For the first of the RESONANCE FM radio interviews on anarchism I’m doing with English anarchists – starting Sunday Sept. 7th – I’m talking to PHIL RUFF about his forthcoming book revealing the truth about PETER THE PAINTER and the SIEGE OF SIDNEY STREET
On 16th December 1910 five City of London policemen were shot and three of them killed, when they were called to investigate suspicious noises coming from a property adjacent to a jeweller’s shop in Houndsditch.
The “Houndsditch Murders” are still regarded today as the single worst police murder in British history. The Latvian anarchists held responsible entered into folklore when, trapped inside a house in Stepney, they took on and the British Army in “The Siege of Sidney Street”. Two died, but no one ever accounted for the mysterious “Peter the Painter”, popularly supposed to be the leader of the gang and to have escaped the burning house during the battle.
The story inspired two major feature films – The Man Who Knew Too Much (Alfred Hitchcock, 1934), and The Siege of Sidney Street (Jimmy Sangster, 1960) – as well as a slew of books, all with different theories on the background to the shootings and the identity of those involved: Peter the Painter was a tsarist police agent, he was Stalin, he was the brother of a Metropolitan Police interpreter, he never existed, he did exist and became an agent of Lenin’s Cheka in Russia. At the start of the 1970s, when the bombing campaign of the Angry Brigade pushed the word “anarchist” back into the headlines, one of the groups under investigation by Special Branch called itself “The Siege of Sidney Street Appreciation Society”. As recently as 2003 one of the contributors to a London Weekend Television documentary about the Houndsditch Murders called Peter the Painter “the of his time”.
Another contributor to that LWT documentary, Philip Ruff, has looked for an answer to the mystery of “Peter the Painter” where no one else (amazingly) has ever thought to look: inside Latvia .
Phil’s detective work in Latvia since 1988 has resulted in proof positive of the real identity of “Peter the Painter” – Janis Zhaklis – and unearthed the real story of his life and revolutionary career. But more than that, Phil has opened a window on the hitherto unknown history of Latvian anarchism and of the 1905 revolution in the Baltic which gave rise to it. This wider story reveals the violent events in London – shocking as they may appear – to be part of a much bigger story of class war, revolution and survival.