Peace Day trouble renewed

Town Hall burning

  • Illustration by Hope Harris from the James Dyer/John Dony/Frank Stygall book, The Story of Luton (White Crescent Press).

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

During the late afternoon and early evening of Saturday, July 19th, 1919, a revival of the trouble being feared, efforts were made by the local authorities to enlist police aid from London, but without avail.

The Mayor and members of the Corporation, with the officials, collected some of the most important documents at the Town Hall, and these were locked in the safes as a precautionary measure. A large body of police, regular and special, were also on duty inside the building.

The crowd had never actually dispersed, and towards nine o'clock was being added to in great measure almost every minute, though a huge concourse had assembled at pope's Meadow to witness the firework display.

Somewhere between 10 and 11 pm a large and determined mob arrived, armed with bricks, hammers and other weapons. Though there was a good deal of noise, no real attempt at damage appears to have been made until the lighting of the giant Dover flares at each end of the town – People's Park, Hart Hill, London Road and the back of the Downs – lit the whole district as though it were day.

Immediately, as though by a pre-arranged signal, a fusilade of bricks and other missiles was rained upon the Town Hall, and the windows were smashed with great rapidity. Rushes were made for the building, but the entrance was barred by the police, who contented themselves at this point with merely keeping intruders outside.

Efforts were made on several occasions to fire the Town Hall, but as and when they occurred they were dealt with by the police inside the building. The doors and windows of the Food Office, on the Manchester Street corner, were completely wrecked, but Insp Janes and his comrades repeatedly ejected from the room men who had gained entry and were endeavouring to fire the place.

A grim silhouette effect seen hereabouts was that of a man in the corner of the Town Clerk's department, piling up papers and books with which to start a blaze. Eventually one was started on the Manchester Street corner, but prior to this the police – unable any longer to deal with the situation by the method of least resistance – drew their batons and charged the crowd, who then retreated some distance.

The Fire Brigade arrived on the scene via Guildford Street, but were immediately surrounded by the hostile elements and were prevented from attacking the flames owing to the fact that their hose-pipes were severed in all directions.

The shop of [pharmaceutical chemist] Mr W. S. Clark, at the corner of Wellington Street, had by this time been smashed in and part of its contents looted; but mainly the ringleaders contented themselves with taking the owner's stock of glass bottles in order to strengthen their supply of 'ammunition'.

In addition, the Herts Motors garage was burst open and tins of petrol were seized to feed the fires. Weakened by their long and continuous effort to maintain the property intact, and by the loss of many of their number who had been put out of action by close contact and also the rain of missiles, the police and firemen were practically powerless, and a short time after midnight – the tolling of which had been vigorously acclaimed by the crowd – the fire got really started in the Town Clerk's department and in the Food Office.

Men could be seen hurling into the room all sorts of inflammable material – pieces of broken window frames, doors, etc – which they could obtain. The outbreak once having actually been started, was fed by fireworks and petrol until it had obtained a complete hold on that corner.

Great tongues of spirit – bluish and almost wicked in appearance – shot from the upper and lower windows. Chief Officer Andrew and his men again got a stream of water on to the front of the building, but this quickly ceased owing to the hose again being cut.

The Chief Officer had, by this time, lost several of his men, owing to the attentions of the crowd, and he deceived the wild elements by withdrawing his motor from the scene. A rush was made to wreck the machine by damaging the radiator, and the Chief received a heavy blow, but his helmet saved him from injury.

Having reinforced his fire crew by volunteer help, Mr Andrew loaded up the fresh supplies of hose and returned to the vicinity of the Town Hall by a devious route. He got a length of hose fixed from a hydrant in Dunstable Place, but when, with the aid of special constables and civilians (among whom, we understand, were members of the Comrades of the Great War), the nozzle was run down to near the blazing building, a rush was made to collar the hose.

The attention of the crowd being concentrated on this matter, the Brigade were able to get a second line of hose going, the connection being made in a few seconds.

It was then the rescuers commenced to get the upper hand, for with very powerful crossed jets of water, at high pressure, the firemen swept the entrance to Upper George Street in machine gun fashion, kept back the men who tried to rush the path (several being knocked clean off their feet), and attacked the flames in earnest.

It was apparent that the main structure was doomed, and principal attention was devoted to the adjoining property. In their efforts in this direction they met with considerable success, for at one time it seemed highly probable that the whole of the block of buildings back to Gordon Street might be involved. This danger was happily averted, and the flames were prevented from spreading beyond the principal set of buildings.

The Food Office was completely gutted, and the situation there was such that on Monday morning it was necessary to demolish the outer walls at the corner in the interests of public safety. At one time on Saturday night, before the fire had gained firm hold, there was a big shower of coupons and other literature thrown out from the window.

From this point onwards the crowd was somewhat less bellicose in its attitude towards the firefighters and police, but the grim carnival was carried to extreme limits.

Messrs Far & Co's piano warehouse was broken into and the instruments dragged into the street. To the tune of 'Keep the Home Fires Burning' the wilder element of the huge gathering danced and sang, some even mounting a grand piano for he purpose.

All this time the Brigade maintained its attack on the blaze, the hydrants and hose being guarded by special constables, though the force was sadly depleted owing to the number of men who had been injured and removed to the police station and to the Bute Hospital. Mrs Griffin [the Chief Constable's wife] and others rendered yeoman service in this direction, and the motor ambulance was kept regularly employed.

At three o'clock, permission having been gained for the assistance of troops to be called in, a body of the Royal Field Artillery from Biscot Camp, marching eight abreast, swung down Upper George Street, singing gaily as they came.

At the sight of khaki the crowd seemed to fade away, and with a cordon of troops drawn round the Town Hall, Chief Officer Andrew was able to get down to the task of obtaining control of the outbreak.

The arrival of the R.F.A. was too late to prevent the damage and looting of the premises of confectioner Mr G. Payne and boot and shoe dealer Messrs Brown in Manchester Street. By the light of the burning pile, chocolate and sweets were distributed broadcast among the people by those who had entered the former shop [No 5 Manchester Street], whilst at the Messrs J. N. Brown & Co [9 Manchester Street] establishment many took advantage of the opportunity to secure a new pair of boots without payment.

Finally a section of the crowd visited the shop of Mr Caspers, hairdresser in Bute Street and, having smashed the windows, looted the umbrellas which formed a portion of his stock; whilst a brick was also thrown through a window at the shop of straw hat materials merchant Mr H. Stern, on the opposite side of the road.

It was five o'clock before the special constables were able to be released, and the regular police still fit for service remained at their posts until they could be replaced by officers drawn from outside areas.

Early on Sunday morning, a very large body of troops were marched in from Bedford and took charge of the centre of the town. They were wearing full active service kits, including steel helmets; and although there was a very large crowd near the spot all day – despite the heavy rain which fell – the cordon was more than strong enough to secure that the firemen continued their work on the smouldering embers without the least of interference.