The Siege of Sidney Street, popularly known as the "Battle of Stepney", was a notorious gunfight in London's East End in 1911. It ended with the deaths of two members of a politically-motivated gang of burglars supposedly led by Peter Piaktow, a.k.a. "Peter the Painter", and sparked a major political row over the involvement of the Home Secretary, Winston Churchill.
Sergeants Bentley and Bryant knocked at No. 11 Exchange Buildings, unaware that the first constable on the scene had already done so, thus alerting the gang. The gang's actual leader, George Gardstein, opened the door, but when he did not answer their questions they assumed he did not understand English and told him to fetch someone who did. Gardstein left the door half-closed and disappeared. The house consisted of a single ground-floor room, into which the front door directly opened, with a staircase leading to the upper floors on the left, and a door to the open yard at the back on the right. It was later deduced that Gardstein must have moved left towards the staircase, since if he had gone right and out the yard door he would have been seen by one of the plain-clothed officers standing outside, who had a clear view of that side of the room. Growing impatient, the two sergeants entered the house to find the room apparently empty, before they became aware of a man standing in the darkness at the top of the stairs. After a short conversation, another man entered through the yard door, rapidly firing a pistol, while the man on the stairs also started shooting. Both officers were hit, with Bentley collapsing across the doorstep, while Bryant managed to stagger outside. In the street, constable Woodhams ran to help Bentley, but was himself wounded by one of the gang firing from the cover of the house, as was Sergeant Tucker, who died almost instantly. Sergeant Bentley also died as a result of his injuries (on his wedding anniversary - his wife had also given birth to a baby boy on the previous Wednesday).
The gang then attempted to break out of the cul-de-sac, Gardstein being grabbed by Constable Choate almost at the entrance. In the struggle Choate was wounded several times by Gardstein, before being shot five more times by other members of the gang, who also managed to hit their compatriot in the back. They then dragged Gardstein three-quarters of a mile to 59 Grove Street, where he died the next day. Constable Choate and Sergeant Bentley died in separate hospitals the same day. An intense search followed, and a number of the gang or their associates were soon arrested.
On 2 January 1911, an informant told police that two or three of the gang, possibly including Peter the Painter himself, were hiding at 100 Sidney Street, Stepney (in the Metropolitan Police District). Worried that the suspects were about to flee, and expecting heavy resistance to any attempt at capture, on 3 January two hundred men cordoned off the area and the siege began. At dawn the battle commenced.
The defenders, though heavily outnumbered, possessed superior weapons and great stores of ammunition. The Tower of London was called for backup, and word got to Home Secretary Winston Churchill, who arrived on the spot to observe the incident first hand, and to offer advice. Churchill authorised calling in a detachment of Scots Guards to assist the police. Six hours into the battle, and just as the field artillery piece that Churchill had authorised arrived, a fire began to consume the building. When the fire brigade arrived Churchill refused them access to the building. The police stood ready, guns aimed at the front door, waiting for the men inside to attempt their escape. The door never opened. Inside the remains of two members of the gang, Fritz Svaars and William Sokolow (both were also known by numerous aliases), were recovered. No sign of Peter the Painter was ever found.
Of seven supposed members of the gang captured by the police, five men - including Peters - and two women were put on trial, but they all either had the charges dropped, were acquitted, or had their convictions quashed. Peters later returned home, and after the October Revolution served as deputy head of the Cheka. He perished during the Great Purge in 1938.
The role Churchill played in the Sidney Street Siege was highly controversial at the time, and many, including former Prime Minister Arthur Balfour, accused him of having acted improperly. A famous photograph from the time shows Churchill peering around a corner to view events. Balfour asked, "He [Churchill] and a photographer were both risking valuable lives. I understand what the photographer was doing but what was the Right Honourable gentleman doing?"
The siege was the inspiration for the final shoot out in Alfred Hitchcock's original 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, although not his own 1956 remake. The events were depicted directly in the 1960 film The Siege of Sidney Street.