Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Besieging Fake History

 Otto English’s description of the Siege of Sidney Street is laughably bad:

“When a violent Latvian gang was cornered by police at the Siege of Sidney Street in January 1911, Churchill hot-footed it down to Stepney with his private secretary and a photographer in tow. There he made a show of “taking charge” of events including calling up the Royal Artillery, who shelled the quiet East End Street, setting fire to the terrace”.

In a footnote he adds the following description of the event: 

“A gunfight in a tenement building in the East End of London (and, later, armed forces), and members of a Latvian criminal gang, led to the deaths of three policeman, a fireman and the three gang members”.

Where to start with this?

Firstly, the gunfight did not result in the deaths of three policemen. No policemen (thankfully) were killed during the siege of Sidney Street. Three policemen - Sergeants Tucker and Bentley and Constable Choate – were murdered by the criminal gang but not during the Siege of Sidney Street. Their killings took place a month earlier, in December, in Houndsditch. One policeman was seriously wounded in the gunfight – Sergeant Ben Leeson – and had to retire. He published his memoirs, Lost London, in 1934.

Secondly, it is incorrect to say that three gang members died in the gunfight. Two were killed in the gun fight – Fritz Svaars and Joseph Sokoloff. One had been killed by bullets and the other suffocated in the smoke. A member of the gang – George Gardstein – had been killed by police during the earlier Houndsditch incident.

Thirdly, Churchill did not “hot foot” it down to Stepney when he heard about the gunfight. He was first notified of it at his London home – 33 Eccleston Square. Churchill “hot footed it” to the Home Office. However, there were no additional updates there. It was only then that he decided to go see events for himself. And he did not take a photographer with him.

Fourthly Churchill did not make a show of taking charge of events. An eyewitness to the event, Sydney Holland, said “the only possible excuse for anyone saying that [Churchill] gave orders is that [he] did once and very rightly go forward and wave back the crowd at the end of the road”. Holland also added that the only order Churchill gave was that “[he] and I were not to be shot in our hindquarters by a policeman who was standing with a 12-bore behind [us]” (Gilbert, Churchill: A Life, pp.223-224).  Churchill also was approached by a junior firefighter and asked to overrule a police command for the fire brigade to stay back. Churchill declined to do so (or rather, he instructed the Fire Brigade to wait) because of the danger from gunfire. But this was hardly him taking command of the police operations. Donald Rumbelow, a former curator of the City of London’s Police Museum, wrote that:

"[Churchill] had no wish to take personal control but his position of authority inevitably attracted to itself direct responsibility. He saw that he would have done much better to have remained in his office but it was impossible to get into his car and drive away while matters were so uncertain and – he wrote later – so ‘extremely interesting’" (Rumbelow, The Houndsditch Murders, p.136; emphasis added).

Fifthly, the Royal Artillery did not cause the fire by shelling the “quiet” (is this a joke?) East End Street. This would have been hard for them to do because the Royal Artillery did not shell the street. The fire started around 1 PM, and the Royal Artillery did not arrive until 2:40 PM, around the same time Churchill left the scene (and he denied ever calling for their assistance). The fire was likely caused by a bullet hitting a gas line.

In the span of several sentences Otto managed to make five incorrect assertions. Had he just looked at the Wikipedia page he could have avoided this. A poor effort for someone claiming to debunk “fake history”.  


Gilbert, Martin, Churchill: A Life (Pimlico, 2000)

Rumbelow, Donald, The Houndsditch Murders and the Siege of Sidney Street (The History Press, 2009)

Tuesday, April 5, 2022

The Neo-Confederate Gambit

 You know the expression “never meet your heroes”? Well, I think there needs to be an addendum to that advice – never follow your heroes on twitter. Readers may be familiar with Professor Phillips O’Brien but for those who are not, he is Professor of Strategic Studies at the University of St Andrews. He’s also an extremely capable historian who has written one of the best books on the Second World War in recent years. If you haven’t read How the War Was Won go and buy a copy. It is revisionist history at its finest.

Buy this book

Alas, an expertise on logistics and machinery doesn’t translate into expertise in other areas. At the height of the summer of Floyd in 2020 Professor O’Brien wrote a series of tweets about the issues of race and the historian’s fallacy.

O’Brien starts with summarising the two main opposite opinions – on the one hand we shouldn’t judge Churchill’s antiquated views on race because “racist views were dominant” during his life, in O’Brien’s words. On the other hand, Churchill was an “out and out racist” and basically no better than Hitler.  O'Brien doesn't agree with the latter view but spends no time debunking it. Instead he mainly criticises the former viewpoint. He says that “no era was simply racist – there was always a range of opinion and it’s important to look at the individual within the context of that range”. This is missing the point. No one has ever claimed that there was 100% unanimous consensus pre-1965 that white Europeans were superior to black Africans or brown Asians. Such a degree of unanimity on any issue at any time has probably never existed. It doesn’t mean though that the 19th century or the first half of the 20th century were not eras in which a preponderance of white people likely held racist views.

For an analogy, there were unquestionably atheists in France in the 14th century. Does it follow that 14th century France was not therefore a very religious society compared to 21st century France? Of course not.

It borders on negationism to suggest otherwise. Yes, there were a number of white people in the 19th century who held egalitarian views on race, comparable to mainstream attitudes today. But in how many places in the 19th century did whites and blacks live as political, legal or social equals? I’m not going to enumerate them all but the answer will be somewhere between no where and very few places.

Suppose a pollster could travel back to the 1870s and ask random white people in Europe, the United States or any European settler colony for their opinion on racial issues. It is likely that the comments they would have recorded would have included something on the lines of:

Race is a biological phenomenon. 

Differences in attainment reflected largely inherent differences in race or ethnicity.

Civilised societies were a product of characteristics which, if not unique to white Europeans, were found in far greater number among those of European stock compared to those of Sub-Saharan African stock.

It was not unreasonable for white societies to protect themselves by controlling either the numbers of people of colour, or limiting their rights and freedoms.

O’Brien’s example – white society in the United States in the Civil War – doesn’t prove his point at all. In fact, it shows just how widespread racist ideals were in the mid-19th century. O’Brien highlights radical abolitionists like Thaddeus Stevens as evidence that there was a “huge variety of views on race”. But according to the leading historian of the period, Eric Foner, Thaddeus Stevens represented a minority opinion. Stevens’s biographer, Bruce Levine, goes further and describes radical abolitionists like Stevens as a “widely despised handful”. Ironically, many people at the time thought that Stevens himself was a bigot against other white folks – white Southerners. Not only that, but Steven’s reputation plummeted after his death. For about 70 years white Americans regarded him as the worst person their nation had ever produced, with the possible exception of Benedict Arnold!

On the other hand, the reputation of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate General, soared even in the north. So much so that by the middle of the 20th century a US president of Pennsylvanian Dutch origin who grew up in Kansas considered him one of the four greatest Americans of all time. The fact that Lee was a slaveholder was unimportant. 

In his age, Thaddeus Stevens was an extreme outlier. In selecting him to downplay racism in white-American society during the 1860s, Professor O’Brien sounds like a Neo-Confederate. The type who cherry pick examples of African-Americans who fought for the Confederacy to pretend the Confederacy was not fighting to sustain slavery. Or who cherry pick one or two quotes by Robert E. Lee to portray him as an abolitionist. It isn’t convincing.

