Who spies spies?

Spies and the potential threat from spies had Luton on high alert in the early weeks of war. And there were three incidents in which shots were fired, two involving soldiers and one seemingly aimed at them. There were also two incidents, which had they not been treated so seriously, might in hindsight have seemed amusing.


Potentially the most serious incident occurred between 8.30 and 9 o'clock on the evening of Friday, August 28th, 1914. A shot was fired from a gap between houses just above the High Town Road-Hitchin Road junction at a tram carrying about 50 Territorials from Round Green to the Town Hall

It was thought the shot was aimed at tram driver Price but fortunately neither he nor anyone else was hit. The Luton News reported on September 3rd that the affair caused considerable excitement.

"The motorman was naturally startled for the moment, but he pulled up the tram in about four cars' length and the whole of the Territorials immediately scrambled off to search for the person who had fired. They kept it up for two hours but, although they stopped a number of persons, they were unsuccessful."

Mr Price, who had been in Luton for two years, said he had no enemies as far as he knew. The speculation in the newspaper was that the shot was an attempt to interfere with the driver so that the soldiers would be hurt in the runaway tram.

"Had the car got out of control at that spot the consequences would have been very serious because the route from there is one long descent. Several of the soldiers said they saw the flash from the firearm in on of the spaces between the buildings on the right-hand side coming from Round Green. Three children who were near described a man whom they had seen walking up and down near the spot for almost an hour previous to the incident."

« Perhaps it was this incident that around 24 hours later led to soldiers firing seven shots towards a motorcyclist just 100 yards from his Wandon End home. Amazingly, they missed both him and his machine from about 10 yards.

Coach builder Mr Francis Folds, whose business was based in York Street, High Town, was returning home from Breachwood Green on his 8 hp machine when he was challenged with the work "Halt!" He immediately came to a standstill and was told to raise his hands. The instruction to raise his hands was repeated, even though they were already above his head.

His father, who was also challenged as he went to investigate after hearing shots, said perhaps the glitter of the motorcycle lamp had dazzled the soldiers so that they could not see his son clearly and fired between him and the bike. He confirmed his son's identity to them.

"Seven shots were fire altogether, and it is God's mercy he was not riddled. It is a marvel how he escaped," said Mr Folds Snr, who himself was challenged again the following night.

« A warning was issued to the public by the General Officer commanding troops stationed locally that motorists and motorcyclists, especially, should stop at once if challenged - or run a serious risk of being shot at.

« In a third incident, a sentry on patrol at the rear of Luton Waterworks on Tuesday, August 18th, fired two shots after a man's head appeared twice over a wall and there was no response to a challenge. The Luton News of August 20th reported: "A search was rapidly made, but no trace of the mysterious visitor could be found. Since the incident occurred, the guard at the works has been doubled. There are now eight sentries on duty instead of four."

« It was a rather unnerving story for Madame Christine, a nun who for about a fortnight had been a guest at the Dominican Convent in Rothesay Road, Luton. She had gone to Belgium as a nurse after almost prophetically remarking to the Sisters prior to her departure: "I shall be taken as a spy".

All went well when she landed at Ostend and she successfully passed through a line of soldiers. But then the crowd raised a cry, "A German spy". It seems that a person suspected of being a spy had been travelling about in nun's garb.

She agreed to be taken to the Post Office, where her documents were checked and she was allowed to proceed to her destination of Knocke, where a convent boarding school had been transformed into a hospital for wounded soldiers. There her role would be as a Red Cross nurse, like Madame Marie Albert, the Prioress of the Luton convent, who was in a town in France near the German border.

« But perhaps the most amusing spy incident involved a young man from Luton named Archie Press who decided to give a conjuring performance at a friend's house. His big mistake was that before leaving home he decided to get dressed up as a conjuror, complete with false moustache - and that attracted the attention of the military police.

His explanation for his appearance didn't impress and his next stop was at the Town Hall, where he was searched and subjected to a severe cross-examination. After about half an hour he was allowed to go to his friend's house to give his performance - with an officer present to witness that he really could do conjuring tricks, thus removing the stigma of suspicion.