Pedalling news of peace to villages


Thanks to The Luton News via the Press Association, Mayor Henry Impey was able to announce the signing of the Versailles Peace Treaty from the Town Hall balcony on June 28th, 1919, within minutes of the event.

But it took rather longer for the news to reach more remote country villages. A correspondent of the Saturday Telegraph, a sister paper of The Luton News, decided to cycle through Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire villages in expectation of news of the peace treaty being declared. With no radio, TV and no daily newspapers, how would the news get through?

W. J., as the correspondent signed himself, wrote that it was a wondering and expectant Luton that he left behind after two o'clock on Saturday afternoon - a town pacing, as it were, up and down, its thoughts dwelling wonderingly on that big question, "Would they sign?"

Though many professed to a feeling of indifference, there was unquestionably a high tension abroad, as the clocks ticked out those last remaining hours, the hours which would answer that big question, and thus decide whether it should be peace - or more war.

Such was the state of the town when I, with my companion, spun away on our cycles in a westerly direction, on business bent. The clocks struck three as we passed through Dunstable, but, of course, at that time no one knew for certain what was transpiring across in France.

Our course lay out in some of the remote parts of Buckinghamshire, through districts to which, I have heard it remarked, it takes three weeks for current items of news to penetrate. We pursued our journey without incident of any kind, until we had reached a spot right in the heart of the country, miles from anywhere. We struck the London and North Western Railway main line and were passing over a bridge, when something caught the eye of my companion.

He directed my attention to a signal box just down the line. I looked. The signalman was fixing something in the window of the box, facing down the line. It was a card. Eagerly we dismounted and, stretching over the parapet of the bridge, read the inscription, "Peace signed 3.12 pm".

It was queer to think that we, alone in the wide stretches of the rural district, should so soon receive the good news from France. It had presumably been flashed down the railway wires from the Metropolis, and was displayed here for the benefit of the drivers and passengers of passing trains.

Village well, Heath and ReachFrom this time, however, the real "business" of the afternoon commenced, and I can safely say that we were the means of bringing the glad tiding of peace into many a little wayside cottage, and to sundry villages also. It was interesting to note the manner in which the news was received by the various people we met. In many instances, in spite of the fact that the event had been hourly expected, folk hardly credited our information at first.

"Peace is signed!" - "Yah! Might be in six months time."

"No, it is really. It is posted up in the signal box on the line." - "Is it though? Then it must be right. Well, I hope it is - it's about time the job was finished."

Others had more faith, and ran into their little cottages to impart the news to their families. We entered a roadside hamlet. An old man was drawing water at the well, his granddaughter standing by. Had they heard? No. We told them the news at the well.

The old man sets down his pail, straightens his back. Then, in that slow, rolling Buckinghamshire vernacular, drawls, "Signed is it? I should think so too, the time they've been about it (pause). Ah well, there's many a man as'll be glad to hear it."

Meanwhile, the girl, her face suddenly lit up by a light of gladness, darts away, and tells the news - it gets to the other end of the village before we do - to all in the family, and to next door, and so on, until the phrase "Peace is signed" is on everybody's lips. Truly, it doesn't take that proverbial three weeks for some news to get round these villages!

In this manner we progressed. No one here seemed to have heard the news before our arrival, and we began to feel like a couple of horsemen of old, speeding through the country and proclaiming the fortunes of the English on the field of battle, or perhaps the conclusion of some long-drawn-out campaign, on the way.

In turn we brought the news to a labourer, plodding on his homeward way from the farm fields, a soldier on leave, tramping along with his pack, a woman tending a grave in a little churchyard, the man at the well and his village, and to many other chance wayfarers. It was a curious experience, indeed, but not unpleasant.

On our return journey, towards eventide, we passed through Leighton Buzzard, where the bells were pealing merrily, tumbling down the scale in a jumble of delirious confusion. Here flags were flying from many a house-top, and every token of the joy of the people was evinced. A similar state of affairs at Dunstable, and, as everyone here knows, at Luton.

We arrived home feeling that our afternoon, apart from the real object of the journey, had not been wasted, and with joy in our hearts at the thought that we had brought the first news of peace, and with it so much joy, to the lonely dwellers of the countryside.

[Beds & Herts Saturday Telegraph, July 5th, 1919]

[Picture: A village well at Heath and Reach in June 1934]