A stand-off in London’s East End in 1911 still echoes today
TURN OFF the Mile End Road in London’s East End, walk a hundred metres and go back in time. It is January 3rd 1911, and in place of the block of flats with black railings stands a redbrick Victorian terrace. Just after dawn, policemen throw pebbles at a second-floor window. From inside comes a volley of bullets—the opening shots in six hours of mayhem. A sergeant collapses, struck in the chest.
So began the Siege of Sidney Street, a pyrotechnic showdown that sparked headlines and manhunts around the world. The anxieties it dramatised—over immigrants, extremism and the welcome both receive in London—remain acute today. So do the questions it raised about violence by and against the police, and over the perils of political grandstanding, in this case by Winston Churchill, then home secretary in Britain’s Liberal government.
In one of history’s arbitrary ricochets, the events paired Churchill with another figure destined to become a legend: a revolutionary known as Peter the Painter, once notorious from Canada to Australia yet so shadowy and elusive that some doubt he ever existed. Unfolding over a chilly Christmas season, the episode shows how villains can turn into heroes, flaws become virtues, and the past morph into myth.
In an urban landscape transformed by slum clearances and the Luftwaffe, you have to look hard for traces of this sensational affair. But they are there. A mile to the west of Sidney Street in Devonshire Square is a plaque honouring Robert Bentley, Charles Tucker and Walter Choate, police officers slain in the line of duty. This is where the story begins.
Their killers included veterans of prison breaks and guerrilla warfare in modern-day Latvia, victims of tsarist torture who expected the same treatment if they were caught again. In London they inhabited a milieu of radical ideas and exiles (including, a few years earlier, Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky). In their correspondence, obtained by police and kept in the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA), the desperadoes come alive. They aver love and loyalty, defy death and solicit patience and money—in pursuit of which they planned “expropriations”, otherwise known as robberies. In 1909 some of their number perpetrated the “Tottenham Outrage”, a payroll heist that left four people dead.
On the night of December 16th 1910 the target was a jeweller’s in Houndsditch, a commercial thoroughfare delineating the City from the East End, since remade in glass and steel. The gang rented premises behind the shop and set about breaking in. But they chose a Friday night, and the largely Jewish neighbourhood was quiet. Reports of suspicious noises attracted a policeman, then several, all unarmed. As well as the three fatalities, two officers were hurt when the criminals opened fire, in what was the worst-ever peacetime loss for British police. One robber, George Gardstein, alias Morountzeff, alias Milowitz, was hit in the melee. As he was dragged away, a passer-by took him for a drunk—until his comrades brandished their guns.
Follow the gang’s getaway route, and for all the brash new towers you find that some things haven’t changed. There is still a vertiginous drop in wealth as you head east from the City; the textile business still flourishes, albeit in South Asian rather than Jewish hands, the street markets offering kebabs instead of pickled herrings. Gardstein was left in squalid lodgings, where he was found, dead, the next day, along with weaponry and a membership card for an anarchist group named Leesma, meaning “The Flame”.
In British public opinion and newspapers, the crime reinforced the link between immigrants and revolutionaries, who, as some are now, were organised into slippery cells and cherished a transnational cause. Thousands lined the streets for the victims’ funeral at St Paul’s Cathedral. The police posted a reward for the alleged kingpins in English, Russian and Yiddish—among them Peter the Painter. In wanted posters bearing that name, a moustachioed man poses insouciantly for an elegant studio portrait.
Blood and death
This “dashingly handsome” figure, says Nadia Valman of Queen Mary University of London, would enter the city’s mythology, straddling the border between felon and icon. According to the posters, Peter went by the surnames Piatkow and Schtern. He was “a native of Russia, an anarchist”. If the conspiracy was international, so was the chase. French police claimed Peter had lived in Marseilles. The Russians implicated him in a bomb plot in Crimea. A source placed him at an anarchist club in Paris, for which the password was “Blood and death”. He spoke several languages and played the violin. He corresponded with subversives in Baku; a sweetheart pined for him in Kyiv.
That alliterative nickname contributed to his mystery. What did he paint—houses or portraits? (The sets for amateur dramatics, some suggested.) Was he an artist or a working man, ordinary or exceptional—or one disguised as the other? In a stroke of catchy branding, his moniker echoed that of the monster who had haunted London a generation earlier: Jack the Ripper.
