Peace Day 1919 - and all that

Event Start and End Date: 

19th July 1919

The Peace Day celebrations of July 1919 in which the Town Hall was burned down are notorious in Luton's history – and an event the town seemed to want to forget for decades afterwards. Recorded here will be contemporary accounts as they were published in newspapers, documents and ex-servicemen's magazines at the time. As thousands of words were devoted to the build-up, the riots themselves and their aftermath (including court cases), there will be a large number of posts accessible via the links below of related events from June to October 1919, reproduced here in on-going form 100 years after they occurred.

Pictures from prints in the Wardown House Museum and Luton News collections, plus advertisements and articles which appeared in the local press in 1919.

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Burnt-down Town Hall, July 20, 1919

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Peace Day programme finalised

Peace Day programme 1919

The programme of peace celebrations for the Borough of Luton was submitted by the committee responsible at Tuesday's meeting of the Town Council, and approved subject to the reservation of one or two matters for further consideration, reported The Luton News (June 5th, 1919).

One of these was the possibility of having a special children's day at some time other than one of the official peace celebration days. It was agreed that it would be impossible to attempt to entertain them to tea except on a special day apart from the other celebrations, and, while the cost of such an entertainment will be considerable, the committee are to further consider whether it is practicable on another occasion, and how the necessary funds could best be raised.

One specially interesting statement was that, in order that the commemoration medal to be presented to the children should be worthy of the occasion and not a charge on the rates, Alderman Staddon and his co-directors of Messrs Vyse, Sons & Co have decided to be responsible for the cost and to spent £250 on this matter, instead of the £150 which the committee proposed to allocate for the purpose.

 

The Peace Celebration Committee submitted for approval the programme they have drawn up, and in doing so pointed out that in preparing the programme they were largely influenced by the limited sum at their disposal and also by the need for national and local economy. Their recommendations were:

Church service. The Council accepted an invitation to attend, in State, a Thanksgiving Service at the Wesleyan Church, Chapel Street, in the morning of Peace Day. The clergy are unable to take part in a combined service, as they intend to hold a service at each of their churches on the day.

Decorations and illuminations. The Town Hall and the space in front to be decorated; flags to be displayed at the Corn Exchange, Public Library and Wardown House; the Electricity and Tramways Committee to be desired to arrange, at the expense of the Electricity Undertaking, for the illumination of the of the front of the Town Hall, in addition to the special electric lamp which was used at the Armistice celebration; Luton Gas Company to be invited to illuminate the exterior of the Corn Exchange at their own expense; a powerful electric lamp to be hung over the suspension bridge at Wardown.

Procession. A procession to assemble at Luton Hoo Park (Lady Wernher having kindly given permission) and proceed, about 2pm, via Park Street, George Street, Manchester Street and New Bedford Road to Wardown Park, and there disperse. Scholars to assemble at the East Ward Recreation Ground and to form up in Park Street so as to join the procession on its arrival there.

The Council to contribute £30 towards the cost of the official car 'Peace Enthroned' which, at the Committee's request, Messrs R. H. Marks, B. Deacon, S. Horn, A. Staddon, A. Strange and F. Webdale have undertaken to provide and decorate at much greater expense.

The girl scholars in the procession to wear white dresses, sashes for the girls and hat-bands for the boys to be provided by the Council, at an estimated cost of £40.

Bands. The following bands to be engaged to play in the procession, and to perform in appointed places during the afternoon and evening – Red Cross (£30), Salvation Army Temple (£20), Salvation Army No II (£20), Central Mission (£10), Comrades of the Great War (£10), total £90. The band of the Volunteer Force has been disbanded and is therefore no available.

Medals. Each scholar attending the elementary schools (approximately 9,000) to be given a commemoration medal, the design to incorporate the borough arms and the following inscription: 'Borough of Luton. Celebration of Peace on conclusion of Great War, 1914-1919. Henry Impey, Mayor.” Estimated cost £150.

Sports. Sports to be held at Wardown during the afternoon and evening; the Council to pay £50 for the provision of prizes; Luton Town Cricket Club, Luton and District Cricket League and Luton United Harriers and Cycling Club have been asked to undertake the whole of the work in connection with the sports.

Entertainments etc. Arrangements to be made for the provision at Wardown Park of concerts, entertainments and dancing; and for a gymnastic display by scholars from the Modern School if the celebration is held before the close of the school session. The gravel field to be let for fairground amusements.

