Monday, August 13, 2012

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.
“THE HOUNDSDITCH MURDERS AND THE SIEGE OF SIDNEY STREET” by Donald Rumbelow (first published 1973; extensively revised 1988)

            One book which presents old crimes entertainingly makes me think of another. If Matthew Wright’s Convicts attempts to set its criminal stories in a sociological context, Donald Rumbelow’s The Houndsditch Murders and the Siege of Sidney Street succeeds in analysing a particular notorious case so that it reveals a whole society.

            The so-called “Siege” of Sidney Street” (sometimes as fancifully called the “Battle” of Stepney) is one of those affairs that usually appears as a footnote or passing comment in general histories of early 20th century Britain. The tendency now is to present it as a trivial matter which was sensationalised for a British public primed to believe the worst of “aliens”. I have even read (inaccurate) accounts which claim that only one death resulted from the whole affair.

            In the East End of London in 1909-11, there were many anarchist and left-wing groups, mainly émigrés or refugees from Tsarist Russia. Frequently the press, cued by popular images of hairy bomb-throwing anarchists, saw them as a menace. England had not seen any of the assassinations and acts of terrorism that anarchists had carried out on continental Europe. But popular fiction and early spy-novels were ready to suggest that, with an influx of working-class foreigners, it was only a matter of time before such an outrage happened on English soil.

            Even high-brow literature worked this field. It was only three years before the Houndsditch Murders that one of Joseph Conrad’s best novels, The Secret Agent, was published in 1907, with its story of an alien anarchist conspiracy to blow up the Greenwich observatory. A year later, in 1908, G.K.Chesterton offered a typically more whimsical view of anarchists in The Man Who Was Thursday. But the fear of anarchists – which Chesterton humorously exorcised - was the topical element of that one too.

            Given this, some later commentators have brushed off contemporary newspaper accounts of the “Siege” of Sidney Street as largely works of the imagination, mainly xenophobic, and certainly exaggerated. But in The Houndsditch Murders and the Siege of Sidney Street Donald Rumblelow, a policeman by profession, takes a blow-by-blow forensic approach. In doing so he shows there really was a train of events that justified general alarm, for all the sensationalism of the journalists.

            The book chronicles three linked sets of events.

            In the so-called “Tottenham Outrage” in 1909, two anarchists attempted to steal a payroll at gunpoint, were thwarted  and for two hours were chased across six miles of London. The pair shot at all who pursued them, killing a couple of people until (separately) cornered and shooting themselves. This made excellent copy for the mass circulation illustrated newspapers, especially as the fleeing anarchists had commandeered a tram at gunpoint during their flight.

            Next year were the Houndsditch Murders in December 1910, where anarchists, associates of the two involved in the foiled payroll robbery, attempted to burgle a jewellery store. They were surprised and opened fire, killing three (unarmed) policemen who had been summoned to the scene. As they escaped, one of the anarchists was also shot dead. The three policemen received what amounted to a “state funeral” at St Paul’s cathedral. The story was now front-page news and the police began a massive enquiry and manhunt to find the survivors of the gang who had done the shooting.

            This resulted in the Siege of Sidney Street in January 1911, where two remaining members of the gang were trapped in an East End house, and decided to shoot it out with police. This was many decades before there were such things as specialist anti-terrorist squads. When police with revolvers proved ineffective, the army was called in, the East End street filled with soldiers (and crowds of gaping onlookers, captured in early newsreels of the event) and thousands of rounds of ammunition were fired before the anarchists themselves set fire to the building. One was burnt to death in the blaze. The other had already been killed by the gunfire. (Subsequent accounts of the affair – including one broadcast on British television about a decade ago – suggest that the house might have been set on fire by army bullets hitting internal gas-pipes.)

            This was the only major “anarchist outrage” perpetrated in Britain, but “anarchist” is really a misnomer.

            Rumbelow makes it quite plain that while the word “anarchist” was most commonly used at the time, the gang were in fact Bolsheviks from Latvia and Russia. Before the First World War and the Russian Revolution, most English hadn’t even heard of Bolsheviks, so “anarchist” was the default term for any suspicious foreigner bent on politically-motivated violence.

            It seems quite certain that many of these events were organized by Jacob Peters, a Bolshevik then resident in London. Payroll robberies and burglaries of jewellery stores were typical of the “expropriations” by which Bolsheviks tended to finance themselves. (Most of Joseph Stalin’s early career was a series of bank robberies.) They were not the usual modus operandi of real anarchists.

             Jacob Peters was later one of the leaders of the Cheka (the early Soviet secret police). He rose to great power under Lenin, but was purged and killed by Stalin in the late 1930s as so many of the “Old” Bolsheviks were.

            Along with seven or eight others, Peters was arrested by the London police in connection with both the murders and the siege. But the prosecution failed to make a strong case against any of them. The defendants were able to blame everything on the gang-members who were already dead. Hence not one single person was convicted as a result of these three incidents and the (most probable) organizer and leader of the gang went free, doubtless confirmed in his views on the weakness of bourgeois democracies.

            There are two interesting footnotes to these events which Rumbelow explores.

            First, the name “Peter the Painter’ has been associated with these events in some fanciful versions. In fact a number of anarchists were identified by this same sobriquet; and none of them was in the house in Sidney Street.

            Second, there was the flashy public role of the young Winston Churchill. He was working at the Home Office when he heard about the big shoot-out going on in Sidney Street, and decided to go down to the East End to see the army in action. He later admitted that, although he was the most senior government person there, and although many assumed he was in charge of the army operation, he had really arrived as a tourist because it found it so “interesting”. Local Cockneys booed him when he turned up, because he had opposed an Immigration Bill that would have limited the number of East Europeans settling in England. Newsreels and press photographs show him in a top hat, waving a cane about as he asks policemen and soldiers what is going on. For his recklessness he was criticised in the House.           

            There was a very ham-fisted and inaccurate British movie The Siege of Sidney Street in 1960. Alfred Hitchcock exploited the popular idea of the siege when he staged a similar East End shoot-out in his 1932 movie The Man Who Knew Too Much. (A couple of years later he made a movie version of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, calling it Sabotage). Such fictitious versions have lingered longer in the popular imagination than the historical events themselves.

            Donald Rumbelow’s book properly contextualises the events and in the process examines the type of East End community which surrounded the “anarchists” and were their largely unwilling hosts. 

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