Professor O’Brien then moves on to Abraham Lincoln, and credits him as an example of someone who “evolve[d] in interesting and enlightening ways”. This apparently proves that his age wasn't simply a racist one. However, O'Brien is silent on what exactly Lincoln’s evolution involved. Lincoln, for most of his life, was an extreme racist by our standards who would make someone like Richard Spencer look tame. In 1858 in the debates with Stephen Douglas, Lincoln famously said:

“I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races—that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will for ever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”

In 1862 he told a delegation of African Americans visiting the White House that it would be better if African Americans packed their bags and left:

“You and we are different races. We have between us a broader difference than exists between almost any other two races. Whether it is right or wrong I need not discuss, but this physical difference is a great disadvantage to us both, as I think your race suffer very greatly, many of them by living among us, while ours suffer from your presence. In a word we suffer on each side.”

This sounds extreme to us, but it is worth bearing in mind that when most American abolitionists called for the end of slavery, they did not have in mind that slave owners and former slaves would sit down together at the table of brotherhood. They wanted to deport (or "repatriate") all African-Americans from the United States to Africa. They didn’t like slavery, but the idea of racial equality was no less revolting to them as it was to an antebellum slaveholder away down south in Dixie. 

Now it is true that Lincoln didn’t remain of that view forever. As Professor O’Brien says, he “evolved”. But this evolution only went so far as one speech made in 1865 saying that some (not all) African-Americans should be given the vote. In other words, he remained a virulent racist by our standards.

The point I am trying to make is not that I think Lincoln was an awful human being. It is that, while he was maybe enlightened and progressive by the standards of the 1860s, he falls very short of the standards of the 2020s. 

Another example O’Brien cites is FDR, who was “not just a creature of his time”. While he concedes that FDR was “racist in [his] own way” he credits him with using “his power to try and do some good”. I also admire FDR, but there is no getting around the fact that he rounded up an entire ethnic group and detained them in internment camps on the basis of little evidence. Is this an example of “some good” he tried to do? Why does FDR get a pass?

With that out of the way, let’s move onto Churchill. O’Brien characterises him as “pretty terrible” by the standards of his era, who was “consistently one of the more aggressive and oppressive racists” of his age, who tolerated war crimes in South Africa and Sudan and believed in a racial hierarchy with Anglo-Saxons at the top.

This is just plain wrong. I don’t understand how O’Brien can bring up Churchill’s experience in Sudan and completely omit the fact that Churchill was appalled by British atrocities against wounded Dervishes. He ignores Churchill’s experience at the Colonial Office and how he was a consistent opponent of brutality against colonised subjects. O'Brien brings up the Irish, but Churchill didn't really harbour any  strong prejudice against the Irish and came around to support Home Rule and even the unification of Ireland. 

More curiously though is O’Brien’s total omission of Churchill’s attitude to Jews. Jews were among the biggest victims of racism during Churchill’s lifetime so you’d think they would merit a mention. There were many single massacres of Jews in WW2 in which more Jews were murdered than Irish people (both armed Republicans and civilians) died during the entire Anglo-Irish War. Churchill, as is well known, was a consistent opponent of anti-Semitic discrimination and supporter of Zionism. So much so that it struck his contemporaries as unusual (“Winston had one fault. He was too fond of Jews”, as one of them said to Sir Martin Gilbert). 

Churchill’s opposition to Indian independence was not unique at all, although the manner of his opposition set him apart from the Conservative party. Concessions to India in the 1930s (which Churchill opposed) were not seriously intended to advance India to independence but instead represented a bait and switch to keep India in the Empire for years. This has been known since Carl Bridge published Holding India to the Empire in 1986.

O’Brien then writes that we shouldn’t look at historical figures as though we were putting together a “balance sheet”. The thing with balance sheets though is that they have to provide a true and fair view of the financial position of an organisation. If you were to use that analogy for historical figures, you have to accurately reflect what those figures said a did and you have to mention the positive things Churchill did and thought along with the negative. You also need to provide appropriate weighting for them. It matters more that Churchill criticised the Amritsar massacre than it does that he made a joke at a dinner party about Gandhi being trampled to death by elephants, for example. 

In summary, to suggest that the period of 1874 – 1965 wasn’t extremely racist by today’s standards borders is absurd and borders on denialism. It is not unreasonable to deplore Churchill’s attitudes on race (or other subjects) but to ignore the milieu in which they developed is ahistorical. To claim that Churchill was an extremist in his own time is simply wrong.

Friday, March 25, 2022

Colonial Hooliganism

In his review of Richard Toye’s book Churchill’s Empire, Johann Hari portrayed Churchill as a brutal thug. According to Hari, Churchill thought natives rebelled against British rule only out of a “strong aboriginal propensity to kill”. Hari wrote that Churchill bragged about personally killing non-white people. Hari adds that Churchill was seen by his contemporaries as “at the most brutal and brutish end of the British imperialist spectrum”.

Hari’s review is one of the worst book reviews that I’ve ever read, on any subject. He misinterprets the book he is reviewing, attributing to Toye a thesis (that Churchill was nothing more than a brutal thug) that Toye categorically does not make. As I’ve described before, the examples that Hari cites of Churchill’s colonial brutality are not particularly convincing.

Hari also ignores clear instances where Churchill opposed colonial violence. In other words, evidence that Churchill was not on the “most brutal and brutish end of the British imperialist spectrum”. This post will discuss examples of this from three colonies that took place while Churchill was Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies (1905-1908). It is not my goal to provide a detail history of everything significant that happened during Churchill’s time in that office. I merely wish to highlight certain important events that shed light on Churchill’s attitude to colonial violence.


In February 1906 a rebellion broke out in the colony of Natal (today called KwaZulu-Natal) in South Africa. The rebellion started as a protest against a recently imposed poll tax on adult males. On the 8th of February two white police officers – Inspector Hunt and Trooper Armstrong - were killed. The following day the Governor, Sir Henry McCallum, proclaimed martial law, and mobilised roughly 1,000 local troops to put down the rebellion. He also brought in censorship while the rebellion was on-going. On the 15th of February two Africans were executed after a “hastily convened court martial” found them guilty of the murder of the two police officers. In the days that followed a further 24 Africans were arrested for the murders, of whom 12 were sentenced to death.

Sir Henry McCallum

Based on how Hari describes him, one might think that Churchill was a supporter of hitting the rebels as hard as possible, and backed the Natal government to the hilt. In fact, the exact opposite happened.

Churchill had a realistic sense of what caused the rebellion. He didn’t think it was caused by the innate violence of aboriginals or anything like that. He blamed the poll tax (Hyam, Elgin and Churchill, p.239). Churchill also considered the imposition of censorship to be an overreaction. He wrote in a minute that:

“The action of the governor and ministers is preposterous. The proclamation of martial law over the whole colony, causing dislocation and infinite annoyance to everyone, because two white men have been killed, is in itself an act which appears to be pervaded by an exaggerated excitability. The censorship exploits descends to the category of pure folly” (quoted in Hyam, Elgin and Churchill, p.240).

