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Chapter 1. Murder in Houndsditch

December 16, 2010
by the gentle author

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

30 Responses leave one →
  1. December 16, 2010

    An amazing story! 100 years ago today, you have excelled yourself Gentle Author.
    Can’t wait for the next installment.

  2. December 16, 2010

    I was introduced to your website via Twitter and have enjoyed reading your posts very much, so interesting, evocative and unusual. My family came from Spitalfields long ago, a Huguenot family by the name of Marchant. My grandfather had his flower business at the market, the sign was still hanging in there when I last visited, Gibbs and Pardoe. He was Jim Pardoe. I moved away from London 15 years ago and still miss that part of the city.

  3. JohnB permalink
    December 16, 2010

    I also still love your stories of the city where I was born and lived for almost fifty years before moving overseas. All my working life up to 2004 was spent in the east of the City, so your cleverly chosen tales, and the photographs of your talented friends reach deep inside me. Please do remember to let me know if Max and Al’s (La Rochetta) restaurant in Clerkenwell Green is still open! Those boys had some adventures…..

  4. Chris F permalink
    December 16, 2010

    An excellent post. I love this sort of stuff. A story in instalments, you’ll become the Spitlefields answer to Charles Dickens. Part 2 soon please……

  5. December 16, 2010

    Oh good! Another Christmas story in instalments – I loved the last one and looked forward to each and every chapter – I’m already impatient to hear more of this one. Thank you for all the time and energy you give to your posts, they continue to be a real pleasure.

  6. December 17, 2010

    best wishes and a very merry christmas to you

  7. Chris F permalink
    December 17, 2010

    Further to my previous post on the 16th, my apologies to everyone living in Spitalfields. When I mentioned ‘Spitlefields’ I was of course refering to the lesser known part of London where Londoners once gathered to practice spitting!

  8. Marianne Isaacs permalink
    January 10, 2011

    What a thrill I have been trying to find the Exchange buildings for a few years as my family lived there for many years at this time . and from the 1870s onward. I wonder is therany more information about these building and what happened to them . I guess maybe they were bombed in WW2 I have no idea what became of these relativesonly the oldest son immegrated to Australia and seemed to not have a very close relationship with his family from then on. It would be wonderful to know .!! Thanks so much for this little piece of the puzzle. Mem

  9. marianne isaacs permalink
    January 10, 2011

    I have just looked at the census records I have and I have found that the family I spoke about in the above post lived at 10 Exchange buildings in 1881 , they were still there at the next census so i guess thay may well have had a rather exciting night that Decemeber eveneing . It is amazing seeing the floor plan to their one room flat. Where did you find this and do you know if there are anymore plans of the building available ? Thanks a gobsmacked descendant!!

  10. the gentle author permalink*
    January 10, 2011

    Hi Marianne, Try the Bishopsgate Institute for further material…

  11. Chris Moorby permalink
    March 2, 2011

    My great great great grandfather owned 119 Houndsditch road in the late 1850’s. He was a green grocer, he died in 1860 and his wife moved to 25 Cutler St. I now work just round the corner in Beaufort Hse.

  12. Laurie Piper permalink
    April 21, 2011

    My Great Grand Father was PC Piper. I have his photo’s from the City Of London Police.
    Recently an Anniversary Memorial Remembrance was held for the deceased Officers, but my GGF was not mentioned. I sadly was born after my GGF died but was informed that he very rarely spoke of the incident again due to feeling it could have been him.

  13. August 10, 2011

    You have a fascinating blog, thank you very much for keeping the history of Spitalfields alive.

  14. cambridge family permalink
    June 11, 2012

    Just discovered from the 1911 census that the Cambridge family were living at 119 the following year to this ‘deed’

  15. Graham Phillips permalink
    January 2, 2013

    re. marianne isaacs
    I think the Isaacs in Exchange Buildings may be connected to the Phillips – my great grandfather traded in mens clothes at 13 Exchange Buildings in 1901 but had gone to pastures new including Brighton in the early 1900s. My grandfather Lewis married Sarah Isaacs in 1903!

  16. marianne isaacs permalink
    April 29, 2013

    I would love to get in touch with Graham Phillips as we may have a family connection. My Great grandfather is law was Reuben Isaacs He was the oldest of 8 children( I think) and His parents were Woolf and Priscilla Isaacs . Reuben emmigrated to Melbourne Australia in the 1890s I think or possible a little earlier . He returned to England in about 1930 for a holiday . He died in Melbourne in the 1940s.I am wondering gentle author if you could pass this on to The Graham Phillips who posted in this installment ?

  17. p bull permalink
    February 6, 2014

    Thank you for this information, a very distance relative was involved in this it was Percy Bryant

  18. frank hadley permalink
    March 25, 2014

    us local kids used to go to exchange buildings to collect buttons thrown away by the rag trade people who bought old uniforms to sell on and many were stored in the houses in exchange buildings that were not occupied, including the one where the shootings took place. that was in the 1950s. my how it has changed.

