[From the Beds & Herts Tuesday Telegraph: July 22nd, 1919]
It is a terrible story, and a disgrace which the town will never forget. For the moment we do not intend to enter into the astonishing series of happenings of the past week or more, or to ascribe the blame; all that, we take it, will be the subject of later inquiry or debate.
Our chief concern – the town's chief concern – is the restoration of public order, and townspeople generally can assist by refraining from loitering or assembling in any way in the public streets. Particularly is this desirable in the evenings. Get home and get to bed early should be the motto of every true Lutonian.
It is almost impossible to put even a round figure on the damage which had been done. Some basis for calculation, however, can be obtained when we remind our readers that when the possibility of a new Town Hall was being considered by the Town Council a few weeks ago, it was estimated that it could not be done for less than £150,000. That was purely for the building alone.
In the fire on Saturday night and Sunday morning not only the building was destroyed, but the contents also, including all the material of most of the principal departments of the Corporation.
Added to this there is also the damage sustained by shopkeepers whose premises were broken open and looted; minor damage to other properties away from the scene of the riot, but which were also made the subject of special attention; and injury, personal and material, to people who had not the slightest responsibility for any ill-feeling which may have existed, legitimately or otherwise. When it comes to paying for the damage which has been done, then again the cost will fall on the innocent more than on the guilty.
It cannot be denied that ugly rumours had been afloat in the town for days beforehand, and particularly since the use of Wardown for the proposed memorial service was refused to the Federation of Discharged Sailors and Soldiers. But even with these and varied rumours in circulation it was expected that the day would pass off quietly, particularly as arrangements had been made to hold the service elsewhere on Sunday.
It was not until the afternoon, after the procession from Luton Hoo to Wardown had passed the Town Hall, that the first attempt at rioting was made.
The special constables were on duty certainly, but only to regulate the spectators and traffic on the route, and to assist at Wardown until 5pm, after which they were to have been dismissed. For most of them, however, their turn of duty did not finish until between five and six o'clock on Sunday morning, when the military were in possession.
Some of them who took part in the proceedings round the Town Hall experienced the full fury of the rioters, and will remember to the day of their death what it means to do police duty when a crowd runs amok.
So also will the firemen, who will never again want to experience a fire at which every effort is made to wreck all their appliances, and where for at least two hours they had to carry on as best they might under a continual rain of bricks, bottles and other missiles, their only defence a jet of water with which to bowl over some of their attackers who got to threateningly close quarters. In calmer moments, the town will realise how much it owes to the leaders and men who carried on, never faltering.
While we do not propose to ascribe responsibility for the ugly feeling which brought about this display of lawlessness, and which to a material extent was purely due to the rowdiest elements of the town, with personal spite playing a part in some incidents, the effect of the refusal to grant the use of Wardown cannot very well be ignored as one of the responsible factors.
The Council as a whole have not yet discussed that matter, and those directly responsible have yet to take an opportunity of publicly justifying their action or inaction. Some will, as usual, be wise after the event, and there will be crying over spilt milk, but the fact remains that this decision, justifiable or otherwise, provided a fruitful cause of ill-feeling which not even the subsequent arrangements for a gathering at Luton Hoo, independent of all connection with local authorities, soften down.
It was freely said that if there was to be no memorial service at Wardown there would be no Peace Banquet at the Plait Hall, and towards the end of the week it was found that the character of the proposed banquet was meeting with such little support that it was desirable to reorganise it on different lines, and to have it on a smaller scale at the Town Hall.
There were also rumours of counter-demonstrations on Saturday, in the form of processions of ex-servicemen to Wardown independent of the official procession, in which, following the national conference, they had declined to participate. It was only very late on Friday that the Comrades of the Great War were persuaded to reconsider their decision, and be represented in the procession.
Negotiations were in progress al the day, but without avail in so far as the Federation members were concerned, and on Saturday they took no part at all in the official proceedings, having meanwhile centred all their energies on arranging a big demonstration for Sunday, to which they had secured the adherence of the clergy and ministers of various organisations in the town, and of some leading members of the community who were of the opinion that they had not been well dealt with at any time since the arrangements for the celebration were begun.
For the celebrations on Saturday, the town was fairly bright with flags and bunting, although there were few places where decorative schemes had been carried to any vary elaborate extent, and the public proceedings started in quite good order.