Churchill was also sceptical that the proposed executions were justified. He wrote to the Natal government requesting more information, impliedly threatening to block the executions if they were unjust:

 “Continued executions under martial law certain to excite strong criticism here, and as H.M.G. are retaining troops in Colony, and will be asked to assent to Act of Indemnity, necessary to regularize the action taken, trial of these murder cases by civil course greatly to be preferred. I must impress upon you necessity of utmost caution in this matter, and you should suspend executions until I have had opportunity of considering your further observations” (quoted Hyam, Elgin and Churchill, p.241).

This telegram caused an outrage. Settlers across the Empire regarded the idea that the Colonial Office in London might interfere with the treatment the settler could mete out to natives to be unconscionable. The Prime Minister of Natal, C.J. Smythe, and the rest of his Cabinet resigned en masse in protest. Protestation against Churchill’s action came from elsewhere too. For example, the Governor-General of Australia messaged London:

“Since an intervention of H.M. ministers… with the administration of the self-governing colonial of Natal would tend to establish, even in regard to prerogative of pardon, a dangerous precedent affecting all states within the empire, your excellency’s advisers desire most respectfully to appeal to H.M. ministers for reconsideration of the resolution at which they are reported to have arrived in this subject” (quoted in Hyam, Elgin and Churchill, p.241).

The Colonial Secretary, the Earl of Elgin, and other officials, telegraphed their Natal counterparts to assuage their hurt feelings and assure them that London did not mean to step on their toes. This apparently satisfied them as they all withdrew their resignations. The Africans were duly executed on the 2nd of April (Hyam, Elgin and Churchill, p.242).

Victor Bruce, 9th Earl of Elgin

By the end of 1906, the Natal government had imprisoned 4,000 Africans, and didn’t know what to do with them all. They asked the British government to assist in deporting the ring-leaders of the revolt. Churchill was against this in principle, but he wanted to use it as leverage to force Natal to provide better treatment for the imprisoned. As he put it:

“We cannot help unless we also mitigate” (quoted in Hyman, Elgin and Churchill, p.247).

Churchill continued to be appalled by what had happened in Natal, and it coloured his impression of the colony in the future. The following year he referred to the rebellion as the “disgusting butchery of the natives”. In June 1907, when he received reports that the Natal authorities had inflicted unlawful punishments on a native for offences under the pass law, he advocated London intervening again, describing Natal as a “wretched colony – the hooligan of the British Empire” (quoted in Hyam, Elgin and Churchill, p.251).

Churchill insisted on reviewing the diet provided to the deported ringleaders to ensure it was adequate. When the inspection reported its findings to him, he denounced the diet as being “more suited to the lowest of animals than men” (quoted in Hyam, Elgin and Churchill, p.251).

Here’s what Professor Toye makes of the events:

[Churchill] was, in fact, consistently infuriated by the behaviour of the Natal government and made serious efforts to improve the welfare of Zulu prisoners. In 1907 he wrote a striking minute condemning ‘the disgusting butchery of natives’ which to him demonstrated ‘the kind of tyranny against which these unfortunate Zulus have been struggling’. Elgin was less inclined to intervention than Churchill, which reflected both the older man’s innate caution and his perhaps more realistic appreciation of the powers of the Colonial Office, which were in practice quite limited. It was hard to control territories thousands of miles away using telegrams or written despatches; it was easy for those on the spot to use their supposedly superior knowledge of local conditions as an excuse for circumventing the wishes of Whitehall. Deferring to such knowledge was at any rate a standard tenet of imperial administration. As the battle over the execution of the twelve rebels showed, it was easier to put up with the criticism of a few Radicals at home than it was to hold British colonial governments to account” (Toye, Churchill’s Empire, p.102).


Churchill’s opposition to wanton violence against colonial subjects was also apparent with regards to Kenya. In March 1907, Ewart S. Grogan, the President of the Colonists’ Association, dragged three Kikuyu employees – who had allegedly been disrespectful to his sister and another white woman - to the court-house in Nairobi and flogged them in the street. A medical official reported that two had suffered “simple hurt” while another had been severely hurt (Clayton and Savage, Government and Labour, p.33). The colonial authorities charged Grogan with unlawful assembly (and also assault, but for some reason that charge was dropped). This incident outraged the Kenyan settlers – not the assault, but the fact that the authorities prosecuted a white man for attacking black men. One settler, W. Russell Bowker, said bluntly:

“It has always been a first principle with me to flog a n***er [asterisks my own] who insults a white woman” (Clayton and Savage, Government and Labour, p.33).

Churchill was outraged, but not for the same reason as the settlers. He was appalled by their cruelty. He wrote the following in a minute:

“We must not let these few ruffians steal out beautiful and promising protectorate away from us, after all we have spent upon it – under some shabby pretence of being a ‘responsibly governed colony’. This House of Commons will never allow us to abdicate our duties towards the natives – as peaceful, industrious, law-abiding folk as can be found anywhere” (quoted in Hyam, Elgin and Churchill, p.410).

The rest of the Colonial Office agreed with Churchill and they backed the Kenyan Government in prosecuting Grogan. A cruiser was sent to Mombasa to deter the settler community from causing any trouble (Clayton and Savage, Government and Labour, p.33).

Ewart Grogan

The Grogan incident reflected, according to the Acting Governor, a growing tendency by white settlers to “deny the native any rights whatever” and to treat Africans “not as a labourer but a helot, not a servant but a slave” (quoted in Clayton and Savage, Government and Labour, p.33). A.C. Hollis, head of the Native Affairs Department, campaigned for improved working conditions for Africans, to the consternation of many settlers. According to historians Anthony Clayton and Donald Savage, the department:

“received massive on-the-spot- support from Churchill…. Churchill… had on arrival [in Kenya] seen at first hand a shocking example of bad labour conditions. He had found a large party of some 300 labourers walking back from a site over 150 miles away and demanded an explanation; he wrote of them later as ‘skinny scarecrows crawling back to their tribe after a few weeks contact with Christian civilization’. Hollis ascertained that the men had originally been recruited for work on a farm not far from their homes near Nairobi, but the farmer had transferred them to a railway ballast contractor who did not have the money to feed or house them. At the end of the contract the contractor had been unable to pay the men off, telling them to wait, without food, for five days until a train with the money arrived. But the labourers had had enough and had begun to walk home. The contractor, a European, was prosecuted, no doubt at Churchill’s instigation, and ordered to pay immediately or face imprisonment” (Clayton and Savage, Government and Labour, p.34).


In Nigeria, Churchill was also opposed to indiscriminate violence against natives. He put his opposition to punitive expeditions on the record:

“Of course, if the peace and order of [Nigeria] depends on a vigorous offensive we must support him with all our hearts. But the chronic bloodshed which stains the West African seasons is odious and disquieting. Moreover the whole enterprise is liable to be misrepresented by persons unacquainted with Imperial terminology as the murdering of natives and stealing of their lands…. I do not think we ought to enter upon these expeditions lightly or as a matter of course” (quoted in Hyam, Elgin and Churchill, p.208).

In late-January 1906 the Colonial Office sent a telegram to Lugard opposing the dispatch of a large punitive expedition. Frederick Lugard, the High Commissioner of the Northern Nigeria Protectorate, was furious with this interference. Elgin and Churchill eventually relented, but only on condition that the expedition should be carried no further than “the immediate object rendered necessary”. In March there was a one-sided battle (or massacre) of Nigerians in Satiru. According to Lugard’s biographer, Margery Perham, Lugard did not order a massacre and, when he heard of it, he put a stop to it (Perham, Lugard, p.199). Nonetheless, Churchill was appalled and criticized the action:

“How does the extermination of an almost unarmed rabble…compare with the execution of 12 k****** in Natal after trial?... I confess I do not at all understand what our position is, or with what face we can put pressure on the government of Natal while these sorts of things are done under our direct authority” (quoted in Pakenham, Scramble for Africa, p.652; asterisks my own).

