Council attempts an explanation

[The Luton News: Thursday, July 24th, 1919]

Luton Town Council met on Tuesday (July 22nd, 1919) in an atmosphere of grave responsibility, and it was apparent that the seriousness of the position weighed heavily upon the members of the governing body. It was anticipated, said The Luton News, of Thursday, July 24th, that a statement would be made relative to the unprecedented scenes witnessed in the town on Saturday and Sunday, and this was in fact forthcoming from Alderman H. Arnold, who was voted into the chair in the continued absence of the Mayor [Councillor Impey].

The pronouncement, given in extenso below, reviewed the circumstances which culminated in the riotous proceedings on Saturday, and was not only an explanation of the Council's action in regard to what was referred to as “the Wardown incident,” but also an unequivocal assertion that it was the intention of the Corporation, in their capacity as the governing authority, to take every necessary step in order adequately to recover and maintain order and public safety.

A gratifying feature was the receipt of letters from the Trades and Labour Council and both the local organisations for ex-servicemen condemning in the strongest terms the outrage on Saturday and Sunday, and pledging support to the local authorities.

Only one member, Councillor R. F. Briggs, followed the Chairman's statement on the main question, but the meeting unanimously endorsed the references made as to the heroism displayed by the police and fire brigade in the terrible trial to which they were subjected. On this point the residents will learn with satisfaction that steps are to be taken to recognise publicly and in appropriate manner the conduct of the services concerned.

During the proceedings, some of the brass helmets worn by the firemen while undergoing a bombardment of bricks, bottles and other missiles for three hours, were brought into the room and exhibited to the members. They bore striking evidence of the attention bestowed upon the wearers by the mob, and one was bent and twisted at the front in such a manner as to leave no room for doubt that the owner of the helmet owes his life to the protection afforded by his headgear.

It was reported that Sir Leonard Denning, HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary for the Home Office, had visited Luton on Monday and had entirely confirmed the action of the executive officers in calling in military aid and in requisitioning police reinforcements from outside areas; and the town was further assured that there were now located in the borough sufficient police - “it is not proposed to mention the number” - as to be able to cope with any developments.

Incidentally, it was learned that highly important papers and documents had been incinerated on Saturday, and several recommendations in the reports of the committees had perforce to be withdrawn on this account. The Mace, said the Town Clerk, had been found, but it was in a terribly blackened condition, and time only would show if it was usable.

The Town Clerk also stated that some parchment deeds belonging to the Corporation, under the pressure of the tremendous heat to which they had been subjected, had contracted in a remarkable manner. Stamps, signatures and writing alike had been reduced in such fashion as to constitute one of the most remarkable transformations imaginable.

Harry Arnold when Mayor (1907-09)The Council, as is generally known, had held three meetings in private on Sunday night and Monday, and at these, in the absence of the Mayor, Alderman Arnold had presided, by the unanimous desire of his colleagues. When the members assembled again on Tuesday, Alderman Arnold [pictured right as Mayor in 1907-1909] made a statement in which he said:

“I think it it is desirable I should make some reference to the deplorable and regrettable occurrences that have recently happened in Luton. It is perhaps the more desirable because of the widespread misunderstanding and misconception of the attitude of the members of the Council in so far as their relationship to the men who have fought in the great war, and those who made the great sacrifice, is concerned.

“There is among many people, I believe, and idea that in connection with what we may call the Wardown episode there was manifested a lack of sympathy on the part of the Council to discharged soldiers and to those who had fallen. I think it is necessary for the Council to take the very first opportunity to deny anything of the sort, and to state most explicitly that no person in Luton has a higher admiration than the members of the Council for what has been done by our soldiers in the great and terrible war that has gone on for four or five years, or more reverence for those who made the supreme sacrifice, and sympathy for those who have suffered bereavement. I think I am speaking for every member of the Council when I say there is no lack of sympathy, although that sympathy has been very difficult for us to express.

“In regard to the question of Wardown, I think there has been a good deal of misunderstanding over what has taken place. It frequently happens that between meetings of the Council questions arise which demand instant decision, and I may be allowed to explain the ordinary method of the procedure.

“When a question arises which demands prompt attention it is the invariable rule that the committee concerned should be consulted. If a meeting of that committee is taking place early enough, questions of that sort are always submitted to the committee. If it is a matter of supreme importance and there is time to consult the whole committee, then it is usual for the officers of the Corporation to consult the Chairman of the committee, and in that way a prompt decision is arrived at.

“It is one of the most regrettable things in connection with the business of the Corporation that the request from the Federation of Discharged Sailors and Soldiers for the use of Wardown for a drumhead memorial service came after the last meeting of the Council. Perhaps it is even more regrettable that there has been no Council meeting since, when a formal statement could have been made as to the proceedings that had taken place.

“This application, as I have said, subsequent to the last meeting of the Council. There was no meeting of the Parks Committee convened at that time, but there was a meeting of the Tolls Committee, of which the majority of the Parks Committee are members. These members were asked to stay behind after the meeting of the Tolls Committee, and this application was placed before them. They were asked to express their judgment, and they arrived at a decision.

“Before I refer to that decision I should like to say there are one or two other things that have a bearing on this particular question. You all remember that very recently we had a controversy over Wardown with reference to what I will call the Maternity Home question. The committee dealing with this question recommended that Wardown House should be used for that purpose. There was a great deal of public discussion about it, and ultimately it was thought desirable to withdraw the proposal.

