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The 1902 Coronation Riot at Watford

The Coronation of a new monarch has always been a cause for celebration, and never more so perhaps than in 1902, for in May of that year the Boer War had ended and Saturday, 28th June was Coronation Day, marking a new beginning after Victoria’s long reign. The good citizens of Watford, young and old, looked forward to the forthcoming celebrations: the children’s sports day in Cassiobury Park, the band and the grand procession and, in the evening, the lighting of the bonfire.

Alas, as events would show, Watford became a town of shame following scenes of drunkenness, assault, the plundering of property, arson and malicious damage, when hundreds of men and women rioted, many of them ending up in jail. Yet the cause of the troubles was unavoidable. It all happened because King Edward VII, awaiting his Coronation, had perityphlitis.

This disease we now know as appendicitis, and that he had contracted the illness was hardly Edward’s fault. Moreover, the operation then was far from straightforward, and Edward was in serious risk of death. In the event, he pulled through and reigned for eight years. But on Tuesday evening, with the Coronation just days away, and the looked-forward to celebrations imminent, the Watford Town Council had no choice but to cancel festivities.

This did not go down well at all with the ‘rougher element’ of Watford’s population. They had looked forward in no small degree to drinking the health of the newly-crowned king. The law-abiding community, too, would be disappointed, but doubtless accept events as being unfortunate, for when Edward recovered, wouldn’t they still have their great day? But, for the present, those in authority reasoned that parades and bonfires and a shilling for the children were inappropriate when, for all they knew, Edward might die.

The chairman of the town council was one Francis Fisher, a local butcher. He it was who would ‘get the blame’, once the effects of a hot, sticky Thursday and, probably, alcohol, had combined to affect the minds and reasoning of the ‘rougher element’. Never mind the Coronation, what about the fun? Mr Fisher was hissed at as he walked through town

At 9.30 that Thursday evening, a crowd of up to three hundred people marched to the bonfire, evicted the watchman who was guarding it, and threw his hut on to the bonfire, which they lit. When Mr Waterhouse, the town surveyor, tried to intervene, he was pelted with stones and had to take refuge in a nearby cottage. The mob broke the windows, then, fired up like the bonfire, and armed with clubs, metal pips and stones, set off for the town centre. The one word on their lips was ‘Fisher’.

Superintendent Wood, the Watford police chief, had twenty men under his command. Unfortunately, half had been dispatched to Hemel Hempstead, whose own ‘rougher element’ was causing problems of its own. Reinforcements were sent for, but the mob, as it was, attacked Mr Fisher’s butcher’s shop, as well as two drapery stores and a shoe shop belonging to another member of the Coronation Committee, Mr George Longley.

Mr Fisher, anticipating the trouble, barricaded himself in his shop. When some of the rioters broke the windows and reached inside, he brought the shutters down sharply on their fingers. This started the rumour that he was cutting off rioters’ fingers with a meat cleaver! It was reported accordingly in the London press. Fisher, with his staff, were forced to retreat, the crowd surging into the premises which they tried to set ablaze, and when the fire brigade turned up they cut their hoses.

At his shop, Mr Longley calmly allowed the rioters to enter and steal property, at the same time making careful note of their faces. The mob stole boots and shoes, umbrellas and clothing. Later, giving evidence, Mr Longley said, ‘The women looters did not hurry but selected refinery with great care’.

In desperation, Supt Wood called for volunteers to form special constables. It was time to read the Riot Act, which the magistrate, Mr Coles, did in the old Market Place. Shouting above the noise, and ducking the occasional missile, Mr Coles fulfilled the requirement of the law, this being that before the specials could be ‘sworn’, the Act had to be read to the assembled crowd.

Two hundred specials (from 500 volunteers) were then sworn in to assist the regular policemen quell the riot. After being issued with an assortment of truncheons, they charged at the mob, smashing heads and dragging off ringleaders, arresting twenty-eight men and eight women. There being insufficient room in Watford’s police station, they were taken directly to St Albans prison.

Some regular officers suffered injuries: Inspector Boutell, Sergeant Page and three constables were described as ‘more or less hurt, none seriously’. All this in Watford town centre, all this over the cancellation of Coronation Day due to the king’s illness. We would not expect this today, surely, yet the following morning the mess they had to clear up might not today be an unfamiliar sight at first light: broken glass, lumps of wood and pools of blood!