According to Ricard Toye, Churchill’s views of Nigeria struck some connected to the empire project as dangerous and radical. He quotes the wife of Lord Lugard – then the High Commissioner of the Northern Nigeria Protectorate – as writing to her husband:

“[Churchill] repeated all the foolish things you have ever heard about having gone too fast and added to them the extreme radical rubbish about holding innocent peoples tight in the grip of a military despotism. To abolish the [West African Frontier Force], to give up the greater part of Nigeria ‘which is much too big for us to hold’, put an end to the whole system of punitive expeditions and to be content with the peaceful administration of one small corner of the whole were the principal suggestions which he had to make” (Toye, Churchill’s Empire, p.113 emphasis added).

Lugard and his wife


Some assume that as all empires were built on violence and war, anyone who was explicitly pro-Empire must have been pro-violence against the subjugated populations. However, in the case of Churchill it just isn’t that clear cut. Churchill was definitely committed to the cause of Empire, but he was quite willing to criticize atrocities carried out in its name. To quote Toye:

“Defenders of Churchill’s racial attitudes correctly point out that throughout his career he often spoke up for the welfare of indigenous peoples. His humanitarianism did not imply a belief in racial equality, though, but rather accompanied a conviction that ‘degraded’ races were susceptible to improvement over the very long run” (Toye, Churchill's Empire, pp.58-59).

Another historian, Ronald Hyam, makes a similar point:

"[Churchill] had a generous and sensitive, if highly paternalistic, sympathy for subject peoples, and a determination to see that justice was done to humble individuals throughout the empire. He had this sympathy to a degree that was rather rare among British administrators, and even politicians, at this time. [Emphasis added] Human juices must be injected into Olympian mandarins. By vigilant reading of routine official files he frequently uncovered what he thought were ‘flat’ or ‘shocking’ violations of the elementary principles of law and justice. He insisted that the principles of justice, and the safeguards of judicial procedure, should be ‘rigidly, punctiliously and pedantically’ followed.

He insisted, too, on questioning the Colonial Office assumption that officials were always in the right when complaints were made against government by Africans or, as was more probable, by Asians. He campaigned for an earnest effort to understand the feelings of subject peoples in being ruled by alien administrators, ‘to try to measure the weight of the burden they bear’. The business of a public officer, he maintained, was to serve the people he ruled. The officer must not forget that he was as much their servant, however imposing his title, as any manufacturer or tradesman was the servant of his customers" (Hyam, "Winston Churchill’s First Years", p.306).


Clayton, Anthony and Savage, Daniel Cockfield, Government and Labour in Kenya 1895 – 1963 (Routledge, 1974)

Hyman, Ronald, Elgin and Churchill at the Colonial Office, 1905-1908: The Watershed of the Empire-Commonwealth (Macmillan, 1968)

Hyam, Ronald, "Winston Churchill's First Years in Ministerial Office, 1905-1911" in Ronald Hyam, Understanding the British Empire (Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp.299-318

Pakenham, Thomas, The Scramble for Africa (Abacus, 1992)

Perham, Margery, Lugard: The Years of Authority 1898–1945 (Collins, 1960)

Toye, Richard, Churchill's Empire: The World That Made Him and the World He Made (MacMillan, 2010)

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Beer and Sandwiches

 A common criticism of Churchill, particularly one made by left-wingers, is that he was hostile to trade unions. In a recently published essay in Jacobin, Lenin fanboi Tariq Ali refers to Churchill as a “foe of trade unions”. This is supposedly demonstrated by his opposition to strike action, which he had crushed using military force. Historian Priya Satia mentions Churchill as “violently” putting down strikes. The BBC listed Churchill’s treatment of striking workers in a list of controversies concerning Churchill. As is par for the course, geniuses on twitter spread this viewpoint with the helpful addition of entirely made up quotes.

The truth is, though, that Churchill supported trade unions. He was their friend, not their foe. He supported the right to strike, although he didn’t support every particular strike that took place while in office.

Tonypandy; Villain?

By far the most notorious strike Churchill dealt with took place in Tonypandy, in Wales, in 1910. The incident is so infamous that Churchill supposedly earned the lasting enmity of the Welsh mining communities. In 2019 John McDonnell, then the Shadow Chancellor, replied “Tonypandy; villain” when he was asked if Churchill was a hero or villain. The truth of the Tonypandy incident is rather different to the leftwing mythology. The late Paul Addison, in his book Churchill on the Home Front, 1900-1955, discussed it in some detail. The account below is based largely on this book (except where otherwise cited). 

In 1910 coalminers in the Rhondda valley in Wales went on strike. There were fights between the police and miners at the Glamorgan Colliery near the town of Tonypandy. The Chief Constable of Glamorgan was sufficiently concerned about the situation that he called for troops to be sent to his jurisdiction to support the police. He was perfectly within his powers to make such a request. However, after an appeal by the President of the South Wales Mines Federation, Churchill, in his capacity as Home Secretary, cancelled the dispatch of troops to Glamorgan. Churchill had police officers from elsewhere sent to Wales to support the police there. Churchill also sent a personal message to the strikers that was read to them at a mass meeting:

“Their best friends here are greatly distressed at the trouble which has broken out and will do their best to help them get fair treatment. Askwith [Arbitrator at the Board of Trade], wishes to see Mr. Watts Morgan with six or eight local representatives at Board of Trade, 2 o’clock tomorrow. But rioting must cease at once so that the enquiry shall not be prejudicial and to prevent the credit of the Rhondda Valley being impaired.”

However, the violence escalated and that evening riots rampaged throughout Tonypandy, damaging and trashing over 60 shops and businesses. One man was killed in the riot. Churchill rescinded his ban on the dispatch of troops. 

The presence of troops brought the violence to an end. There were no fights between the miners or the soldiers. This supposedly brutal military occupation resulted in not a single casualty, let alone any fatalities. General Macready set out the policy vis-à-vis troops in a memorandum:

“In accordance with the verbal instructions of the Home Secretary, the general line of policy pursued throughout the strike was that in no case should soldiers come in direct contact with rioters unless and until action had been taken by the police. In the event of the police being overpowered, or not being in sufficient strength to protect a large and intersected area, the military force would come into play, but even then each body of military should be accompanied by at any rate a small body of police to emphasize the fact that the armed forces act merely as the support of the civil power and not as direct agents” (quoted in Geary, Policing Industrial Disputes, p.35)

Roger Geary sums up Churchill’s policy as “delaying the arrival of troops, sending police reinforcements, obtaining an independent assessment of the situation and finally, if absolutely necessary, authorising the military to move into the disturbed area with instructions to avoid contact with the miners if at all possible” (Geary, Policing Industrial Disputes, p.35)

So far from being an example of his hostility towards organised labour, Churchill acted with restraint, sending troops only when he felt he had to and only to support civil authorities (and not for the purposes of suppressing the strike). Historian Roland V. Sires defended Churchill: 

“Churchill could hardly have escaped criticism in the South Wales coal strike. If he had precipitately sent troops to intervene he would have been charged with being an enemy of labor; if he had withheld police or military forces he would have been criticized for indifference to public peace and the protection of property. He steered a middle course between intimidation and laxity and caused each side to be instructed as to its rights and duties. His actions may have avoided a deadly clash between military forces and the disaffected miners. He consistently held to his standards of government action in a violent industrial dispute - the police should protect life, property, and the public peace, and the military should be used only when the police could not cope with the situation. He cannot properly be blamed for violent acts by either strikers or policemen” (Sires, ‘Labor Unrest in England’, p.260)

As for the claim that Churchill earned the enmity of Welsh miners forever, Langworth quotes W.H. Mainwaring, a militant striker at the time:

“We never thought that Winston Churchill had exceeded his natural responsibility as Home Secretary. The military that came into the area did not commit one single act that allows the slightest resentment by the strikers. On the contrary, we regarded the military as having come in the form of friends to modify the otherwise ruthless attitude of the police forces.” (Quoted in Langworth, Myth and Reality, p.42). 

