Jan. 3, 2023

The Siege of Sidney Street

The Siege of Sidney Street

January 3, 1911. After three London policemen are killed trying to stop a robbery, their murderers are tracked down to an East London slum where a dramatic and deadly armed siege begins.


Cold Open

It’s nearing midnight on December 16th, 1910, on a quiet street in the East End of London.

38-year-old police Sergeant Robert Bentley peers through the exterior window of a dark and deserted shop. Overhead, a sign creaks in the wind…

It reads: “H.S. Harris. Jewelers from 1865.”

Earlier tonight, the police received reports of strange noises coming from the shop. Robert and a small group of fellow officers are here to investigate what they suspect is a robbery in progress. But Robert can’t see anything out of place from here in the front, so he decides to check around back. He orders two of his men to stay put… while he takes the other officers with him down a dead-end side street. The dark avenue is lined with small commercial units which back directly up to the jeweler’s shop. The units are all dark, save one.

Robert can see the gaslight shining through the crevices of the door. So Robert steps up to the threshold… and knocks. After a few moments… a dark-haired young man opens the door and peers outside. Robert asks him about the strange noises being reported. But the young man barely understands English. He’s Latvian, and only recently came to London. Clearly rattled, the young Latvian man turns away and disappears inside.

Cautiously, Robert and his fellow officers follow pushing inside the small parlor. Robert’s eyes quickly dart around the room. There’s a fire crackling in a grate, and an uneaten meal sitting on a tabletop. But the Latvian man has disappeared. Robert scans for possible exits. He sees a staircase leading to the upper floor and a closed wooden door directly ahead. Robert turns around to one of his fellow officers and beckons for him to follow him upstairs. But as he turns back… the wooden door bursts open and another man storms into the room, holding a semi-automatic pistol.

At very close range… he opens fire. The first bullet skims Robert’s face. The second slams into his shoulder, and the third goes through his neck. Seargent Robert Bentley collapses to the ground as more armed men emerge from hiding and shoot their way past the remaining officers and out into the street.

By the time the shooting stops and the gang of thieves have made their getaway, the alleyway behind the jewelers is a bloodbath. Five policemen have been shot and three of them, including Sergeant Robert Bentley, will not recover from their wounds.

In a country where police are largely unarmed and gun violence rare, the murders are particularly shocking. A massive manhunt is launched for the culprits, but finding the killers proves more difficult than expected. Only after weeks of frustration will detectives track the gang down. And their attempt to flee justice will finally end in a famous gun battle in an East London slum: the Siege of Sidney Street on January 3rd, 1911.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is January 3rd, 1911: The Siege of Sidney Street.

Act One: Aftermath

It’s the early hours of December 17th, 1910, just moments after an armed mob of thieves shot their way through police after robbing a jewelry store.

At a doctor’s in East London, John Scanlon, the on-duty medic, is asleep in the small upstairs bedroom, when he’s woken by the sound from the street outside. A speaking tube links his bedroom to the doorstep, and a woman’s voice echoes up through the metal pipes to the doctor’s ear.

She’s clearly in distress, speaking rapidly in Yiddish, but John doesn’t speak the language. When he answers in English, the woman downstairs doesn’t understand him either. The doctor tries German and then finally finds a language they both speak. In French, he asks her what’s wrong. The woman gives a broken reply: “A man is very bad at 59 Grove Street”.

Hearing this, the doctor quickly gathers his things and hurries downstairs. Then he follows the woman down the street.

Her name is Sara. She’s a seamstress and a friend of the Latvian thieves who a few hours earlier tried to rob a jewelry store in East London. In the confusion of their escape from the scene, the gang leader, a man named George Gardstein, was shot in the back by one of his own men. His friends carried George away, half a mile through the dark streets of London to an apartment on Grove Street. There, they left George in the care of Sara before disappearing into the night.

Sara tried to care for the wounded man as best she could. But it was soon obvious that George needed proper medical attention, so she hurried out into the dark streets of London to find a doctor.

Now, Sara leads Doctor Scanlon to a dingy upstairs bedroom in the apartment on Grove Street. Inside, lying on a narrow bed is George Gardstein, awake but in too much pain to speak. George is fully dressed in a crumpled dark gray suit. But his face is white, his teeth clenched in pain, and the bedsheets beneath him stained red with blood. By the faint light of a gas lamp, John examines his patient. It doesn’t take long for him to see that the man is dying. The doctor turns to Sara and tells her that George needs to go to hospital at once.

