Churchill and the Anarchists reveals terrorism in 20th century Britain in London Under Siege

By Kathleen McIlvenna | 04 January 2011
A black and white picture of policemen
© Ilustrated London News Ltd and Mary Evans
Exhibition: London Under Siege – Churchill and the Anarchists, 1911, Museum of London Docklands, London, until April 2011

On January 3 1911, the sound of gunfire roared in East London. An unbelievable gun battle was being fought at 100 Sidney Street, where two Latvian anarchist revolutionaries, suspected of the murder of three policemen two weeks earlier, were attempting to fight off more than 200 armed police as well as Scots Guard deployed by the Home Secretary, Winston Churchill.

The interrupted robbery of a jewellery shop that led to the murder of three unarmed policemen, known as the Houndsditch Murders and the subsequent Siege of Sidney Street, shocked the early 20th century British public. The Museum of London Docklands’ new exhibition makes it clear that the story of these unprecedented events are still able to captivate.

The exhibition focuses on three events: the Tottenham Outrage of January 1909, the Houndsditch Murders of December 2010 and the Siege of Sidney Street of January 1911. Linked by the involvement of armed Latvian revolutionaries, they culminated in a public feeling that European anarchist terrorists were at large in London.

Examining the historic and social context of these infamous events, the show highlights the political upheaval of the time and the debates which followed, including immigration levels and whether police should be armed. Though the political and historic context is obviously different, it is interesting that these matters still resonate today.

The details of the events are demonstrated by objects from the trial of the suspected members of the Houndsditch group, including guns and piping used in the attempted robbery on the day of the murders.

The size and importance of this trial is best demonstrated by the beautiful wooden model of the jewellery shop and the houses which backed onto it, showing how far the group got in their plan to knock through walls to get into the shop and blow open the safe, before being disturbed by the police.

Fascinating additions which really help bring the siege to life include newsreel footage showing Churchill and hundreds of police, the coat worn by Churchill on the day of the siege and an oral history from a woman who was living on Sidney Street on that fateful day.

The level of public interest in the events is also underlined by objects on display including postcards and items sold as souvenirs, and there is even a bubblegum card from 1965.

This is a highly revealing, enthralling exhibition capturing not just a moment in East London’s history, but also a time of turbulence and change in Europe and the subsequent social and political effect on Britain and its population.
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