No doubt some held a grudge against him, but that ultimately says nothing about Churchill.

Afterwards Churchill moved to improve the working conditions of the miners. As Paul Addison says:

“Churchill’s response was to bring forward new legislation to improve safety regulations and reduce the number of fatal accidents. The proposals contained in his Coal Mines Bill derived mainly from a report of a Royal Commission, with some additions by the Mines Department of the Home Office. Churchill supplied the political drive and, no less important, obtained the necessary finance…”

The Great Unrest

Tonypandy was far from the only strike Churchill had to deal with as Home Secretary. The following year was one of tremendous industrial strife - The Great Unrest. Nine percent of the industrial population of Britain were involved in strikes of one kind or another in 1911, compared with an average of 2.9 percent between 1902 and 1911 (Sires, ‘Labor Unrest in England’, p.246). This period is almost completely forgotten about in popular memory of Churchill, though ironically it was a far more serious affair than occurred at Tonypandy. Paul Addison wrote that by his response to the strikes, Churchill “fatally compromised” his reputation as a radical reformer. However, Addison added a qualifier:

“Churchill was deeply disturbed by militant industrial unrest and reacted strongly against it. He became, to this extent, anti-labour. But like most parliamentary politicians he was careful to distinguish between the ‘militants’ and the ‘moderates’ of the labour movement. It would be wrong to suppose that he turned against the working-class, the Labour party, or the trade unions, as a whole. But he did begin the fear the influence of subversive and revolutionary elements” (emphasis added).

Churchill had three concerns during the unrest of 1911. Firstly, was the economic and social impact of the strikes. In summer 1911 a national seamen’s strike began in the ports, which spread to the dockers. In August 1911 the railway workers also went on strike. These effectively paralysed the British transport system. According to Paul Addison:

“The Government was suddenly faced by the possibility of an almost complete standstill in the import and distribution of food supplies. The local authorities, prompted by the port and shipping employers, appealed to the Government to provide troops or extra police for the protection of strike-breaking workers”.

In London food shortages were reported as early as the 10th of August as supplies of fresh food dwindled. On the 16th of August Liverpool based cold-storage companies warned that without deliveries of coal then £3 million worth of meat would rot. The Mayor of Liverpool warned that there would be shortages of flour and bread due to strikes and that food “must be getting very scarce in the poorer districts”. On the 16th of August the mayor in Sheffield reported that food was getting short in that town as well. On the 17th of August Liverpool’s Health department reported their concern about the health impact of the strike as “the men employed on the sanitary service… have struck… therefore there are no water carts and no clearance of dust etc from the streets, and no collection of refuse from houses”. That same day the Lt-Governor of the Isle of Man reported that the island’s supply of sugar and butter had run out, fresh meat would run out in a day, stocks of tinned meat and fish would last only week and coal supplies would only last a few days. The next day authorities in Hull complained that food supplies were being “menaced”, and leading wholesale suppliers of pharmaceuticals warned that orders of medicines from doctors and hospitals could not be met. On the 22nd of August the Wholesale Provision Association in Manchester reported that “large quantities” of provisions were “badly wanted”. In Stoke-on-Trent the food situation was “one of gravest importance” (Davies, “Crisis?”, p.110-113).

Churchill’s second concern was the rioting that attended the strikes. Major rioting took place in numerous cities and towns. Many perceived matters as going beyond a mere industrial dispute. As Roger Geary writes:

“There seems little doubt that this reversion to a more military response occurred because of a growing sense of extreme unease in establishment circles. For example, the King thought that the situation was ‘more like a revolution than a strike’. Similarly, the Mayor of Liverpool told Lord Derby that ‘it is no ordinary strike riot’ and a Hull councillor remarked that the situation was worse than that prevailing during the Paris Commune.” (Geary, Policing Industrial Disputes, p.37)

Destruction of private property, intimidation of non-striking labourers and of their families and harassment of  businesses to stop them serving non-striking were regrettably unlawful tactics used by the some of the strikers throughout the summer (Davies, "Crisis?", p.108). Requests from local authorities for troops to support civil authorities poured into the Home Office. In June Churchill authorized the dispatch of additional police to Hull, and in July in response to a request for soldiers from the Lord Mayor of Manchester he sent the Royal Scots Greys to Salford. In August rioting “on a scale approaching that of a local civil war” (according to Paul Addison) broke out in Liverpool. Again, at the request of local authority, Churchill assented to the dispatch of infantry and cavalry troops to the town, as well as a Royal Navy cruiser. In total, 58,000 troops were mobilised and sent to various trouble spots while four warships and eight other vessels were sent to protect various ports (in addition to the one sent to Liverpool, ships were sent to London, Hull and Barrow) (Davies, “Crisis?”, pp.113-114).

A third concern of Churchill’s was the impact on Britain’s strategic position. This unrest took place against the backdrop of the Agadir Crisis, when Britain and France came close to war with Germany. According to Paul Addison, Churchill received allegations that labour leaders were being bankrolled by a German agent named Bebel. Addison quotes the diary of Sir Almeric Fitzroy, the clerk of the Privy Council, as recording that “Winston Churchill is said to be convinced that the whole trouble is fomented by German gold, and claims to have proof of it, which others regard as midsummer madness”. 

Churchill initially tried to chart a moderate course. As Paul Addison put it, “in the policing of the dispute Churchill strove to ensure the impartial enforcement of the law as between workman and employer”. What this meant was that owners had a right to use voluntary labour while strikers had the right to peacefully picket. In early August, Churchill allowed mediation to take place between the London dockers and the chief industrial conciliator at the board of trade. The dispute was resolved peacefully, and socialist leader Ben Tillett credited to Churchill thus:

“He refused to listen to the clamour of class hatred, he saved the country from a national transport stoppage becoming a riot and incipient revolution.”

Unfortunately, riots were not always peacefully brought to an end. On the 15th of August a convoy of prison vans in Liverpool was attacked by an angry crowd. Soldiers opened fire and two people were killed (Davies, “Crisis?”, p.115). 

The announcement of a national railway strike a few days later caused a change in policy. The government adopted a more belligerent stance. Churchill decided the situation was so serious that troops were to be sent to trouble spots by the Home Office, rather than simply sent upon request of local authorities. According to Roger Geary, this meant that some places were provided military support despite not asking for it (Geary, Policing Industrial Disputes, p.37). The purpose of sending these troops was not to attack or kill strikers, but to, as Paul Addison puts it, “the protection of the rail network from sabotage [and] to enable the companies to continue as best they could with non-union labour”.