At this, George finally finds the strength to speak up – he insists that he’s not going to any hospital. Dr. Scanlon tries to change his mind, but the young thief is adamant. In the end, all the doctor can do is prescribe George some pain medicine and promise to return later in the morning.

By then, however, George is dead and the whole country has woken to the news of the terrible crimes that he and the rest of his gang have committed.


Five days later, on December 22nd, 1910, the city of London comes to a standstill for the funeral of the slain policemen.

The streets around St. Paul’s Cathedral are packed with thousands of mourners who have come to pay their respects.

Among them is a rising young politician named Winston Churchill. With his wife Clementine beside him, the 36-year-old climbs the stone steps of the great cathedral and joins the congregation inside.

But as he takes his seat, Churchill can’t help but notice some of the icy stares he’s getting from many in the crowd. As Home Secretary, Churchill is responsible for policing and security in Britain. And many feel Churchill is failing.

The investigation into the murders of the three policemen is not going well. Detectives quickly discovered the body of George Gardstein, but the rest of his murderous gang are still at large.

Almost a hundred detectives are now scouring the slums of East London for the killers, but the police don’t even know how many suspects they are hunting. And many of the slum-dwellers are recent immigrants who don’t speak English and are often mistrustful of the authorities. Everywhere detectives go, they encounter silence and suspicion. And as criticism over the slow pace of the investigation mounts, Winston Churchill has grown increasingly frustrated.

But for now, Churchill puts those feelings to the side. He stands with the rest of the congregation as the coffins of the three policemen, laden with flowers, are carried in on the shoulders of their colleagues. The soaring voices of the cathedral choir float through the air as the memorial service begins in honor of the fallen officers.

38-year-old Police Sergeant Robert Bentley was shot on his wedding anniversary. His heavily pregnant wife gave birth to a baby four days later. The other dead men are Sergeant Charles Tucker, who was 47 and a father of two, and a young constable named Walter Choat, who bravely tried to grab one of the Latvian thieves until he was shot eight times at close range. Churchill, like many others in law enforcement, is determined that their deaths will not be in vain.

For more than a week, the grueling search continues but to no avail. And then, just when it seems that all hope of finding the killers has vanished, detectives finally get a crucial lead, a tip that will reveal the location of the fugitives and lead to a dramatic shootout on the streets of London.

Act Two: The Tip

It’s late on January 1st, 1911 in central London, just over a day before the Siege of Sidney Street begins.

A 60-year-old Russian immigrant named Charles Perelman trudges through driving snow. It’s coming down so heavily that Charles can barely make out the glow of the gas streetlamps overhead. He’s wearing a thick scarf and a hat drawn down low over his eyes – but it’s not just because of the weather. Charles doesn’t want anyone to recognize him. He’s about to turn informant and give the police information about the whereabouts of the violent men they’ve been hunting.

By now, the police investigation has successfully identified some of the associates of George Gardstein, the leader of the gang of Latvian thieves. They’ve made several arrests, but they know there are more of the gang still at large and they have appealed to the public for help.

Charles Perelman has been in England for about five years. He’s a photographer by trade but supplements his income by renting out lodgings in the East End to other immigrants. On New Year’s Eve, he was approached by a young woman he knew who wanted help finding accommodation for some friends. She confided in Charles that the two men were involved in the robbery at the jewelry store and have been hiding in her lodgings on Sidney Street ever since. The woman was worried that the men would soon be discovered and asked Charles to find them somewhere else to live for a few days before they escaped out of the country. Charles promised to help, but he soon realized the danger he was putting himself in, so he decided to go to the authorities.

Through the blizzard, Charles sees the warm lights of the City of London police headquarters up ahead. He glances along the street, but the few people out in the snow have their heads down, hurrying to get wherever they need to be. Satisfied that he’s not being followed or watched, Charles crosses the road and darts up the steps into the headquarters. He tells the police everything he knows.


In the early hours of January 3rd, 1911, a woman named Rebecca Fleishmann is fast asleep in her flat in an apartment building at 100 Sidney Street. But she is roused from her slumber by the sound of tapping at her bedroom window.

She nudges her husband awake, who lies in bed beside her. She thinks it’s the milkman outside and wants her husband to tell him to leave. But her husband refuses to get out of the warm bed. When the knocking persists, Rebecca lets out an annoyed sigh and climbs out of bed herself.

