At the turn of the 20th century, London was considered a safe haven for many exiled foreign revolutionaries. The Fifth Congress of the Social Democratic Labour Party had met in May 1907, on Southgate Road, Islington. Among those attending were Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky. At around this time several left wing east European political groups were attempting to raise funds for the revolutionary cause through robbery. Stalin and Lenin had organised a major bank robbery in the Georgian capital Tbilisi in 1907; 40 deaths resulted from the shootout.
Paul Helfeld (21) and Jacob Lepidus (25) were both Jewish-Latvian revolutionaries and had until 1907, been living in Paris when a bomb killed Lepidus's brother as he was carrying it with a plan to assassinate the president of France. As the authorities began arresting members of the gang, Jacob Lepidus and Helfeld thought it best to flee to the United Kingdom.
Two years later the pair emerged in north London and took employment at the Schnurmann Rubber Factory, just off Tottenham High Road, opposite the police station. Though the factory has long gone, the police station is still there today. With detailed knowledge of the factory's weekly wage collection, Helfeld and Lepidus planned a hold-up.
The heist begins
On Saturday 23 January 1909, the office clerk Albert Keyworth drove to the bank with the owner's chauffeur, Joseph Wilson, to collect the wages of £80 in coins. As they returned to the factory, Keyworth jumped out with the cash to open the gates. At this point Lepidus attempted to take the money from Keyworth. A struggle ensued with the chauffeur getting involved. Helfeld produced a gun and shot Wilson, though not fatally.
The thieves ran off with the cash bag east along Chesnut Road pursued by unarmed policemen Tyler and Newman from the police station opposite, who had been alerted by the initial gunfire. Several members of the public, one of whom had a gun, joined in the chase. Wilson, now recovered sufficiently, drove his car after the pair and a further round of gunfire was exchanged, resulting in the car's radiator being punctured and put out of action.
The armed thieves zigzagged through the nearby streets. On Mitchley Road, with the police and public still in pursuit, further gunshots were traded. 10 year-old Ralph Joselyne, was helping to deliver bread in the street, when he was caught in the crossfire. He was hit in the chest and died soon afterwards. There is a memorial plaque to young Ralph on the wall of the church in Mitchley Road.
Footballers join in the chase
The deadly chase now headed up Havelock Road towards the then-council refuse plant. The unarmed PC Tyler, having taken a short cut, confronted the pair. One of the robbers shot the policeman in the head at close range and he died later in hospital. Helfeld and Lepidus now crossed over the railway lines, onto Tottenham Marshes and along Pymmes Brook. It was here that the chase became farcical. The police and members of the public were joined by some footballers (it was Saturday after all) who abandoned their game to join the pursuit. Several duck hunters were encouraged to shoot at the bandits, though declined. Helfeld and Lepidus must have had some escape plan as they could have so easily become cornered on the man-made islands within the Marshes.
Using the locks and bridges the bandits continued their escape along a path south of the Banbury Reservoir, with at least two-dozen people chasing them onto Chingford Road (the North Circular Road was another 15 years away).
A tram is hijacked
It was here that Helfeld and Lepidus hijacked a No.9 tram (they had run three miles at this point while carrying several kilos of cash and at least 50 rounds of ammunition each). At the sight of armed robbers boarding the tram, the driver and some passengers fled, leaving the conductor to drive the tram at gunpoint. An armed policeman commandeered a horse and cart and followed them but Helfeld now acting as rear-gunner on the upper deck of the tram shot the horse. A northbound tram on the Chingford Road was commandeered by the police and put into reverse to chase Helfeld and Lepidus. 40 people were now trailing the getaway tram.
Helfeld and Lepidus decided to abandon the tram and hijack a milk float by shooting the driver and headed east along Forest Road. As they turn left into Fulbourne Road, the cart overturned. They took a second horse-driven cart and headed towards the River Ching, shooting at their pursuers as they headed along Winchester Road. On the footpath of the Ching, heading east, they were blocked by a high fence. Lepidus made it over but the shorter Helfeld could not climb it and his pursuers were now upon him. In desperation he shot himself. Captured and disarmed he was taken to hospital where he died some days later.
A messy end
Meanwhile Lepidus ran towards Epping Forest, when he spied an open door at Oak Cottage, 94 Oak Hill (the original house is no longer standing but a plaque marks the location). The owner, a Mrs Rolstone had come out to see what was the commotion was about when Lepidus dashed past her, into the house and locked the door. With her two children still inside the house, two policemen and a detective acted quickly and broke the door down. Lepidus had now barricaded himself in one of the upper bedrooms and as the police smashed the door in, he is reported to have killed himself, though the police were shooting as they entered the room.
The chase, which involved dozens of people, covered nearly six miles, and saw 400 rounds of ammunition fired which resulted in 25 casualties and four deaths, was over. Most of the stolen cash was never recovered. It had probably been dumped, by the bandits, into one of the waterways.
PC Tyler and Ralph Joselyne were buried, with ceremony, on 29 January, at Abney Park Cemetery. Lepidus and Helfeld were buried separately in unconsecrated cemeteries.
The incident quickly became known as the Tottenham Outrage by the press, who then proceeded to whip-up much hostility towards the many east European immigrants living in the East End. Relationships did not get any better when, in late 1910, several more Latvian revolutionaries attempted to break into a jewellers on Houndsditch. Several policemen were killed during the attempt to thwart the robbery. Of those who did manage to escape and avoid arrest, they were later cornered in the infamous Sydney Street siege of 1911.
All maps, illustrations and photographs © David Fathers
David Fathers is author/illustrator of Bloody London (Bloomsbury), available June 2020. And can be followed @TheTilbury.