Thursday, 16 December 2010

Houndsditch Murders centenary

Exactly a hundred years ago today, a neighbour heard suspicious sounds in a jeweller's shop in Houndsditch. Nine police officers attended the scene of the suspected burglary and knocked on the door. The man who answered apparently didn't speak English and went to get someone to help. In fact, the people who appeared had no interest in talking: they fired at the unarmed officers, killing three.

The burglars made their escape, and a huge hunt for them followed. One died, having been accidentally shot by a comrade at Houndsditch; after a few days, the police received intelligence that several of the gang were hiding at 100 Sidney Street in the East End. There followed the Sidney Street siege, in which the heavily-armed occupants of the building attempted to hold off several hundred police officers who formed a cordon outside - overseen personally by Home Secretary Winston Churchill. He summoned artillery, but in the event it wasn't needed. The siege ended when the building caught alight; Churchill refused to allow the Fire Brigade to attend. Two dead bodies were found inside.

How had a burglary gone so wrong? Much of the answer lies in the burglars' identity: they were not simply a criminal gang, but a group of Latvian revolutionaries. While Britain had been little affected directly by anarchist violence, a number of European anarchists sought refuge here and there had been a mysterious Greenwich explosion in 1894, in which Martial Bourdin was killed by the bomb he carried. Just a year before the Houndsditch murders, the Tottenham Outrage had seen a robbery by Latvian anarchists end in four deaths: a police officer, a ten-year-old boy, and both of the robbers.

An article in this month's BBC History Magazine points out that the treatment revolutionaries received from police in their own countries was a key factor in the violence used here. However, London's police were unarmed and the killings caused national outrage. They also led to a rise in anti-immigrant sentiment and rhetoric. The Daily Mirror headline for the funeral of the police officer killed in the Tottenham Outrage encapsulated much of this: 'Police constable Tyler, who was murdered by alien terrorists at Tottenham, given a hero's funeral'.

Pathe have wonderful footage of the Sidney Street siege:

Top image: Scotland Yard detectives inspecting the burning house on Sidney Street, shared by Wikimedia under a Creative Commons licence.


Hels said...

This was a terrible story at the time... bad for immigrants, bad for those wanting to protect the police force from having to use guns, bad for the workers and worst for the widows. Churchill was no prince :(

CarolineLD said...

Yes, it was all pretty awful - and Churchill was heavily criticised for his role in it.

I'm looking forward to the exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands on the siege - it opened today, but as London is covered in snow I didn't make it!