Author Geoff Barton has pieced together the tale of the Walthamstow Tram Chase
On the west side of the River Lea they call it the ‘Tottenham Outrage’, while on the east side it is known as the ‘Walthamstow Tram Chase’. Whatever you call it, this was an event that went down in history.
It began on Saturday 23rd January 1909 at around 9.30am. Two Latvians ambushed a car delivering the payroll to a rubber factory in Chesnut Road, Tottenham, and shot the chauffeur six times in the chest. They ran off with a black bag containing £80, equivalent to more than £8,000 today, which was the weekly wages of 150 people working in the factory.
Fortunately, it was the coldest day for 20 years and the chauffeur was wearing his best clothes, a heavy woollen overcoat, jacket, jumper, shirt and vest, and the bullets lost so much energy going through these that they failed to penetrate the chauffeur’s skin. He was uninjured.
Being new to England, the Latvians had failed to notice that the rubber factory they had chosen for their armed robbery was next door to Tottenham Police Station. Upon hearing shots, the officers, who had been working a late night shift and were just getting up from the station’s sleeping quarters, ran outside to give chase.
People who were used to seeing policemen in pressed uniforms and polished boots would have been taken aback to see so many officers dressed in pyjamas and underwear, covered in either shaving foam or shampoo, running down the road.
In those days the superintendent didn’t have a car; he had a go-kart pulled by a dog. The inspector had a horse, and the other policemen were on foot or riding pedal cycles. In such a rush, they were unable to find the keys to the gun cupboard, so policemen were issued with cutlasses (a type of sword) – the last time in history this happened.
Some of the policemen, needing two hands to control their bicycles on roughly-made roads, rode their bikes with the cutlasses between their teeth. They must have looked more like pirates than policemen.
Saturday was market day in Tottenham and there was a great deal of local resentment about immigrants ‘taking all the jobs’ and ‘robbing the locals’. Around a thousand local people joined the chase and, on hearing that the police didn’t have any guns, hundreds went home and collected the firearms they had kept after fighting in the Boer War a few years earlier. This time it wasn’t the police who had the guns, but the local people.
This mob ran through the streets of Tottenham to the ‘dust destructor’ (what incinerators were then known as) in Park View Road, where they entered the Lea Marshes. Here they were confronted by more police from Walthamstow and Chingford. These officers had guns from their own stations and the gunsmiths who supplied the weapons to the police sent hundreds more weapons to the scene.
The robbers ran across the marshes and came out just by the Crooked Billet Roundabout. They took over a tram at gunpoint as it drove down Chingford Road towards Walthamstow – these were the days of the Walthamstow tramways that operated along several major roads in the area.
In Forest Road, the robbers abandoned the tram for a horse-drawn milk float and were chased by police on another horse-drawn cart. That lasted until the robbers shot the horse pulling the police cart. Upon seeing several police officers in Forest Road directing traffic at a major road junction called Hagger Bridge, the robbers abandoned their milk float and ran off up Fulbrook Road, across what is now the North Circular near the Peter May Sports Centre, and across the River Ching.
It was as they crossed the river that the first robber got so exhausted he was unable to clamber over a fence. As the first robber ran off, the second robber considered his options. He checked in his pocket and saw that he was down to his last two bullets and that the mob were closing on him. He took careful aim at the first policeman but missed. He then shot himself in the eye.
When the mob caught hold of the robber who had shot himself, he was still alive. He then got a serious kicking and was eventually taken to a hospital in Tottenham where, two weeks later, he died of meningitis.
The mob, at this point distracted by ‘dealing’ with the first robber, lost sight of the second. He had run through Hale End to a cottage next door to the Royal Oak pub in Hale End Road and had intended to hide inside and catch his breath while the mob ran past. Unfortunately, there were three young children in the cottage and their mother had gone outside to check her washing. As the robber ran inside, she looked through the window and saw the desperate, blood-stained man with a shotgun and started to scream hysterically.
The mob converged on the cottage and surrounded it. The robber was completely trapped and going nowhere. He shot himself dead, bringing to an end a chase that had lasted six and a half miles, taken two and a half hours, and seen an average of one bullet fired every 15 seconds. There were four deaths in total; a ten-year-old boy and a policeman had also been killed.
Geoff Barton has written the first complete book on this incident. The Tottenham Outrage and Walthamstow Tram Chase is published by Waterside Press. Until 21st January there will be an exhibition at Hale End Library in Castle Avenue, Highams Park, and on Saturday 21st between 10am and 3.30pm Geoff will be at the Royal Oak in Hale End Road, to talk about the incident and his book. Tickets, which include breakfast, lunch, a tour of the route, and a signed copy of the book, are available for £20 from the author. For more information:
Call 07768 727 205