Peter the Painter

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Peter the Painter, as he appeared on his wanted poster in 1911

Peter the Painter, also known as Peter Piaktow (or Piatkov, Pjatkov, Piaktoff), was the leader of a gang of immigrant Latvian criminals in London in the early 20th century. After supposedly fighting in and escaping the Sidney Street Siege in 1911, he became an anti-hero in London's East End. He was never caught, and there is some question as to whether he existed, or whether he had participated in the Sidney Street incident.


In the late 19th and early 20th centuries London became a destination for more than 180,000 eastern European Jewish immigrants, who settled mostly in the East End. Ethnic groups joined together in gangs, and numerous immigrants continued radical political activities. They often stole in order to fund their politics. In the wake of the Houndsditch Murders in London on 16 December 1910, one of the gang involved was found dead at a flat at which Peter Piatkow had lived with Fritz Svaars. Both of the latter men were believed to be members of a Latvian radical group. Svaars was the cousin of Jacob Peters, another Latvian far-leftist. In January 1911 the police were informed that Svaars and an accomplice were hiding out at 100 Sidney Street. They surrounded the area and laid siege to the building in order to flush the radicals.

Another member was "Peter the Painter", a nickname for an unknown figure, possibly named Peter Piaktow (or Piatkov, Pjatkov or Piaktoff),[1] He used several aliases, including Schtern, Straume, Makharov and Dudkin[2] or Janis Zhaklis.[3] Bernard Porter, in a brief sketch in the Dictionary of National Biography, writes that no firm details are known of the anarchist's background and that "None of the ... biographical 'facts' about him ... is altogether reliable."[2]

In 1988, based on research in the KGB archives, Philip Ruff, a historian of anarchism, suggested Peter the Painter might be Gederts Eliass.[4] He was a Latvian artist involved in the 1905 Revolution in Russia and was living in exile in England during the time of the Sidney Street Siege. He returned to Riga after the Bolshevik 1917 Revolution.[5] More recently, Ruff has identified Peter the Painter as Janis Zhaklis (also spelled Zhakles), another Latvian far-leftist. Like Peters, Zhaklis was a member of the Latvian Social Democratic Workers' Party in 1905; among his exploits was gaining the escape of Fritz Svaars from prison in Riga. Zhaklis associated with Eliass in exile in Finland, where they were involved together in the robbing the Russian State Bank branch in Helsinki. Zhaklis broke with the Social Democrats and became an anarchist. It is unclear what happened to him after 1911.[6] In August 2012 Ruff published a book on the life of Janis Zhaklis; it was released by Dienas Gramata (in Latvian) as Pa stāvu liesmu debesīs : Nenotveramā latviešu anarhista Pētera Māldera laiks un dzīve (A Towering Flame: The Life & Times of Peter the Painter).[7]

Legacy and honours[edit]

In popular culture[edit]

  • Peter the Painter was portrayed by Peter Wyngarde in the 1960 film The Siege of Sidney Street, about the anarchist movement and the police action.
  • Peter Piatkow aka Peter the Painter is a key character in part of Gavin Lyall's 1993 novel Spy's Honour. In the second part of the novel "Climbing Spy Hill" he is the leader of a group of Irish fenians attempting to rob the Royal Navy depot at Queenstown port, Ireland. Piatkow is portrayed unsympathetically, planning on killing all the people, including the domestic staff, at the naval commander's residence, and his own confederates, so that he can keep all the proceeds of the robbery for himself.
  • Peter the Painter is featured as a character in the 4th episode of the Australian murder mysteries series, Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries. In this episode—"Death at Victoria Dock", involving the murder of a Latvian anarchist in Melbourne's docks in the mid 1920s—Peter is identified to Phryne Fisher in a club as the man involved in the Sidney Street Siege in London. He is a key character in the episode. The original book published by Kerry Greenwood includes an audiobook interview with the author who explains that in earlier original research she interviewed two wharfies who had worked at the Melbourne docks in the 1920s and who confirmed the rumor that Peter the Painter had lived in exile there.
  • The character Peter the Painter is portrayed by Dragoș Bucur in the 2012 ITV drama Titanic. Peter is sailing on the ship in an attempt to escape England for the United States. Aboard the ship he has a romantic encounter with the wife of a fellow passenger and murders another when confronted about his identity. He is also central in orchestrating an uprising amongst the 3rd class passengers when they are prevented from boarding the lifeboats.


  1. ^ Rogers 1981, p. 16.
  2. ^ a b Porter 2011.
  3. ^ Bloom 2010, p. 239.
  4. ^ "Eliass", Classic, LV: Culture 
  5. ^ Bankovskis & Ruff 2007, p. 6.
  6. ^ Bankovskis & Ruff 2007, pp. 6–7.
  7. ^ "Peter the Painter: the book at last". Kate Sharpley Library. Retrieved 22 August 2012. 
  8. ^ The Independent, 17 February 2004[dead link]
  9. ^ White, Gerry (21 November 2003). Irish Volunteer Soldier 1913–23. Osprey Publishing. p. 62. ISBN 978-1-84176-685-0. Retrieved 30 October 2012. 
  10. ^ Drake, Matthew, "Honouring anarchist Fury Siege Sidney Street killer gets tower block plaque", Daily Mail, London .


External links[edit]