Peace Day: First signs of trouble

Riot rescue

[From the Beds & Herts Tuesday Telegraph: July 22nd, 1919]

The first sign that there was the likelihood of trouble was when the procession reached the Town Hall. A detachment representing the Comrades of the Great War was heading the column, and a halt was called in front of the Town Hall.

The Mayor, wearing his robes and chain of office, came to the edge of the pavement and proceeded to read the King's Peace Proclamation and briefly to address the discharged men. He was accompanied by several members of the Corporation, and his appearance was the signal for a hostile demonstration on the past of the crowd, cheering being turned into jeering.

This was repeated a little later when the Red Cross detachment of the column reached the Town Hall. His Worship again read the Proclamation and was hooted by an element of the spectators while doing so.

The procession moved off finally, and after the units had gone past on the way to Wardown, the civic party returned to the Town Hall. The attitude of the crowd had by this time assumed a distinctly ugly character, and as a precautionary measure Police Sgt Matsell and three constables took up a position on the steps.

There were loud cries for the Mayor, and a section of the spectators advanced and demanded that his Worship and the Town Clerk should come to the front and give explanations of the Corporation's decision in regard to Wardown. The request was not acceded to, and a move was made in the direction of the doors.

Pc Sear was on the opposite side of the road, near the Free Library, and he made an effort to get to the assistance of his colleagues. He was collared by the crowd, who bore him in the direction of Guildford Street. Sgt Matsell them left his post to go to the aid of the constable, and on reaching him found that his helmet had been knocked off with a blow from a stick and that the young officer was in considerable danger.

Relating this experience later in the day, Sgt Matsell said: “I asked them what they meant by treating in such fashion a man who had served with Luton men in the 1/5th Bedfords and had just come back after doing his bit in Gallipoli and elsewhere. This had an immediate effect, and the crowd released him.”

The pair then made their way back again to the Town Hall, but the temporary absence of the sergeant had weakened the police resistance, and at length – overpowered by sheer weight of numbers – the police were rushed and the doors forced open.

The object of the crowd which streamed into the building seemed to be the Assembly Room, in which Monday night's banquet was to be held. They swarmed upstairs and found a table or two set out for tea, presumably for the civic party.

Immediately they commended to wreck the furniture, and the suggestion was made that the whole of the tables and chairs should be thrown through the windows into the street. “We'll give 'em banquet,” was the chorus.

A few chairs were pitched on to the pavement below, some windows being broken in the process, whilst a missile of some kind was hurled through one of the windows in the Town Clerk's office.

At this point Sgt Matsell again rendered highly valuable service, exhorting the men to remember that innocent women and children were in the crowd below, who stood a serious risk of injury if the furniture were thrown out. This appeal was endorsed by some of the men, and the wrecking was afterwards confined to the room itself.

Some of the intruders then got on to the balcony and proceeded to tear down all the bunting and decorations, as well as the framework of the electrical illumination scheme erected the previous day. The flags were quickly seized by he crowd, and torn into small pieces, whilst the wooden framing was similarly smashed.

An urgent message had been sent to Wardown for police reinforcements, and the arrival of the Chief Constable [Mr Charles Griffin] and other mounted men, and Insp F. Janes and a party in a motor car, was the first intimation to many people in New Bedford Road and Manchester Street that anything untoward was occurring.

A Royal Marine climbed the tram-pole standard in front of the Town Hall and, amid noisy excitement, cut away the streamers of flags attached to the top.

Reinforced by their comrades, the police eventually cleared the Town Hall and, after the wreckage of chairs and bunting etc, had been carried inside, the doors were again barred.

Several members of the crowd, including a crippled ex-soldier, then mounted the Town Hall steps and delivered impassioned speeches; and though, in the wild uproar, it was impossible to fully hear what was being said, it was possible by fleeting sentences to ascertain that grievances in regard to pensions and other matters affecting discharged men were being ventilated.

With the exception of the actual rush, the conduct of the crowd at this stage of the proceedings was generally good-humoured, and this was materially due to the tact and discretion shown by the Chief Constable and his men in dealing with the situation.

Excitement gradually simmered down, and apparently not knowing if the Mayor had left the Town Hall, a large crowd marched to his private residence in London Road. They were asked by the police to nominate a leader, and did so, but on enquiry found that his Worship had not returned home, and accordingly they took the advice of the police and dispersed.

The gathering at the Town Hall was still a very large one, but the rain which fell smartly had a useful effect in hurrying the departure of many. In the remainder of the afternoon and early evening there was no renewal of the demonstration, and at nine o'clock things were such a peaceful appearance that hopes were expressed that the situation had been surmounted without really serious troubles being encountered.

These hopeful anticipations were destined to be very rudely shattered.