Thankfully, incidents that resulted in deaths were extremely rare despite the serious situation. The 58,000 troops mobilised only killed four civilians during the whole summer. In addition to the aforementioned Liverpool shooting, on the 19th of August in Llanelli a train carrying strike-breaker workers was halted by strikers, who then proceeded to pelt the armed troops with stones. According to the Chief Constable of Carmarthenshire:

“Troops attacked on both sides by crowd on embankments hurling stones and other missiles. One soldier carried away wounded in head and others struck. Riot Act read. Major Stuart mounted embankment and endeavored to pacify crowd. Stone throwing continued, crowd yelling at troops. Shots fired as warning, no effect, attitude of crowd threatening and determined. Other shots fired, two men killed, one wounded, crowd fled” (quoted in Geary, Policing Industrial Disputes, p.45).

Naturally the exact course of events was heavily disputed, with some accusing the troops with committing murder. Nonetheless a jury returned a verdict of “justifiable homicide” (Geary, Policing Industrial Disputes, p.45). In the aftermath of the shooting rioters proved a greater menace to their own safety than the soldiers did – four were killed in an explosion after they set fire to a train containing explosives

It is likely that the police and army did, at times, act with unjustifiable brutality. While Churchill categorically did not ordering troops and police to rough-up rioters, the hardening stance as the strikes continued may have, according to Roger Geary, conditioned the police to act more strongly than they might otherwise have done so. Geary says that:

“There is, for example, no evidence of a concerted policy of repression being formulated at the Home Office, but a preference for ‘vigorous’ police action is unmistakable” (Geary, Policing Industrial Disputes, p.44).

In fairness to the police, Geary notes that police tactics for riot control were not as sophisticated as today. The standard tactic, the baton-charge, was by unavoidably indiscriminate. To quote Geary, “there was a strategic commitment to impartial policing [but] the relatively undeveloped state of control tactics militated against its implementation” (Geary, Policing Industrial Disputes, p. 43; emphasis added).

In summary, in 1911 Churchill was faced with an unprecedented series of strikes. These strikes threatened to cause food shortages, public health catastrophes and cripple the country on the eve of a war. Widespread rioting forced him to agree to requisitions of troops by local authorities to support law and order. Churchill, and others in the government, became more belligerent and hostile to the strike the longer it lasted, and he changed the rules to allow the Home Office to immediately send the military to support law and order without a local invitation. However, the troops were not sent by Churchill to massacre or brutalise strikers, as evidenced by the fact that 58,000 troops only killed four people during the entire summer. It was these particular strikes Churchill was hostile to, not the working class or trade unions as a whole. As Churchill put it in a handwritten letter to a Liberal Party organizer in Manchester:

“The progress of a democratic country is bound up with the maintenance of order. The working classes would be almost the only sufferers from an outbreak of riot & a general strike if it could be effective would fall upon them & their families with its fullest severity. At the same time the wages now paid are too low and the rise in the cost of living (due mainly to the increased gold supply) makes it absolutely necessary that they should be raised. I have never heard of the British people complaining (as they now do) without a good & just cause. I believe the Government is now strong enough to secure an improvement in social conditions without failing in its primary duties.”

Socialism, Individualism and Trade Unionism

When examining Churchill’s view or impact there is a tendency by both detractors and hagiographers to take a particular moment/speech/letter and identify that as showing who Churchill really was. For example, detractors often take a distorted picture of the Tonypandy incident (or the lesser-known strikes in 1911) and say that this shows Churchill’s true colours – a class warrior who was opposed to working class interests and trade unions. However, these specific incidents lasted only a few weeks and Churchill’s career in politics lasted over half a century. To understand Churchill’s actual position on trade unions it is necessary to examine the whole of his career.

In 1899, during his first election campaign, Churchill famously declared support for social reforms and improving the condition of the working class:

“I regard the improvement of the condition of the British people as the main aim of modern government… I shall therefore promote to the best of my ability all legislation which, without throwing the country into confusion and disturbing the present concord, and without impairing that tremendous energy of production on which the wealth of the nation and the good of the people depend, may yet raise the standard of happiness and comfort in English homes” (quoted in Wrigley, ‘Trade Unions’, pp.47-48).

As Christ Wrigley puts it, Churchill’s view of labour can be understood by the phrase noblesse oblige. What this entailed was an expectation that the ruling classes should use their position to behave honourably to the ‘lower orders’ (Wrigley, “Trade Unions”, p.49). 

It shouldn’t be surprising that Churchill thought along these lines. Anyone familiar with British history will know that the Conservative party under Disraeli had already passed quite a bit of social reform legislation. Churchill’s father, Lord Randolph Churchill, developed a conception of ‘Tory Democracy’ (today called One Nation Conservatism) that supported social reform. So, Churchill’s support for “the improvement of the condition” of the working class wasn’t exactly a radical departure from Conservative thinking.

Churchill also saw himself as an individualist. In October in 1906 he said:

“The existing organization of society is driven by one mainspring – competitive selection. It may be a very imperfect organization of society, but it is all we have got between us and barbarism… and great and numerous as are the evils of the existing condition of society in this country, the advantages and achievements of the social system are greater still. Moreover that social system is one which offers an almost indefinite capacity for improvement… I do not want to see impaired the vigour of competition, but we can do much to mitigate the consequences of failure. We want to draw a line below which we will not allow people to live and labour, yet above which they may compete with all the strengths of their manhood” (quoted in Wrigley, “Trade Unions”, p.50).

Crucially, Churchill did not see trade unions as contradicting the principle of individualism. In fact, he supported them as strengthening the hand of workers. In October 1906 Churchill said:

“[I]t is the trade unions that more than any other organization must be considered the responsible and deputed representatives of Labour. They are the most highly organised part of labour; they are the most responsible part; they are from day to day in contact reality… The fortunes of the trade unions are interwoven with the industries they serve. The more highly organised trade unions are, the more clearly they recognize their responsibilities; the larger the membership, the greater their knowledge, the wider their outlook” (quoted in Wrigley, “Trade Unions”, p.52). 

Churchill was no socialist. But he was a ‘Tory Democrat’ initially and later a Liberal. He contrasted socialism and liberalism and summarized the differences between the two ideologies thus:

“Socialism seeks to pull down wealth; Liberalism seeks to raise up poverty. Socialism would destroy private interests; Liberalism would preserve private interests in the only way they can be safely and justly preserved, by reconciling them with public right. Socialism would kill enterprise; Liberalism would rescue enterprise from the trammels of privilege and preference” (quoted in Pelling, “Labour Movement”, p.115).

He did not regard trade unionism as socialistic per se. In 1908 he declared:

“Trade unions are not socialistic. They are the antithesis of socialism. They are undoubtedly individualistic organisations, more in character of the old Guilds, and much more in the culture of the individual, than they are in that of the smooth and bloodless uniformity of the masses” (quoted in Wrigley, “Trade Unions”, p.52).

The same year he also said:

“While I believe in the advantages of a competitive system under which man is pitted against man, I do not believe in allowing men to be pitted against each other ruthlessly until the last drop of energy is extracted, and there the trade unions come in as safeguards and checks” (emphasis added; quoted in Wrigley, “Trade Unions”, p.53).

