By Sam Connor
The 1911 Sidney Street siege in London marked a particular juncture in the history of British immigration, tying together Victorian concerns about the urban environment, along with modern fears surrounding immigration and the supposed impact of ‘foreign’ elements on British society. In the light of recent growing concerns around immigration it seems a pertinent time re-evaluate the events of Sidney Street and the connections between 1911 and the events of 2011. The emotive language surrounding immigration is highly resilient, and the grumblings of a carpenter’s wife noted by John Law in the late nineteenth century, ‘London ain’t what it used to be; it’s just like a foreign city… why should all them foreigners come here to take our food out of our mouths?’(1) might not look out of place in today’s climate.
As one of the first social crises to be reported in the mass circulation press, I will suggest that the siege was a complex event that highlights important issues that link the Victorian nineteenth and the Edwardian twentieth century to our own twenty-first century. It raised fears over immigration and political radicalism, and also was a vital part of a period that fostered a culture of melodramatic sensationalism as a vital form of popular journalism.
The events leading up to the siege began on the night of 16 December 1910, when a loud banging and drilling were heard from the back of H. S. Harris’s jewellers shop, located on Houndsditch. The area had become synonymous with foreign immigrants and political criminality, with The Times exclaiming in a leading article that it ‘harbours some of the worst alien anarchists and criminals who seek out too hospitable shores’ (2) and the People describing the area as ‘the natural lair of the foreign gaol-bird’ (3). In total seven policemen were sent to investigate the noises and as they entered the shop from the Exchange Buildings at the back, they were met with gunfire. Two policemen were injured, disabled for life, and three were killed, in what remains the highest loss of police life in London on a single day. The men escaped, disappearing into the back alleys of the East End.
The search for the perpetrators of the Houndsditch murders led the police to Sidney Street, which linked the Whitechapel Road to Commercial Street, in the heart of the traditional Jewish East End. The street itself was wide and relatively modern – flanked on each side by large three-storey houses, which housed a wide mix of well-to-do British-born Jews and recent Eastern European and Russian immigrants (4).
At 4 a.m. on 3 January, as police began to encircle the house (Fig.2) where they believed the men who had perpetrated the Houndsditch murders were hiding, the street was transformed into a quasi-warzone as shots were fired down on the policemen below. It quickly became clear that the rifles that the police were traditionally equipped with did not match the range and power of the modern Mauser pistols that the two men inside the house were using. As large crowds began to fill the street, the Scots Guards and even cavalry-drawn artillery were called in, but to no avail. The Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, watched on as the two men pinned down both the police and soldiers below. After six hours of fighting, smoke began to creep up from the upper-floor windows. The house went up in flames, but the two men, later identified as Fritz Svaars and William (Joseph) Sokoloff – who had been present during the Houndsditch murders, never appeared out of the front door, with the flames left to burn by the firefighters until the two men inside were dead. Their charred remains were found inside – one killed by a bullet wound, the other by smoke inhalation.
With the growth of more affordable forms of journalism available to the wider reading public in the late nineteenth century, melodrama in its literary form became a vital tool. This is clear in the siege reports, with racial and political fears providing the drive for the melodramatic narrative. Thus reports reproduced the traditional melodramatic plot that, as historian Judith Walkowitz suggests, ‘reinforced the sense of destiny out of control; for the most time, the villain remained firmly in total command, ultimately overthrown not by reason but by chance’ (5) .
The melodramatic writing style that dominated the narratives of the siege suggests that there was a persistence of the rhetorical representation of alien immigrants that was influenced by Victorian social journalism and an imagined cultural geography of the East End of the nineteenth century – dramatically pictured as a labyrinth of dangerous streets, tangled alleys and dark courts. The creation of this particular image of the East End landscape was greatly affected not only by Victorian social investigation, but also by the Jack the Ripper murders of 1888, that heightened the fear of the area as enclosing a dangerous and violent subculture of London. Depictions of the buildings in the reports show a tension between the influence of this traditional historical image of the East End, and a desire to portray the modernization of twentieth-century Edwardian London. The house itself was described by the Daily Graphic as one of ‘a superior red-brick group’ (6) and the Telegraph similarly promoted the fact that Sidney Street was part of the redevelopment of the East End (7). At the same time, however, journalists appear to have found it difficult to detach themselves completely from the gothic influence of the nineteenth-century East End, the Daily Graphic referring to Sidney Street as ‘one of many streets of small sordid houses’, with the house itself surrounded by ‘murky neighbours’ (8). This image was far from the truth, as can be seen not only from a contemporary image of the street, but also from large collection of images produced by the newspapers at the time (Fig. 1).
