[Beds & Herts Tuesday Telegraph: September 2nd, 1919]
Last night's meeting of ratepayers at the Plait Hall to discuss “the past policy of the Town Council” attracted a gathering which comfortably filled the hall and which in round figures was put at a thousand people. These included a fair number of ladies.
In the notices calling the meeting there was indication who the responsible organisers were, and possibly by arousing curiosity this had some effect in getting together a large audience. In addition to that, such a topic as the past policy of the Town Council offered promise of a field for very vigorous speech-making, having regard particularly to recent happenings in the town, and certainly some very vigorous criticism of the Town Council was forthcoming.
Eventually a resolution was put demanding that not six members, but the whole of the Town Council should retire at the next November election, and this the chairman, Mr James Neil, declared to be carried unanimously. [No Government order had been made about councillors retiring, despite having served throughout the war years.]
The object of the meeting was to consider the past policy of the Town Council, said Mr Neil. It was the duty of every ratepayer to take some interest in his own affairs, and the time was coming when the working-man would be freed to do so.
They had too long allowed certain parties to do so, and the things which had happened during the last five years had awakened them to the fact that it was their duty to take some interest in the affairs of the town.
Mr Freeman was the first man to take advantage of the opportunity provided to attack the Town Council. He announced himself as the author of certain letters which had appeared in the Press signed “A Ratepayer”. He said he considered it time, having regard to the recent actions of the Council, that the ratepayers made a change.
The transactions of the Council for the past 12 months had been a disgrace to Luton, he said. As ratepayers they would have to pay for the unintelligent, uneducated representatives who had held positions on the Town Council for the past five years. They wanted on the Council ladies and gentlemen with brains and intelligence, and not men with brains which moved in a narrow groove that they could not develop.
There was not a Town Council in Europe that was more disgraced today than the Luton Town Council (applause). Did the Mayor and Council appeal to the public to provide entertainment of the men who had fought for them? The public would have given and would have seen they were all entertained. But what did they turn round and say? They said “No, we have nothing for the bottom dogs. We are going to have a banquet on our own.” (laughter).
What was the consequence? They never had a banquet. They all deplored what happened on July 19th, and which would take 20 years to wipe out; and as ratepayers they would have to pay for the damage done by a few hooligans because of the unintelligent and uneducated authorities that ruled on the Town Council.
Looking back over the last five years, what did they find in connection with the Tribunal? Men of business, when they appealed before the Tribunal, were laughed at and scorned, yet some of the friends and relations of Town Councillors were hiding in munition work to keep out of the Army (applause).
It was not only a new Town Council that was wanted, but also a new body of officials who would conduct the business of the town in a proper and business-like manner.
Then they were told that only one-third of the Council were coming out. What would one-third of new members do against two-thirds, even if the ratepayers had all new members? He invited the meeting, therefore, to pass a resolution calling on the whole Council to come out (applause). If the councillors thought they had the confidence of the public, let them still come out fight.
“But God help Luton if the Labour Party gets in and gets a majority on the Town Council,” he added. “We are going to spend millions and millions on housing, a new Town Hall, sewerage etc, and if your get those spendthrifts in, your rates will be 10 shillings, 11s or 12s in the £, as they are in some other towns.”
Another speaker said the Council had proved by their actions that they were a most reactionary party. They all knew the cleverest rogue was the man who could go 99 parts of the law and evade the 100th. Many rogues walked about dressed respectably, but being actually disreputable, and many tramps walked the country lanes, living on charity, who were more honourable men than some of the people he could mention in this town, and who were supposed to be respectable.
When these people got into public positions, whose interests did they study? In nine case out of ten, not the interests of the people who elected them, but the interests of the clique to which they belonged.
He respected old age, but they had fallen into a state of decay. They must leave the affairs of today to the youth of today. He did not say that because he was a younger man, for when he became their age he would hope to leave the work of the town to the young men of that day.
They had a great controversy when the new Mayor was to be elected – to get the best man elected? No, to put the man these whose turn it was (laughter). Now the ratepayers had to pay for the insensibility of that method of deciding who should be the first citizen of a town that should be without blemish.
Mr W. J. Mabley, emphasising that he was speaking as a ratepayer and not as a member of any particular party, said a lot of the blame rested with the people who gave the Council an extra lease of life during the war and said there need be no election. He was convinced that if some of the members of the Council had come before the electors during the war they would not have been returned.
He had heard an attack on the Town Clerk, and so would state what he thought. The Town Clerk was the servant of the Council, and the Council were the servants of the ratepayers. Some had argued that the Town Clerk dictated the policy of the Council. If he did, it showed how incapable that body of men were to allow it. If he did not dictate their policy, their actions still showed them to be absolutely incapable.
They had a public building which was now a disgrace not only to the town but to the country and the British Empire – a disgrace which was published not only in England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, but also on the Continent, because these people had not the brains of a pre-war shilling rabbit or the soul of a bum-bailiff [debt collector].
They were the men who went on the recruiting platform in 1915 and asked other men to go and fight to defend the dear old country, and then absolutely ignored their request when they asked for the use of a public park (applause).
They went further, and said they could not take part in any such demonstration, or words to that effect. Surely if it was good enough for anyone to go on a platform and ask men to go out and fight, it was good enough to honour those who died fighting for their country (applause).
The Council failed to recognise the fact that the whole of the townspeople were at the back of the movement to hold a memorial service for the men who died for the country. They refused the soldiers the Park, and they went further and refused to be contaminated by those fellows. That was what it meant.
