Riot case: Wilfred Henry Ovenell

Riot case: Wilifred Henry Ovenell

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

Wilfred Henry (Harry) Ovenell [spelt 'Ovenhall' or 'Ovenall' in official documents] , aged 34, classical master at Luton Modern School, lodging at 73a Ashburnham Road, Luton, first appeared before magistrates on July 29th, 1919, charged with “On the 20th July 1919, together with divers other persons to the number of one thousand or more unlawfully and riotously did assemble to disturb the public peace and then did make a great riot and disturbance 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”.



At the first hearing, Inspector Janes stated that on Sunday he saw Ovenell and told him there were very serious complaints that on the Sunday morning he was throwing missiles at the police and firemen in Upper George Street. He replied: “The rumour is all over town. It has worried me very much.”

He denied the truth of the rumour and then said: “I came in by the last train from town. When I reached George Street I found there was a very large crowd of people. I tried to get into Upper George Street to go home, when I was swilled with water. I sprang into a doorway, and two men assisted me. I stumbled and cut my finger on the broken window. I stood in the doorway until the water deflected, and then went back into the crowd, and found the friend with whom I had been in town. I stood by the chemist's shop and tried to prevent people walking in there.”

He was then asked if he was willing to go to the police station and be put up for identification. To this he replied: “What will it mean if I am identified?” Witness said that proceedings would be taken against him, and he then said: “I will come”.

At the police station the Chief Constable gave him the opportunity of standing where he chose among five other men. A young man was then called in, and without hesitation went up to him and said: “This is the man”. Later prisoner was arrested on a warrant.

He was very much upset, and asked: “What does this man for me?” Witness replied: “It is up to you to disprove the allegations made against you. If you are guilty of throwing at the police and firemen you deserve punishment.” He replied: “I don't know whether I am guilty or not. I am all nerves through the war.”

Prisoner: “I don't know exactly what was happening on Saturday night. There is a perfect gap in my mind.”

Magistrates said they had no choice but to remand Ovenell.

In court the following day, a civilian witness [Walter Edgar Holyoak] said that between 1am and 2am On Sunday, July 20th, he was in the crowd outside the Town Hall between the tramway stand and the chemist's shop at the bottom of Wellington Street. George Street at that time was “one mass of people”. The Town Hall was on fire, and the people were as close to the building as they could get without being scorched or getting wet.

He saw Ovenell, who was standing in Messrs Dillingham's doorway, throw missiles at the police and firemen. Witness was not near enough to see what he actually threw, but he was sure prisoner did throw missiles.

On Thursday, July 24th, witness saw Ovenell in a local club and asked him if he was “out to earn a VC on Saturday night or Sunday night”. Ovenell began “to make strange of it,” pretending not to understand. Witness told him he was in Dillingham's doorway, and he saw him throwing at the police and firemen, and that he thought it was very disgraceful conduct.

Cross-examined by Mr H. W. Lathom (for Ovenell), witness said he was not near enough to see what he was actually throwing, but he thought it was glass. The hose was played all the time, and each time prisoner threw the water was turned on him.

Witness said he considered the firemen played on prisoner because that was the onlt protection they had. He saw them turn the hose in the same way on other people who were throwing.

Another civilian [Henry Edward Whittemore] stated that, having seen the prisoner throw something, he said to him: “If I were you I would not do that; you will be sorry for it.” Prisoner replied that it was nothing to do with him.

Witness thought it was plate glass from [chemist] Clark's window (which had been smashed) which prisoner threw. On Sunday last, continued the witness, he picked out Ovenell from a number of people, and had no doubt who he was.

Inspector Janes, who repeated his evidence of the previous day's hearing, said he saw Ovenell at his lodgings on July 28th and said: “I have a warrant for your arrest”. Prisoner was very much upset and said: “What does this mean for me?”

Inspector Janes told him it was up to him to disprove the allegation. He told him that if he was guilty of throwing missiles at the firemen and police he deserved punishment. Ovenell replied: “I don't know whether I am guilty or not. I am all nerves through the war. Replying to the warrant, prisoner said: “Very good.”

In the witness box, Ovenell said he had been at the Modern School since the previous September and was an MA of Oxford, where he took his degree with honours before becoming a schoolmaster first at Leek [Staffs]. He voluntarily joined Kitchener's Army [R.A.M.C.] in 1915, and after transferring in 1916 to the ranks in the Royal Fusiliers, was granted a commission as Second Lieutenant. At Arras in 1917 he sustained severe shell shock, and in May 1918 was discharged as a neurasthenic subject, becoming classical master at the Luton Modern School the following September. He was still appearing before medical boards.

He was not conscious that he threw anything, and believed he took no part with the rioters, but agreed his memory was defective and incomplete.

He was allowed bail to appear at Beds Assizes in October in his own and his father's recognisances of £50 each.



Opening the defence on Thursday, October 23rd, Mr Dyer KC said Ovenell's case was that he took no conscious part in what was happening in such a way as to make him liable for riot, demolition or assault.