Fireworks. A £100 firework display at the north-west side of Pope's Meadow. The fireworks have been ordered, and the Mayor is inviting subscriptions to defray the cost. 'Flares' to be displayed at Hart Hill, London Road, the Downs and the People's Park.

Decorations by inhabitants. The Mayor to invite inhabitants to display flags and otherwise decorate their premises, especially on the procession route.

Banquet. A subscription banquet on the day after Peace Day. The Mayor intends to invite the Council, Chief Officers and others to be his guests, the remainder of the tickets to be sold.

Choral Society. A performance by the Luton Choral Society in the Parish Church in the evening of the day following Peace Day. This is a doubtful item if the celebrations take play in August week.

 

THE PROCESSION

Decorated cars emblematic of war industry to be an important feature of the procession, and the following firms have already promised to provide cars – Hewlett & Blondeau Ltd, Frickers Metal Co Ltd, Skefko Ball Bearing Co Ltd, Commercial Cars Ltd, Vauxhall Motors Ltd, Thermo Electric Ore Reduction Corporation Ltd, T. Balmforth & Co Ltd, G. Kent Ltd, and Hayward Tyler & Co Ltd.

Other emblematic cars are: 'Peace Enthroned,' the official car, Messrs R. H. Marks, B. Deacon, S. Horn, A. Staddon, A. Strange and F. C. Webdale undertaking to provide it for the Corporation; 'The Dominions,' which the political clubs have agreed to provide; 'The Allies' (not yet arranged); 'Reconstruction,' under which title the Master Builders' Association have been asked to arrange a car dealing with housing; 'Child Welfare,' by the Child Welfare Workers; 'Commerce and Staple Industry,' by the Chamber of Commerce; 'Allotments,' by the Allotment Holders' Federation; and a car by the Tradesmen's Association.

Included in the procession, which will be marshalled by the Chief Constable, will be the bands and detachments of the Navy (48), Army (200), Air Force (48), YMCA (two parties of eight, one wearing some distinctive dress), special constables (20), WAAC (20), WRNVR (20), land girls (20), Boy Scouts (24), St John Ambulance; at the rear 600 schoolchildren, 24 boys and 24 girls attending from the Modern School and from each of the 14 elementary schools.

 

THE FINANCIAL SIDE

On February 18th, the Council voted a halfpenny rate (£545) for celebration purposes, and certain other sums will be receivable. The expenditure proposed in this programme was – official car £30, sashes and hat bands for scholars £40, bands £90, medals £150, prizes for sports £50, flares £4 5s. Total £364 5s.

 

AN OUTSIDE SUGGESTION

The Luton and District Discharged Sailors' and Soldiers' Association, it was stated, had suggested that the celebration should be spread over two days, and that the second day's programme should be – special drumhead memorial service by combined clergy and ministers, and with massed choirs; assembly at 1.30pm on the Moor of all discharged, disabled and demobilised men and men still serving; procession and march-past to Luton Hoo; the several dormant funds held by the authorities to be utilised for the provision of a good substantial tea for the men, also entertainments; sports to be arranged and provision made for suitable after refreshments; firework display and torchlight procession.

As the funds for the local celebrations were limited, the committee regretted that they were unable to recommend the acceptance of this scheme, which would involve the expenditure of a considerable sum. For the same reason they were unable to recommend provision of a tea for the schoolchildren.

 

MESSRS VYSE'S GIFT

The Mayor moved that these arrangements should be approved and carried into effect on the days to be fixed by the Government for the celebration of peace. Councillor Barford seconded.

Councillor Briggs: “I notice that the Tradesmen's Association have been asked to provide a decorated car, and I should like to know whether the Co-operative Society have been approached to provide a similar car.” The Mayor: “Not that I am aware of.”

The Deputy Mayor (Councillor Dillingham) asked a question about the medal for schoolchildren. Alderman Staddon said that matter took longer to discuss than any other item in the programme.

In view of the fact that a medal was selected which was considered hardly worthy of the occasion – so much so that Alderman Arnold said at once he would rather spend £50 more and have a decent one – the matter was left over until this meeting.

Alderman Staddon said his own feeling was that a gift of this sort to the children would ill come to them as an expense out of the rates. These medals would go into the homes of thousands of people. A large proportion of the men of those homes had laid down their lives in the war.

He felt that this was a direction in which a commemorative gift should be provided gratuitously, and felt it so strongly that he consulted his co-directors of Messrs Vyse, Son & Co [hat manufacturers] on Monday morning. Very readily, and without a moment's hesitation, they had greed to provide the medals for all the children, and to contribute £100 more than was estimated would be required by the committee, making it £200 or thereabouts (applause).

