When you are up to your arse in Anarchists, it is hard to remember that your initial intention was to raid the bank.
Abel Caine, the Lord o’ the Docks, risked a glance over the bed of the wagon he was sheltering behind and across the road to the Sloane Street Cooperative & Mutual Bank. Between him and the door were several coaches and wagons, at least half a dozen bodies and two dead horses.
Two of the dead were his men, one was an unfortunate copper and the others were anarchists from the Brick Lane Commune. It seems that he and Wat Tyler, current leader of these anarchists, had had the same idea. To wit, raid this bank on the day it received the wages for half of North London’s Metropolitan Police Districts. All told there should be over two thousand pounds in there right now. Both of them were interested in ‘redistributing wealth’, but Caine had no interest in enriching the proletariat, only his own gang.
Tyler had got there first by about ten minutes. It looked like he’d emptied the bank and was making his getaway when Caine turned up. A short and fierce fire fight ensued and both parties now had the other pinned down on opposite sides of the street.
Caine calculated that they had perhaps five minutes before every copper in North London descended on Sloane Street to protect their wages. He pulled out a fresh white handkerchief and pocketed his revolver. He then waved the handkerchief above the wagon bed before straightening up.
“Would that be you Wat?” he said. His deep Ulsterman’s accent cutting through the silence.
There was a brief and muffled argument behind the Hansom with the two dead horses and then Wat Tyler, self-styled ‘Hero of the Revolution’ stepped out. Not overly tall or handsome, Tyler still had an air about him, a presence as Molly would put it, thought Caine. He had heard some of Tyler’s quiet, yet compelling speeches in the Methodist and Working Men’s halls up and down the East End, and knew he could inspire men to give up their lives for the cause. The Commune may be poor in resources and arms, but it was not short of desperate courage.
“What do you want Caine?” said Tyler, spitting tobacco juice into the gutter
“I’m just thinking that we have you locked down outside the bank and the good men and true of the Metropolitan Police will be here presently to scoop you up like fish in a net” said Caine.
“And there’s me thinking the same thing you blaggard. None of your men are leaving here without a bullet in the back” said Tyler.
As he was speaking Caine noticed two young women crouched behind a perambulator a few yards the right of Tyler’s position. Initially he’d thought they were nannies, but now they seemed to be working on something. Damn, they were those harpies the anarchists called ‘Incendiaries’. He glanced down and to the right. They were both lighting cigarillos and putting gin bottles back into the carriage.
“Bob” he said sotto voce “tell the men on the right to watch out for incendiaries.”
Bob nodded grimly and began crawling in the direction of the coal wagon those men were hunkered down behind. Two of them had Martini-Henry rifles and should be able to stop any nonsense from those girls.
“Well Wat, is there no way we could come to an understanding?” said Caine, keeping his voice level and friendly.
“What you proposing Caine, better make it quick” said Tyler.
“Split the loot half and half and we both get away before the coppers catch us” said Caine.
Wat seemed to be mulling it over. From behind the Hansom a man’s arm emerged and began pulling on his sleeve. Some sharp words were exchanged in what sounded like heavily-accented German. Probably that damnable German agitator thought Caine.
At this point there came the clatter of hooves from the end of the road where Sloane Street entered Brick Lane. Both men looked to the source of the sound and both men swore. Lined up across the junction were three ranks of men astride large horses. Their breastplates glittered gold in the morning sun and flashed off the sabres they held across their right shoulders.
“Shit boss, it’s the Westminster Yeomanry!” squealed Bob.
Indeed it was thought Caine and we’re for it if we don’t clear the street in seconds. The Westminster Yeomanry were a Reserve Heavy Cavalry Company of the British Army. Famed for the wealth of its members as much for its reckless charges and ‘ride down first, ask questions later’ approach to public order. They must have been parading in the nearby Hollis Park and heard the gunfire he thought.
“Bob, that door now, men with me!” yelled Caine.
As the Yeomanry broke into a trot, Bob rushed up the steps to the house behind them. He didn’t wait to see if it was locked and discharged both barrels of his shotgun, blowing the heavy lock clean off. Caine and his men scurried up the steps.
Looking back Caine saw what he thought was a brave, but futile gesture of resistance. As the anarchists began running back down the street the two young women pushed the perambulator out into the centre of the roadway. For God’s sake he thought, the Yeomanry rode down a Suffragette march only two years ago and got away scot free, they’re not going to stop for two girls and a perambulator.
As he thought that the Yeomanry picked up speed into a canter and as one brought their sabres down so they were pointing forwards besides their horses heads. The two young women calmly picked up a bottle in each hand and igniting them from the cigarillos in their mouths hurled them towards the advancing yeomanry.
Caine stood riveted in the doorway unable to tear his eyes away from the scene. The Brick Lane Bottle Grenades hit the roadway twenty yards in front of the first line of horses. They shattered and a sheet of blue flame erupted as the ethyl spirits ignited from the flaming rags. The horses were now at the gallop and could not stop even though they whinnied in fear and desperately tried to. Several riders were hurled to the ground, some rolling into the flames. The second rank came on as well and only the third were able to rein back their mounts in time.
By now the Incendiaries had lit and thrown their second wave of grenades. At the same time as they threw them the shotgun cartridges they had pushed into the bottles just prior to the engagement began to go off in the flames. The street was now full of injured and screaming horses, men flailing about trying to put out their flaming clothing and the sound of cartridges exploding.
The Yeomanry Captain, in a truly superb feat of horsemanship, had leapt the first burst of flame and continued his charge. As he rode by the perambulator his sabre flashed and one of the Incendiaries screamed and fell clutching her ruined face. It took him fifty yards to stop and wheel his mount on the slippery cobbles. Caine looked into the young man’s eyes and shook his head. Damned if the lad wasn’t grinning.
The Captain began his second charge up the street towards the Incendiaries, but the uninjured woman was prepared. While watching the Captain, Caine had not noticed her pull two sawn-off shotguns from the perambulator. With considerable aplomb she cocked and raised one towards the Captain. She held her fire until he was mere yards away then dropped to one knee and fired into the horse’s chest and legs.
The horse fell, its neck breaking as it tumbled forwards. The Captain was catapulted over the perambulator and fell heavily on the cobbles beyond. Caine whistled in admiration at the young woman’s resolve. For her part she threw the first shotgun down and then strode up to the Captain.
It was a sight that Caine would never forget. Silhouetted against the flames and carnage she had wrought on the troop, she pointed her gun at the Captain and let him have both barrels in the face. Then as carbine rounds from the untouched third rank of the Yeomanry spat off the cobbles around her she marched back to her comrade, made the sign of the crucifix over her, picked up the discarded shotgun and put it and her other weapon into the perambulator and set off back up the street away from the battle.
As she passed Caine she looked up at him. He and several of his men doffed their caps to her, and she gave them a little nod in acknowledgement. So the legend of ‘Lizzie Sparrow and the Yeomanry’ was born.