The Herts Leader, reporting on the riot, said, ‘The disgraceful scenes which occurred in the streets of Watford on Thursday evening have not, fortunately, been repeated. The threatening of Mr Fisher, Chairman of the Council in the morning, the burning of the bonfire in the evening, the attack on Mr Fisher’s shop and the attempt to set fire to it, the sacking of the contents of the front windows of two High Street shops of Mr Longley, have been reported on the fullest detail’.

So they had. But had anyone considered the causes?

In August that year the Watford Critic had much to say of the riot, not least about Mr Fisher himself. ‘His chickens have come home to roost’, reported the Critic, alluding to the junketing by the workers at the outbreak of, and during, the Boer War. ‘Ruffianism was glorified into patriotism’, said the Critic, when favoured by Mr Fisher. Now it had broken out at the cancellation of the Coronation Day celebrations, on his instruction, he would learn that ‘whatever a man soweth that shall he also reap’.

The Critic also mentioned the slums of Watford. ‘If there is one person left in Watford,’ said the Critic, ‘who is still of the opinion that the question of the slums is small moment, a scrutiny of the addresses of the rioters should provide food for reflection. By far the greatest percentage came hotfoot from slumdom. Ballard’s buildings alone produced eleven.’ The Critic went on to name other locations, all slum areas of Watford.

‘The Low moral atmosphere generated in stifling court and alley is an important factor in the manufacture of the complete hooligan,’ wrote the Critic. ‘The Coronation Committee stands condemned. They promoted arrangements for the festive entertainment of the needy, and to provide schoolchildren with money which it was feared would find its way, among hooligans, into parents’ pockets.

‘All were on the tip-toe of expectation. And the Committee, with stupendous stupidity or supine thoughtlessness, resolved to postpone the bounties, which, if bestowed as at first arranged, might have presented the only opportunity for public recognition of Edward Rex. Here was a grievance. Discontent was in the air. But nothing was done to avert it. Accustomed to close their eyes to the existence of slums, the Committee blundered’.

In other words, having provided hope for Watford’s slum-dwellers, the Coronation Committee, in abandoning festivities, provided reason for the deprived to go on the rampage. And it was all Mr Fisher’s fault.

Be that as it may, on the Friday morning there remained the threat of more violence and a cleaning-up operation to do. The former never happened, but now enter two police characters, Chief Constable Daniell, and Deputy Chief Constable, John Reynolds.

John Reynolds is described as a legendary figure in the history of the Hertfordshire Constabulary. Over thirty years before he had arrested John Chapman for the murder of PC Benjamin Snow at Benington, and had built up a firm reputation as a good copper before he retired with an astonishing 51 years’ service. Now he organised searches of the rioters’ homes in the slums of Watford, where there were more arrests and recovery of property stolen from the shop of Mr Longley. Even so, many of the shops remained barricaded.

Later, the rioters appeared before the Watford magistrates. They were brought on wagons, thus disappointing the crowd, who expected them to arrive from St Albans by train! Luckily for the rioters, no charges were brought under the Riot Act, which carried a maximum life sentence of penal servitude. Instead, they faced charges of assault, larceny (theft) and attempted arson.

At court, the Chief Constable ‘looked neat in riding breeches’, and the Chairman of the Bench, in a speech, said he wished to thank ‘all lovers of respectability’. The prosecutor, Mr Murphy, was bitter in his references to the ‘mob of so-called Englishmen’, and praised the police. ‘I should be denying myself an agreeable duty if I did not mention the good work done by Superintendent Wood and those under him.’

Sentences ranged from ten months’ hard labour to fines. The prisoners were then marched from the court and through the town. Shackled and disgraced, they were placed into wagons and carted off to jail. Justice Phillimore, at St Albans assizes, expressed the hope that the monarch would make a full recovery from his serious illness, and added, ‘The people of Watford have permitted themselves to indulge in riotous excess. The ringleaders should suffer the punishment they deserve.’

Under the law, Town Hall funds provided compensation for the injured parties (amounting to between £1,000 and £2,000), the 200 specials were presented with riot truncheons as souvenirs, and the king was crowned that June. The slums, of course, remained.