It is difficult to imagine London streets without picturing cars, black cabs, and red double-decker buses. But navigating the thoroughfares of the capital was once done via a different kind of transport, in the shape of a Victorian-style tram network.
Whilst the carriages themselves may have disappeared, the tales of the lost tracks live on. No more so than from one of East London’s tram lines, Walthamstow Urban District Council Light Railways, which was famed for a fatal police chase.
The Walthamstow Urban District Council Light Railway operated a tramway service in Walthamstow between 1905 and 1933, before its services were taken over by London Passenger Transport Board. The “and district” referred to the lines beyond the Walthamstow boundary into Chingford and Leyton.
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In its 28 years of service, one incident lives on as one of London’s most dramatic ever police chases, which lasted two hours, involving two armed criminals who commandeered a Walthamstow tram. 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’, but whatever you call it, this was an event that went down in history.
In January 1909, at around 9:30am, two armed men – Paul Helfeld and Jacob Lepidus – ambushed a car delivering the payroll to the Schnurmann rubber factory in Tottenham, firing a gun at the chauffer. They took off with a bag containing £80, equivalent to more than £8,000 today, which was the weekly wages of 150 people working in the factory.
Two police constables – Tyler and Newman – at the nearby police station heard the shots, left the station and chased the two men down Chesnut Road, Tyler on foot and Newman in the car driven by the chauffer. As the two gunmen were approached by the car they turned and opened fire, where a ten-year-old boy was caught by a round to the chest and pronounced dead.
Later Tyler met a similar fate after confronting the criminals. Helfeld and Lepidus continued their flee, crossing the River Lea onto Chingford Road, where they boarded a number 9 Walthamstow Urban District Council tram; many of the passengers escaped, and the driver, who saw the armed men, ran up the front stairs of the vehicle and hid on the top deck.
Lepidus threatened the conductor and ordered him to drive; although he had never driven a tram before, he managed to get the vehicle moving. Lepidus stayed with his pistol trained on the conductor, while Helfeld shot at the pursuers behind them.
(Image: Wikipedia Commons/Richard Dunn)
A Walthamstow tram on the return journey from that of number 9 was commandeered by a policeman and it reversed down the track in pursuit. But the two criminals had jumped off the tram, heading towards the direction of Epping Forrest, first by cart then later by foot.
As they attempted to cross the River Ching, Helfeld shot himself in the eye, exhausted by the chase. He was taken to Tottenham Hospital but two weeks later died of meningitis. Lepidus continued his flight into Hale End, Walthamstow where he crossed the nearby railway line and took refuge in Oak Cottage, where he was later surrounded and shot himself dead.
While the Walthamstow Urban District Council trams are lost in history for most, with services taken over by London Passenger Transport Board in July 1933, this intense story is certainly one to be remembered.
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