He thought they were all anxious that if a medal was given it should be one which the children would be tempted to retain, and not discard and forget in a month or two. Therefore he would be very pleased on behalf of his directors to offer them to the Council, and he hoped on Thursday to procure something that would be appreciated by the children.

The Mayor said he thought the Council ought to accept this offer with very great thanks. The sub-committee dealing with the matter had selected the medal which best fitted the amount of money they expected to be able to spend, although they felt a better medal should be given, and there was no doubt the Council would have taken this latter course if no other provision had been made.

The Mayor moved that Messrs Vyse's offer should be accepted, and that the thanks of the Council should be tendered to them for this gift. Councillor Barford seconded, and said Messrs Vyse, through Alderman Staddon, had helped the committee out of a considerable difficulty.

The question of financing had been facing the committee constantly in preparing a suitable programme, and the generous offer which had been made for the greatest item of expenditure was one the Council would appreciate to the full. The motion was approved.

The Deputy Mayor then said he would move an amendment to the report, making the inscription on the medal: “Presented to the schoolchildren by Messrs Vyse, Sons & Co Ltd, of Luton and London.”

Alderman Staddon: “With the greatest respect and appreciation for Councillor Dillingham, we are not out for advertisement in this matter, and the only thing I suggest for the medal is the borough arms on one side, and what is suggested in the report for the other. It is purely a local matter, and not one to which we could in any way have our name attached.”

 

THE CHILDREN'S TEA

Councillor Hawkes was disappointed that the committee could not see their way to provide a tea for the children, and thought that now Alderman Staddon had made such a generous offer on behalf of his firm the Corporation should consider the possibility of a tea to mark an occasion which was never likely to occur again.

The Mayor: “I understand a tea would cost about £700. There are 9,000 or 10,000 children to provide for.”

Alderman Staddon said the children and the discharged sailors and soldiers were the two sections of the public which should have first consideration. The expenses of entertaining then had been carefully considered, and would amount to a very big sum, but if Luton Hoo Park could be secured on some other day near the Peace Celebrations for an entertainment for the children and the distribution of the medals, he felt sure the money would b forthcoming voluntarily, and without going on the rates at all.

It could not be done during the actual celebrations, because these celebrations would be going on everywhere, and it would be impossible to get caterers or entertainers from outside. They would have to rely purely on the capacity of local services to meet their requirements, and therefore could not undertake such an effort during the three peace days.

Alderman Arnold pointed out that the celebration was likely to take place during the school holidays, when the teachers would be away, and if catering was possible it would still be practically impossible to have such an entertainment at that time. He agreed, however, the committee should consider the possibility of having a separate entertainment for the children on some other day.

The Mayor, in putting the report, said some of them had recollections of a previous tea, and the great disappointment that was caused to hundreds of children in the huge gathering on that occasion. Now the gathering would be very much bigger still, and catering for 9,000 children would be a very big task. Perhaps in divided gatherings and with public subscriptions it might be possible later.

The report was adopted, subject to the reservation that the committee should further consider the question of a tea for the children, and to the omission of the provision of a sum for medals, and the substitution of a record that these were to be given by Messrs Vyse.

Alderman Oakley moved that Alderman Staddon should be thanked for his initiative in arranging this. Councillor Warren seconded, and it was agreed to.

Planning for Peace Day 1919

 

Plans for Peace Day celebrations in Luton were first considered in February 1919, three months after the end of hostilities, when the Town Council voted a halfpenny rate (£545) towards meeting the cost, with the hope that there would be other financial contributions from within the community.

At that point £30 was allocated for the official float (Peace Enthroned), £40 for schoolchildren's sashes and headbands, £90 for musical bands, £150 for commemorative medals for children, £50 for sports prizes and £4 5s. for flares - a total of £364 5s, leaving nearly £200 for other purposes.

Peace celebrations advertisementBy June 3rd, 1919, with still no official Government decision on when Peace Day would be held, the Council pressed on with its plans. The feeling was that the celebration would be in August, possible August Bank Holiday which would also be the fifth anniversary of the Britain's entry into the war. But an August date would present problems organising the children during school holidays.

Undeterred by the uncertainty, the Council decided to be prepared for the celebration - largely influenced by the limited sum at their disposal. First, they planned to accept an invitation to attend a Combined Thanksgiving Service at the Wesleyan Church, Chapel Street, on the morning of Peace Day, but most of Luton's clergy indicated they would be unable to attend as they would be holding services at their own churches that morning.