The Sidney Street siege thrust the East End back into the public limelight, making it, as one journalist proposed, ‘the theatre of sordid London drama’ (9). The headlines of the papers themselves are reminiscent of a theatre playbill, sensationally setting out the scene, the action and the major characters in punchy, breathless statements (Fig.3). The narratives are split up into short scenes, with equally dramatic subsections, extending the sense of a scenic and dramatic narrative that had its roots in the Victorian theatre. Similarly, the characters involved in the event provided the extremes of the ‘villain’, the ‘victim’ and the forces of ‘law and order’ that are central aspects of the melodramatic rhetoric. This highlights the growth of the late-nineteenth century journalistic rhetoric of ‘religious emotion, dramatized characterization, graphic descriptions of poverty and hazy statistics’, (10) through the dramatizations of the Sidney Street siege in the post-Edwardian press, and further, into reports of dramatic events in our modern-day press (Figs. 4 & 5). The ambiguities surrounding many aspects of the siege – who exactly the two men were, what the final outcome might be, and the unexpected nature of the fire that finally took hold of the house, allowed a certain degree of dramatic licence to be applied to narratives of the action.
Police, crowds and journalists themselves were depicted as being in the firing line, and the ‘anarchists’ themselves, as it was presumed they were, were elevated by journalists to the same level of East End ‘anti-hero’ that Jack the Ripper had been, for their faces were never seen throughout the entire day’s fighting. In contrast to Jack the Ripper (who was never identified), the two men finally met their death in a very public way, providing a concrete end to the ambiguities of the siege. The gruesome relish with which the writers described the condition in which the two men were found, one with no head, and another with ‘both legs left arm amputated’ reveals an anxiety and aggressive desire to prove that this was indeed the end to a series of events that had started the previous year (11).
As well as the forms of nineteenth-century melodrama there were also new types of media involved in the dissemination of the siege rhetoric. The extensive use of photography (Fig.4) suggests that this was a representation that was visual in its quality. Most newspaper reports tended to provide a full page of photographs from the start to the end of the day – a format that had only been available since the turn of the century for use in the mass circulation press. The siege also allowed new forms of news reporting to enter the area, with a large amount of newsreel filmed on location at the siege by companies such as British Pathé. This allowed the event to be shown to audiences that night in institutions such as the Palace Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue (12), and made for a greater immediacy than traditional forms of paper press.
Of course, this immediacy of news reporting seems almost second nature to us in the twenty-first century, due to advances in technology and the advent of social media sites such as Twitter. The Sidney Street siege allowed forms of nineteenth-century melodrama, along with innovative technologies that were revolutionizing the world of media reporting to flourish into forms that show a remarkable similarity with the ways in which the current-day media report shocking periods of violence and disorder. I would argue that the Sidney Street siege offers an opportunity to compare not only the cause and effects of the social protest and violence, as Jerry White suggested in his article on this site on 18 October 2011 (13); but also on the forms that these reports of dramatic events on the streets of London took during the siege, due to dramatic changes in media technology around the early Edwardian period. The late Victorian and early Edwardian eras were vital in the creation and solidification of these dramatic styles of reporting during events such as the Sidney Street siege.
Visiting the site of the Sidney Street siege today, it is surprising how little remains of the three-storey red brick houses (Fig. 6). In the same way their construction hid the unglamorous urban history of the Victorian East End, the 1950s estate that has now taken its place obscures the history of the fear of foreign immigration, anarchism and violence that continued into the early twentieth century. When 100 Sidney Street was demolished in 1956, a Stepney council spokesman announced: ‘We do not consider the house historic or famous.’ (14). This research suggests the opposite: that the Sidney Street siege has been undervalued as a filter through which to understand a particular juncture in the history of British immigration that was caught between the influence of the Victorian past and a concern over an evolving form of modern, professional criminality and Britain’s ability as a nation to evolve with it.