The procession from Luton Hoo included many attractive features, and was heartily cheered on its way until it arrived at the Town Hall. The appearance of the Mayor in his robes of office, to read the King's Proclamation and to address the leaders of the procession, was the signal for the cheers to change to booing. And when the second part of the procession was halted for the same purpose, matters did not improve. This second halt made a very big break in the procession, and spoiled some of its effect on the way from the Town Hall to Wardown.
At the rear of the procession there was trouble at Wardown. From later happenings, however, it would seem that the most fiery element remained in the centre of the town, bent on causing mischief. Almost as soon as the procession had gone on its way there was a demonstration at the Town Hall and inflammatory speeches were delivered with reference to pensions and other matters.
Interviews were sought with the Mayor and some of the officials, without success, and subsequently there was a determined attack on the Town Hall, the outcome being the wrecking of the Assembly Room, where a very noisy element in the crowd, and it seemed as though there might to whom it was known the projected Peace Banquet was to be held on Monday evening, instead of in the Plait Hall as at first arranged.
The decorations and illuminations outside the Town Hall were torn down, and furniture was thrown out into the roadway. However, the demonstrators were persuaded to realise that by this behaviour they were endangering the safety of many woman and children, and they desisted.
A big body of demonstrators went to the Mayor's residence in London Road, and there also ugly scenes seemed possible, but when they were satisfied the Mayor was not at his house they came back into the town. Then there was talk of an organised raid on Wardown, but it came on to rain very heavily and this seems to have modified the ardour of the agitators for the time being.
At Wardown there was nothing but the rain to mar the success of the programme, and in the town during the early evening there was little outward evidence that more trouble was to come, although the police were fully expecting it. There was certainly a good deal of unrest in Pope's Meadow while thousands of people were waiting in the rain for the fireworks display.
The time at which this would commence was only given vaguely in the programme as at dusk, and a great crowd assembled there as early as half-past nine, by which time private displays in various parts of the town were in progress. They waited patiently until ten, thinking that would start the commencement, but, when there was still no sign of a beginning, unrest began to be shown, and despite the prohibition against the use of fireworks by individuals, many were scattered promiscuously in the crowd.
The little displays going on elsewhere just served sufficiently to relieve the situation, and when the display was given at 10.30 it was quite satisfactory. Then, after watching the flares which were ignited on People's Park, Hart Hill, London Road and The Downs, as part of a scheme of bonfires and flares from end to end of the country, a big part of the crowd went home, and were well out of the happenings which had just begun to take shape in the centre of the town.
There, as soon as it was dark, rowdyism became prevalent. Doors at the Town Hall were burst open with scaffold poles, numerous attempts were made to set the building on fire, and matters developed into an absolute riot.
Petrol was seized at a neighbouring garage, and with the aid of this the rioters succeeded in getting the place well alight. Then with bricks, road mater and bottles the mob bombarded the police and also the firemen, endeavouring to wreck the engines, cut hose to pieces, and in every way sought to hinder their activities.
Many of the police and firemen were injured, and the remainder had to carry on under almost insuperable difficulties. For their conduct in such a trying time they cannot be too highly praised.
Police assistance from London was appealed for, but unavailingly, and matters showed no sign of taking a turn for the better until a body of troops were marched down from Biscot Camp.
In the meantime shops had been broken open and looted of their contents, other places had their windows shattered, and the firemen were rendered quite incapable of doing much to save the Town Hall. Indeed, they could not have been blamed in the least if much other property had been involved, which was fortunately not the case. With the arrival of armed troops later from Bedford the rioting was quickly quelled.
Throughout the whole of Sunday the centre of the town was thronged with sightseers; but until the evening they were merely the curious people, desirous of seeing what damage had been done.
A new element arrived from the side streets, and threats of more trouble became common. After a time there was a rush to the Police Station, where it was understood a Marine concerned in Saturday's events was in custody, with the object of freeing him.
Then the rush turned to the Plait Hall on it being stated that he was confined there, and not at the Police Station. This was just the time when the police had instructions to take drastic measures, and from ten o'clock until nearly midnight the centre of the town was the scene of a continuous succession of baton charges. The people who got hit were not necessarily the people who deserved it; some got tapped because they were not wise enough to hurry away when first ordered to, others because they could not run fast enough and were unlucky enough to be at the tail of the crowd.
In the result a few windows were broken, a number of people got sore limbs and the streets became pretty quiet, for the charges were developed into some of the streets farther out, and then everyone had to show a really obvious desire to get home quickly and peaceably if they wished to avoid trouble.