Welcome home, hero - here's your rates bill

“To all these the town owes a debt of undying gratitude.” Percy Blundell's tribute to Lutonians who had fought in the Great War was published in The Luton News (April 3rd, 1919) as a preface to a poem that offered a very different light on a Corporation approach to an ex-serviceman. The poem, bearing the name Arthur R. Child and reproduced here, is entitled The Payment:

 

Broken in war, the lad came back,

One of many of Army's wrack,

To his home, and bed of sickness sore,

Back from the welter of ruin and gore.

 

But still he could hear the bursting shell,

And the crash of the aero bomb as well,

For shattered nerve and weary brain

Had broken beneath the awful strain.

 

He had given his best for the good of the earth,

He had fought for his home and the town of his birth,

And carried an honour not freely disposed,

But soon his reception at home was disclosed.

 

“Back from the war, laddie, welcome home!

We have anxiously waited for you to come;

Your rates are unpaid, and we were disposed

To destrain for them – but your house was closed.

 

“But now you must pay, of that there's no doubt,

Fire may have been lit – house would spoil without;

Your service to us and your country is naught,

It does not concern us, or how you have fought.

 

“It may be you're shattered in nerve and in health,

But you really must pay and add to our wealth;

We did not ask you to fight for us,

So pay up at once without any fuss.”

 

So the broken lad paid, and with it a curse

On those who could not have treated him worse.

And God help our country in future's woe

If this is the payment for debt we owe.

 

The poet was in fact Robert Arthur Child, a former champion cyclist and skater, who ran a hat manufacturing factory in Williamson Street and lived at 37 Downs Road, Luton. And the following edition of the Tuesday Telegraph produced a response from the soldier, F.R.C. - or in other words his son Francis Robert (Frank) Child, who was convalescing from his wartime experiences at Eastbourne.

In a letter to the Tuesday Telegraph, Frank wrote: “In The Luton News forwarded to me here (where I am staying in hope of regaining my broken health due to war), I notice that Mr Percy Blundell paid a splendid tribute to the men who fought and suffered for home and country. He concludes: 'To all these the town owed a debt of undying gratitude'.

“Mark the ' gratitude' shown by the local authorities to a townsman broken in war. I volunteered for service and was A1 category, served 2½ years in Belgium and France, including eight months in the 'hell' at Ypres. When I joined the Army, my house was closed up, and my wife (no children) was compelled to live with friends, as she could not live alone.

“I left good income, home and business to serve for 2s 4d per day, and recently returned nerve shattered, utterly broken up and unable to work or resume business.

“Immediately the overseers knew I had returned they demanded dull accumulated rates, which I refused to pay, on ground that occupation of house was impossible while I was serving my country (which, I may point out to authorities, includes Luton), and that nothing whatever had been done to justify demand, especially as Downs is a private road.

“They summoned me, and being certified by the doctor too ill to appear, I was represented (by the kindness of my father) by a solicitor. During the hearing of the case the brilliant idea that fires had been lit in the house to prevent spoilation (which I am sorry to find did occur to some extent), occurred to one of the magistrates, and on this assumption, and the decision that this constituted occupation, an order was made for full amount of rates (and costs) accumulated on an unoccupied house while owner was helping to defend his and their homes. An order was also made for immediate distraint in case of non-payment.

“I have paid, so the full gratuity given by the nation for 2½ years service, and addition to make up the amount, goes to help swell the £22,000 the Corporation have accumulated, and for which they are indebted to the men who have sacrificed themselves to save the country (and Luton) from the Hun.

“Would that they had had a taste of the 'hell' we have been in, and seen the trail of the Hun in Belgium and France. There is nothing to rate there, and, but for us, it would have been so in England (or worse). We should have been under the German heel and lost all worth living for.

“God help England in the future if all towns were to treat men broken in war as Luton is doing.”

 

Frank Child, born on February 15th, 1888, recovered from his experiences and rejoined wife Lillie, whom he had married at St Pancras Parish Church on July 14th, 1914, and they had a son, Geoffrey. Frank had been an assistant in his father's hat business and took over the business on his father's death in March 1939. He died on November 13th, 1957, while residing at Sharpenhoe.