Chief Constable's riot evidence

Chief Constable Charles Griffin's evidence to the Borough Court on July 30th, 1919, was reported in The Luton News, as follows:

The Chief Constable said that until the procession left the Town Hall, everything was orderly and, as far as he knew, everyone was in good humour. He went to Wardown, and between the Town Hall and the Park saw not the least sign of disorder.

Shortly afterwards he received a message and returned to the Town Hall with five mounted police. He found a crowd of about 10,000 people there, extending right through George Street to the Corn Exchange. The crowd was very excited, and there was shouting and booing.

Just as he got to the Town Hall, chairs were being thrown from the Assembly Hall windows, whilst in front of the Town Hall there was a number of smashed chairs and forms. The front windows were smashed. Part of the decorations and electric illuminations had already been pulled down.

For the remainder of the day and night (except for one short interval) he was in or around the Town Hall, and was continually in consultation with the Town Clerk [William Smith]. There were also members of the Town Council and of the Watch Committee present.

Practically continuously throughout the afternoon speeches were made by people from the pedestals near the Town Hall steps. These speeches were about inadequate pensions paid to discharged soldiers, the smallness of allowances to widows and dependants of deceased soldiers, and the lack of entertainments for the old people. Reference was also made to unemployment.

He heard no reference to the question of the refusal to hold the memorial service in Wardown Park. The speeches were of a most inflammatory character, and one speaker declared himself to be a Bolshevist. The speakers generally were encouraging those present to rush the Town Hall and to fetch out the Mayor and Town Clerk.

Chief Constable Charles GriffinThe Chief Constable (pictured right), continuing, said that the crowd threatened to go to the Mayor's house and wreck it. After full consideration, the Town Clerk advised the Mayor that, having regard to the hostile condition of the crowd and its number, it would be exceedingly difficult to obtain a hearing and might create further trouble, and witness agreed, as the person having control of the Borough.

The crowd seemed to have a complete animus towards the Mayor, and a considerable procession went to the Mayor's house. Witness estimated the number of people there at between 500 and 1,000. Inspector Janes, sergeants and mounted and foot police were also present.

The crowd tried to climb over the railings in front of the house, but the police were able to keep them back. They were engaged there about a quarter of an hour, and the major part of the crowd returned to the centre of the town after he assured them the Mayor was not in the house.

At about 6.30 the President of the Discharged Sailors and Soldiers Association, with Mr W. J. Mair JP, went to the Town Hall and, after a conference with the Town Clerk, another magistrate and witness, addressed the crowd from the steps of the Town Hall, urging them to disperse and go to Wardown.

They had a comparatively quiet hearing, and in witness's opinion, a better hearing than either the Mayor or the Town Clerk would have had. In fact, he did not think the Mayor and the Town Clerk would have had a hearing at all. The President of the Association and Mr Mair condemned what had been done and disassociated themselves from the demonstrations.

The Mayor, Town Clerk and other members of the Corporation left the Town Hall about 10 o'clock. About ten past ten the shouting was increased, and windows continued to be smashed by missiles until there was nothing left to smash. At that time any reasonable person in the building must have had fear of injury to life and limb from the dangerous missiles then flying. The crowd at that time was tumultuous, riotous and violent, and a very great danger to the public.

Passing on to deal with the strength of the Force, he said that only 40 of the regular Force and a similar number of special constables were on duty in or near the Town Hall. At that time he was very much concerned in mind whether to ignore the riotous conduct of the crowd or to charge them. He weighed the position up very seriously whether he should attack the crowd or remain on the defensive.

At that time a very determined attempt was made by the rioters to force the front entrance of the Hall, and as the Town Hall had been fired and there had been a tug of war between the police and the rioters over the possession of a constable, and police and rioters had been in conflict on the ground, matters were generally in such a dangerous condition that he felt there was no alternative but to charge the crowd. That was done in two separate attacks, and while the charges were made, stones were flying and the police were “dropping down right and left”.

Notwithstanding that some of them were badly injured, they wanted, after having been taken into the Town Hall, to go out again, and in some instances they had to be restrained from going out. “They were heroes, every one of them,” the Chief Constable added.

Describing the charges of the mounted men, he said that one of the ho0rse was injured, and “it was found that some beast had stabbed it so badly" that it had to be destroyed. That horse was ridden by Special Constable Gillam.

Among the people who were injured he mentioned Deputy Special Constable Robinson, Special Constable Carter and Mr Webb.

Witness sought outside help, as the police and specials were exhausted, until at one time they were reduced to three men in front of the Town Hall. This outside help was not then available.

In consequence of the fire the position was so serious that the injured men had to be removed from the Council Chamber, to the rear of the building, and later to the police station. The building was left to its fate.

At the police station, which was like a hospital, patients were lying everywhere, and Dr Archibald was worked almost to exhaustion. Dr Lloyd subsequently came in and rendered valuable voluntary assistance.

About five minutes to three the military arrived in small numbers, which were subsequently increased, and the streets cleared. A magistrate was fetched out of bed at three o'clock or so, but the Riot Act was not read.

The Chief Constable described the people outside the Town Hall as a “crowd of maniacs”. The women were as bad as the men.

When the fire engine came, said witness, the crowd attacked the engine, and it had to be withdrawn, but returned afterwards. The Town Hall and municipal offices were completely destroyed by the fire, and shops were looted.

When the military arrived and cleared the streets they arrested a sailor for a breach of discipline. About 9pm on Sunday a crowd assembled outside the police station, and said they had come to demand the release of the sailor. Witness told them he had no sailor, and then they proposed to appoint someone to inspect the cells. Witness refused to allow this, and advised them several times to go away. They did not go, however, and so he ordered the police to clear the streets. That night he had a good force of men, and when the police went out the crowd didn't stop long.

The Town Clerk: “Like all cowards, when they met an equal force, they didn't stop.” Witness: “They ran away!” He added that stones were thrown, and a Herts policeman was injured.

On Monday night also it was necessary to take a strong force of police into George Street, where there was a large hostile crowd throwing stones at the police. Witness gave the police an order to clear the streets, but the crowd ran away before the police got to them. Stones were also thrown on this occasion. One constable was badly hurt on the head, and some shop windows in Chapel Street were smashed, but to his knowledge there was no looting.

Of the police, 43 regular police were injured in the rioting on Saturday, Sunday and Monday (four of whom had to be taken to hospital), ten specials were injured (one of whom was taken to hospital) and two imported police were also hurt.