In one the bleaker parts of Stepney’s Commercial Road, in London’s East End, is a modern housing association building called Peter House. Just around the corner from it stands another, on Sidney Street, named Painter House. In late September 2008, the Metropolitan Police Federation and the Daily Mail managed to work themselves into a fury at the decision by Tower Hamlets Community Housing to name these properties in commemoration of one of the area’s most celebrated anti-heroes and one of the most notorious incidents in east London’s turbulent working-class history. In January 1911, police hunting a Latvian anarchist gang, who had shot and killed three police officers in a jewellery-shop robbery, cornered three suspects at 100 Sidney Street. The siege that followed, famous locally as the ‘Battle of Stepney’, is remembered for the escape, disappearance and ensuing elevation to popular outlaw status of the gang’s anarchist leader, Peter the Painter, a man who many historians now believe may not even have existed.
But the siege is also remembered for the controversial decision by the then Home Secretary – one Winston Churchill – to take personal charge of the police blockade, call out army reinforcements and then insist that the fire brigade stand by whilst the besieged building burnt to the ground and incinerated those trapped inside. Seldom has any sense of separation between political influence and the supposed ‘operational independence’ of the police been breached more blatantly, or more brutally.