In May 1911 Churchill said the following:

“I consider that every workman is well advised to join a trade union” (quoted in Wrigley, “Trade Unions”, p.55).

In 1928 Churchill further demonstrated his support for trade unionism by joining one himself. Churchill wasn’t motivated by self-interest; he didn’t require help in a dispute with his employer. The local secretary of the Amalgamated Union of Building Trade Workers invited him to join because of his brick-laying hobby. Churchill told the secretary that he would be “very pleased to join the union”, sent off the membership dues and was admitted as a member. The Union’s executive council ruled him ineligible, but not before he acquired a membership certificate (Pelling, “Labour Movement”, p.121). 

He was willing to give practical support to trade unions too. In 1901 the House of Lords (then the highest appellate court in the United Kingdom) decided in Taff Vale Railway co v Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants that trade unions were tortiously liable for loss of profits due to strike action. This represented a major setback for the union movement, and Churchill voted in favour of a resolution to nullify the Taff Vale decision (Pelling, “Labour Movement”, p.114). Churchill was one of a just a few Cabinet Members who voted for the Trade Disputes Bill - which would negate Taff Vale – on its second hearing (Farr, Reginald McKenna, p.87).

After the Second World War Churchill, according to Chris Wrigley, “continued to take a positive view of the trade unions” (Wrigley, ‘Trade Unions’, p.65). During the 1947 Conservative Party conference he said: 

“The trade unions are a long-established and essential part of our national life… we take our stand by these pillars of our British Society as it has gradually developed and evolved itself, of the right of individual labouring men to adjust their wages and conditions by collective bargaining, including the right to strike” (quoted in Wrigley, ‘Trade Unions’, p.65). 

He repeated the theme of the trade union as being an essential British institution in the 1950 conference and added:

“I have urged that every Tory craftsman or wage-earner should of his own free-will be a trade unionist, but I also think he should attend the meetings of his trade union and stand up for his ideas instead of letting only socialists and communists get control of what Is after all an essentially British institution” (Quoted in Wrigley, ‘Trade Unions’, p.65).


Contrary to far-left mythology, Churchill actually supported trade unions. Throughout his career he made statements expressing the view that they were a ‘British’ institution. For him, socialist infiltration of unions was something to be regretted, but it didn’t make him hostile to unions per se. His support wasn’t just empty words, as demonstrated by his support for legislation overriding the Taff Vale decision. Despite claims that Churchill repressed strikers, he was in fact on the record as supporting the right to strike. In 1904 he said:

“It is most important for the British working classes that they should be able if necessary to strike – although nobody likes strikes – in order to put pressure upon the employers for a greater share of the wealth of the world or for the removal of hard and onerous conditions but in the socialist state no strike would be tolerated” (quoted in Wrigley, ‘Trade Unions’, p.52)

Historian Henry Pelling put it best:

“In the course of his peregrinations through the British party system [Churchill] retained a number of clear principles for his political conduct. One was opposition to socialism, which he regarded as an enemy of good government…. But another principle was sympathy for working people and for their representative leaders, that is to say, trade unionists, whom he regarded as an estate of the realm quite as much as any other” (Pelling, ‘Labour Movement’, p.128).


Addison, Paul, Churchill on the Home Front, 1900 – 1955 (Kindle edition, 2013)

Davies, Sam, “’Crisis? What Crisis?’: The National Rail Strike of 1911 and the State Response”, Historical Studies in Industrial Relations, Vol 33, No. 12, pp.97 -126

Farr, Martin, Reginald McKenna: Financier Among Statesmen, 1863 – 1916  (Routledge, 2008)

Geary, Roger, Policing Industrial Disputes: 1893 to 1985 (Cambridge University Press 1985)

Langworth, Richard M., Winston Churchill, Myth and Reality: What He Actually Did and Said (McFarland & Co, 2017)

Pelling, Henry, “Churchill and the Labour Movement”, in Robert Blake and Wm. Roger Louis (eds), Churchill: A Major New Assessment of His Life in Peace and War (Clarendon Press, 1996), pp.113-128

Sires, Roland V., “Labor Unrest in England, 1910 – 1914”, The Journal of Economic History, Vol. 15, No.3 (September 1955), pp.246-266

Wrigley, Chris, “Churchill and the Trade Unions”, in David Cannadine and Roland Quinault (eds.), Winston Churchill in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp.47–67

Monday, November 29, 2021

Shoot Out at Sidney Street

Indian politician Shashi Tharoor has made it a habit to attack Churchill’s legacy. The thrust of his critique is that Churchill was a bloodthirsty tyrant. Same old, same old. There is a lot that can be said about the errors Tharoor makes (and I plan on saying a lot about them). For now, I’d like to focus on one of Tharoor's stranger criticisms of Churchill. Of the Sidney Street siege, Tharoor writes:

“As home secretary, he [Churchill] enjoyed personally directing military repression, even assuming operational command of the police during a siege of armed Latvian anarchists in Stepney, where he took the decision to allow them to be burned to death in a house where they were trapped”

This is an extremely bizarre characterization of the events, and of Churchill’s role in them. As an example of military repression, Tharoor is really scraping the barrel for examples here.

Churchill observing the Siege of Sidney Street.


Tharoor doesn’t go into the background to the siege. This might be due to reasons of space. However, it’s possible that he figured that if he did, then the siege wouldn’t look like an instance of military repression to any fair-minded reader. Or maybe he just didn’t care about accuracy and is throwing any old complaint at Churchill, hoping something sticks. Who knows what goes through his mind? 

The crucial point that must be borne in mind when discussing the siege of Sidney Street is that the anarchists involved were violent and extremely dangerous criminals.

On 16th December 1910, a gang broke into a jewelry shop on 11 Exchange Buildings by digging through the wall from a neighbouring building. A resident heard strange noises and reported it to a Police Constable on his nearby beat. The constable gathered other policemen – seven uniformed and two plain-clothed – from nearby. These policemen were unarmed, apart from wooden truncheons. When Sergeants Bentley, Tucker, and Constable Woodham, entered the building they were shot at by the gang. All three were seriously injured. Bentley was shot in the shoulder and the neck, Bryant was hit in the arm and the chest, and Woodham was hit in the leg. As the gang made an escape from the property, other policemen intervened and were shot at. Sergeant Tucker was killed instantly. Constable Choate wrestled with one of the gang members for their pistol, but the other gang members shot him repeatedly.  The gangsters escaped, although one of them, George Gardstein, would succumb to wounds he sustained in fighting Constable Choate. Sergeants Tucker and Bentley also succumbed to their injuries. The latter retained consciousness for long enough to have a final conversation with his pregnant wife before he died. 

The murdered policemen.

The killing of three policemen in one incident shocked the nation. It is not common for cops to be killed in mainland Britain. A memorial service for the murdered men was held at St Paul’s Cathedral on the 23rd of December 1910. As the men were taken to their final resting place, three-quarters of a million Londoners lined the streets to pay their respects.

In January 1911 two members of the gang – Svaars and Sokoloff – were tracked down to an address on Sidney Street, in Stepney. After spending much of the morning evacuating other residents of the address, at 07:30 the police banged on the door. There was no reply. As you might expect, the anarchists were not early risers. So, the police threw a brick through a window. The gangsters replied by shooting at the police. Sergeant Leeson was hit in the chest. Thankfully he recovered (Rumbelow, The Houndsditch Murders, p.130). 

