Winston Churchill at the Sidney Street Siege, 1911, James Jarché, National Media Museum, Bradford © Daily Herald / Central Press Photos
Brian Liddy, Associate Curator, National Media Museum
With Nairobi’s recent Westgate mall siege in the headlines I was reminded of an historic siege that was covered by the Daily Herald newspaper. The Sidney Street Siege of 1911 also ended with tragic results and was hugely controversial at the time.
In 1911, the Herald would have been the new kid on the block, but as a notable and newsworthy event the original photographs of the siege are still to be found within the files of the Daily Herald Archive.
Popularly known as the ‘Battle of Stepney’, the Sidney Street Siege was a notorious gunfight that took place in London’s East End on the 2nd of January 1911. It followed on from another gun battle that had taken place days earlier in another part of London, where 4 police officers were shot and killed while investigating the scene of a robbery.
The Sidney Street Siege ended with the deaths of two men who were rumoured to be members of a politically-motivated gang of burglars. The gang was supposedly led by Peter Piatkow (a.k.a. ‘Peter the Painter’).
The siege sparked a major political row. Famously, the then Home Secretary, Winston Churchill was at the scene. He was photographed surrounded by gun carrying troops and policemen, looking rather out of place, dressed in his top hat, as if he had come straight from a night out at a high class venue, when in reality he had apparently come straight from his bath.
The siege started following a tip off that some members of the gang who had killed the police officers at the robbery days before were in hiding at 100 Sidney Street. The informant told the police that two or three members of the gang (possibly including the gang’s leader, Peter the Painter) were there with guns and lots of ammunition. As a result, two hundred police officers descended upon Sidney Street. The area was cordoned off and the siege began.
Word got to the Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, who authorised the dispatch of a detachment of Scots Guards. More surprisingly he went to Sidney Street to observe the siege at first hand. As an eminent politician on hand, his advice was sought and given. A piece of field artillery was brought in to assist the police.
Six hours into the battle a fire started in the building under siege. When the fire brigade arrived Churchill refused them access to the building. His plan was that those inside would be forced to flee the building to escape the flames, but that was not to be. No one ran from the building, and once the fire was out the remains of two members of the gang were discovered inside the building, but no sign of Peter the Painter.
Three policemen lost their lives during the fight, and a firefighter died as a result of his injuries.
Churchill’s presence at the Sidney Street Siege was controversial. He is captured in this famous photograph cautiously peering around the corner, watching events unfold. On seeing photographs in the press that were taken at the siege the former Prime Minister, Arthur Balfour stated,
"We are concerned to observe photographs in the illustrated newspapers of the Home Secretary in the danger-zone. I understand what the photographer was doing [at the siege], but why the Home Secretary?"