The East End had a penumbra of informers, double agents and provocateurs. On New Year’s Day an acquaintance tipped off police that the fugitives were hiding at 100 Sidney Street. Two days later Peter the Painter—the idea, if not the man—collided with Churchill and his own, carefully cultivated image.
He was in the bath when he got the call. Before dawn the police had evacuated the many other tenants of number 100; in the archives you can see a scrawled map they used to plan their ambush. But it was soon clear that their antiquated service weapons were no match for the brigands’ pistols, and Churchill’s authority was needed to summon a detachment of Scots Guards from the Tower of London.
Today, to imagine the carnage that ensued, you have to substitute the crack of bullets for the noise of the construction site across Sidney Street—occupied, in 1911, by a brewery, from the windows of which marksmen fired as others took aim from doorways, behind chimney pots or crouching in the slush. Inside the house the doomed men rushed between floors and windows to shoot back.
Though only 36, Churchill was a veteran of combat, with (like Peter the Painter) an adventurous and embroidered past. He had ridden into battle at Omdurman and helped relieve the siege of Malakand. He had been captured on an armoured train and broken out of a Boer prison. He dressed, hurried to the Home Office and was quickly on the scene, impelled by both “convictions of duty” and “a strong sense of curiosity which perhaps it would have been well to keep in check”.
His cameo is preserved on jerky newsreel footage that played in cinemas almost immediately: the cameras made the siege “the first breaking news story in history”, says Andrew Roberts, Churchill’s most recent biographer. You can see the soldiers marching in, horses drawing up artillery, the puff of gun smoke and journalists huddling on the roof of the Rising Sun pub (since demolished, along with the Three Nuns, the anarchists’ local). Police struggle to restrain the huge crowds that gathered—rooftop seats were going for ten shillings. And there, sheltering around a corner, is a youthful Churchill, expostulating theatrically in a top hat and an astrakhan-collared coat.
One story has it that Churchill’s topper took a bullet—unlikely, says Mr Roberts, since “if it had, he’d have kept it”. His presence was controversial, first among the spectators, some of whom lambasted his liberal approach to immigration, later in Parliament. “I understand what the photographer was doing,” chided Arthur Balfour, leader of the Conservative Party, which Churchill left in 1904 and would later rejoin. “But what was the right-honourable gentleman doing?”
The answer, according to a newsreel caption, is that he was “directing operations”. He suggested seeking metal plates in preparation for storming the house. When, in the lurid finale, the building caught fire—nobody knows how—Churchill approved the decision to keep the fire brigade away. “I thought it better to let the house burn down, than spend good British lives in rescuing these ferocious rascals,” he told Herbert Asquith, the prime minister. Newsreels show gallant firemen rushing in after the roof collapsed. One, Charles Pearson, died after being hit by falling masonry. (The policeman shot at daybreak survived.)
Two charred corpses, identified as William Sokoloff and Fritz Svaars, were found inside. One had been shot in the head; the other succumbed to the smoke. “Everybody knows he must die some time,” Svaars had written to relatives in Latvia on the eve of the siege. “I know that if they catch me they will hang me.” There was no trace of Peter the Painter.
As shocking crimes can, the siege opened eyes. The police were given better weapons (Churchill oversaw the test firing). The chief constable of Sheffield sent down a bullet-proof shield, “which may be of use when you find ‘Peter the Painter’.” The investigation re-alerted the public to the overcrowded slumlands of the East End; Russia appealed for unity against the anarchist peril. Yet, as can also be true of such spectaculars, precisely what had happened was and remains unclear.
In May 1911 four members of the gang were tried at the Old Bailey in connection with the Houndsditch murders: Peter the Painter was not among them. The judge sank the charges by asserting that the three chief culprits had already “met their doom”. Blaming Gardstein, Svaars and Sokoloff was certainly convenient for their comrades in the dock, and, after the extravaganza of Sidney Street, for the government. In fact, the role and whereabouts of the last two during the fatal robbery are still disputed.
