[From the Beds & Herts Tuesday Telegraph: July 22nd, 1919]
The attitude of the crowd towards the Fire Brigade was one which, like others connected with the disaster to the town, would be unthinkable had the people in the streets not gone mad for the time being and lost all their reasoning powers. So said the Beds & Herts Tuesday Telegraph following the Peace Days riots in Luton.
In cooler moments they must realise with a sense of shame that they participated in a savage, senseless attack on a body of men, most of them voluntary workers, whose primary duty it is to save the lives and homes of the people from the dread results of fire.
Only just before being called to the Town Hall on Saturday evening they had responded to calls to two homes, one in Bailey Street and the other in Salisbury Road, where fires had occurred, yet people who would be prompt to condemn them if at any time they fell short in their fulfilment of such a duty, turned on them, beat and stoned them, tried to wreck their whole apparatus and, failing success, damaged some things and stole others.
For three hours the members of the Brigade worked under conditions which all sane people will sincerely hope it may never again be their misfortune to experience. How much they suffered during these three hours can be gathered from their casualty list.
Realising the conditions which existed in the streets at the time when it was reported that a fire had been started, Chief Officer Andrew sent some men on foot to the place with instructions to deal with it by using the hydrants and fire appliances installed in the building.
The Chief Officer then turned out with No. 2 motor and two men and went to the Town Hall via Guildford Street and Williamson Street. When he arrived the first aid apparatus would still have been sufficient to extinguish the flames, but the crowd immediately rushed the motor, incapacitated the two firemen, and took the two lengths of hose which were ready for immediate use.
Left alone, it was impossible for the Chief Officer to attempt any work with the motor, so he extricated it from the crowd and drove back to his headquarters to turn out the remainder of the firemen. Some he sent on foot, telling them what point to make for, and others he took on the motor, after arranging for police help on arrival.
He approached the spot by a devious route, with lamps out and no bell sounding, and by this means reached the top of Dunstable Place unobserved.
Upper George Street, opposite the basket shop, was where they decided to start operations, but when this was noticed the crowd immediately made another rush, and got away with one length of hose. A second was got to work and this was kept going despite the rain of missiles with which the firemen were bombarded, and frequent attacks with sticks, bars of iron and other weapons.
Next a hydrant at the top of Gordon Street was brought into use, but instead of being able to turn the water on to the fire immediately from this point, the men working there had to use it for self-protection for some time. The powerful jet was a useful means of beating back the crowd and making some attention to the fire possible.
Later, hydrants in Manchester Street and Dunstable Place were brought into play and, although the Brigade were harassed is every imaginable way, they kept streams of water going.
Under these conditions it was obvious that there was no hope of saving the Town Hall, and by the time the military arrived – about three o'clock – the whole place, with the exception of the lower floor of the Education Department in Upper George Street, was hopelessly gutted. Adjoining buildings were kept cool by being occasionally drenched, and it is to the lasting credit of the Brigade that private property in Gordon Street and Manchester Street was not involved, and an even greater disaster brought to the town.
The fire subsided about half-past four, and apart from some minor damage to the roof of the Salvation Army premises, no damage was done by the fire to any property other than the Town Hall.
“The firemen wee rendered splendid assistance by a number of discharged soldiers, serving soldiers, regular and special constables, but they were all laid out one after the other,” said Cheif Officer Andrew.
The casualty list among the firemen was as follows:
Second Officer J. W. Plummer – hit twice on the head with an iron bar, and also hit on the head by a missile.
Foreman F. George – twice laid out with blows on the head.
G. Ireland – face and hands cut with missiles.
W. A. Pedder – internal injuries caused by a blow in the stomach.
W. Burgess – blow on the head.
W. Clarke – laid out be being deliberately struck in the back with some weapon.
S. Barber – blows on the back and head.
F. Cowley Snr – injuries to head and side.
S. Giddings – cuts on hands.
A. Day – cuts on hands.
W. G. Burgess – knocked out three times, once with a weapon and twice with missiles.
H. Bates – twice incapacitated, and suffering from concussion.
J. Garrett – injured by blows on the hands.
A. Cook – head and hand injured.
Chief Officer Andrew had his helmet damaged by a nasty lump of iron which was thrown at him, but was not injured, although he was continually used as a target for missiles. The Chief Officer and two firemen were the only ones who escaped personal injury.
The injured men, with one exception, were taken to the police station and, after having their injuries dressed, most of them returned to work. Fireman Pedder, however, had to be taken home, and Fireman Ireland was found only fit for station duty.
In all, the Brigade lost about 12 lengths of hose, some being cut about as to be useless, and others dragged away by the mob. A hydrant shaft was broken, and two branches and some couplings disappeared. Some of these have since been recovered, but in a condition which renders them unfit for use. Six of the brass helmets worn by the men were also so battered as to be unserviceable.
The No. 2 motor had some dents in the bonnet, one of the headlights and a rear lamp were damaged, and the horn also received a smashing blow, so it may be expected that there will be a considerable bill to meet even for these items.
The Telegraph was informed that it was the intention of the Deputy Mayor, Councillor Charles Dillingham to recognise the valiant work of the firemen by a gift of £100.