Steinie Morrison & the Siege of Sidney Street

Steinie Morrison & the Siege of Sidney Street
Ian Parson

Sidney Street, East London, January 3rd 1911

Sidney Street, East London, January 3rd 1911

We all know about the Siege of Sidney Street. How Winston Churchill oversaw the removal of a group of Russian anarchist savages from the heart of east London. How it was dramatic in a front page news kind of way, but all turned out for the best in the end.
You don’t know the story? Ok, brief re-cap,

On the 16th of December 1910 there was a robbery on a jewellery shop in Houndsditch, London.
3 policemen died, 2 more were wounded and a Latvian gangster named George Gardstein was killed.
London’s two police forces combined to track down and apprehend Gardstein’s accomplices. They were scattered around the East End, predominantly in Whitechapel. By the end of the month only 2 men remained at large, 3 if you count Peter the Painter. I don’t.
Even so, the manhunt was on.

A fortnight later, on New Year’s Day 1911 another murder took place. This time on Clapham Common. Not originally connected to events on the other side of London, as soon as the victim was identified as Leon Beron, that changed.
Beron was well known in Whitechapel. He frequented the same places as the wanted fugitives.

On the 3rd of January 1911 there was a 6 hour shoot out in Sidney Street, East London. Winston Churchill can be seen in archive footage. He was there in an official capacity he claimed. Although in his memoirs many years later he confessed to merely giving in to a strong sense of curiosity.

Immediately after the shoot-out the press demanded to know why the Home Secretary (Mr. Churchill) had risked life and limb so recklessly.
The following explanation was offered,
‘These were extremely dangerous Russian Anarchists, led by the infamous Peter the Painter,’ hardcore terrorists in today’s parlance.
‘The Home Secretary was quite correct to show such a keen interest. He was only thinking about the good of the nation.’

All well and good. Except Peter the Painter was never caught, killed or deported from Gibraltar some years later when he was offered to the British authorities on a plate. Surely the statute of limitations on three dead policemen never expires?
No matter, the Home Secretary’s explanation was accepted and the fuss died down.

On the 8th of January Steinie Morrison was captured in Whitechapel. He was chief suspect in the killing of Leon Beron on Clapham Common.
He said to the arresting officer Frederick Wensley that he thought he was being taken for questioning about the robbery in Houndsditch. Why he thought this, nobody really cared. They just knew he was in Clapham with Beron in the early hours of New Year’s Day and now Beron was dead. The two men had eaten together at the Warsaw Restaurant in Whitechapel on New Year’s Eve, then for some mysterious reason, travelled to Clapham Common.

And that’s that. Or is it?

In Whitechapel on the Southern side of the Commercial Road, three streets east of Berner/Henrique Street, in a now much altered part of town, there used to be an eating establishment known as the Warsaw Restaurant.
It was more of a backstreet cafe than a restaurant. But the place was so uninviting its name mattered little.
In 1910 and 1911 the Warsaw was open for food and drinks from early morning to long past midnight, seven days a week.
This restaurant was a meeting place for villains. They came, they went, but Steinie Morrison, as the police well knew, was different. He arrived early every morning and stayed late.
This is where the story takes a slight turn away from the official version.

Steinie Morrison is of course long gone. He was however well respected in a world where very little was written down. Stories were taught, learnt and passed on. They’re still passed down the ranks today.
It’s no secret that Steinie used the Warsaw as his office. His business was organising, financing and occasionally partaking in, armed robberies. Particularly jewellery heists.
He is remembered and respected for his work in this field. Even in South London he is spoken of without the usual sneer reserved for East End villains. Everybody knows what he did and where he did it.

The police in 1911 believed that Gardstein and the rest of the gang had planned their robbery gone wrong from the Warsaw.
After Churchill put himself in danger, the thieves were quickly promoted from Latvian gangsters to Russian revolutionaries and Peter the Painter was added to the mix. There was also a quick re-shuffle of certain elements of the whole escapade. Police reasoning behind their actions was chopped and changed to fit the government narrative.
The planning of the heist though, happened in the Warsaw. On that the police were adamant throughout.
Of course the public were blissfully unaware this created a problem in the official version of events.
Namely that the Warsaw was Steinie Morrison’s office.
So what? I hear you ask.
Well, Steinie’s thing was high end robbery. Particularly jewellery heists.
Even today, there is unanimous agreement amongst criminals both sides of the Thames, that a Latvian gang, politically motivated or otherwise, could not use the Warsaw to organise a jewellery heist without Steinie being in it up to his neck. Frankly, even a hundred years later, they find the very idea hysterical.
If the Latvians/Russians were going to rob a jewellers, Steinie, they say, probably planned it. At the very least he knew about it, and either way, he would expect to receive a cut of the profits. This was no political, revolutionary operation. It was an old fashioned robbery, plain and simple.

Awkwardly for the authorities Gardstein was known as an armed robber.
No matter, the press quickly portrayed him as a dangerous revolutionary. Then as now, the facts weren’t allowed to get in the way of the story.
So it was decided to portray him in a way that would go down best in Whitehall.
Russian gangsters and revolutionaries in Victorian London thought the police here were like the police back home.
Many immigrants who turned up in the East End had been tortured by or lost friends and family to the police. They saw little merit in being taken alive.
Conveniently for the establishment the gap between villain and revolutionary has never been overly wide.
At that time, in that part of London, with those particular people it was almost non-existent. This made it possible for anyone to blur the lines around somebody else’s reputation. Meant that a hundred years later the official version of events can be scrutinised and found wanting.

Anyway i digress,
On the night of the 2nd of January the authorities were informed the remaining gangsters Peter the Painter, Fritz Svaars & William Sokolow were hiding at number 100 Sidney Street. On the morning of January the 3rd the police tried to gain entry.
Whoever was inside opted to shoot it out rather than be arrested.

Many feel that Peter the Painter had no connection to any of this, other than it looked good for Churchill if he was involved. The other two, Svaars and
Sokolow were definitely not anarchists. They were not even particularly political as was claimed.
They could best be described as petty crooks. With leftist, Socialist leanings perhaps, but the same could be said about anyone in the East End then.
In Whitechapel they were well known as ‘faces’, crooks, villains.
No matter, the police had been told members of the gang, possibly including the very political Peter the Painter, were holed up at 100 Sidney Street, East London.
A gang described by the Times as
“Some of the worst alien anarchists and criminals who seek our too-hospitable shore.”
When the shooting started it immediately became obvious the police were seriously out gunned. So the army were called.
The military sharpshooters of the British Army set to work. Stopping only when the property mysteriously began to burn down. Two bodies, Svaars and Sokolow, were found inside

A few months later in May, 7 defendants went to trial. They were charged with the robbery in Houndsditch. All were acquitted. One of the gangster’s girlfriends had been so convinced she’d be framed and jailed, that when told by the judge she was free to go, she cracked completely and had to be admitted to an asylum.
Steinie Morrison was jailed for the murder of Leon Beron.
Everybody else went back to their day jobs.
Some still say the whole thing was no more than a robbery by violent criminals that had been turned political to save face for Churchill.
It is said that history is dictated by the victors. By those who wrote their version down.
It is also said that truth will out in the end.

Used bullets from the Houndsditch robbery, London December 1910

Used bullets & artefacts from the Houndsditch robbery, London December 1910

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