Friday, January 28, 2011

The Tottenham Outrage

I missed the one-hundred-and-second anniversary of the Outrage, which was last Sunday.

On January 23, 1909, two armed robbers attempted a payroll heist (a "wages robbery" in Anglospeak) in the Tottenham neighborhood of London. The two unarmed victims resisted and the robbers opened fire. Hearing the gunshots, two constables ran to the scene, only to come under fire themselves. A civilian came to the rescue, and he was shot twice. The robbers fled on foot, pursued by half a dozen constables and several civilians.

Thus began a wild, almost comical, pursuit and shootout all over Tottenham. The police, being unarmed, rushed back to the station house to get the two .450 Webley gate-load revolvers stored there, but "the key to the firearms cupboard had been mislaid." Nevertheless the police continued their unarmed pursuit as the robbers fired at them. One robber was armed with a 6.5mm model 1894 Bergmann pistol and the other with a .32 Browning, both autoloaders.

Passersby joined the chase and produced their own pistols from pockets and cases. One officer, Constable Bond, borrowed a revolver from a passerby and returned fire. Other officers did likewise. A motorcar was brought into the pursuit, but as it closed on the robbers they turned and fired and "a fusillade of shots" disabled the car. It was here that the first fatality occurred: ten-year-old Ralph Joscelyn was hit in the chest and was dead on arrival at the hospital.

The officers guessed correctly that the robbers were heading for the Tottenham Marshes, and two constables, Newman and Tyler, sprinted ahead to cut them off. When they confronted the robbers and demanded their surrender, Tyler was fatally shot in the head.

As the superintendent's report later put it, "The chase which had now become most desperate was continued with splendid determination." Two duck hunters from Tottenham Marshes now joined the pursuit, using their shotguns to fire at the fleeing robbers. Several other civilians used their own pocket pistols to fire at the robbers as they ran through a gypsy camp and on to Chingford Road. Here they hijacked the Number 9 tram and forced the conductor to drive with a gun to his head.

"By Gad, sir! There will be a letter about this in tomorrow's Times!"
"Just drive, Eengleesh peeg!"

Sargeant Hales stopped the tram traveling in the opposite direction and ordered the conductor to reverse and follow. Many of the pursuers boarded the tram and there was a prolonged (and ineffective) exchange of gunfire with the robbers.

Leaving the tram, the robbers commandeered a horse-drawn milk cart, then a horse and van. The pursuers by now had brought several automobiles into the chase and were closing the gap. The robbers abandoned the van and continued on foot. At this point one of the robbers, apparently exhausted and having only a few more rounds of ammunition, decided to kill himself with a shot to the head. His accomplice entered Oak Cottage, the home of the Rolstone family. From here he traded shots with the crowd until three armed constables entered the house and cornered him, whereupon he, too, shot himself.

In all, two were killed and twenty-five wounded. During the two-hour, six-mile pursuit the robbers were said to have fired over 400 rounds.

On January 29th, funerals were held for both of the victims. Half a million people and 3,000 police officers lined the funeral route. Both victims were buried in Abney Park Cemetary, just a yard apart.

Ralph Joscelyne's mother kept the shoes that her son had been wearing on the day he was killed. When she died fifty years later, in accordance with her wishes, the shoes were buried with her.

The reason that this story should interest us today is that it shows that one hundred years ago many Londoners routinely carried handguns as they went about their daily business. In fact, the civilians were much better armed than the police. And yet there were very few murders in England and Wales. The first gun control law in Britain was the Gun Licence Act of 1870, which was a revenue-generating measure (10 shillings a year) but since there was no gun registration, it could not be enforced - and it wasn't. The fact is that the murder rate in the UK today - the number of murders per 100K population - is higher now than it was one hundred years ago.

No comments: