Closing statements in riot trials

[The Luton Reporter: Tuesday, October 28th, 1919]

Riot trials sentencing

Towards the end of the trials at Beds Assizes, the jury was asked by a defence counsel to say they was no evidence of riot up to 4 o'clock on July 19th. Justice Sir Arthur Greer ruled there was very clear evidence of riot at that stage.

Counsel next argued that one of the essentials of a modern riot was the assembly of a number of men for the deliberate purpose of assisting one another in the production of turmoil and there was no evidence this was the case.

“Do you suggest that if they assembled together originally quite innocently with the intention of merely talking and airing their grievances and in the course of that assembly numbers of them acted together for the purpose of assisting to destroy the Town Hall and breaking the place that would not be a riot?” asked his Lordship. Counsel's reply was a submission that what happened could be divided into two parts, and up to four o'clock it was all innocent.

The reply of Mr Hollis Walker, for the prosecution, was that if it was not a riot when a crowd became angry and noised, booed and yelled for the Mayor and Town Clerk, talked about rushing the Town Hall and did rush it and smashed everything they could lay their hands on inside, it was a little difficult to know what as riot was. If such a state of things did not bring terror into the minds of people who were there we had a hardier race in this country than he had counted upon.

In his summing up the Judge said he had no doubt hat July 19th was a date engraved on the memory of everybody who was in Luton that day. There broke out what he supposed was the greatest disturbance of the peace that had ever happened in the history of the town.

He did not suppose it would be thought for a moment there was on the part of prisoners or anybody else in Luton a concerted conspiracy to create trouble, destroy the Town Hall and hurt and damage the police and firemen, but that was not enough to justify a finding that prisoners were not guilty of riot.

If, having assembled together for a purpose which was in itself innocent, there being more than three of them, they started to be riotous and tumultuous and committed breaches of the peace and acts which had a tendency to create terror in the minds of reasonably-minded people, they were guilty of taking part in a riot, even though they gathered with a perfectly innocent intention.

The Judge went on: “We are not trying the Mayor of Luton here, and we know nothing whatever of whether the grievance the people had was well or ill-founded. It does not matter, because there are recognised peaceful methods by which people who have a grievance can make that grievance known.

“The fact that you have a grievance, even if it is a good one, is no justification at all for riotous assembling and behaviour, and I think you will say the Mayor was wise and the officers who were looking after him were wise to see he went to some safe and secret place, and remained there until the trouble was over.

“You have to consider the kind of language that was used. Is that the language of people who wanted him to make a speech or explanation and listen to him, or was it the language of people who were angry and just in the state of mind to commit a breach of the peace and create terror in he minds of other citizens?”

Riotous conduct, his Lordship went on say, was like a disease that passed from one to another. It began with somebody possessed of a wicked and criminal turn of mind and passed very quickly through a crowd, and once began it was very difficult to hold a crowd in control.

There could be no question that when the crowd rushed into the Town Hall they had got beyond control, and in his view of the law there was ample evidence on which it could be found there was a riot in Luton from the time the crowd began to call out in opprobious language for the Mayor.

Although they might not have them there, he thought there was not very much doubt that the great portion of the crowd who did the damage in the evening were also present when the observations were made in the afternoon. At any rate he thought it would be agreed that the scenes that happened were an absolute disgrace to those who took part in them.

People seemed to have gone mad and thought the best way in which they could show their criticism of the action of the authorities, including the Pensions Ministry, with which Luton had nothing whatever to do, was to destroy the town's property and injure their own servants – the police and the firemen. The seriousness of it could not for one moment be disputed.