Recently Eric Pemberton very kindly sent me some his Postcard collection, one of the highlights of the collection is a series of postcards about The Battle of Stepney or the Siege of Sidney Street as it is more commonly known.
The background to the siege was the murder of three policeman in a bungled robbery in Houndsditch in December 1910 by a gang of Anarchists. Many of the gang were arrested, however a few weeks later the police were informed that the leader of the gang called Peter the Painter and some other members of the gang were holed up at 100 Sidney Street.
The rest of the story is told by an intrepid Daily Chronicle reporter who managed to get to the frontline of the siege.
BATTLE OF STEPNEY LAST STAND OF THE HOUNDSDITCH ANARCHISTS.
For four hours, writes a Daily Chronicle representative, I have been under fire in London, in the second decade of the twentieth century. I have seen a fierce battle between soldiers, police and anarchists. I have seen two desperate men hold a house in East London against the sustained fire of rifles, shot-guns, and revolvers. I have seen the house fired by its frenzied occupants, and when their fort was burnt down, their bodies brought out. I have seen a Home Secretary. two Chief Commissioners, and a General directing operations. I have heard the z-z-z-zip of bullets and the barking of Browning revolvers. I have seen terror-stricken women and children flying for shelter, for all the world as if the city was being sacked. And the picture will long dwell in my memory.
All East London was aflame with the news before it was daylight. At Aldgate excited groups were asking for information when I passed down the streets at eight o’clock. There were stories of firing at the police, and of officers having been killed, but all that was really known was that great squads of police had been marching down the Mile End-road ever since the small hours. In their track I followed until Sidney-street was reached. There, long lines of police were keeping back the crowds which were gazing with awe-stricken faces down the streets which led to the scene. In Sidney-street there is a block of new buildings let out as flats. It is bounded on the other three sides by Lindley-street, Richardson-street, and Hawkin Street. That part of the block which faces Sidney-street is known as “Charles Martin’s Mansions.” It was made up of houses of three storeys and an attic. And the whole was surrounded by the police. Every exit was barred, every earth was stopped. Opposite was a row of small shops, and every one of these was closely shuttered. About four doors to the west, on the opposite side of the street, was a shoeing forge belonging to Messrs. Mann, Crossman and Paulin, and behind this was a high building used as a bottling store by the same firm.
In the raw twilight of the winter’s morning the scene looked impressibly dreary and depressing. A strict watch was being kept on everybody who passed down the adjacent streets, and every now and then a passer-by would be stopped, and in some cases searched, if there was anything about him to cause suspicion. Making my way down Lindley-street, I found that a regular siege was going on at a house—No. 100, Sidney Street—which was one of the houses known as Charles Martin’s Mansions. Every now and again there would come the sound of firing, but the street in front of the Anarchists was quite clear, of people.
TROOPS OPEN FIRE. This had gone on for some time, when the measured tramp of soldiers was heard coming down Oxford-street from the Tower. It was a squad of the Scots Guards—all of them picked shots under the command of Lieutenant Ross. This added to the seriousness of the affair, as it was evident that the authorities realised that they had desperate men to deal with. One of the police, Sergeant Lesson, had been shot in an attempt to enter the house, and no more risks was to be taken. A word of command rang out, and the soldiers took up their positions at each end of the block which faces Sidney-street. Half a dozen others were sent up into the top floor of the bottling store already mentioned, from which they could get a view of the fort. Those in the street kneeled so as to get a truer aim. One of them seized aboard bearing a “Daily Chronicle” contents bill—which was standing outside a newsagent’s shop—upon which to kneel.
Then began a sustained fire upon the house. It went on hour after hour until it seemed as if the house must be full of lead. And every now and again there would come the bark of a repeating revolver from the besieged in answer. By this time the winter sun had struggled through the clouds and lit up the scene with watery brightness. Mr Sydney Holland came up with Major Wodehouse to look at the strange sight, and soon after there came a dozen policemen, armed with shot guns, which had been lent by Mr Blanch, of Gracechurch Street. These had cartridges charged with buckshot.
At this time I managed to got across Sidney-Street, during a lull in the firing, into the shoeing forge, which was right in front of the besieged house. Over our heads were passing the bullets from the bottling stores, and every now and then a spent bullet would drop. Inside I found a little group of plainclothes men, who had been watching since eight o’clock on Monday morning. With them were the farriers and the horses waiting to be shod, but nothing much was done in this way. so long as the tiring lasted. Weary and tired after their 24 hours vigil, the officers were watching for any signs of an attempt to break out of the house. Every now and again there would be a puff of smoke and a spit of flame from the house, and then a rattle of shots and a splintering glass would tell of the reply. During all the hours of the sustained fusillade neither of the houses on each side of the murderers’ citadel was hit.
