16 February 2023

Did Peter the Painter ever
exist, and did he fight at
the Siege of Sidney Street?

Sidney Street … scene of a shoot-out and notorious siege in 1911 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

I was writing yesterday about Max Levitas and his role in the Battle of Cable Street in 1936. But the Siege of Sidney Street is almost as well known in the East End of London.

Painter House, Peter House and Siege House are three housing blocks on the corner of Commercial Road and Sidney Street. The unusual names were chosen in Tower Hamlets to recall the events surrounding the Sidney Street Siege in 1911.

But who was Painter the Painter?

And, did he ever exist?

The Siege of Sidney Street – also known as the Battle of Stepney – came to an end on 3 January 1911 and was one of the most notorious events at the time in the East End. It was one of the worst days in the history of British policing and was considered to be the biggest criminal event in the East End since ‘Jack the Ripper’.

The siege began three weeks earlier, on 16 December 1910. It was a Friday night and Shabbat evening in a neighbourhood with a high proportion of Jewish residents. But noise of knocking and drilling was coming from behind HS Harris, a local jewellery shop, at 119 Houndsditch. The noise was brought to the attention of the local policeman on patrol and he reported it to Bishopsgate Police Station.

Seven uniformed officers and two detectives, armed only with their whistles and truncheons arrived on the scene and entered Exchange Buildings, which housed a number of refugees from Latvia, where the 1905 revolution had been put down with exceptional violence.

Their experience in Latvia convinced the men that the police were armed and ready to kill or torture them if they were captured. Shooting started as the police entered Exchange Buildings. A police sergeant was killed immediately and four others were injured.

The assailants, one woman and three men, escaped. Within days, two of the four policemen who were injured died, and there was public outcry at the death and injury of the policemen.

When police were called to a house where a shot man had died from his injuries, they found him dead and a considerable amount f guns and ammunition, including the gun used to shoot the three policemen, and the body of George Gardstein, an anarchist from Latvia. Three others had fled the scene.

The police were soon looking for an unidentified woman, Fritz Svaars and a Russian called Peter Piatkov, also known as ‘Peter the Painter’ as that was his trade. On New Year’s Day 1911, police were told that Svaars and another man called Jacobs were holed up at 100 Sidney Street, next to Sidney Street Synagogue.

Peter House on the corner of Commercial Road and Sidney Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The Siege of Sidney Street soon began and became one of the first news stories captured on film. Winston Churchill, then the Home Secretary, seized the political opportunity of media attention, arrived at Sidney Street and became involved in operations.

The police were outgunned, Churchill sent for the army, and a detachment of Scots Guards arrived from the Tower of London. Eventually, the building on Sidney Street caught fire. Two bodies were found, but neither was a woman’s body and no one knew what had happened to the man known as Peter the Painter.

In time, seven other of the supposed robbers and their alleged accomplices were brought to trial, but all were acquitted or had the charges against them dropped. Churchill was heavily criticised for his intervention, but he seems to have revelled in the publicity, which strengthened his image as a tough advocate of law and order.

The core members of the gang were identified as Latvian or Russian refugees, and some of them were ethnically Jewish. Ya’akov Peters, whose flat may have been used by gang members, later returned to Russia, and after the Bolshevik Revolution he became a founder of Cheka, the forerunner of the KGB.

After supposedly escaping the Sidney Street Siege, Peter the Painter became an anti-hero in the East End. He was never caught, and there are questions about whether he took part in the siege, or even whether he actually existed.

Many east European immigrants arrived in London in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and settled mostly in the East End. Ethnic groups joined together in gangs, and many immigrants were involved in radical politics and activism. They often stole in order to fund their politics.

The Conservative government in 1905 passed the Aliens Act – the foundation of modern immigration legislation. This measure sought to curb the right of ‘pauper aliens’ to settle in Britain, and of ‘persons of notoriously bad character.’

Churchill’s extraordinary intervention at Sidney Street seems to have been calculated to project his media image. In April 1911, four months after his appearance at Sidney Street, and enjoying the publicity it had brought him, he introduced a bill designed to further curb immigration. Thankfully for Jewish refugees yet to arrive in Britain, it was never passed.

Peter the Painter has been identified with Peter Piaktow (Photographs: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Peter the Painter was a nickname for an unknown figure, possibly named Peter Piaktow, or Piatkov, Pjatkov or Piaktoff. He used several aliases, including Schtern, Straume, Makharov and Dudkin or Janis Zhaklis. But no firm details are known of his background and none of the supposed biographical ‘facts’ about is reliable.

The type of gun which Peter the Painter allegedly used at Sidney Street, a German Mauser C96 pistol, was sometimes called a Peter the Painter after him, particularly in Ireland during the War of Independence and later.

Based on research in the KGB archives, Philip Ruff, a historian of anarchism, suggested in 1988 that Peter the Painter might be Ģederts Eliass. He was a Latvian artist involved in the 1905 Revolution in Russia and was living in exile in England during the time of the Sidney Street Siege. He returned to Riga after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.

More recently, however, Philip Ruff has identified Peter the Painter with another Latvian far-left activist, Jānis Žāklis, also known as Janis Zhaklis or Zhakles. Zhaklis was a member of the Latvian Social Democratic Workers’ Party in 1905. He was involved in aiding the escape of Fritz Svaars from prison in Riga. Zhaklis associated with Eliass in exile in Finland, where they were involved in the robbery of the Russian State Bank in Helsinki.

Zhaklis broke with the Social Democrats and became an anarchist, but it is unclear what happened to him after 1911.

Tower Hamlets Borough Council named two tower blocks on the corner of Commercial Road Sidney Street Peter House and Painter House in 2006, and named a third Siege House, although Peter the Painter was only involved in a minor capacity in the events, and was not present at the siege.

Plaques on the towers say they were built by Tower Hamlets Community Housing and named after Peter Piaktow, who was known as Peter the Painter, the ‘antihero’ of the Sidney Street Siege in 1911.

A local councillor and the Metropolitan Police Federation protested against the names of the towers, saying that the killer should not be recognised. Nearby, Wexford House stands on the actual site of 100 Sidney Street, where the gang holed up and which caught fire.

The name of Siege House on Sidney Street recalls the Siege of Sidney Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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