Book Reviews

The Tottenham Outrage and Walthamstow Tram Chase

“The first in-depth account of an iconic event – fascinating police, social and local history based on extensive first-hand research.” – Waterside Press

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In 1909 two Latvian outlaws caused mayhem on the streets of London carrying out an armed robbery culminating in a remarkable police chase which covered just over seven miles, lasted for two and a half hours and included one hundred police officers and almost one thousand members of the public. It was a historical event which became known as the ‘Tottenham Outrage,’ often also referred to as the ‘Walthamstow Tram Chase’ reflecting the attempted escape route of the robbers.

In contrast to today, armed robbery was rare at the turn of the 20th century. Weapons were not as easily available with not even police officers being issued with a standard firearm.  Many men who had served in the British Army had kept hold of their weapons, bringing them home; meaning members of the public across the city had personal access to a range of rifles and pistols.  This fact was highlighted in full force during the Tottenham Outrage when they joined with the police in the chase of these two robbers bringing their firepower with them.

“Estimates of the number of weapons produced during the chase focus at around two hundred, ranging from shotguns, rifles, pistols and revolvers, all loaded with the appropriate ammunition.”

Former Metropolitan police officer Geoff Barton explores this fascinating event from London’s history from start to finish and in intricate detail in his book The Tottenham Outrage and The Walthamstow Tram Chase.

When undertaking Defensive Weapons Training with then Police Sergeant Mike Waldron, who has provided the forward for this book, Geoff Barton was introduced to the tale of the Tottenham Outrage sparking his enthusiasm for the story and an eagerness to know more. His book provides one of the most comprehensive accounts of the armed robbery that took place in Tottenham on 23 January 1909, the resulting brave chase of the robbers through the streets and onto the Walthamstow trams, and it is an interesting and descriptive read.

The Most Spectacular Hot Pursuit in History

Latvian immigrants Paul Hefeld and Jacob Lapidus had both worked at the Schnurrman’s Rubber Factory for a short period before quitting their roles in the weeks before the robbery.  They decided to use their knowledge of the workings of the factory and more importantly how the wages system worked to carry out a robbery in broad daylight on that January morning in 1909. On the day, the pair ambushed a car carrying the wages clerk and the bag of cash they had set their sights on, firing shots at the driver and clerk in the process. The armed robbery was aggressive and violent with multiple shots fired at the first opportunity. The factory as a target for robbery was a bold choice for Hefeld and Lapidus with its location just doors away from Tottenham Police Station, immediately alerting officers to the crime.

“The two Latvians were armed with two of the latest and most advanced handguns in the world at that time and, although nobody realised it as they robbed Keyworth, the robbers had brought four hundred rounds of ammunition with them.”

Geoff Barton has collated the full details of this historic event starting with the background of the two Latvian men that caused it.

He has focused on factual information in early chapters including the political and societal unrest in Latvia and neighbouring Russia prompting many, including these two men, to come to London in search of work and lodgings, settling in areas they could afford including Shoreditch and Tottenham.

Geographical and census data for both Tottenham and Walthamstow are covered alongside detailed information on the history of the Metropolitan Police Force, weapons and police firearms and transport both at the turn of the century and in modern-day.

Related: Britain’s Most Notorious Prisoners

While this means his book does not delve into the excitement and tragedy of the robbery and ensuing chase through London straight away, and does include information that in places appears unnecessary, it does set the scene and ensure by the time you reach these details in later chapters the ground work has been laid. For the eager historian and those interested in the history of policing in particular, this information will feed their thirst for knowledge, facts and figures however, for those leaning more towards the criminal events themselves, early chapters may seem dry taking time to reach the narrative on the crime in question anticipated from the book title and description.

Geoff Barton has clearly taken time to collate information surrounding the riot that became known as the Tottenham Outrage. Police officers at the turn of the last century travelled around the city in carts pulled by horses or dogs or on bicycles. They were generally not armed and not used to dealing with criminal acts as serious and deadly as armed robberies. After their attack, Hefeld and Lapidus fled the scene on foot but their gunfire had attracted attention.

“This was not just the Police chasing two criminals down the road; it was the community responding to an outrage. Many of these citizens joined the chase armed to the teeth with their own revolvers, pistols, rifles and shotguns…and they were not afraid to use their weapons to defend themselves or to assist their police to apprehend the robbers.”

The gunfire exchanged put those chasing these two men and people in the surrounding areas at grave risk with one 10-year-old boy Ralph Joscelyne being shot and killed and many others wounded.

31-year-old Police Constable William Tyler was shot in the head at point-blank range when he caught up with the pair, leaving him with no chance to survive such an injury.

With intimate knowledge of the area Geoff Barton he has been able to provide a minute by minute account of this chase and the movements of all involved. Starting at Chapter 6 – The Robbery, it provides face-paced reading compared to earlier chapters highlighting the intensity of these few hours, and the struggles faced by the police force desperately trying to resolve the situation safely. By the time the chase came to an end a police officer was dead along with an innocent 10-year-old boy. Hefeld, realising he was about to be captured, shot himself and Lapidus was killed after running inside a cottage and exchanging gunfire with the police who had gathered outside.

Related: Bombers, Rioters and Police Killers: Violent Crime and Disorder in Victorian Britain

The Tottenham Outrage and The Walthamstow Tram Chase follows on from the chase with the aftermath for the Metropolitan police, the government and the private citizens who were affected on that day.  Personal injury claims made by those wounded are listed highlighting the number of people affected by this incident, and the different effects it had ranging from physical injuries and psychological trauma to damage to property. The concluding chapter which takes a look at how the Tottenham Outrage is remembered today is a fitting end to this book and the tale it has to tell.

Memorial in memory of Police Constable 403 William Tyler killed during the Tottenham Outrage
Memorial in memory of Police Constable 403 William Tyler killed during the Tottenham Outrage

There is a great deal of information inside these pages that while informative, in places could have benefited from better organisation to reduce the jumps back and forth in time-scale and some summarization to minimize the load on the reader and provide a little more focus. That said, this is a book that ensures all available details on this incident and related topics are included, leaving the reader in no doubt they are getting the full story.

The Tottenham Outrage and The Walthamstow Tram Chase is an inclusive piece of writing that has been thoroughly researched. Readers are unlikely to find a better source of information on this intriguing event and its impacts, and it is sure to please those with a thirst for history.

The Tottenham Outrage and The Walthamstow Tram Chase’ by Geoff Barton is published by Waterside Press and is available at their website and on Amazon.

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