Chapter 1. Murder in Houndsditch
A hundred years ago tonight, on 16th December 1910, mysterious sounds of hammering were heard coming from Mr Harris’ empty jeweller’s shop at 119 Houndsditch at the boundary of the City of London. When Max Weil, a fancy goods dealer who lived over his shop next door, returned home after ten that night, he discovered his wife and servant girl agitated by the noises coming from the other side of the wall. On further investigation, he confirmed that Mr Harris had gone home long ago, because the jeweller’s steel gate was locked from the outside, and peering through the window he saw the electric light that always burned in the backroom, illuminating the iron safe rumoured to contain the Tsar’s crown jewels. Everything was as usual – apart from the unexplained hammering.
Although it was a cold night, Weil walked over to Bishopsgate where he fetched Constable Walter Piper and when they listened together outside the shop, they heard what Piper later described as “drilling, sawing and breaking away of brickwork.” He walked around to Exchange Buildings, the cul-de-sac at the rear, to investigate. When Constable Piper knocked at 11 Exchange Buildings – where gaslight glowed above the folding shutter – the door was opened at once and in a manner so furtive that the Constable chose to play innocent, asking, “Is the missus in?”
“She has gone out,” replied the unknown man who answered the door, shaking his head for emphasis. Deeply suspicious now, Piper shrugged it off. “Right, I will call back,” he said, walking away and deducing that a heist was under way. Going to seek back-up, Piper saw a man lurking in the gloom at the entrance to Exchange Buildings, but when the Constable approached, the figure sloped away silently. In Houndsditch, Piper met Constables Walter Choate and Ernest Woodhams, and they took positions outside the jeweller’s shop and at the entrance to Exchange Buildings, while he went to seek assistance from Bishopsgate Police Station.
On his way to the Station, Piper encountered Sergeant Robert Bentley accompanied by two Constables in plain clothes, James Martin and Arthur Strongman. Piper introduced Sergeant Bentley to Max Weil who had sounded the alarm, and Weil took the Sergeant into his counting house to listen to the hammering through the wall. When the Sergeant emerged into Houndsditch again, he met two Sergeants, Bryant and Tucker, sent from Chief Inspector Hayes at Bishopsgate Police Station to convey the message that he had suspicions of some foreigners living in Exchange Buildings.
At once, Bentley went round and knocked again on the door of 11 Exchange Buildings where Constable Piper had called earlier. “Have you been working or knocking about inside?” he asked when the door opened, but received no reply from the man at the door. “Don’t you understand English?” Bentley continued, again without answer. “Do you have anyone that can? Fetch them down.” he insisted, but the man simply let the door swing shut. Persevering, Bentley boldly pushed open the door and walked inside to discover an empty room with a fire burning in the grate, and a cup of tea, and bread and paste upon the table. As Sergeant Bryant stepped into the doorway behind him, both men realised they were being watched from the stairs, but they could not see the watcher’s face, only his legs.
“Is anybody working in there?” repeated Bentley. “No,” came the reply from the man on the stairs. “Anybody in the back?” asked Bentley. “No,” came the reply again. “Can I have a look in the back?” enquired Bentley. “Yes,” came the reply this time. “Show us the way,” requested Bentley. “In there,” said the man on the stairs, pointing toward the yard door, and Bentley took a step in that direction.
The door flew open and another man entered quickly with a pistol aimed at Bentley. Meanwhile, the man on the stairs shot Bentley with a bullet that passed through his helmet and flew out through the shutter. Then the man who had come through the yard door also shot Bentley, twice at point blank range through the shoulder and through the neck. As Bentley fell backwards to collapse dying in the doorway, Bryant, who stood behind him, escaped into the street, where he fell down and lost consciousness due to bullet wounds. Outside, Constable Woodhams, who all this time had been stationed at the entrance to Exchange Buildings, ran to assist on hearing the firing, and also fell to the ground unconscious when a bullet shattered his thigh bone.
Constable Strongman and Sergeant Tucker saw Woodhams fall, and they saw a hand holding a pistol appear from the door, and a pale young man with a moustache and dark curly hair emerge in a suit, firing continuously. Tucker was shot twice, in the hip and the heart. Then in the darkness, the gang ran towards the entrance of Exchange Buildings, firing indiscriminately as they made their escape. Taking refuge, James Martin, a plain clothes Constable, leapt inside the house opposite, placing a hand across the mouth of sixteen-year-old Bessie Jacobs, who lived there, terrified and vulnerable in her nightdress. “Don’t scream. I’m a detective!” he assured her, “I’ll protect your mother and I’ll protect you.”
Constable Walter Choate, a tall man of six feet four inches, had the courage to grab one of the fugitives by the wrist, attempting to seize his gun. Yet as a consequence, Choate was shot in the leg repeatedly, before the rest of the gang turned their weapons upon him too. But such was his tenacity of spirit – even after receiving five more bullets – that he only released his grip when the gang kicked or punched him in the face to free their comrade. And as he fell backwards, a bullet fired by one of the gang yet intended for the Constable, hit the fugitive in the back. Two of his fellows dragged him away to vanish into the night, but he was already mortally wounded.
Once the firing stopped, the inhabitants of Exchange Buildings came out from their houses to discover carnage in the darkness. Some fell over the bodies of the dead and dying policemen. A passing motor car in Houndsditch was requisitioned to race Sergeant Tucker to the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel, but it was in vain, because he was already dead when examined at 11.50pm by Dr Rainey in the receiving room. Then Dr Rainey turned his attention to Constable Choate who arrived on a stretcher, and remained conscious in spite of nine bullet wounds – although had no memory of the events of the night – and died subsequently at 5:20am. Sergeant Bentley was carried to St Bartholomew’s Hospital where he died at 7:30am next morning. The heist was foiled but three officers were killed and two crippled for life on a single night, and it remains the worst incident for casualties ever suffered by the British police.
You may expect further reports here in coming days, and throughout the coming holiday season, of any new developments in this alarming case.
Artist’s impression from The Daily Graphic, December 18th 1910
The principal locations of the crime scene.
The plan of the attempted heist.
The view from Exchange Buildings looking towards Cutler St.
On the site of Exchange Buildings today.
Costa Coffee occupies the location of Mr Harris’ shop in Houndsditch now.
Archive images copyright © Bishopsgate Institute