Thus began the siege of Sidney Street, and it is worth pointing out that Tharoor’s alleged victims of Churchillian “military repression” were in fact the instigators of the gunfight. They fired the first shot. The police, in fact, was forbidden by the law at the time to fire the first shot (Rumbelow, The Houndsditch Murders, p.129). Had the gangsters surrendered to the police, the siege would have never taken place. 

The police were outgunned by the gangsters. The latter were armed with automatic Mauser pistols, while the former were armed with inferior revolvers and Morris Tube rifles. An hour into the gunfight the police on the scene telephoned Scotland Yard and requested from the Assistant Commissioner, Major Wodehouse, that troops be brought in to reinforce the police (Rumbelow, The Houndsditch Murders, p.132). Such a request required the approval of the Home Secretary – Winston Churchill. He was not at the Home Office at the time (he had received news about the gunfight when he was at his home and was still commuting to work), but officials approved the despatch of twenty Scots Guards from the Tower of London anyway. Churchill retrospectively approved the despatch when he arrived at the Home Office (Gilbert, A Life, p.223).

As there were no further details of the situation, Churchill decided to head to Sidney Street to see the events for himself (Gilbert, A Life, p.223). But Tharoor is wrong to claim that Churchill “took operational command”. He did not, and numerous writers attest to that:

Martin Gilbert, Churchill’s official biographer, writes that “at no point did Churchill direct the siege” (Gilbert, A Life, p.224). 

Gilbert himself quotes Sydney Holland, a director of the Underground Railway (who was with Churchill during the siege) as saying:

The only possible excuse for anyone saying [Churchill] gave orders is that [he] did once and very rightly go forward and wave back the crowd at the end of the road (quoted in Gilbert, A Life, p.224).

Donald Rumbelow, a former curator of the City of London’s Police Museum, wrote that:

[Churchill] had no wish to take personal control but his position of authority inevitably attracted to itself direct responsibility. He saw that he would have done much better to have remained in his office but it was impossible to get into his car and drive away while matters were so uncertain and – he wrote later – so ‘extremely interesting’. (Rumbelow, The Houndsditch Murders, p.136)

According to Roy Jenkins:

There is some uncertainty as to whether Churchill attempted to give operational commands. To the police he almost certainly did not, although the officer in charge of a fraught operation, in which yet another policeman was killed and two wounded, must have found it more inhibiting than encouraging to have to perform in the presence of such an elevated superior. (Jenkins, A Biography, p.195)

It may be the practice in modern India for politicians to take personal command of police operations, but that was not what Churchill did. 

Tharoor then attacks Churchill for taking “the decision to allow them [the gangsters] to be burned to death in a house where they were trapped”. As with so many criticisms of Churchill, there is a grain of truth here upon which a castle of lies has been built. The house the gangsters were in caught fire. That is true. According to Philip Gibbs, a journalist who witnessed the whole affair from the top of the nearby The Rising Sun pub, the criminals set the fire themselves and spread it around the house using paraffin (Gibbs, Adventures in Journalism, p.67).

The owner of this pub charged journalists to view the event from his roof

The fire brigade arrived, and they were instructed by police not to attack the fire. A junior firefighter, called Cyril Morris, went to Churchill asking him to overrule the police and let them put out the blaze. He refused to do so and instead told them to wait. 

Cyril Morris, pictured in 1936

Why would Churchill do this? Was it cruel? Was Churchill giving into his bloodthirsty and brutal nature? Not really.

Firstly, the part about the anarchists being “trapped” in the building is just made-up completely as far as I can tell. There was nothing stopping them from surrendering at any time. Of course, since they had attempted to murder an unknown number of policemen that day and had previously been involved in the actual killing of three policemen, it is likely they would have spent the rest of their lives (likely not too long since Britain had capital punishment back then) in gaol had they done so. Therefore, they decided to fight on. 

Secondly, Tharoor leaves out that the gunmen continued to shoot at the police and army while the building was enveloped in flames!

Soon there was another shout: ‘The second floor is alight! They must surrender or suffocate’. Gradually the smoke became thicker. Slowly it funnelled through the shattered windows and rolled in billowing clouds out through the front and back of the house and gathered over the roof like an angry storm cloud….[A] reporter could see a gas jet burning steadily in the first-floor room and guessed that the men had deliberately set fire to the house before attempting to escape. The most likely route was through the back of the house where earlier the waiting detectives had seen two men come to an upstairs window. One of them was carrying two pistols which he fired simultaneously through the window… (Rumbelow, The Houndsditch Murders, pp.136-137)

Churchill’s stated rationale was to protect the firefighters. To quote Martin Gilbert:

Returning from this reconnaissance, Churchill found that the house had caught fire. At that moment a junior fire brigade officer came up to him and said that the fire brigade had arrived. He understood he was not to put out the fire at present.

‘Was that right?’ the officer asked.

‘Quite right,’ Churchill replied. ‘I accept full responsibility. 

From what he saw at that moment, Churchill later told the Coroner, 'it would have meant loss of life and limb to any fire brigade officer who had gone within effective range of the building'. In agreeing that the fire brigade should stand back, he was acting 'as a covering authority' for the police in charge, in what was clearly a situation of 'unusual' difficulty. 'I thought it better to let the house burn down,' he explained to Asquith” (Gilbert, A Life, p.224).

Incidentally - and it’s a pedantic point but if I can’t be pedantic on my own blog where can I be? - only one of the gangsters was killed by the fire. The other was shot in the head during the firefight (Rumbelow, The Houndsditch Murders, p.137; Gilbert, A Life, p.224). 


One has to ask, what on earth Churchill should have done differently? What would Tharoor have done had he been in Churchill’s position? Perhaps he thinks Churchill should he have cancelled the despatch of troops and sent a note to the police saying:

No troops. The criminals should have the advantage in their gunfight with you. Best of luck, W.S.C

For the sake of the Indian police, I hope Tharoor isn’t tendering advice along these lines to Modi!

Was Churchill wrong to hold back the firefighters? Firefighters are used to risking their lives to save members of the public, but normally they don’t have to contend with a hail of bullets to rescue some murderers. Had Churchill told them to attack the fire and a number of them were shot, would we be praising Churchill for sending them in or would he be open to criticism for recklessly risking their lives? Something tells me that for Tharoor, Churchill could never have done anything right.

Finally, there is an amusing irony in the complaint. On the one hand, Churchill is attacked because of the (false) impression that he took over operational command of the siege. However, at the same time, Tharoor attacks him for refusing to overrule the police’s statement that the firefighters stand down until further notice. So which one is it? Is Churchill wrong for taking over control from the police, or wrong for going along with what the police say?


Gibbs, Philip, Adventures in Journalism (Harper & Brothers, 1923)

Gilbert, Martin, Churchill: A Life (Pimlico, 2000)

Jenkins, Roy, Churchill: A Biography (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001)

Rumbelow, Donald, The Houndsditch Murders and the Siege of Sidney Street (The History Press, 2009)

Besieging Fake History

  Otto English’s description of the Siege of Sidney Street is laughably bad: “When a violent Latvian gang was cornered by police at the Si...