MR CHURCHILL ARRIVES. Soon after the fight began a motor-cab came up. In it was the Home Secretary, with Sir Melville Macnaghten and Sir Nott Bower, as well as his private secretary. The little group took up their stand at the corner of Lindley-Street and Sidney-street, and they were joined by Mr Harry Lawson, M.P.
Chief Inspector Seaton came across to the yard in which we were standing and asked for one of the bullets which had fallen among us, and took it across to show the Home Secretary. Then Mr Churchill took charge of the siege operations. He stood out in the street, although the bullets were flying wildly up and down. He motioned the line backward, and took four or five of the Scots Guards a few yards nearer the house and directed their fire. He walked across to Lindley-street and had a consultation with, the Chief Commissioners of the City and the Metropolitan Police. As a result of this consultation one of the Guardsmen, was sent over into the yard in which we were standing, and he began to fire in at the ground floor windows of the house.
All this time Mr Churchill, who had lighted a cigar, was watching the scene. Now and then he would give an order, telling this line to advance or that to retire. Noticing the side door of our yard to be open, he shouted, ‘ Close that door, or you will be shot.” At this time smoke had begun to come out of the second floor window of the house, and the officers tightened their hold on their revolvers. – “The house is on fire, and they will bolt now.” Seeing this, Mr Churchill sent two policemen with shot guns to join us in our frontal attack, and through the partly opened door, those took careful aim at the windows on the ground floor. That their aim was a true one was shown by the flying splinters and the crash of glass, of which there was soon none left whole in the sashes. And all the while there had been intermittent firing from the ground-floor window.
Slowly the flames began to get a hold of the house, and dense black smoke began to pour out of the top windows. There were shouts in the distance and the clanging of the bells of the Fire engines. But Mr Churchill waved his hand, and they stopped some distance away. For the first time since fire engines were invented there was seen the spectacle of a Fire raging unchecked and with no attempt to stop it. Soon the flames were pouring out through the roof, and there was a crash of tiles into the street. Even in the broad daylight the flames shone with sinister brightness, and it became evident that no one would be long alive if he stayed longer in that roaring furnace. Would our quarry make a last desperate bolt for liberty? Everyone was on the alert among our little band who were in the van of the attack. Then we were joined by Mr Churchill, the two Chief Commissioners, Superintendent Quin, Chief Inspector MacCarthy, and Superintendent Mulvaney, who came across the street and took up their position with us in the yard or the shoeing forge. The Guardsman who was with us knelt to fire, and Mr Churchill stooped down and directed his aim. “Fire at the door,” he said, and the bullet crashed across the street at point-blank range, and a shower of splinters showed that it had found its mark. Then Mr Churchill motioned to one of the policemen with a shot gun to come forward, and he too fired two more shots into the ground-floor windows. By this time the house itself was a roaring mass of flame from top to bottom.
There was a consultation between the little group of whom Mr Churchill was one. “Let us make a rush,” said one of the plain clothes men. “No ” said the Home Secretary, “we want no more loss of life.” Then he gave orders to open wide the doors of the yard, so that those inside could take uninterrupted aim should there be a bolt down the street. At this time a Maxim gun from the Tower came up, but Mr Churchill ordered it out of action. And indeed by this time It became quite certain that there was nothing left with the breath of life in it in the Inferno, which was roaring and fuming only a few yards away. About this time two single shots rang out from the back of the burning house. “That is the end of them,” said someone, “they have saved those last two for themselves.” It may be so. But we shall never know the truth of what went on inside that doomed house during those early morning hours! All we know is that two of the most desperate criminals ever known in the history of crime had fought for half a winter’s day against a thousand police and soldiers. And they must have had enough ammunition in their possession to kill half London, for they were firing for five solid hours. So it was all over, the police broke in the door, and the fire engines dashed up and began to play on the blazing ruins. Mr Churchill made sure that there was no one alive inside and then he left the scene. After he had gone, two guns from the Royal Horse Artillery at Woolwich came up, but as they were not wanted they passed through the street and went away.
Other posts you may find interesting
Eric Pemberton’s Postcards – Victoria Park
Eric Pemberton’s Postcards – Seamens Missions
Eric Pemberton’s Postcards – The London Hospital
Eric Pemberton’s Postcards Poplar and East India Dock Road
Eric Pemberton’s Postcards – Isle of Dogs 2
Eric Pemberton’s Postcards – Isle of Dogs