The Tottenham Outrage

Tottenham, London The 23rd of January 1909 AD

These days it is Muslim extremists who preoccupy the newspapers; in the early part of the 20th century it tended to be their anarchist and revolutionary – often Jewish - equivalents, neither group reticent about using violence in pursuit of their causes. The common thread between then and now is the work of the British police trying to protect the public and uphold the law. On January 23 1909 anarchists killed one constable and wounded six others along with more than a dozen ordinary citizens in what came to be called the Tottenham Outrage.
Two immigrants from Latvia in the then Russian Empire, Paul Helfeld and Jacob Lapidus (or Lepidus), on the morning of Saturday January 23rd 1909 tried to rob men delivering £80 in wages to a factory in Chesnut Road, Tottenham. The two workers fought back, and shots were fired by the putative robbers. This alerted two constables stationed nearby, and passer-by George Smith who was shot twice tackling Helfeld.
A long pursuit began in which it is calculated that Helfeld and Lapidus fired more than 400 rounds from their automatic pistols. The police giving chase had to make do with a small pistol borrowed from a member of the public and the support of one such who joined them with a shotgun, before eventually employing what proved to be inadequate service revolvers – two at least of these not functioning. The delay was caused in part by the key to a police station arms cabinet having been lost.
During the hunt the would-be robbers hijacked a tram, a milk cart and a grocer’s cart, shooting at and often hitting anyone who got in their way. PC Tyler, one of the two constables who arrived on the scene first, was shot in the head in cold blood when he caught up to them, bleeding to death within minutes. A 10 year old boy, Ralph Joscelyne, was killed by one of their stray bullets. Throughout their two-hour six-mile flight the pair kept reloading and firing without hesitation, in addition to those two fatalities wounding 23. Left behind by Lapidus Helfeld shot himself but survived for 20 more days; Lapidus when cornered in a cottage in Hale End Road Walthamstow likewise committed suicide, using his last bullet to do so.
The funeral of Constable Tyler saw the streets passed by the cortege lined by half a million Londoners. It was in reaction to the courage shown by police during the pursuit that the King’s Police Medal was instituted. As with terrorist attacks today, the aftermath saw a reaction against the entire community of which the two killers were an aberrant part, with calls for clamp-downs on immigration and a burst of spurious newspaper stories about immigrant misdeeds. So far so tragically recognizable. But one element has perhaps changed: today would as many members of the public risk being shot to join in the hue and cry?

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