Decorations and illuminations: The Town Hall and the space in front was to be decorated, flags were to displayed on the Corn Exchange, the Public Library and at Wardown House; the Electricity and Tramways Committee was to be asked to arrange, at the expense of the Electricity Undertaking, for the illumination of the front of the Town Hall; the Gas Company to be invited to illuminate the exterior of the Corn Exchange at their own expense; and a powerful electric lamp to be hung over the suspension bridge at Wardown. Inhabitants would be invited to display flags and to otherwise decorate their premises, especially on the procession route.

Procession: This was to assemble at Luton Hoo Park, by permission of Lady Wernher, and proceed at about 2 pm to Wardown Park via Park Street, George Street, Manchester Street and New Bedford Road where it would disperse, Schoolchildren would assemble at East Ward Recreation Ground and join the procession on its arrival there.

Bands: Bands to be engaged to play in the procession and perform during the afternoon and evening were the Red Cross (£30), Salvation Army Temple (£20), Central Mission (£10), Comrades of the Great War (£10).

Medals: Each scholar attending the town's elementary schools (approximately 9,000) to be given a commemorative medal bearing the borough coat of arms and the inscription "Borough of Luton, Celebration of Peace on conclusion of Great War, 1914-1919. Henry Impey, Mayor."

Sports: These to be held at Wardown during the afternoon and evening, organised by Luton Town Cricket Club, Luton and District Cricket League and Luton United Harriers and Cycling Club.

Entertainments: Arrangements to be made at Wardown Park for concerts, entertainments and dancing, and for a gymnastics display by scholars from the Modern School, if the celebration was held before the end of the school session. The gravel field was to be let for fairground amusements.

Fireworks: A £100 fireworks display at the north-west side of Pope's Meadow, with the Mayor inviting subscriptions to defray the cost. Flares to be displayed at Hart Hill, London Road, the Downs and at People's Park.

Banquet: A subscription banquet at the Plait Hall on the day after Peace Day. The Mayor intended to invite the Council, chief officers and others to be his guests, the remainder of the tickets to be sold (15 shillings).

Choral Society: A performance by the Luton Choral Society in the Parish Church on the evening following Peace Day - but this would be doubtful if the celebrations took place in August week.

Floats: Decorated cars emblematic of war industry were to be an important feature of the procession. The firms of Hewlett & Blondeau Ltd, Frickers Metals Co Ltd, Skefko Ball Bearing Co Ltd, Commercial Cars Ltd, Vauxhall Motors Ltd, Thermo Electric Ore Reduction Corporation Ltd, T. Balmforth & Co Ltd, G. Kent Ltd, Brown & Green Ltd, and Hayward Tyler & Co Ltd had promised to provide floats. Messrs R. H. Marks, B. Deacon, S. Horn, A Staddon, A. Strange amd F. C. Webdale had undertaken to provide the Corporation float, Peace Enthroned. Political and business organisations would also take part.

Bands and detachments of the Navy, Army and Air Force plus representatives of prisoners of war, the Volunteer Force, Friendly Societies, YMCA, special constables, WAAC, WRNVR, Land Girls, Boy Scouts, Girl Guides, St John Ambulance and 600 schoolchildren were also to be included in the procession.

After the Government had fixed Peace Day as July 19th, Luton's Peace Celebration Committee on July 3rd kept to the basic format already decided, with an additional £20 to be spent on a balloon demonstration at Wardown in the afternoon. The finalised programme for the day as advertised in The Luton News of July 17th, 1919, is illustrated above. However, the town's disgruntled firemen later complained of not being represented in the procession, and the town's largest ex-servicemen's organisation, the DS&S, did not take part.

While 600 children would join the Peace Day procession, it was agreed a two-day festival for scholars should be held later, with an appeal for public subscriptions to help defray the cost.

But comparing Luton's 1919 peace celebrations with those to mark previous victories, the Luton Reporter arrived at the conclusion "that our forebears seemed to know how to do things better in Luton in the old days".

At the peace celebrations of 1814 [when Napoleon was exiled to Elba, before escaping to fight at Waterloo], two bullocks and eleven fat sheep were given to the poor, and a grand dinner was provided in the Market House for the tradesmen and principal inhabitants.

At the close of the Crimean War in May 1856, a sheep was roasted whole in a field that then existed opposite opposite the Crown and Anchor pub [New Bedford Road/Bridge Street].

