window below the point of attack. We thought at first it was gun smoke and then with a thrill we saw that the house was on fire."

Churchill refused to allow the fire brigade to douse the flames until the firing from inside stopped. When it did and the police were allowed in, only two bodies were found. One historian, Stephen Bates, has argued: "The lesson the police took from the siege was not that they had overreacted but that they needed better weapons. The lesson the press took was that the Liberal government was soft on immigrants."

The two dead men, Fritz Svaars and William Sokolow, were petty criminals, and not anarchists. However, the government leaked the story that the gang had been led by Peter Piatkow (Peter the Painter) who had managed to escape from the burning building. There are doubts that Piatkow ever existed. Even so, he is still being named on the Wikipedia website as being the leader of the gang.

As you have probably noticed, this event took place a 100 years ago yesterday.

http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/PRchurchill.htm

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The two dead men, Fritz Svaars and William Sokolow, were petty criminals, and not anarchists. However, the government leaked the story that the gang had been led by Peter Piatkow (Peter the Painter) who had managed to escape from the burning building. There are doubts that Piatkow ever existed. Even so, he is still being named on the Wikipedia website as being the leader of the gang.

As you have probably noticed, this event took place a 100 years ago yesterday.

http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/PRchurchill.htm

For students of intelligence history:

The two dead men, identified as Fritz Svaars and William Sokolow, had been petty criminals, not anarchists. Seven others were put on trial at the Old Bailey but all had their cases dropped or were acquitted for lack of evidence.

One of them, Jacob Peters – who may even have been the Painter – returned to Russia, rose to be deputy head of the Soviet secret police, the Cheka, and was executed in Stalin's 1938 purge.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/jan/02/sidney-street-siege-100-years?INTCMP=SRCH

For more on Peters, see George Leggett's The Cheka: Lenin's Political Police - The All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combatting Counter-Revolution and Sabotage (December 1917 to February 1922)[Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981], in particular, pp.266-268. The decision not to prosecute Peters has been construed as an intervention by British intelligence, anxious to preserve an asset.

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