The victims of one of Britain’s worst police killings will be honoured with a memorial for the first time on the 100th anniversary of the tragedy this week.

Three officers were shot dead and two others crippled for life by a gang of eastern European anarchists during a bungled burglary in Houndsditch in the City of London in December 1910.

The murders led two–and–a–half weeks later to the famous Siege of Sidney Street, in which two of the suspects were killed and a firefighter suffered fatal injuries.

Then-home secretary Sir Winston Churchill was in the huge crowd watching from the sidelines as hundreds of police officers and a company of Scots Guards engaged in a fierce gun battle with gang members holed up in 100 Sidney Street in Stepney, east London.

Sir Winston was criticised for putting himself in danger by attending the siege, although historians dismiss accounts suggesting that one of the bullets passed through his top hat.

One of the gang, a Latvian Bolshevik called Jacob Peters, escaped hanging in London for the crimes and in 1917 returned to Russia, where he became deputy head of the Cheka secret police and was described as the “Robespierre of the Russian Revolution” before apparently falling victim to Stalin’s purges.

The case has echoes of some of today’s most fiercely debated political issues, including immigration, arming police officers and interference in policing by politicians.

The Houndsditch murders took place after the gang of largely Latvian revolutionaries broke into HS Harris jewellers on December 16 planning to steal the contents of the safe.

A neighbour heard suspicious noises and alerted City of London Police, who sent unarmed officers to investigate.

Sergeant Robert Bentley, 36, was shot dead after entering the house the burglars were using to gain access to the jewellers.

Fighting their way out of the building, the gang also killed Sergeant Charles Tucker, 46, and Pc Walter Charles Choat, 34, as well as seriously injuring two other officers.

One of the burglars, George Gardstein, was accidentally shot by his friends in the melee and died from his wounds the next day.

It was the worst police shooting until the murders of three Metropolitan Police officers by armed robbers in Shepherd’s Bush, west London, in August 1966. City of London Police will unveil the first memorial to Sgt Bentley, Sgt Tucker and Pc Choat at the scene of the tragedy in Cutler Street on Thursday, exactly 100 years after the incident.

The Siege of Sidney Street came about after police were tipped off that two members of the gang responsible for the Houndsditch killings were hiding out at 100 Sidney Street.

In the early hours of January 3, 1911 hundreds of officers surrounded the house and evacuated residents from the area.

A police inspector who threw pebbles at a window to attract the suspects’ attention was greeted with a volley of shots from inside the house.

It soon became clear that the police were vastly outgunned by the robbers, who had Mauser pistols accurate over a much greater distance than the officers’ revolvers, as well as large supplies of ammunition.

As a result marksmen from the Scots Guards based at the Tower of London were sent to the siege to add greater firepower.

Sir Winston was having his morning bath when he was asked to approve the deployment of the military.

He went to the Home Office seeking more information but little was available. Inspired by what he later described as a mixture of duty and curiosity, the home secretary decided to go to Sidney Street in person to see what was happening, reaching the scene just before midday.

Crowds of curious onlookers reportedly greeted the arrival of Churchill, dressed in a top hat and a fur-lined overcoat, with sarcastic shouts of “Oo let ‘em in?” in a reference to the Liberal government’s relaxed immigration policy.

The police and soldiers were debating how to end the stand-off when the besieged house caught fire.

Sir Winston stopped firemen from putting out the blaze unless it spread to other buildings, fearing that more lives could be lost.

It was only when the roof and upper floors collapsed, and it was obvious that no one inside could have survived, that the fire brigade was allowed to extinguish the flames.

The charred bodies of two members of the anarchist gang, identified as Fritz Svaars and William Sokolow, were discovered in the burnt-out house.

A senior fireman, Superintendent Charles Pearson, who entered the gutted property was crushed by a falling hearth stone and died from his injuries six months later.

A plaque in his memory will be unveiled on January 6 on the building that stands on the former site of 100 Sidney Street.

The events of the winter of 1910-11 were made into a 1960 film starring Donald Sinden, The Siege Of Sidney Street, and gave rise to popular East End legends about Peter the Painter, the pseudonym for a Latvian anarchist believed by some to be the gang’s leader.

The siege highlighted the inadequacies of British police marksmen when faced with the new phenomenon of heavily armed criminals, and eventually led to officers being given better firearms and improved training.

Donald Rumbelow, a former City of London Police officer and author of The Houndsditch Murders and The Siege Of Sidney Street, said the memorial to the three murdered policemen was “long overdue”.

Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.

Support Us