Riot trials at Assizes: Prosecution case

[From the Beds & Herts Saturday Telegraph: October 18th, 1919]

Mr Hollis Walker KC, in an opening statement as counsel for the prosecution at Beds Assizes on Friday, October 17th, 1919, reminded the jury of the Peace Celebrations which were arranged up and down the country in July, and reviewed the establishment of a Peace Celebration Committee by the Luton Town Council, to devise a scheme in accordance with the “desires, the views and the resources of the Borough”.

The scheme, he said, did not escape criticism – no such scheme probably ever did. It was anticipated that such a scheme was likely to meet with a certain amount of hostile criticism. But very rarely, he should imagine or should hope, did the element of hostility reach such a stage of outrage and violence, fire and personal injury, as that which he should have later to recount to the jury.

Counsel proceeded to recount the Luton Committee's decision to include a procession in the local scheme, and described its progress from Luton Hoo to the Town Hall, and the reading of the King's Proclamation.

Proceeding, he said that after the procession the attitude of the crowd changed considerably. The Mayor, Corporation and officials retired within the Town Hall, and the doors were closed behind them. It became evident that the people – or many of them – had not come to hear the reading of the King's Proclamation or the words of eloquence from the Mayor.

“Their cries soon became noisy and specific. What they cried out for was the Mayor and the Town Clerk, as though they were crying out for a victim to be thrown to what was by then a turbulent, noisy and excited mob.”

Mr Walker said the Mayor and Town Clerk, quite naturally, refused to agree to the demand that they should come outside among the crowd, and detailed the action taken by the mob - “for at that time it had become a mob” - in forcing an entrance to the Town Hall, and the rush upstairs to the Assembly Hall, “where there began the first orgy of destruction”.

A diversion was created, he said, either owing to the arrival of the Chief Constable and members of his staff or the attraction of a new sort of war cry. The crowd appeared to think that it would be a good thing to go to the house of the Mayor, and a party in fact did so.

At that point the Assizes were adjourned until 10.30am the following day, when it was stated that one member of then jury (Mr Gilbert) had lost his wife during the night. The juryman was excused and another juryman sworn in his place.

Continuing his statement on the events of Peace Day in Luton, Mr Walker said among those who counselled the move to the Mayor's residence were undoubtedly two of the prisoners, Pursey and Miles. There were sufficient police at the Mayor's house to prevent anything being done, although a number of people clambered over the railings. They were assured the Mayor was not there, and eventually left the terror-stricken inhabitants of the house in peace, and went back to the Town Hall, where more excited speeches were made.

Blazing Town Hall 1919A number of prisoners at one time or another took their stand on the Town Hall steps and delivered inflammatory speeches, but the police were just able to prevent anything being done.

In the evening, two gentlemen of influence, the President of the DS&S and a prominent Labour JP, endeavoured to persuade the crowd to disperse peacefully, but without much success, and there continued to be a crowd until at closing time the public houses poured forth their occupants.

Whether it was because of these reinforcements, or because some of them were imbued with Dutch courage – some of the prisoners had admitted they acted under the influence of drink – there was no drink after the public houses closed at 10 o'clock, but more spirit was infused into the proceedings.

The remainder of the Town Hall windows were broken, and rushes were made at the doors. The Luton police was not a large force. They had been on duty a long period, and it was a long time before they had anybody to assist them. The ugly rushes of the crowd were only repelled with difficulty.

After half-past ten o'clock there came the introduction of that terrible element – fire. It was first discovered at the Food Office in Manchester Street, and the Fire Brigade were called. Suitable men and equipment were sent, and if it had been an ordinary fire it could easily have been extinguished.

But other fires were started, and it was not long before the whole strength of the Fire Brigade had to be employed in fighting the outbreak.

With the Town Hall and its important documents and records in it in danger, not only did the crowd find individuals to help start the fire, but also a host of individuals to impede the police and firemen, and do their utmost to ensure that the place should be burned down.

Men climbed on the engine and took away parts of the equipment of the Fire Brigade, and not only were the firemen obstructed by having their equipment taken away, but they were hit, kicked and stoned with all sorts of missiles, and one of the ugliest features of the affair was the character of the injuries inflicted by kicks and blows, as would be shown by the evidence of Dr Archibald.

The Town Hall had to be left to its fate, and the building and its contents were irreparably destroyed. In the small hours of the morning the military came to the assistance of the police, and order was to some extent restored. The object of the emblematic Peace Car might be said to be achieved, and after 12 hours peace was enthroned in the smouldering ruins of the Town Hall.

Counsel proceeded to outline the attacks on shops in the neighbourhood, and the subsequent looting of the premises, some goods being stolen and others wantonly thrown out into the street.

That was shortly an account of what took place, said Counsel. Details would be filled in by witnesses, and he thought it would be clearly proved that there was a most disastrous riot which destroyed the Town Hall, a building which served its purpose and could not be replaced except by the expenditure of many thousands of pounds. It also involved great damage to other persons' property, which would have to be made good, and injuries to at least 84 persons, of whom over 40 were members of the police force.

Counsel submitted that there was one continuous riot. Some acted quietly in a riot, and were not the least dangerous because they were not ringleaders. Theirs was the quiet hand which applied the torch. There were others who, because of their noisy conduct, were easily identified, and perhaps most of the prisoners would be found in that category. But whatever part they played, they were equally guilty.