In the 19th century the Russian Empire, then including Latvia, was home to about five million Jews, the largest Jewish community in the world at the time. Subjected to religious persecution and violent pogroms, many emigrated, and between 1875 and 1914 around 120,000 arrived in the United Kingdom, mostly in England. The influx reached its peak in the late 1890s when large numbers of Jewish immigrants—mostly poor and semi-skilled or unskilled—settled in the East End of London; the concentration of Jews in some areas of London was almost 100 per cent of the population. Because of the influx of Jews and Russians into one part of Tottenham in North London, the area gained the nickname Little Russia.
Several revolutionary factions were active in East and North London. One tactic often employed by revolutionaries in Russia was the expropriation of private property to fund radical activities. The influx of émigrés, and the associated rising rates of violent crime, led to widespread concerns and press coverage. As a result, the British government passed the Aliens Act 1905 in an attempt to reduce immigration.
Paul Helfeld and Jacob Lepidus were Jewish-Latvian immigrants. They had been members of the Latvian Socialist Party and had smuggled revolutionary literature into Russia for the party. The pair had been living in Paris in 1907, along with Lepidus’s brother Paul, a revolutionary bomber. On 1 May 1907 Paul Lepidus was killed when a bomb he was carrying to assassinate the President of France, exploded prematurely. Lepidus and Helfeld fled the country and lived in Scotland for a year, before moving to Tottenham.
Helfeld took a job at the Schnurmann rubber factory in Tottenham. Situated on the corner of Tottenham High Road and Chesnut Road, the factory sat opposite Tottenham Police Station, which was under the control of the Metropolitan Police.
On 23 January 1909 Helfeld and Lepidus waited outside the Schnurmann factory. At the same time every week Schnurmann’s chauffeur, Joseph Wilson, drove to a bank in nearby Hackney with Albert Keyworth, a 17-year-old office boy. They collected the week’s wages—on the 23rd it was £80 in gold, silver and coppers—and returned to the factory. The car stopped to allow Keyworth—holding the bag of money—to open the gates, Lepidus grabbed the boy and tried to take the bag from him, but Keyworth held him off. Wilson stopped the car and came to Keyworth’s assistance. As the trio wrestled, Wilson fell to the ground and Lepidus managed to take the bag. Helfeld joined the fight; he drew his gun and fired several times at Wilson, who miraculously was not injured.
Two police constables (PCs), called Tyler and Newman, at the nearby police station heard the shots chased the two men. Part way down the road, a passer-by threw Lepidus to the ground. As the two gunmen managed to run down the street, other members of the public joined the chase, as did several off-duty policemen from the station—none carrying firearms—some on foot, but some having commandeered bicycles from passers-by. One policeman was able to return fire with a pistol borrowed from a member of the public. The car from the factory joined in the pursuit, driven by Wilson; he paused and PC Newman boarded the car before they gave chase again. Tyler ran alongside the car.
The gunmen continued their escape, and headed towards Tottenham Marshes. PCs Tyler and Newman took a short cut, and confronted the two men. Tyler approached the men and, when he was within 9 yards (8.2 m), was heard to say “Come on; give in, the game’s up”. Helfeld took aim and shot him; the bullet went through his head. The two criminals took off again, while Tyler was carried to a nearby house and an ambulance summoned. He was taken to Tottenham Hospital, where he died.
Helfeld and Lepidus continued their flight. As they crossed an area of open land, they sheltered behind a haystack and held off the pursuers, who numbered about 20 at this point. The two ran on until they reached Chingford Road, where they boarded a number 9 tram; many of the passengers escaped, and the driver, who saw the armed men, ran up the front stairs of the vehicle and hid on the top deck. Lepidus threatened the conductor with a pistol and ordered him to drive. Lepidus stayed with his pistol trained on the conductor, while Helfeld shot at the pursuers behind them. One policeman commandeered a pony and cart; he was armed and tried to get close enough to manage an aimed shot, but Helfeld shot the horse and the cart overturned. A tram on the return journey from that of number 9 was commandeered by a policeman; 40 others boarded it and it reversed down the track in pursuit. The conductor, wanting to get rid of the two men, told them that there was a police station around the next corner. The two criminals jumped off the tram near a horse-drawn milk float, shooting the driver and stealing his vehicle.
At one point, the footpath was bordered by a six-foot (1.8 m)-high fence and it narrowed to the point of being impassable. It was too late for the men to turn back and they decided to climb over; Lepidus managed to make it, but Helfeld, exhausted by the chase, could not manage to climb. He shouted to Lepidus to save himself and, as the police closed in, he put the gun to his head and shot himself.
Lepidus was finally found in a house where he shot himself before being caught.
The incident had lasted over two hours and covered a distance of six miles (10 km); Helfeld and Lepidus had fired an estimated 400 rounds. Twenty-three casualties were reported, two of them fatal and several others serious. Seven policemen were among the casualties. The money from the robbery was never recovered.
The bravery of the police during the chase led to the creation of the King’s Police Medal, which was awarded to several of those involved in the pursuit. A joint funeral for the two victims—Police Constable William Tyler and Ralph Joscelyne, a ten-year-old boy—was attended by a crowd of up to half a million mourners, including 2,000 policemen. The event exacerbated ill feeling towards immigrants in London, and much of the press coverage was anti-Semitic in nature. This affected public sentiment after another criminal act by Latvian immigrants in December 1910, culminating in the Siege of Sidney Street, in which three policemen were murdered.