Blood on Norwich’s streets: The festive riots that followed Armistice 100 years ago

The Guildhall in Norwich when it was the police station.

The Guildhall in Norwich when it was the police station. - Credit: Archant

The war had been won. The formal celebrations were over but a few weeks on, the fighting was still taking place on the streets of Norwich. Derek James recalls the riots of December 1918.

Norwich City Police in the 1920s.

Norwich City Police in the 1920s. - Credit: Archant

It was a toxic mix. Drunken soldiers, angry civilians...and the police trying to control a mob on the rampage.

The 'Great War' was finally over. The soldiers were coming home but what now?

Jobs were scare, times were hard.

The country was at peace but there was little peace on the streets of Norwich following a 'riot' towards the end of 1918.

Chief Constable John Henry Dain

Chief Constable John Henry Dain - Credit: Archant

The trouble first started at the Agricultural Hall – now Anglia Television – on Prince of Wales Road where the Christmas funfair was being held both inside and outside the building.

These fairs were big, rough and tumble events attracting large crowds but a century ago the 'fun' ended and the fighting started.

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We reported at the time:

'It is many years since there was such a riotous scene as that witnessed in Norwich as that witnessed in London Street and the Market Place and which culminated in a determined attack on the Police Station.'

How we reported the 1918 riot.

How we reported the 1918 riot. - Credit: Archant

The trouble started at the fair when the city police were called to a disturbance and arrested a soldier. Then it all kicked off.

'The incident led to a great deal of excitement and hostility. Several constables were required to get the man to the police station and on the way they were followed by a noisy crowd several hundred strong,' we reported a century ago.

'At the top of St Andrew's Hill a portion of the crowd left the main body and doubled down Bedford Street thus outflanked the constables and their prisoner.

'Right up to the Police Station door (the Guildhall) the crowd surged round in a threatening manner and then suddenly stones and brick-ends came through the windows, the clerk in charge having more than one narrow escape,' wrote our reporter at the scene.

The big rough and tumble fairs in and around the Agricultural Hall in Norwich were riots started a c

The big rough and tumble fairs in and around the Agricultural Hall in Norwich were riots started a century ago - Credit: Michael Gray

The crowd were in no mood to go home.

'By the time the prisoner was inside the station the crowd appeared to have got out of hand and market stalls all in readiness for the market were seized upon and pieces of planking thrown through the windows.

'The constables had their work cut out to prevent the mob from gaining an entrance,' we said.

By then the mob was trying to get into the Guildhall and 'attacked' the large door opposite which was then Chamberlins and is now Tesco. The entrance is still there. The iron bars on the door were bent, glass and woodwork splintered.

The big rough and tumble fairs in and around the Agricultural Hall in Norwich were riots started a c

The big rough and tumble fairs in and around the Agricultural Hall in Norwich were riots started a century ago - Credit: Philip Standley collection.

'In the meantime a fusillade of stones and brick ends were directed at the Guildhall. All the lower windows were smashed. A window in the Lord Mayor's parlour was broken.

'The Chief Constable, John Henry Dain, who was early on the scene had a narrow escape from injury, a half-brick passing over his shoulder and striking a soldier in the back of the head.

'Police Sergeant Capon was not so fortunate, a brick or stone catching him on the head and inflicting a nasty wound.

'For some minutes, as may be imagined, the situation was a dangerous one but gradually the police gained the upper hand and by ten o'clock the crowd, which still hung about the Market Place was being kept in check by a considerable body of police,' said our report.

A week or so later, in January of 1919, Private Arthur Tickner of the Bedfordshire Regiment appeared before the magistrates and was charged with assaulting Constable James Wilby.

The constable said police offers were called to Agricultural Hall where they were being 'pushed about' and were forced into London Street by soldiers and civilians.

The court heard that Tickner was seen to have kick and hit the office with his belt which he was swinging in the air. Then the constable hit him on the head with his truncheon.

Chief Constable Dain, the man who set up the famous Norwich Lads Club, said he did not encourage his men to use their truncheons unless 'absolutely unavoidable.'

The chairman of the bench told Tickner his actions had led to serious rioting in Norwich. Had he been a civilian he would have gone to prison but because he was wearing His Majesty's uniform he was fined £1.

The military were warned to stay away from fairs and other events at the Agricultural Hall.

There were more disturbances outside the Guildhall and on the Market Place in 1920 which resulting in riots this time following a debate into the council chamber on the number of unemployed people in the city.

These were troubled times.

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