The Epsom riot occurred when about 400 Canadian soldiers rioted and attacked the police station at Epsom, Surrey on 17 June 1919, resulting in the death of Station-Sergeant Thomas Green, a British police officer, who died of his injuries the following day.
The Canadians were from the nearby Woodcote Camp, a temporary military base that was acting as a convalescent hospital. With the First World War over, discipline at the camp was relaxed. Delays in repatriating Canadian troops had resulted in thirteen riots by Canadian troops in British camps between November 1918 and June 1919.
The trouble began when two Canadian soldiers were arrested following a disturbance at a local public house. Between 300 and 800 of their comrades marched on Epsom police station demanding their release. The soldiers began ripping up the railings surroundings the station, and used the metal posts as missiles and clubs. During the ensuing fight, Allan McMaster, a former blacksmith, picked up a metal bar and struck Green on the head. He collapsed, never regained consciousness, and died the following day. Seven men appeared in court charged with manslaughter and rioting. They were found not guilty of the first charge, but guilty of the second; they were sentenced to a year in prison, but were released after only a few months. Ten years after returning to Canada, Allan McMaster, one of the men who had been released, confessed to the killing. As he had already been found not guilty of manslaughter, he was not returned to the UK.
Woodcote Camp was a temporary military base at Woodcote Park, on the outskirts of Epsom. Part of the park, which was owned by the Royal Automobile Club, was commandeered by the War Office in 1914. In 1915 the camp was converted to a convalescent hospital, initially for troops from the Commonwealth, then, from August 1916, specifically those from Canada. In the early months of 1919 the numbers at the camp fluctuated between 2000–3000 men (including patients and staff); by mid-June there were between 2079 and 2200 occupants.
With the end of the First World War in November 1918, there were more than 250,000 Canadian troops in Britain and at the Western Front who needed to be repatriated. Those troops on mainland Europe were shipped to the UK prior to onward travel to Canada. They were held at a series of military camps across Britain, including Bramshott, on Bramshott Common, Hampshire; Witley, near Guildford, and Woodcote at Epsom, both in Surrey – the two towns are approximately 15 miles (24 km) apart; Ripon, North Yorkshire; Buxton and Seaford, both in East Sussex; and Kinmel, near Rhyl, North Wales. On average a Canadian soldier returning from continental Europe stayed in Britain for about a month before leaving for Canada.
There had been delays with the repatriation of the Canadians, which was a cause of increasing anger among the waiting troops. The winter of 1918–1919 was one of the worst for several years and there was an influenza pandemic; delays in transporting the troops were exacerbated by the need to cancel at least one ship because it was deemed unsatisfactory. As a result of the situation, there were riots at Kinmel in March 1919[a]Eight hundred men rioted at Kinmel, a repatriation camp holding 20,000 Canadians. Five rioters were killed and twenty-three injured. Thirteen prisoners were shipped to the Tower of London and twelve were sent to Walton Gaol the same day; fifty-nine men were court martialled. and Witley Camp on 15–16 June.[b]There were no deaths at the Witley Camp riot, but there was extensive damage to local property and the camp’s theatre and civilian shops were a target for arson. Between November 1918 and June 1919, Canadian troops rioted in British camps 13 times.[c]Canadian troops were not alone in rioting during the post-war months. There was rioting by British troops in Le Havre in December 1919, a mutiny in Southampton among British troops in January 1919, and a second rebellion in Calais later that month. In May the same year, 2000 American soldiers and sailors were joined by Australians and Canadians in a fight against 50 police.
There was increasing tension between the inhabitants of the camp and the residents of Epsom, particularly in the pot-war months. Minor accounts of law-breaking – including theft and public order offences – were prominently published in the local press, which harmed the relationship between the inhabitants of town and camp. Many British veterans returning to Epsom and its environs were annoyed by relationships between local women and the camp’s residents, and members of the East Surrey Regiment “begrudged what they perceived to be the disproportionate praise heaped on the Canadian Corps for its capture of Vimy Ridge in 1917”, according to the military historian Nikolas Gardner. In early and mid-1919 tensions between the inhabitants of the town and the camp’s inmates, including what Gardner describes as “a growing Canadian disregard for the authority of the local police”, which often manifested itself in violence towards the police if they arrested one of the Canadian soldiers.