In the short term, the Sidney Street siege clearly resulted in a radicalization of popular sentiment over the status of the immigrant in London. The Manchester Guardian feared that the result of the agitation of the London Press was ‘the outbreak of anti-semitism’, and ‘the assumption that dangerous criminal tendencies exist among poorer foreign Jews’ (15), epitomized by a poem that appeared in the People in the immediate aftermath:
But I think it’s time to plead once more
To get rid of the cursed breed
Of alien Jews who seem to have been
The authors of the deed.
Remember Tottenham! Foreign Jews
Were the coward murderers there,
And it’s pretty certain that aliens held
The guns on the Houndsditch stair.
(16) The People, 25 December 1911
Politically, the press outcry revived the complaint that the Liberal government had ‘weakened’ the Aliens Act, allowing criminals to see Britain as a haven and to enter the country masked as refugees (17). George VI’s private secretary wrote to Churchill in the immediate aftermath stating [the king] ‘hopes that these outrages by foreigners will lead you to consider whether the Aliens Act could be amended so as to prevent London from being infested with men and women whose presence would not be tolerated in any other country’ (18), Whilst publicly attempting to distance himself from the siege (19), in private, Churchill recognized its significance, admitting to the Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, ‘I think I shall have to stiffen the administration and the Aliens Act a little’ (20). Although this proposed act was not passed, it shows a knee-jerk reaction from Churchill, who had been criticized in 1905 for his weak stance on restricting immigration, in response to this dramatic event.
Press narratives during the Sidney Street siege also reveal the difficulty journalists had in distancing themselves from the legacies of an East End ‘heart of darkness’ within the Victorian metropolis. It also reveals however, the changes that had occurred since the late Victorian period. These narratives of dramatic events such as the siege reveal a shift away from the representation of the immigrant and the East End of London as a sanitary problem of destitution, and towards a more modern construct of global issues of immigration and criminality. As one of the first major domestic scandals to receive all forms of press coverage, the siege was reported well outside the borders of Britain in print, photography and newsreel, with some quick-witted entrepreneurs setting up souvenir shops outside No. 100 selling bricks that had been peppered with bullets (21).
Although Sidney Street itself serves as an important historical parallel for contemporary debates over immigration, it also functions as a window through which to view the emerging influence of the press and how new forms of media served to influence the way in which dramatic events were written about in early Edwardian Britain. The characteristics of modern day news reporting that we take for granted have their roots in events such as the Sidney Street siege, which drew on the residual forms of melodrama and sensationalism, along with the new cultural technologies of mass circulation press and newsreel, to create a modern news event.
1. John Law, Out of Work, London, 1888, p.64.
2. The Times, 19 December 1910, p.10.
3. The People, 18 December 1910, in:
Colin Rogers, The Battle of Stepney: The Sidney Street Siege: Its Causes and Consequences, London, 1981, p.23.
4. From an interview with Alice Burleigh, who lived at 106 Sidney Street at the time of the siege, by Alan Dein, 1989.
5. Judith Walkowitz, City of Dreadful Delight, Chicago, 1992, p.86.
6. Daily Graphic, 4 January 1911, p.11.
7. Daily Telegraph, 4 January 1911, p.11.
8. Daily Graphic, 4 January, 1911, p.11.
9. Daily Graphic, 5 January 1911, p.11.
10. P. J. Keating, ‘Fact and Fiction in the East End’, in H. J. Dyos and M. Wolff, The Victorian City, London, 1973, p.589.
11. Daily Telegraph, 4 January 1911, p.4.
13. Jerry White, Riots in London 1780 – Present Day, at http://www.historyworkshop.org.uk/riots-in-london-1780-present-day/
14. John G. Bennett, E1: A Journey through Whitechapel and Spitalfields, Nottingham, 2009, p.13.
15. ‘Crime and the Alien’, Manchester Guardian, 10 January, 1911.
16. ‘The Lessons of Houndsditch’, The People, December 1911, as cited in Rogers, The Battle of Stepney, p.51.
17. David Feldman, Englishmen and Jews: Social Relations and Political Culture, 1840 – 1914, Yale ,1994, p.360.
18. Randolph Churchill, Winston S. Churchill: Companion, Vol.II: Young Statesman, 1910 – 1914, London, 1967, pp.410 – 11.
19. Reynolds’s Newspaper published a letter from Churchill to Sir Henry Dalziel MP suggesting that he should not
be blamed for either the tactics or the outcome of the siege.
20. Churchill, Companion, Vol.II, p.433.
21. ‘Sidney Street Visitors’, Daily News, 12 January 1911, p.2.