It should have been unthinkable that a town would refuse to allow ex-servicemen to hold a memorial for fallen comrades in its principal park at the end of the bloodiest international war in Britain's history. But it happened in Luton, a town that in 1919 had divisions among ex-servicemen themselves and a Council led by a Town Clerk who seemed to regard the local authority's position and decisions as paramount.
On June 30th, 1919 – three weeks before Peace Day - the Luton branch of the Discharged Sailors and Soldiers Federation unanimously agreed to adhere to a decision taken by the Federation nationally to take no part whatsoever in any official Peace celebrations while ex-servicemen were still unemployed and in a dispute over pensions. The Town Council, via Town Clerk William Smith, was informed of the decision in a letter dated July 5th.
On the same date the DS&S - which excluded officers from membership other than those who had risen through the ranks - made what they seemed to have presumed was the courteous formality of requesting the use of Wardown Park to hold a drumhead memorial service in remembrance of their fallen comrades of the war. Churches and bands had agreed to take part, and the Mayor and councillors were invited to be present. Their request letter addressed to the Town Clerk included the sentence: “His Worship the Mayor has expressed every sympathy with this objective and instructed us to apply to you for the use of the park.”
Unlike in other towns, such as neighbouring Dunstable, a memorial service for the fallen was not included in the Peace celebrations planned by the Town Council for Saturday, July 19th. The DS&S had previously suggested that the celebrations in Luton be spread over two days, the Sunday being devoted to ex-servicemen, with a parade ahead of the drumhead service conducted by local clergy. As the DS&S were not taking part in official celebrations, it was unlikely that they expected any ratepayers' money to be devoted to their event.
Rival ex-servicemen's organisation The Comrades of the Great War offered to help organise the service but their offer was turned down by the DS&S, although the Comrades were invited to attend.
And at that point the seeds of doom seem to have been sown. The lack of co-operation between the two main ex-servicemen's groups offered an excuse to reject the use of Wardown on the grounds of “sectional” interest, with Town Clerk Smith (pictured, right) giving his advise based on park bye-laws from 1905. The Press advertisement (above), published after Peace Day, said that if both groups had jointly applied for the use of Wardown, it would have been granted. The advert went to great lengths to attempt to justify the Council's decisions, and maybe was an attempt to try to excuse a situation that need not have arisen and in the wake of strong criticism of the Council from the Press, the clergy and many sections of Luton society.
Furthermore, the decision had not been taken by the full council, who were not due to meet until after Peace Day, but by six members of the nine-member Park Committee hastily called together following a meeting of the Tolls and Public Buildings Committee to which they also belonged. Their decision to refuse the use of Wardown, based on the advice offered by Smith, was rubber-stamped later by the Watch Committee. Smith also told the DS&S that the Council would not be represented at any service on the alternatively offered sites of People's Park or the Moor.
The DS&S had refused to take part in the Council's Peace Day procession, so could it have been tit-for-tat that the Council would not be represented in the ex-servicemen's event? And the “sectional” interest argument had been used when a public campaign had previously forced the Council to drop the idea of using Wardown House as a maternity hospital. Did Town Clerk William Smith feel the Council's authority was being undermined by what had happened?
The Town Clerk's role in the Council decision-making leading up to Peace Day was questioned in the Evening Post Echo in 1979, when the daughter of Mayor Henry Impey's executor and a future councillor said her father had told her that Henry Impey had told him that the problems which cause the riots were the fault of the Town Clerk.
Unlike previous Town Clerks who had moved on to bigger things after a spell in Luton, William Smith held office for nearly 20 years, until his death in 1932. In 1918 he had turned down the offer of an Army Council job to keep his hold on the reins at Luton Town Council.
And it was Smith, supported by Chief Constable Charles Griffin, who urged Henry Impey to leave town following the riots, while remaining in Luton himself.
Following his death, Smith was described as having a stern exterior which belied a generous, warm-hearted nature. But he was also described as an “autocrat” and “a not popular man”.