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News From the Front

January 3, 2012

"THE SIEGE OF SIDNEY STREET"

An Anniversary Ominously Observed

Winston Churchill was Home Secretary in Prime Minister H.H. Asquith's government on 3 January 1911 when he received word that a group of heavily armed "anarchist" burglars, who had earlier killed three policemen, were now trapped in a house in the East End of London at 100 Sidney Street. Churchill soon raced to the crime scene himself, after ordering in a detachment of Scots Guards. When the building caught fire Churchill gave the order to let it burn. “I thought it better to let the House burn down,” he later wrote to the Prime Minister,“ than spend good British lives in rescuing those ferocious rascals.” The Siege of Sidney Street became a media event in Great Britain. Postcards of it were sold in large numbers and the firefight was even filmed and screened as an early newsreel in cinemas.

Churchill came in for criticism from both parties for his actions that day. Many of his fellow Liberals rebuked him for allowing the anarchists to die in the flames. Former-Conservative Prime Minster Arthur Balfour famously remarked at a later House of Commons inquiry: "He was, I understand, in military phrase, in what is known as the zone of fire - he and a photographer were both risking valuable lives. I understand what the photographer was doing but what was the Right Honourable Gentleman doing?"

Guns were a part of Winston Churchill’s world. He was a trained soldier and a skilled huntsman and, in his lifetime, did on occasion kill with a gun. Churchill knew what a gun was meant to do. And he knew, more keenly perhaps than anyone ever has known, what weapons in the wrong hands can and will do. Modern British history offers few incidents of armed civilians acting wickedly - acts of organized terrorism aside. Even today, The Siege of Sidney Street remains, for Great Britain, something of an anomaly. Winston Churchill showed no tolerance for civilians bearing arms. It is difficult to say how he would have responded to the issue of gun control as it plays out presently in America, but impossible not to wonder.

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