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Chapter 3. A Funeral at Christmas

December 23, 2010
by the gentle author

There was grim silence in the middle of the day in Spitalfields on 23rd December 1910, when all activity ceased as the funeral of the three policemen shot dead in Houndsditch on 16th December made its way from Bishopsgate after the service at St Pauls Cathedral, travelling towards the City of London Cemetery in Ilford – as this contemporary newspaper report describes.

Most of the onlookers – including many aliens – stood cramped upon the pavements of Brushfield St for an hour and a half in passive expectation, and the procession moved slowly, as indeed was not only appropriate but necessary in a space so confined. When the hearses passed and the people saw the wreath-laden coffins, they seemed to recognise, in a very personal sense, the pathos and heroism of the lost lives. There was a pitying murmur.

At the end of Brushfield St and corner of Commercial St, which forms an angle of the Spitalfields Market, packing cases stood piled up in tiers and the market employees were clustered upon them. At this point also was to be heard the sombre tolling of the bell from Christ Church, Spitalfields, which directly faces Brushfield St. At noon, workrooms and factories in the neighbourhood released their hands for dinner. Men and girls hurried to the street and at every moment the throng increased. The crowds in Commercial St, where the pavement offered wide standing room, were truly enormous and the presence of so many thousands waiting so patiently was proof of popular feeling deeply stirred. The streets were full of mourners rather than sightseers.

Shopkeepers in the district showed their respect by putting up their mourning boards, or shutters, in the centre of their windows. As the hearses and carriages approached, blinds were drawn. Naturally, at this season of the year, many of the shop windows were gay with Christmas goods, and those seemed curiously out of place on this melancholy occasion.

Englishmen and foreigners mourned alike in Whitechapel. Men and women of foreign nationality gathered together in groups, waiting for the funeral to pass while talking in their native tongues. But they were not aliens of the type that committed the outrage of Saturday last. They appeared to be respectable hard-working people, peaceful and law abiding, and gave the impression they had come to this country to earn their living honestly. The fact is, many of them feel most keenly the stigma which is cast upon them, they resent being classed with criminals who have come to rob, and, with Englishmen, they feel indignation and abhorrence at the crime which has sacrificed those three splendid lives.

Meanwhile there had been significant developments in the case. On the day of the discovery of the corpse of George Gardstein and the arrest of Sarah Trassjonsky at 59 Grove St, Nicholas Tomacoff stepped from the crowd and knocked on the door, looking for a gentlemen by the name of “Fritz Svaars,” in whose room the body had been found. Aware of the £500 reward for information leading to the arrest of the members of the gang responsible for the murders in Houndsditch, he was naturally eager to assist the police, and they booked him into a hotel with all his expenses paid for the next five weeks.

Nicholas Tomacoff had been teaching Fritz Svaars to play the mandolin for the past three months and dropped by unexpectedly to visit him in his room the previous day – on the afternoon before the robbery – only to discover a group of friends with Svaars. Tomacoff was able to give police names and descriptions for the five men he had see there, including George Gardstein. And that very evening he led them personally to 141 Romford St, the residence of Osip Federoff, a locksmith, and 36 Havering St, where Peter Piatkow and Pavell Molachoff lived. All three were arrested, and then a policeman accompanied Tomacoff on a Christmas shopping spree in which he bought boots, a shirt, a collar and socks at the cost of fifteen shillings and sixpence. Subsequently he bought underpants, a vest, socks and a collar for eight shillings and fourpence, and later a hat and an overcoat for fourteen shillings and ninepence, amounting to a new wardrobe courtesy of the police.

Luba Milstein was dragged into Leman St Police Station by her brothers, who had escorted her all the way from Columbia Rd when they suspected her of involvement in the case, and she was placed under arrest. A woman came forward, who recognised the face of George Gardstein on the reward poster, to reveal that she had rented a room to him under the name of Mr Morin at 44 Gold St, and a police search of the room produced a cache of weapons. From the evidence that had come to light and the interviews with Sara Trassjonsky and the others who were now under arrest, the nature of endeavour by the gang of Latvian Anarchists was beginning to emerge, even if the precise nature of their inter-relationships remained unclear. They had rented the property in Exchange Buildings solely for the purpose of the robbery, which although of serious intent was an escapade of dubious practicality.

The Whitechapel police had little sleep for days as the tenacious Inspector Frederick Wensley combed all the lodging houses in the vicinity, where as many as seven hundred men slept each night, in his search for the other members of the gang. Committal proceedings were opened at the Guildhall Police Court on December 21st when the suspects in custody were brought before the court, but before proceedings commenced there was a new and unexpected twist.

During the holiday season, readers may rest assured that they will be kept informed of any advances in the development of this case as they occur.

Memorial cards sold by hawkers at the funeral procession.

The haul from 44 Gold St, described by the press as “the anarchists’ bomb factory.” Guns, ammunition and a small quantity of chemicals were discovered, which a police observer later revealed were “practically useless for the manufacture of explosives. There was no sign of a bomb and no indication that any attempt had been made to make one.”

Images copyright © Bishopsgate Institute

5 Responses leave one →
  1. Lou permalink
    January 1, 2011

    Truly gripping stuff, which I am enjoying reading… but don’t you think you should cite your sources? “A contemporary newspaper report” — but which one?

  2. the gentle author permalink*
    January 1, 2011

    Thanks Lou, the primary sources for these reports are the newspaper accounts, collected together in a huge scrapbook by Frederick Wensley, that I will show you in the next few days, and which is now held in the archive at the Bishopsgate Institute. The account of the funeral of the policemen you refer to was from an unattributed newspaper cutting in the album.

  3. Joan Dibble permalink
    January 2, 2011

    That was so moving to read. I am the g.g.niece of Robert Bentley, one of the fallen officers. It’s heartbreakingly sad that Robert’s widow probably wasn’t able to attend the funeral having given birth to their second child, a son, in the days between his death and the funeral.

    I was told many years ago that the picture taken of the funeral was probably from newsreel film.

  4. February 7, 2011

    I have visited these men’s graves to pay my respects, so it is fascinating to see their funeral procession. An excellent entry on a fine blog.

  5. February 12, 2013

    I have recently been tracing my family tree and believe I am distantly related to Sgt. Robert Bentley’s wife Louisa, having read about the Goddard family

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