The close of the South African [Boer] War in 1901 was marked by the conferring of the freedom of the borough upon Major Alfred L. Green, the non-commissioned officers and privates of the Luton Volunteers who had left in February 1900 to fight. They were also suitably honoured in other ways at the Town Hall.

[Sources: The Luton News, The Luton Reporter]

 

Shortcomings in Peace Celebrations

A letter, signed 'Man in the Street' and which was published in The Luton News (June 19th, 1919), drew attention to what he saw as the shortcomings in Luton's planned Peace Celebrations. He wrote:

“In considering our local scheme for the celebration of peace I must confess we seem to be a long way behind other towns.

“I note one town has issued the following public notice - 'During the forthcoming celebrations it is intended to provide entertainments for all widows and orphans and totally disabled ex-soldiers. There will be accommodation to witness the processions and ample refreshments will be provided.'

“Then I see our neighbouring town of Dunstable is providing cold luncheon to all discharged and serving soldiers.

“Then I turn to our own and see we are allowing 400 representatives of those who have served to take part in the procession only, and I am not surprised to hear of the dissatisfaction the scheme has caused.

“Then I note there is a peace banquet, and this is the Mayor's. I have been wondering what I should do if I had the honour to be mayor of a town like Luton in Peace Year. I should desire most of all that whatever I did would be to give credit to those to whom credit is due, and so I should certainly do as our Mayor is doing and give a banquet.

“But, instead of inviting those who can well provide themselves with a banquet, I should send them an invitation to assist me in providing the banquet and I should invite those who are the greatest sufferers from this war: the widows and orphans of those who have given the great sacrifices in helping us to have such a celebration, and those boys who, through serving their country well, have to spend the rest of their days crippled and impaired in health.

“But I am not Mayor and have not such great anticipation, and am only giving the feelings of one of many whom the Mayor represents.”

 

While local ex-servicemen's groups did not list the Mayor's banquet among their grievances against Luton Town Council, individuals expressed their opinion via newspaper letters columns. One, signed 'An officer's wife whose husband is still abroad' wrote in the Beds & Herts Saturday Telegraph (July 12th, 1919):

“I trust all the gentlemen attending the Peace Banquet will be past or present members of His Majesty's Forces; men through whom we have been enabled to win this great victory that has brought us peace. I am hoping to hear that the town is presenting these men with the 15 shilling tickets necessary and 'if the accommodation is very limited' then the only fair way is for the tickets to be drawn.”

[The planned banquet was to have been held at the Plait Hall on Monday, July 21st, but failed to attract enough pubic support to go ahead there - the fact that women were to be barred from attending being the most widespread complaint. A small alternative event to be held at the Town Hall on the Monday obviously never took place due to the burning down of the building.]

 

It is unlikely that Luton members of the DS&S would have accepted even free tickets for the proposed mayoral banquet, since they had voted unanimously on June 30th, 1919, to adhere to a resolution passed by their national Federation to take no part in official civic peace celebrations - “no part whatsoever,” a subsequent advert in the local Press stated. That was a stance adopted by other neighbouring branches of the DS&S.

On July 12th, the Beds & Herts Saturday Telegraph carried a report of a resolution passed by the St Albans branch: “That this Branch is of the opinion that the problems connected with the re-establishment of discharged and demobilised sailors and soldiers are in such a condition as to make it undesirable that member of the Federation should take part in the official peace celebrations; and they therefore suggest that the funds allocated to provide any entertainment for them should be placed to the War Memorial Funds.”

And the following edition of the Beds & Herts Tuesday Telegraph carried a report from Leighton Buzzard which said: “As a protest against inadequate pensions, nearly 500 ex-servicemen of Leighton Buzzard have declined to accept the local Peace Committee's invitation to a dinner next Saturday.”

 

A silly take on the ban on women at the proposed Luton banquet was taken by Andrew Playfair in the National News, as reported in the Tuesday Telegraph (July 15th). He wrote:

A great hubbub has been caused among the ladies of Luton because they have not been invited to the Peace Banquet. Mrs Attwood told the Mayor that while accommodation had been reserved for 500 men, there were not 500 men in the town who had done public work during the war, and when it came to a matter of enjoyment, she did not believe in husbands going alone. It was tantamount, she said, to putting at the bottom of the invitations “No women or dogs admitted”.

I think Mrs Attwood has displayed undue anger, but, on the other hand, the Mayor might have showed a little more tact. Had he invited women and announced that during the banquet white mice would perform on the floor he would have overcome all difficulties and the men would have dined alone.

 

Happily, returned ex-servicemen were entertained and dined by several churches, clubs and firms to which they belonged.