Borough Insight

The Epsom riot revisited

This June, we will be hosting a number of events, talks, walks and a memorial service to remember a forgotten piece of the area's social history from the aftermath of the First World War, which included the murder of a popular local policeman.

Bourne Hall Museum is trying to contact families whose ancestors were involved in the Epsom riot and its aftermath, to record any memories that have been passed down and to possibly include them in the activities to mark the ‘Epsom riot’ and the death of Sergeant Green. Rifleman

During the First World War, Canadian soldiers were stationed in camps around Surrey. One of these was a convalescent camp, located in the grounds of Woodcote Park (now the RAC Club). At the time of the riot the police station was located at the corner of Ashley Road and what was then Ashley Avenue. The establishment was one inspector (who lived at the station with his family), a station sergeant, three sergeants and 21 constables.

Prior to 17 June 1919, there had been sporadic clashes between some of the soldiers and elements of the town's younger men, but nothing of a serious nature. On the evening of 17 June a disturbance erupted in the Rifleman pub in East Street. The police were called and they cleared the premises. One Canadian soldier persisted in causing trouble and was arrested and conveyed to Epsom police station to await an escort to his camp. A number of soldiers followed and police officers dispersed the group of soldiers, except for one private who persisted in attempting to effect the release of his comrade and continued making threats of violence. He was arrested for obstructing the police.

The group that had run off earlier, their numbers now having been increased to about twenty, assembled outside the police station loudly demanding the release of the two prisoners. A number of police officers went into the road to disperse this crowd who ran through the adjacent Rosebery Park in the direction of their camp.

A group of Canadian troops, now several hundred strong and ignoring all orders and advice, formed up in a semblance of a military formation and marched to Epsom. When this group arrived outside the police station they tore apart a wooden fence separating the station from the adjacent private houses and armed themselves with the pieces.

Police Inspector Pawley called together all his men present - three sergeants, and seven constables - and they formed a line across the front of the station. He then went to the gate and attempted to get the soldiers to disperse, warning them not to do anything they would later regret, telling then that an ambulance had been summoned to take the soldier prisoners back to their camp. He was shouted down by the soldiers, yelling for the prisoners to be released. A Major Ross arrived from the camp and added his voice to the Inspector’s. The mob’s mood turned uglier and a barrage of bricks, stones and pieces of wood rained down on the police line and the mob surged toward the police station.

Realising the vulnerability of the officers in the open, Inspector Pawley withdrew his men into the station, closing the doors and posting officers at the windows to prevent entry. Some of the soldiers tore rails off a fence outside the Weslyan Soldier's Institute on the opposite side of the road and others pulled out the iron railings from the front of the police station forecourt. The mob having smashed down the larger of the two garden gates, then attempted to enter the garden fronting the station building, presumably with the intention of storming the building to release the prisoners. Due to their large numbers this proved a difficult manoeuvre but some did get into the garden, the flagstone path providing the rioters with even further missiles.

Every window in the front of the building by now had been broken and Inspector Pawely's family, who had been asleep in the Inspector's quarters on the first floor, had been moved to the rear of the building.Police station in 1919

The temper of the mob turned even uglier, threatening to burn the building down and continuing to shower it with various missiles. The officers inside the station had by now received some reinforcements, summoned by telephone - one station sergeant, two sergeants, and ten constables from other stations, as well as some of the off-duty Epsom officers who had arrived and had managed to enter the building through the rear windows.

Inspector Pawley led several officers, including Sergeant Thomas Green, into the crowd and succeeded in clearing the garden temporarily of the mob. During this charge Sergeant Green was felled by a blow from a metal bar to the side of the head. He was carried unconscious to a house at the other side of the road until after the affray.

Some of the soldiers had by this time managed to enter the police station and effect the release of one of the prisoners. Inspector Pawley then released the other one. The two prisoners having been released, the soldiers again formed themselves into a semblance of military formation and marched back to the camp. The tumult subsided. Sergeant Green was then moved to the infirmary where he died the following day without regaining consciousness.