Only Nina Vassileva, a Russian whose glamour and love-life inspired much comment, was convicted. Fingerprint evidence earned her a two-year sentence for conspiracy to rob—but even that was soon quashed. The others walked, including Jacob Peters, a cousin of Svaars who had been collared before the siege. He became a much-feared official in the Cheka, the Soviet secret police, before meeting a sticky end in 1938. Donald Rumbelow, a former policeman and author of a book about the case, reckons Peters and Gardstein did the shooting in Houndsditch.
Angleshot Flavorum Enomotarch
“Don’t be cross,” Churchill implored a colleague after the siege, “it was such fun.” But his rush to Sidney Street was among the misjudgments held against him until he became prime minister—whereupon, notes Mr Roberts, Churchill’s “almost obsessive need to be at the scene of the action” became an asset. His direct observation of battles bolstered his grasp of the second world war (he would have joined the flotilla on D-Day had the king not intervened). His visits to districts shattered by the Blitz, during which he watched bombing raids from the roof of Downing Street, were “extraordinarily good for morale”. In retrospect the siege, says Mr Roberts, was “vintage Churchill”.
Peter the Painter evaporated. Exchanges with their foreign counterparts indicate that, lacking “conclusive proof” to tie him to the crimes, British detectives quietly stopped looking for him. Police forces from Naples to Winnipeg thought they had him. He was said to be working as a chef in Melbourne, “posing as a Frenchman” yet “an excellent hand at throwing a knife or using a revolver”. The coded reply to Australia is stored in the LMA. “Angleshot Flavorum Enomotarch”, the police telegrammed from London: “not to be arrested”, as there was “not sufficient evidence” for an extradition.
It was too late: the fascination stirred by the wanted poster and sustained by rumour could not be stifled. Peter was widely held to have been in the burning house but somehow escaped. He was spotted in Denmark. He had moved to America. A police informer all along, his handlers had spirited him away.
Soon the saga was transfigured by art. Alfred Hitchcock grew up near Sidney Street, and in his original version of “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1934), assassins hole up in a London house, spectators gather, a brave policeman knocks… In “The Siege of Sidney Street” (1960) Peter is a suave fanatic trailed by an undercover Donald Sinden. Trapped in the siege, Peter sets the fire, breaks through the walls and melts into the crowd. “I wonder who it was that got away,” Sinden’s character muses when the bodies don’t tally. In a TV drama of 2012 Peter leads an uprising of third-class passengers on the Titanic. In Emanuel Litvinoff’s novel “A Death out of Season” (1973), he is sent by the tsarist secret police to plot the king’s assassination, and so curtail Britain’s tolerance of political refugees. But his heart is with the renegades.
Amid the hearsay and embellishments, records the “Dictionary of National Biography”, doubts arose “as to whether he existed at all”. Nothing about his life “is altogether reliable”. In his book “A Towering Flame”, Philip Ruff insists Peter was real. Citing tsarist files and unpublished memoirs, Mr Ruff says he is “100% certain” that the man in the poster was Janis Zhaklis. A social-democrat-turned-anarchist, Zhaklis had led a raid on a prison in Riga, robbed a bank in Helsinki and started a radical journal in America. Only peripherally involved in London, he fled to Brussels before, thinks Mr Ruff, becoming a businessman in Australia.
Maybe. But at this distance, identifying the “real” Peter the Painter is akin to finding the real Robin Hood, or perhaps King Arthur, both of whom his quicksilver image resembles—an indomitable will-o’-the-wisp who lives to fight another day. The fable spread: Irish insurgents called the type of pistol used by the anarchists a Peter the Painter. The flesh-and-blood man was subsumed by legend.
All this happened “many moons ago”, says a resident of the flats in Sidney Street. But it is not entirely forgotten. Another plaque commemorates the fireman who perished. Walk away from the corner where Churchill huddled, passing women in headscarves who are heirs to the Edwardian immigrants, and you find two more blocks of flats: Siege House—and Painter House. Justifying that name, the local housing body said there was no evidence Peter had killed anyone. “There is some doubt as to whether he existed,” it stated, “but his is the name that East Enders associate with the siege.” The man who wasn’t there now always will be. ■
This article appeared in the Christmas Specials section of the print edition under the headline "The one that got away"
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