(Following on from yesterday’s post about the mixed popular response to the Peace Day celebrations of 1919, the story of the Luton Riots of 1919).
A couple of Summers ago I decided to visit Luton (I pass through it every day on my train, and wondered what it was like). I even took a notebook (just like a proper journalist) and made notes on what I saw, but never got round to writing them up. Luton is, not, perhaps, the most attractive of towns, but, as with anywhere else, there are plenty of points of interest if you look hard enough.
One of the first things you come to as you leave the station is the Town Hall – a pleasant-looking building, dating, you would guess, from the 1930s. In front of it is a war memorial inscribed with the names of those members of the Bedfordshire Regiment who had lost their lives in the Great War (including that of one of my Grandather’s older brothers).
About half an hour’s walk away is Wardown Park, which has recently been restored to something close to its Edwardian splendour. It houses an attractive cricket ground, which hosts matches by Bedfordshire and Northants, as well as being the home of Luton Town and Indians CC (one of the grounds where Monty Panesar learned his trade). It also houses the Wardown Park Museum and Gallery.
As you might expect, there a lot of hats in this museum (I rather foolishly bought a boater from the Museum shop, which I’ve never found an occasion to wear) –
and plenty of lace. But one of the most striking exhibits was a sort of son-et-lumiere recreation of the Peace Day riots of 1919, which provided an explanation of why the Town Hall was rather more modern than one might expect.
A full and lively account of this event is available here, but, in short, the facts are these. The authorities in the town had planned to celebrate the declaration of peace with a procession through the town to the Town Hall, followed by an official reading of the Proclamation of Peace and a splendid dinner for the Mayor and some of the Council Officials. No ex-servicemen were invited to the dinner.
Ex-servicemen’s organisation requested permission to organise an event of their own in Wardown Park, but this was refused. To make their point, they lined the route of the official procession and stood in silence, with the most seriously wounded and disabled servicemen at the front. When the procession reached the Town Hall (accompanied now by the ex-servicemen), the Mayor attempted to read the Proclamation, but was drowned out by jeering and cat-calls. A call for three cheers for the ex-servicemen inflamed the crowd further. They surged forward, breaking through the thin line of police and occupied the Town Hall, forcing the Mayor and his party to barricade themselves in a small parlour. The decorations for the Mayor’s Party were torn down and thrown from the windows, as were most of the furniture and official documentation.
As the evening progressed, fires were started inside and outside the Town Hall. Petrol was brought from a nearby garage to feed the flames and by midnight the Town Hall was soon well and truly ablaze. A music shop was broken into and three pianos dragged into the street, to provide a musical accompaniment. Rather wittily, I feel, they sang that patriotic favourite of the First War, Ivor Novello’s keep the Home Fires Burning.
It took three or four days for order to be restored. The Mayor, who had been smuggled from the Town Hall disguised as a Special Constable, decided to retire from politics and Luton and live in Sutton-on-Sea. He only returned to Luton twice – once for the funeral of a friend, and once for his own.
And here is one of the most popular recordings of Keep the Home Fires Burning, by John McCormack.
(Look, I’m not advocating burning Town Halls down, all I’m saying is it happens- right?, as they always used to say in NME).