History of the Metropolitan Police
Siege of Sidney Street - 1911
This gun battle in which troops were brought in to assist the police was unprecedented in the history of the Met. Although the Gardstein gang, (Latvian immigrant burglars), had already killed three policemen and injured two others when fighting their way out of the interrupted Houndsditch robbery, nobody envisaged the two men in 100 Sidney Street opening a gun battle and fighting to the death when they were surrounded with no possibility of escape.
The Metropolitan Police received information that two of the Gardstein gang were sheltering in Mrs Betsy Gershon's flat in Sidney Street. The combined force of Met and City Police cordoned off the area and evacuated other residents. The gunmen had removed Mrs Gershon's skirt and shoes to prevent her from leaving the building, but she was permitted to go downstairs, where the police rescued her.
Inspector F. P. Wensley, commanding the H Division (Whitechapel) police, went with several officers to knock on the door. Receiving no answer he threw pebbles at the window, from which there immediately came a volley of pistol shots, one of which hit Detective Sergeant Ben Leeson. Leeson needed immediate hospital treatment, and since the only way to carry him there out of the line of fire was to take him on the roof, Wensley, unarmed, supervised his removal.
The police were armed with bulldog revolvers, shotguns and rifles fitted with .22 Morris-tube barrels for use on a minature range, but these proved completely inadequate for flushing out the gunmen, whose Mauser pistols were capable of rapid and deadly fire. The Home Secretary Winston Churchill gave permission to send for troops before going himself to Sidney Street to take command.
Twenty one volunteer marksmen of the Scots Guards arrived from the Tower of London. Three were placed on the top floor of a nearby building, from which they could fire accurately into the second storey and attic windows from which the gunmen had been shooting. The gunmen were driven down to the lower floors where they came under fire from more guardsmen positioned in houses across the street.
Churchill arrived just before midday and decided heavier artillery was needed. Before it could arrive, smoke was observed rising from the building, and one of the gunmen emerged from a window, then fell back suddenly, almost certainly having been shot. The rate of fire then slowed considerably.
The building burst into flames, and although the Fire Brigade arrived they were forbidden by Churchill to extinguish the blaze. The last shots from 100 Sidney Street were heard at 2.10pm. Fire gutted the building, and the roof caved in. Firemen were at work to prevent damage to other buildings when a wall collapsed, burying five people, one of whom died in hospital. Two bodies were discovered inside the house, one on the first floor where he had been shot, and the other on the ground floor where he had been overcome by smoke.
The failure of the police marksmen and their equipment was duly noted, and improved firearms were ordered with better training for officers. This was a very rare case of a Home Secretary taking police operational command decisions.