After his wife's death [Wilfred married Minnie Godwin at Leek, Staffs, in 1914 and she died in 1916 after the birth of a son, Eric Reginald], he dropped stripes he had won in the Royal Army Medical Corps to transfer to a fighting unit, was later commissioned and eventually discharged unfit for further service owing to shell shock.

On the night concerned he did not get back from London until nearly 1am and was going home to Ashburnham Road by his usual route. The evidence was that when he got to Upper George Street he was deluged with water from a hose, got into a doorway and cut his hand. From that time he remembered nothing of what happened.

The evidence of Holyoak was that the prisoner dashed out of Messrs Dillingham's doorway, apparently threw something and was driven back each time. Counsel suggested it all depended on what construction the jury placed on certain acts. If prisoner, in trying to get away along Upper George Street, was gesticulating and waving his arms, the witness Holyoak would have seen what he said in evidence, but had placed a sinister construction upon it which was not justified by the facts.

The witness Whittemore said he thought prisoner was throwing glass on one occasion, but in cross-examination said he said he only thought that because there was glass lying about, and he had apparently jumped to conclusions. Was that the sort of evidence on which they could convict?

If prisoner had been taking the prominent part alleged, it was remarkable that none of the police or firemen noticed it. Counsel suggested the prosecution had failed to prove prisoner took a part in the proceedings which amounted to riot, and that if he threw glass he was not in a state of mind to know what he was doing to form the “intent” which formed part of acting in concert with other people.

His Lordship asked whether that was not a dangerous suggestion of mental defect. Counsel he was not suggesting that, but that the excitement of the moment was responsible. Drunkenness was now held to be sufficient to prevent a man forming an “intent,” and counsel submitted that shell shock was in the same category.



In evidence, Ovenell said he came back from London on Peace Day and started home through Bute Street and George Street. There was a huge crowd and the Town Hall was on fire, but he had no distinct or coherent recollection of anything else, except that he was drenched with water and jumped headlong for shelter on the left of the road. He stumbled, and some people helped him, otherwise he thought he was have gone through a window.

Prisoner seemed to be bustled round about the corner of Wellington Street, but that was all he could remember, and he had no recollection of throwing pieces of glass at the firemen, or rushing our of a doorway into the street, or even arriving home. Nor did he recollect having any desire to attack anybody.

Later witness went home to Oxford and was twice seen by a doctor who knew the history of his shell shock.

Cross-examined, Ovenell said he suffered considerably from inability to sleep. Asked about other nervous trouble during the past year, he said he felt reluctant to go among people, but that was about all.

“You never lost your memory or wits owing to shell shock?” Witness: “No.”

Prisoner agreed he could have gone home another way, but the fire occupied his attention and he did not think about going any other way than his natural route. It was the first big fire he had seen, and it took all his attention.

Mr Walker (for the prosecution), after asking Ovenell about the crowd at the Town Hall, of which prisoner said he remembered very little, said: “Sometimes forgetfulness is convenient. I want to see whether your forgetfulness is the forgetfulness of convenient or of fact.”

Prisoner said he did not know what time he got home, but he had since been told it was three o'clock. His clothes were wet next morning, and that confirmed his impression that he got drenched at the Town Hall.

He agreed his statement was correct when he said: “I don't know whether I am guilty or not. I am all nerves through the war,” and that was what he now asked the jury to believe.

His Lordship asked whether Ovenell lost his memory when he sustained shell shock. Prisoner replied that it was not until he was in hospital that he had temporary lapses.

Dr John McLaughlin, of Oxford, who examined prisoner twice after the date of the rioting, said it was quite likely that during the excitement of the rioting prisoner would lose his memory. The effect of the riot night would most certainly be a severe shock to prisoner, and witness did not think he would be able to form any intent to act in concert with other rioters.

Cross-examined, the doctor said he had known the Ovenell family for many years, but had not seen prisoner from the time he was in the Army until after the rioting. It was quite possible that seeing the fire, with other factors he did not remember, would make him lose his memory, and in that condition he might do all sorts of violent things.

Witness would not agree, however, that what it amounted to was that for a time prisoner was a mad man. Under those conditions it was not even temporary madness. Otherwise many other people – he would not mention their great names – were also mad. (laughter)

Mr Walker: “If it is not madness, what is it?” Witness: “Automatism.”

Mr Walker: “I don't want the medical name. But what the man in the street would call it.” Witness: “You will find that name in all your books.”

A man who killed another while in a state of automatism, said witness, would not be a murderer or a madman. Mr Walker: “I wonder what category he would come in?”

Mr T. C. Warrington MA, headmaster of Leek High School, giving evidence of character, said prisoner was the last man he would expect to go out of his way to join in rioting.

The jury retired to consider their verdict. The foreman said, correctly, that they would be absent only a few minutes, and on their return he stated that they found the prisoner not guilty on all three counts. Prisoner was accordingly acquitted and discharged.