Those men had fought for and defended their country, and were then ignored. He hoped that if the country ever again got into such a fix, those responsible for asking the men to go out and fight would at least recognise then when they came back (applause).
Mr Mabley was refused permission to read a list of names of those he regarded as responsible for the recent happenings.
Mr Devey, a discharged soldier, said he wanted to dissociate all discharged soldiers of any association from the happenings of July 19th. He thought the huge majority of discharged men were not in favour of what was done on that night and took no part in it.
But with a capable Mayor and the far-seeing Council that the times required, it would have been seen there was trouble in the air because of the fact that the men who had been out to fight were being left out of the proceedings to celebrate the victory and peace they had fought for.
If the Council could do that, they were no longer representative of the people they went there to represent. It was not the only short-sightedness they had exhibited, and it was time they were shifted.
He was not there to say the whole of the Council were no use, for there were some men on the Council who were doing their best to represent the town (hear hear).
HOUSING AND RENTS
Talking of the housing question, Mr Devey said some of the suffered were the returned soldiers. Many of them wanted to get married and become active citizens but could not do so because they could not get a house in which to start their married life.
The policy of the Town Council in regard to housing was a slow one, because they had not made a start yet except with plans, and they were destroyed in the fire, so Luton was just as far forward with housing as when the war was on.
There was a certain amount of personal interest with most of them. There were some exceptions, but most of them were houseowners, and rent-raisers when the time came. The people who held the rents in their hands were not going to hurry on with a policy that would to some extent keep rents at their present level.
The November elections were drawing near, and six councillors would retire out of the whole body, whereas any man who had a ghost of decency in him would have refused to stay in longer than a week after the Town Hall was burned down. They had no intention of retiring, however, for the simple reason that they knew they would never be sent back again.
It was the general wish of the town that the Council should come out en bloc. They would not get back en bloc. One or two of the old clique might get back, but they would be in a vast minority.
Mr Brewer said they would have to suffer in the future for the actions of the Town Council. He had no sympathy with those who burned the Town Hall down, but he did maintain that when those people appeared in the dock at Bedford they should have with them some people who were the cause of the effect, and who were more responsible than the mob.
“Take the case of Wardown. The men who were refused the use of that Park had more right to it than those who wanted to use it for a maternity home. They wanted to use the Park for that, but could not allow fighting men to have it for the glorious cause of paying honour to their brothers who had fallen in the fight.
“People tell you the wealth of the nation is the children of the nation. What did they do for the youngsters? That wants watching very closely. They took the children to Luton Hoo, marched them through the streets to Wardown, and then sent them home. They made an excuse that it was too big a job to entertain them, and they could not get the money. If they had appealed for the money they could have got it.
As soon as the damage was done to the Town Hall one certain Alderman put his hand down and gave £100 to the firemen. That could have been done in the first place and been given towards providing a treat for the discharged men and the children. It's no good locking the door after the horse has gone.”
The present Council, concluded the speaker, was no longer wanted, and was not fit to govern a town containing such heroes. There were men who had fought who were far more capable of managing the town's affairs, and when the election came they should send the right men back to do this.
Mr J. Summerbee, while inclined to agree the Town Council had failed, said they must be fair and just. Assuming they had failed, what steps were they going to take to remedy the matter? Many thought the Town Council should come out as a body. He thought so too (applause).
Some members of the Council had shown themselves to be good men worthy to represent Luton (applause). They had seen that during the past few years. One or two could be named, and he thought their names would be generally approved, and that if they placed themselves in the hands of the electors they would have nothing to fear. At the same time there were others who would certainly lose their seats.
Who were to be their successors/ Not men chosen because of party, but men selected in the first place because of absolute confidence in their integrity, and in the second place because of their ability to fill such a position.
If the man at the head of affairs failed in time of difficulty, said the speaker, he was not fit for the position at all. If the whole Council resigned and were all considered unworthy to return there might be a little lack of continuity in the work of administration, but he did not think that was likely to occur. Those worthy to represent the people would be returned, and the others would be replaced by better men who could be trusted.
The Chairman then claimed the right to speak as an ordinary ratepayer, and said that when he came to Luton he was surprised to find that instead of the Town Council running the town, it was largely being run by private companies.
The gas undertaking, which should be run for the benefit of the ratepayers, was being run for the select few to make their money out of other people. The same applied to the water supply. Water was an absolute necessity, and should be under the control of the citizens.
He also found, and this he thought was a very serious thing, that people made a profit out of other people dying. It was a scandal that a town of 65,000 people should not have a burial ground of its own, and a decent one.
As a community they should work for each other's gains and happiness, and they should have under their own control the things which were absolute necessities.
After some discussion and some minor amendments, the following resolution was moved by Mr Folks: “That this meeting of ratepayers of Luton expresses its emphatic disapproval of the policy pursued of late by the Town Council as at present constituted, and consider the whole of the members of the Council should come before the burgesses of the borough at the next November election for the purpose of ascertaining whether they do retain the confidence of the burgesses.”
This was seconded from various parts of the hall, and on being put to the meeting was declared carried unanimously.
It was suggested that from this meeting the nucleus of a ratepayers' association should be established, and this met with considerable approval, but it was eventually moved that this question, and also the question of putting forward candidates for the election, did not come within the scope of the objects for which the meeting was called.
The following evening at a meeting of around 700 members of the local branch of the Discharged Sailors and Soldiers held at the Plait Hall a resolution was passed: “That this Federation endorse the sentiments of the ratepayers' meeting that was held here last night.” The proposition was carried with applause, reported The Luton News (Thursday, September 4th).