On this day in history : 3rd January 1911 – The Siege of Sidney Street takes place….a gun battle is waged on the streets of London as two Latvian anarchists hold out in an East End tenement for several hours – against over 200 armed police and a detachment of soldiers….
The drama had begun to unfold three weeks previously, on the 16th of December 1910. A gang of Latvian revolutionaries had attempted to rob a jeweller’s shop in Houndsditch. The gang, calling itself ‘Leesma’, meaning ‘flame’, consisted of approximately thirteen people, including two women….their purpose was to commit robberies to raise money to help fund fellow activists in Latvia and Russia, who supported Lenin and the Bolshevik Movement….
The gang had rented rooms in a building annexing the back of the jeweller’s shop….the plan was to break through the common wall between the two adjoining properties. They chose to carry out their planned robbery on a Friday night….but being a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood – and Friday being the Jewish Sabbath – it was a particularly quiet time. Alerted by the noise the gang were making whilst attempting the robbery local residents called the police….
Eight unarmed police officers arrived, three sergeants and five Constables….the gang opened fire on them. Three policemen were killed and two were injured – the gang then made their escape…. One Latvian was injured – having been shot accidentally by another member of the gang. He was carried away by his friends but later died from his injuries – and was found dead in his lodgings the following morning….
The police immediately mounted a search and by the end of December had most of the gang in custody…. They then received a tip-off that two members, Fritz Svaars and William Sokolow, were hiding at 100 Sidney Street, which is located at the heart of Stepney. A room at the address was being rented by Betsy Gershan, the girlfriend of Sokolow. Being the East End of London the area was very overpopulated and the property itself overcrowded….fourteen people were registered at the address, two families with young children….
At midday on the 2nd of January two horse-drawn vehicles arrived in Sidney Street; concealed inside were armed policemen – and the building was placed under observation….
During the early hours of the 3rd of January a long snaking line of over 200 policemen made their way to 100 Sidney Street. Some were armed – but their weapons, such as revolvers, shotguns and tube guns, were old and antiquated. The men had not been briefed as to the nature of the task at hand – but they knew it was dangerous, as married men had been excluded from the operation….
By dawn all was in place and the police were ready to take action. Somehow they managed to evacuate 100 Sidney Street and the surrounding properties without alerting Svaars and Sokolow, who were on the second floor…. The pair were roused at 7.30am by banging on the door and stones being thrown at their window. Their immediate response was to fire several shots – two police officers were seriously injured…. The Latvians were armed with powerful handguns, some of the most modern weapons of the time – Mauser automatic revolvers….and these far out-ranged the weapons of the police. A gun battle commenced – the police had been hoping that the ammunition supply of the Latvians would be limited….but they had plenty….
Half way through the morning Winston Churchill, who was Home Secretary at the time, gave permission for the army to be brought in to help. Shortly after a detachment of Scots Guards arrived – equipped with powerful Lee-Enfield rifles – and they commenced in blasting the second floor of the building to smithereens. Svaars and Sokolow were forced to retreat to the lower floor….
By now a large crowd had gathered, thousands of spectators had come to watch – adding to the chaos and danger…. Winston Churchill himself turned up at noon, taking his position at the front line to watch….a stray bullet even tore through his top hat…. But still the police and army were unable to get the gunmen out of the house – by now the siege had been going on for hours….
At 1pm the house caught fire…. Nobody knows how the blaze started – possibly it was by the gunmen themselves. The fire brigade were called in – but told to just concentrate on preventing the flames from spreading to nearby buildings….
The Scots Guards stepped up their campaign – shooting through the windows. Sokolow was seen to have been shot in the head, several times. Shortly after the house began to collapse – the fire having taken its toll…. By 2pm the siege was over – and both Latvians were dead….