Riot case: Joseph Frederick Pursey

Joseph Frederick Pursey record

  • Assizes record courtesy of Mr John Gillespie, grandson of Insp Fred Janes.

Joseph Frederick Pursey, aged 25, attendant at the Grand Theatre (also motor driver), of 14 Midland Road, Luton, was charged with: “On the 19th July, 1919, together with divers other persons to the number of one thousand or more, unlawfully and riotously did assemble to disturb to the terror and alarm of His Majesty’s subjects there being, and against the peace of our Sovereign Lord the King, his Crown and Dignity.”



Magistrates in Luton on July 25th were told that Pursey was wearing three wound stripes, and when arrested said: “What is it for?”

Pc John Causebrook arrested the prisoner and told him he was arrested for Saturday afternoon, and he then said: “I was there.” Witness said he was at the Town Hall on Saturday afternoon and saw prisoner on the steps.

The constable said that Pursey shouted: “Four minutes to go,three minutes to go, two minutes to go, one minute to go, and then we will have the ------- out.” When the last minute had elapsed he shouted: “Over you go, boys. In you go! Fetch them out!”

Prisoner in court: “When I spoke about the minutes to go it was six o'clock. Then I left the Town Hall and did not see it again until Sunday morning.”

In court the following week, Det-Sgt Arthur Bacon and Pc Causebrook corroborated evidence given at the previous hearing and said the crowd grew very excited. Prisoner then shouted: “They say the Mayor is not here. Come on, we'll go to his house and fetch him out.” With other rioters he went up George Street.

Sgt John Matsell said Pursey was in the front of those who first rushed the Town Hall. He afterwards climbed one of the lamp standards on the steps and tried to pull the lamp down. The sergeant said he later saw prisoner at the Mayor's house, where he was one of the leaders.

Cross-examined by Mr H. W. Lathom (defending), witness said the crowd demanded the presence of the Mayor when at his house. Mr Lathom: “And at the Town Hall, too, apparently, though there they joined the Town Clerk with him to add a little backbone, I presume.”

Re-examined, Sgt Matsell said: “The crowd had to be forced back at the Mayor's house by the police.” Mr Lathom: “Well they wanted him. He was getting rather a rarity, apparently.”

When asking for bail for Pursey, Mr Lathom told the Bench the defence had not the same opportunity of making speeches as had the prosecution, and added: “Does it not occur to you, gentlemen, as men of the world, that if his Worship the Mayor, instead of acting the part of an elusive Pimpernel, had shown himself for a few moment to these people when they were a bit upset, this trouble might have been avoided?”

Mr Lathom pressed his appeal, pointing out that as prisoner had faced the enemy on behalf of the country, so he would stand his trial at the Assizes – with bravery.

The Chief Constable offered vigorous opposition, saying bail in such cases was an encouragement to other people. And the Town Clerk emphasised the point that prisoner was one of the ringleaders and made inflammatory speeches.

Mr Lathom dissented. “He only asked for the Mayor,” he said.

The Town Clerk: “He has no right to demand the presence of the Mayor. What right had he to expect it?” Mr Lathom: “None, apparently.”

The Town Clerk: “He is not even a burgess of the borough. He was one of those people who used force and placed the lives of others in jeopardy. We don't want to forget the riot too soon.”

Mr Lathom: “The riot is over – everyone knows it is over. No one has the pluck, or the wish, or anything else to start again.”

The Town Clerk: “We don't want to forget it too soon, because in any renewal much greater force will be used.” Mr Lathom: “That's a threat, and you ought to be bound over for using it.”

Mr Lathom added that prisoner's brother-in-law, a householder, would stand surety in any reasonable amount, and urged the Bench not to pay attention to the general statement of the Chief Constable – from whom for the first time he differed – and not to take the responsibility of send the prisoner to gaol for some months before he was tried. Bail was refused.



Det-Sgt Arthur Bacon repeated the evidence given at the magistrates court hearings. After Judge Greer noted that the prisoner was wearing three wound stripes and was wearing the 1914 decoration, prisoner said the police officer :”Are you certain it was me that made that statement?” Witness: “I was not far away from you, and you were there so long.”

Prisoner: “How long have you known me?” Witness: “I could not say how long, but several months.” And in reply to other questions from Pursey, Sgt Bacon said “There was no forgetting you that day.”

His Lordship: “What opportunities had you of knowing his face before this date?” Witness said only by casual meetings in the street. He remembered prisoner as a man he had seen before, but did not know his name until he received it at the police station.

Pc Causebrook, corroborating the earlier evidence, said he had known prisoner for two months, and had spoken to him on occasions prior to the riot.

Pursey, who was not represented by a defence lawyer, told Judge Greer that he had watched the procession from Cheapside, and then went to see what was going on at the Town Hall. Speeches were being made, he said, so he pushed to the front and gave a speech about the way he had been treated.

Sgt John Matsell said prisoner one of the men he tried to present entering the Town Hall and later saw climbing a lamp-post and trying to pull the top off and with the mob outside the Mayor's house.

When Sgt Matsell said Pursey was one of the men he pushed back from the Town Hall steps, the defendant replied: “My Lord, the man is telling a lie.” The Judge advised prisoner not to make statements of that character, as they would not improve his position.

In answer to the Judge, Pursey said he was employed at the Grand Theatre, and witness had seen him there before the riots.

He told the crowd he was in khaki from 1914 to March 1919. Half his left shoulder was blown away. He had no lifting power in his left arm, also had an invalid wife and was home for two months before receiving any money.



In reply to the Judge, Pursey denied giving the Mayor three minutes to come out and saying that if he did not come out he would fetch him out.

Prisoner said it was a cheerful crowd at the Town Hall. He had no grievance against the Mayor and Corporation, but there were about 50 shouting for the Mayor. They did not say “fetch him out,” but that they would like to see him.

The Judge: “Have you any idea what would have happened to him if he had come out?” Pursey: “Not the slightest.”

Prisoner denied that he hung on to a lamp-post to resist being pushed back, or tried to pull the top off a lamp. He denied suggesting the crowd should go to the Mayor's house, but he went there with the crowd for enjoyment (laughter). He went there to see the others fetch the Mayor out, and to hear what he had to say.

Pursey had served in the Leicester Regiment from 1914 to March 1919 and was wounded three times. Inspector Janes said there were no previous convictions against him and he bore a good character.

The Judge said the nature of the words used in this case made it less likely that the police could have been mistaken as to who used them. Nevertheless the Judge could not entirely pass over the case, having regard to the seriousness of the occasion, and passed sentence of three months imprisonment on the rioting charge.