Bilston Riot - 100 years on

Starting at 11pm on 21st July 1919, a violent riot broke out at Bilston Police Station where windows were smashed and attempts were made to set fire to the police station.

It had started after Constable Turner reprimanded two soldiers on leave for ‘extravagant behaviour’[1] which turned violent when the soldiers began to strike Turner multiple times[2]. This attracted a crowd, which eventually grew to several thousand. Turner and his fellow constable, Pardoe, were then forced to retreat to the police station for backup. The cry of ‘we will have his blood’[3] was shouted at Turner from the crowd, as they demanded his dismissal. The six-foot wall, which surrounded the station, was dismantled and the bricks then used to smash all the windows of the station.[4] Petrol was also poured on the building in an attempt to set fire to it, but this fortunately was unsuccessful. It was not until around 2am when reinforcements from surrounding towns arrived that the crowd were finally scattered. In the end, there were three arrests, two of which were the soldiers. A brick hit the eye of a constable and the Superintendent Rowbathan’s arm was broken but there were no serious injuries.[5]

Bilston Police Station following the 1919 riot

Bilston Police Station after the riot

The following afternoon the case was heard in court where the two soldiers, William Baker and Samuel Dando (both 20), were charged with assaulting police which carried the punishment of forty shillings or thirty days in prison. In addition they, as well as Lilian Randall (18), were charged with rioting and malicious damage which carried the punishment of £5 with the defendants bound over to keep the peace for six months.[6]

The Bilston riot was one of a number of riots that took place around the UK in the same week that, ironically, happened around the same time as celebrations for the signing of the Versailles peace treaty. Though the riots were all distinct events, they were all connected to the same issues of the treatment of returning soldiers. In Bilston, the reprimanding of the soldiers on leave was the trigger for the protest. Riots in Coventry, where people looted shops between the 19 and 22 July were triggered by the non-inclusion of ex-soldiers in the annual Godiva parade.[7] The riots in Luton, which happened on the same evening as Bilston, started when the Discharged Sailors’ and Soliders’ Association were not given an appropriate site for their memorial service for the fallen[8]. And the riot in Hull, a few days after Bilston was the result of a Blue Jacket (of the Navy) being arrested.[9]

The Bishop of Coventry spoke, later in the year, of how the riots had ruined the peace parades.[10] In reality, however, the celebrations of peace did not do enough to support and honour the very people who sacrificed the most for their country. No wonder it is, therefore, that people saw negativity towards military personnel by officials as the last straw and sought to seek vigilante justice for them. Thus, although the riots got out of hand and could not be seen as legitimate action they came from an understandable sense of anger from the people of Britain

The original Bilston Police Station, located on Mount Pleasant in the town, opened in 1840 and operated until 2011 when it was sold after a new police station was build on Railway St by West Midlands Police. The old Bilston station was famous for apparently being the only known police station in the UK to be surrounded by a moat .[11]

Bilston Police Station prior to its 2011 closure
Bilston Police Station's moat