She creeps across the cold floorboards, feeling her way through the dark, not wanting to wake up her youngest daughter who shares the bedroom with her and her husband.

Reaching the window, she hisses through the glass in Yiddish: “I don’t want any milk today”. A voice replies: “It’s not the milkman. It’s the police.”

As soon as the informant Charles Perelman revealed the location of the fugitives, police officers were dispatched to Sidney Street. All day on January 2nd, the police waited outside the apartment building. But the two men alleged to be inside never emerged. Fearing the thieves would spot the officers or be tipped off that their hideout had been discovered, the police came up with a new plan.

During the night, they gathered a force of hundreds of policemen. They cordoned off the entire street and secured all entries and exits from 100 Sidney Street.

Having woken Rebecca Fleishmann and her husband, police quiz them on the other tenants of the building. They’re especially interested in the woman living upstairs and ask if any men are staying with her. Rebecca declares that it’s not that type of building – they’re respectable people here. But the police are insistent and they eventually convince Rebecca to go upstairs and ask the woman there to come down.

Rebecca creeps up the narrow stairs to wake her neighbor. Giving an excuse about her husband falling ill, she convinces the other woman to come downstairs. And as soon as she does, she’s seized by waiting police. The woman quickly confesses - there are two men hiding upstairs.

Policemen usher her away and silently clear everyone else out of the building until the only two people left inside are the fugitives. Then, as the weak morning sun rises over the frozen city, the police decide it’s time to make their move. They throw rocks at the upper windows of the apartment building to get the attention of the thieves inside. The rattling of pebbles on the glass window panes are answered by a barrage of gunfire. The infamous Siege of Sidney Street has begun. And in the ensuing shootout, hundreds of rounds are fired, and when the smoke finally clears, two more people will be dead.

Act Three: The Siege

It’s the morning of January 3rd, 1911, and Winston Churchill is in the bath at his London home near Westminster.

He’s almost finished when there’s a knock on the bathroom door. There’s an urgent telephone call for him. The Home Secretary hauls himself up out of the tub and drapes a towel around his naked body. Then, still dripping wet, he hurries out of the bathroom to take the call.

An aide from the Home Office is on the line. He tells Churchill that the criminals behind the shooting of the three policemen in East London have been cornered at an apartment building on Sidney Street. The two men are surrounded, but they have powerful semi-automatic weapons and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of ammunition. They are firing at anything that moves.

In contrast, the London police on the scene are armed only with hunting rifles and ancient revolvers that must be reloaded after every shot. Outgunned in this way, the police want to call in the army to help – but they need approval for that from the Home Secretary.

Churchill gives his permission immediately, then hurries away to get dressed. He wants to get down to Sidney Street as quickly as possible to witness what’s happening for himself.

It isn’t long before a small detachment of soldiers arrives in East London, armed with powerful Lee Enfield rifles. They take up firing positions surrounding the besieged building. And they’re soon joined on the scene by the young Home Secretary, Churchill, in a top hat and fur-collared overcoat. 

Bullets still ricochet down the street as the fugitives and the soldiers exchange fire. But by now, the standoff has lasted for hours. Churchill listens intently as the senior police officers debate what to do next. Some want to storm the building, but its narrow, steep stairs make such a direct assault almost suicidal. Others suggest they keep waiting until the men inside run out of ammunition.

But as this debate continues, there’s a sudden shout of a voice crying, “Fire!” Churchill and the senior police turn to see smoke creeping out of the upper windows of the apartment building. Soon, flames engulf the whole structure. The fire brigade is called, but when the firefighters make it to put out the blaze, Churchill stops them, saying “Let the buggers burn”.

Hours later, when the shooting has stopped and the firefighters are finally allowed inside the building, the bodies of the two young fugitives are found. Their violent attempted robbery, and subsequent standoff, outraged the nation and ignited a debate over whether British police should routinely carry guns.

And in the aftermath of the siege, more modern firearms will be purchased for the police. But their use will remain strictly limited, and most British police officers will continue to perform their duties without firearms at their side.

Shootings like the one in East London remain rare in Britain, even today. But the events of 1910 still stand as one of the darkest days in the history of policing in the country. What began as a robbery, turned into a shootout, grew into a manhunt, and ended with a dramatic, deadly, and fiery siege on January 3rd, 1911.


Next onHistory Daily: January 4th, 1853. After being kidnapped and sold into slavery in the American South, Solomon Northup regains his freedom.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Mischa Stanton.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by William Simpson.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.