  19. John permalink
    November 19, 2014

    A group of people, of whom I am one, being a direct descendant (with strong Australian connections) have done a lot of research on the streets of this area, in particular Cutler, Carter and White sts and around the Cutlers Arms pub, jutting out from the corner of Exchange Buildings and Cutler st, on the right. It concerns the families who lived here in the later 18th and early 19th centuries (The area was developed as a unit by the Cutlers Company from the 1840s onwards, with Exchange Buildings being a development of dwellings from converted livery stables, it seems).
    The evidence of names and the frequent connections with emigration (as convicts or free) to Australia, strongly suggests a lot of interconnectedness with these families.
    Maybe I have some further information for those who are interested in leaving a question as a message here.

  20. Judith permalink
    November 19, 2014

    What an interesting article and a great website. It is new to me but interesting because my great great grandfather, Joseph Cashmore (b. ca 1796) lived at No 1 cutler street and possibly No 5, where his eldest son Michael was born, 1815. Michael came to Australia in 1836.
    Joseph died 1824 and his will was witnessed by James Isaacs, gentleman, of Bury St. and Nathan Nathan, butcher of Whitechapel.
    I’d be interested to hear from anyone with information about these people.

  21. John permalink
    December 6, 2014

    Hello Judith,
    Have we corresponded before?
    Your Joseph Cashmore is almost certainly the brother of my great-great-great-grandmother, Jane Cashmore, who died at the nearby 37 Camomile st in 1842. No 1 Cutler st is also known as No 1 White st. (The name of White st has reverted to Cutler st.)
    Jane Cashmore’s family from her marriage lived opposite at No. 10 White st for a long time in the later 18th and early 19th centuries.
    I made a slip with dates in my previous posting. Cutler st was developed by the Cutlers Company from the 1740s, not the 1840s.

  22. marianne isaacs permalink
    February 19, 2015

    Oh I havent been back to this website in a while,More has been added . My family lived at no 10 up until about 1900 when the moved to North Block I think in Gravel Lane . It was one of the artisam dwelling buildins and probably more salubrious than the Exchange buildings . Its amazing that they were still around in the 1950s. I was recently in LOndon and had a good walk around the area . My family didint move very far from Harrow Alley to Exchange buildings to the North Block until Reuben took off to Australia where he settled in Melbourne and was very successful as a bookamker.

  23. Laurie Piper permalink
    July 14, 2015

    A great account of what occurred. PC Walter Piper was my Great Grandad. I have pictures of him in uniform. My Grandfather, his son ( now deceased ), stated that Walter never ever spoke of the events of this evening.

  24. Derek Harris permalink
    June 22, 2016

    Hello Marianne and Graham,
    if you are still following this thread, I think I can shed some more light on your family histories as I am also researching a branch of the Isaacs family who also once lived at Exchange Buildings, the children of Lewis Isaacs. You can contact me via the email address on my website
    Hope to hear from you.

  25. Sharon permalink
    December 16, 2017

    My nan’s great uncle was the great Mr Wensley. Her mother’s family were from Hillfarrance a few miles out of Taunton.

  26. Tony Allan permalink
    January 7, 2018

    If anybody has information on the shop at the corner of 1 Cutler Street and 115 Houndsditch. The shop was owned by my Gt. Gt. Grandfather Joseph Posener around the 1870’s selling clothing.

  27. Angelique Aldworth permalink
    March 19, 2019

    Hi all,

    I have a certificate awarded to Walter Charles Choats family/wife in March 1911. Would love to know if he has any family still living?

  28. James Kemp permalink
    April 9, 2020

    My father was a Police Officer in Kent and worked with a PC Robert (Bob) Smoothy. His father PC Frederick Smoothy was also present at the scene in Houndsditch and after retirement moved to Kent.

    There was a chain of officers set up from the house in Exchange Buildings where PS Bentley and other were, PC Woodhams on the corner of Exchange Buildings / Cutler Street, PC Smoothy on the corner of Cutler Street / Houndsditch and PC Piper outside the Jewellers in Houndsditch. The officers all went up to Exchange Buildings when the shooting started. Frederick Smoothy told his son Bob he had taken the seriously wounded Constable Choate to hospital and as there was no transport he took him resting him over a bicycle.

    PC Frederick Smoothy received the 1902 and 1911 Coronation (Police) Medals which I now have although it was years later that his son Bob told me more about his father’s involvement in these events.

  29. May 9, 2020

    Hi Marianne, I believe that the houses in Exchange Buildings were 3 roomed, with a tiny backyard.

    It’s possible that some of the houses were divided into 3 separate dwellings (ie, with a separate family in each of the 3 rooms), but even by the poverty and the overcrowding that existed in that part of London at that time, I imagine that unless they lived in extreme poverty, that your ancestors would have occupied all 3 of the rooms (which were very small).

  30. Laura Barrell permalink
    December 28, 2023

    My mother is a Bentley and when her Grandmother died, in amongst her belongings were documentation relating to this and the memorial card and a medal. We are unsure if our family are related to Sergeant Bentley. I have tried to research but cannot find much online. Does anyone know where he was born or any of his family history ?? I can see articles relating to his wife but not his parents or place of birth etc. Many thanks

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