“One reason was that it was stated Wardown was a place for the use of the whole of the people of the town, and that it should not be allotted to any particular section, or any part of it restricted to a section of the community.

“Now may I say – and I am not a member of the Parks Committee – that the committee in the consideration of this question certainly had that to bear in mind.

“Another question they had to consider was the unfortunate relationship which exists and has existed between the Federation of Discharged Sailors and Soldiers and another association of similar character in the town – the Comrades of the Great War. Whatever I say is said without any desire to accentuate any differences between two two bodies. Every member of the Corporation regrets that the interests of discharged soldiers and sailors are not looked after by one united body.

“The Federation of Discharged Sailors and Soldiers asked that Wardown should be granted to them for a service, and at the same time a request was made that the Mayor and Corporation should officially attend the service. During the war there had been various attempts, I believe, on the part of both of these bodies, to get the Mayor for the time being to associate himself with one or other of these bodies, but as they were sectional and were not united, it was in their judgment undesirable to do so (“hear, hear”).

“The latest application came from one of the bodies and not the other, and the Parks Committee thought it would create a certain feeling of jealousy, although they would have been glad to recommend the Council to accede to the request had it been a united one. I think I am perfectly justified in saying the Corporation and members of the Council would have been glad under those circumstances to have attended officially (“hear, hear”).

“Perhaps I should refer hear to one other thing. I have been informed – and I believe there is a solid foundation for it – that some little time before this application came along, the Comrades of the Great War approached some members of the executive of the Discharged Sailors and Soldiers with a view to having a united service of this sort at Wardown. Unfortunately, the suggestion was not considered favourably by the Federation, who said they were having a service of their own. That is my information, and I believe it is correct. It also has a bearing on the matter.

“Considering the controversy that has taken place, and the fact that there was a certain amount of feeling between these bodies, the members of the Parks Committee then present, in their judgment thought it would be inadvisable to accede to the request. What they did was to suggest Pope's Meadow, which they considered even more suitable, because there was a flat piece of ground where the service could have been held, and rising ground from which the general public could have witnessed the service and shown their sympathy. So far as the Parks Committee were concerned, that was their judgment.

“There was a meeting of the watch committee shortly afterwards. The Town Clerk referred to the application which had been made, and there was no suggestion of any member of the Watch Committee demurring to the decision.

“I think it is an explanation of what actually took place. It was very far from the desire or thought of members of the Parks Committee or any other member of the Council to in any way manifest any lack of sympathy towards discharged soldiers and sailors, or any lack of appreciation of those who had made the supreme sacrifice (“hear, hear”) I think that covers the position of members of the Council in relation to the Wardown question.”

Alderman Arnold continued: “There are one or two other things to which it would be advisable for me to refer now. I believe, apart from the question of Wardown, other circumstances entered very largely into the feeling which has been exhibited during the last few days – questions of a national character which entered very largely into the feelings of those who became so disorderly.

“Those who were in the Town Hall during the afternoon and evening of Saturday, and heard the speeches made outside, know that in those speeches Wardown was very rarely referred to, if at all. Other questions, national and personal, were continually referred to by those who spoke from the Town Hall steps.

“I believe there has been a certain amount of feeling on the part of discharged sailors and soldiers that the public men of Luton have not shown any appreciation of the services rendered by them in the war. I believe to some extent they have been dissatisfied.

“In Saturday's procession the Discharged Sailors and Soldiers and the Comrades were both invited to join. They accepted the invitation in the early days of making the arrangements. Later the Discharged Sailors and Soldiers withdrew (the National Executive having decided against taking any part in such celebrations), and did not take part, I believe, in the procession. The Comrades also withdrew, but reconsidered the question, and on Saturday were in the procession with their band.

“Although the Discharged Sailors and Soldiers were not prepared to join in the programme, they had suggested there should be come recognition of them as a body and what they had done, and this was taken into consideration by the committee which had to arrange the Peace Celebration.

“We came to the conclusion that at least £1,500 would be required to do anything adequate for the entertainment of Luton's ex-servicemen. There would have been considerable difficulty in raising this money, although I do not say it would have been impossible, and there was another difficulty in the way. It was practically impossible to make the arrangements because the facilities would not have been available at this time.”

The one response to Alderman Arnold's statement came from a disgruntled Councillor Briggs, who said: “It was decided last night that we should have a short statement from you. I was not going to say a single word tonight, but after the words that have fallen from you I must at once make my position clear with regard to the Wardown incident.

“I want to state now specifically that as a member of this Council I have had no official intimation that the Discharged Sailors and Soldiers ever applied for Wardown Park. I have had no official intimation that it was refused. I have had no official intimation that we were asked to take part in their procession, and I have had no official intimation that as a Council we refused to take part in it.

“I have seen the letters in the newspaper, and that is the only way in which I have become acquainted with this matter. I want to disassociate myself at once from the decision that was taken to refuse Wardown. It is said it was refused on the ground that there was some bye-law, and that they were only a section of the community.

“We have had meetings there of sections before and during the last five years we have broken bye-laws galore and taken no notice of this breaking of bye-laws. I for one would have held up both hands to allow this solemn memorial service to be held at Wardown.

“I do not want to say more, only that I deprecate the abominable outrage on our town. We are disgraced in the sight of all England (“hear, hear”). But there is some cause for it. Before we say anything else let us get the town under control again. Let us appeal to people for law and order. And, when we have got the town under control again, then will be the time to trash out these matters.

“I resent bitterly a decision of that magnitude being taken without my consent, and I resent being blamed as a member of the Council for something I have no part or parcel in.”