The police station and surrounding buildings had suffered considerable damage during the disturbance and in addition to Sergeant Green, the Inspector, four sergeants and eight constables’ sustained injuries. The following day the police made an application to the local magistrates under the "Closing in Time of Riot" clause of the "Intoxicating Liquors Act", that all the public houses in the parishes of Epsom and Ewell be closed for the sale of intoxicating drink. This was granted and in addition all the clubs in the District were also closed. The order remained in force until the Thursday when it was confirmed that the military authorities had placed the town out of bounds.Sgt Green

The inquest into Sergeant Green's death was held in the Court House opposite the police station, a building that had also received some damage during the riot. The chairman of the jury was James Chuter Ede, who was to become Home Secretary in the 1945 Labour Government and the first Mayor of the borough of Epsom & Ewell. The jury returned a verdict of Manslaughter against seven Canadian soldiers.

Remarkable scenes were witnessed at the funeral of Station Sergeant Thomas Green. The whole route from Lower Court Road, where he had lived, to the Ashley Road cemetery was lined with rows of people. The High Street was crowded - rarely had so many people assembled in Epsom before.

The procession, in which over a thousand men took part, included eight hundred police officers and river police, sixty special constables, the local fire brigade, postmen, most of the local council, officers from the Canadian army, comrades of the Great War and patients from the Horton War Hospital. Every shop on the route was closed and most of the houses had their blinds drawn. The funeral service took place across the road from the police station in Ashley Road in the Wesleyan church (now Epsom Methodist Church) to which Thomas Green belonged. The church had also been damaged in the riot. 

The number of flowers sent was huge. They filled the front room of Thomas Green’s home in Lower Court Road, where he had lain the night before his funeral, and spilled out across the front garden.  There was a tribute from Lord Rosebery marked ‘Honour and Regret’.  On the head of the coffin was a beautiful wreath of roses, lilies, carnations and stocks from his invalid widow - her writing could only just be deciphered as she was recovering from a stroke. 

The coffin was followed by four sergeants of V Division and four members of the Epsom force. Three of the sergeants - Kersey, Greenfield and Blaydon - had been injured in the riot. They acted as bearers at the chapel and cemetery.  At the cemetery the coffin had a Guard of Honour of 12 Barnado boys from their home in East Street.

Thomas Green was a very popular local man with two girls, Lily and Nellie. He came from Billingshurst, West Sussex and was one of a family of nine. He was a keen gardener, a member of the Epsom Allotment Association, and had done much for allotment holders locally. He was greatly loved by local children who took up a collection of pennies to buy him flowers. Local girls carried handfuls of flowers that they had picked themselves.

As a result of investigations by Divisional Inspector Ferrier into Sergeant Green's death, eight of the rioters were charged with manslaughter. Following the committal proceedings at Bow Street, two were discharged and six remanded in custody. At their eventual trial at the Surrey Assizes on 22/23 July 1919 verdicts of "not guilty" were returned on two of them. The remainder were found "not guilty" of manslaughter but "guilty" of rioting and were sentenced to 12 months imprisonment. Within weeks they were pardoned by the Prince of Wales and returned to Canada.

A ceremony was held at Epsom Court House to make presentations to the police officers who had taken part in the defence of the police station. The 24 presentations were made by Lord Rosebery. Some of the officers were in mufti having retired from the force since the riot. Lord Rosebery gave each a gold watch or gold chain with medallions inscribed “As a token of public appreciation of the gallant fight by the Epsom Police 17th. June 1919.” Inspector Pawley was presented with a clock and his son Harry Pawley with a silver cigarette case given by Sir Roland Blade MP for the help he gave that night. A cheque for £310 was also given for Mrs Green who was unable to attend because she was in hospital.

Years later, both of Sergeant Green's daughters were to marry Canadians and resettle in that country.

In 1929, one of the soldiers confessed to the murder of Sergeant Green and was detained by the Canadian police, but he was released after Scotland Yard said he had been legally dealt with by the UK courts in relation to Green's death.

If you have memorabilia, records or images relating to the Epsom riot, Bourne Hall Museum would love to hear from you. Contact David Brooks on 020 8394 1734 / dbrooks@epsom-ewell.gov.uk

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