STRATFORD-UPON-AVON'S image is that of a pretty market town which became internationally famous because it was the birthplace of William Shakespeare. Over a century ago, however, it was the scene of violent riots as a result of an event in South Africa during the Boer War.
The particular event in question was the relief of Ladysmith on 27th February 1900. Ladysmith, a town in what is now called Kwazulu-Natal, had been besieged by Boer forces since 30th October 1899.
News of its relief after four months of worsening hardship stirred up a great deal of patriotic fervour (as did the subsequent relief of Mafeking that made Major-General Robert Baden-Powell, who later founded the Boy Scout movement, into a national hero).
Unfortunately this patriotic fervour in Stratford, and a few other places in the country, turned particularly ugly when a jingoistic mob decided to celebrate Ladysmith’s relief by attacking the properties of people perceived to be “Anti-War” or “Pro-Boer.”
Details of the Stratford riots and their aftermath are documented in considerable detail by local historian Philip Spinks in the current issue of Warwickshire History, the journal of the Warwickshire Local History Society.
In his article—headlined Jingoism in Action: the Stratford-upon-Avon Ladysmith Riots—Mr Spinks says that news of the town’s relief reached Stratford 48 hours after the event, on 1st March. The campaign to relieve it had been led by General Sir Redvers Buller.
The Herald at the time reported that this news “. . .[would] be received with gratification by every subject of the Queen who desires to see her authority re-established in South Africa. For many weeks the eyes of the beleaguered residents have been strained to catch a glimpse of the relieving force. General Buller has been thrice beaten back. . .[but] Ladysmith is now relieved of the dreadful sufferings to which its population has been subjected.”
It was further reported that on the evening of Thursday 1st March “. . .a few young men, on leaving [the Conservative Club in Rother Street]. . .marched down the street singing patriotic airs. . .they were joined by others [and] greatly augmented in number. . .they tramped down High-street, cheering and singing, and outside Mr [Henry] Bullard’s premises in Chapel-street a halt was made, hissing and groans were given, and the crowd of nearly 200 people passed on round the town, disturbing many of the peaceful residents. . .back the crowd came to Chapel-street, and rigorous hooting took place against the occupier of the premises, who was alleged by the mob to be in sympathy with the Boers.”
Mr Spinks writes that “disturbing many of the peaceful residents” included smashing the windows of Thomas Flint’s home at 18 Arden Street. No 10 Chapel Street was also besieged by the crowd, by now swollen to an estimated 300 people.
He adds: “Bullard, his brother (William Porter Bullard) and a lodger in the house tried to defend the property using sticks and an antique gun; some of the crowd were injured, one with a serious head wound. Only one policeman was on the scene and he was unable to control the situation. After this fracas the crowd dispersed.
“It was claimed by the demonstrators that Bullard ‘. . .had expressed an earnest hope that all the English troops serving in the war would be annihilated...’ and that ‘. . .he had exhibited a Boer flag in the window, and that the superintendent of the police [Richard Lambourne] had advised him to withdraw the offending flag’.
“The same report stated that Bullard had denied ever having a Boer flag, let alone displaying one; he also denied that he had used ‘. . .any words against the Army deployed. . .’ but held that ‘. . .the war was unjust, and should never have been commenced’.”
Mr Spinks says: “Bullard’s anti-war opinions were fired by his staunch Congregationalism and this conviction ran in the family: in the First World War Charles Henry Bullard of Stratford-upon-Avon, either a son or a nephew, became an ‘absolutist’ conscientious objector after the introduction of military conscription, his devout anti-militarism resulting in his imprisonment.”
The following evening, Friday 2nd March, the disturbances began again—this time across the town. “Bullard’s workshop in Shipston Road was attacked and all the windows broken; his auction yard in Guild Street (within fifty yards of the police station) was similarly vandalised,” writes Mr Spinks.
“Additionally ‘. . .a Mr Whyatt [sic] of Sheep Street, Mrs Perkins of Henley Street, Mr Wright of Clopton Lane, Mr Trinder of Ely Street and Mr Flint of Arden Street [again], all complained of unprovoked damage. . .’”
Mr Spinks says the one thing the victims shared was that they had all voiced their opposition to the war. Interestingly the son of Thomas Flint was working in South Africa and was said “. . .to be helping the Boers and was alleged to have expressed hopes of a Boer victory”.
This series of attacks culminated in the gathering of about 1,000 people who again became “demonstrative” outside No 10 Chapel Street. Five or six policemen kept some form of order but “. . .the throng commenced throwing stones and other missiles. . .” and caused a great deal of damage.
The attacks on property went on for two hours—and only the intervention of Cllr Edward Deer stopped the unrest worsening. Single-handedly he managed to control the crowd and the disorder, appealing to the mob’s patriotism by calling for three cheers for the Queen and the soldiers at the front. “The crowd dispersed,” writes Mr Spinks. “Deer, it would seem, had gauged his audience well and probably held more sway with the locals than the police officers on duty.
“It was clear that the local police could not cope with such large scale public disorder and that Superintendent Lambourne was fearful of even more violence during the weekend. On Saturday 3rd March the county Chief Constable, Captain Brinkley, visited Stratford-upon-Avon to judge the situation for himself. He ordered large detachments of police to be drafted into the town from across Warwickshire ‘in anticipation of another uprising’.”
That night there were several thousand people on the streets, but the rioters, who marched together, “did not number more than 500”. A few “nasty rushes” were made at the so-called pro-Boers, but the police had no difficulty in checking the attacking force.
After a few more incidents the crowd was eventually pacified by Robert Lunn, the town clerk. As Mr Spinks points out: “To outface a potentially violent crowd takes particular courage.” Mr Lunn advised the crowd to disperse—and it did. The Stratford riots had come to an end.
However, out of hundreds of rioters just five men were charged with offences committed during three nights of disorder, and only three were convicted, though the sentences were harsher than would normally have been handed down. Meanwhile the victims of the rioting got less by way of compensation than they’d asked for—and in some cases their claims met with flat refusals.
In the days and weeks that followed there were a series of ill-tempered exchanges between the so-called patriots and the victims in the letters page of the Herald. One victim, whose shop front had been destroyed during the riots, actually questioned the patriotism of the rioters. He suggested they leave “. . .the feather bed and home comforts. . .[and join] some branch of the military service. . .” to prove their patriotism.
The riots had become international news, and one key player afterwards was Stratford’s vicar, the Rev George Arbuthnot. In his sermon on 18th March 1900 he informed his parishioners that he’d learned of these dramatic events from the European edition of the New York Herald while on holiday in the south of France.
Although he’d been away from Stratford during the riots, he became an expert on them when he returned. He engaged in some robust debate on the matter. Despite being pro-War, he attacked the fact that only a handful of people out of a mob of 500 had been prosecuted and admonished the authorities for failing to assert the majesty of the law.
And it didn’t end there. In mid-1901 a parliamentary by-election was triggered by the death of Stratford’s MP, Colonel Victor Milward, and disorder flared up again.
The Herald said that some of the ringleaders of the 1901 unrest were the same as those of 1900. But a call for an inquiry into the cause of these later disturbances—to include the identification of the ringleaders and their motives—was refused.
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