The camp was run under a relaxed and permissive disciplinary regime; one policeman later described the camp as being “run on very lackadaisical lines”. Supervision for the men was by both officers and non-commissioned officers who were sometimes temporary, often from different units, and sometimes employed in medical or administrative roles. Their control over the men, who were passing through the camps to return to their units or be repatriated, was limited. In early 1919 there were only four military police (MP) on duty in the camp, and often those MPs were also patients themselves. The MPs only patrolled within the camp, and did not police the actions of the troops in Epsom, a duty left to the local Epsom police.
Epsom had a small police station in 1919. Fewer than 20 officers and constables were on duty at any time, and they struggled to maintain the peace when locals and the Canadian troops met – often when the local pubs were open. In the four months leading up to June 1919, tensions rose between townsfolk and the Canadian troops, and violence between the two groups was a regular, almost nightly occurrence; both sides were guilty of being instigators on these occasions. In 1919 Station-Sergeant Thomas Green was 51 years old. He had previously served for eight years with the Royal Horse Artillery, including in India. In 1895 he signed to join the police before leaving the army – a common practice for many. By 1919 he had been a policeman for nearly 25 years, serving first in London, then for eight years in Epsom. He was a married man and had two daughters, aged 18 and 19.
17-18 June 1919
In the evening of 17 June 1919, the day on which the Epsom Derby was run, a fight broke out at The Rifleman public house in Epsom. The cause of the fight is unclear, but there are three possible versions: either a Canadian private and his wife were assaulted by local men, or a sergeant was with the couple and a fight broke out between the two Canadians; or the private his wife and a sergeant were assaulted by local men. While the fracas was taking place the landlord stepped outside the pub and shouted for help from the police. Four policemen who were on patrol heard the call and arrested Private John McDonald, one of the Canadians who, still riled, challenged them to a fight. As they walked him the police station, half a mile (0.8 km) away, they were challenged by Driver Alexander Veinot (or Veinotte), who berated the police; he was also arrested.[d]Some sources, including Morton, say two soldiers were arrested at this point.
A group of twenty soldiers assembled outside Epsom police station; they were dispersed peaceably by the police. Word of the Canadians’ arrest spread fast among the soldiers and at around 22:30 a group of seventy Canadians gathered at the station. Half an hour later the senior police officer, Inspector Chares Pawley, sent instructions to his off-duty officers to report to the station to provide support; sensing trouble, he kept his evening shift on duty to ensure as many men as possible were present in the station. The police phoned Woodcote Park to arrange the transfer of the prisoners and were warned there was trouble at the camp. The trouble was from the soldiers returning from the town, and rousing their campmates to return to the station to demand the release of their comrades. Between three and eight hundred soldiers made their way to the police station, despite the attempts by the senior Canadian officer, Major James Ross, and Regimental sergeant major John Parson to stop them.
Ross and Pearson went to the police station with the crowd in an attempt to avert the possibility of violence and the pair managed to get the men to pause in front of the station while Ross talked to Pawley to have the men handed over to Canadian custody. Ross entered the police station with Pawley and, when he did not reappear promptly, the men thought he had also been arrested and surged forward to attack the building. They flattened the iron railings around the building, and used the metal posts as missiles and clubs. Ross tried to go to the front of the building to stop the attack, but was forced back inside by the missiles thrown by the soldiers.
With the soldiers unable to break through the barred windows of the police station, some in the crowd suggested burning it down – despite their two comrades and one of their officers being inside – while the police repelled the attempts to come through the stations unbarred windows. Some soldiers managed to gain access through the side of the station, where they were able to access the cells. They used a crowbar to open one of the cell doors and free Private McDonald. The soldiers at the front of the house were unaware of the success of their comrades, so continued their assault on the station. Flagstones and a log were used on the front door, which buckled, but just held. Concerned about the threats to set fire to the building, Green suggested charging the men to clear them from the front; Pawley agreed. Eight policemen took part in the charge out of the building, the remainder stayed to defend the building. They exited the side door of the station and managed to push the crowd away from the station.
In the fracas Green was hit on the head by a fencepost wielded by a teenager, James Connors and was knocked to the floor, but managed to get up again, although he was disoriented. Pawley was also hit wounded in the head by a post, and several of the other police were sporting injuries; several Canadians had also been injured, including many of the leaders of the assault. As the police retreated back to the station, Green, dazed by the blow to his head, stepped the wrong way, towards the Canadians. As he did so, Private Allan McMaster stepped forward and smashed an iron bar onto the policeman’s head. Green collapsed to the floor with a fractured skull.
The police rush had cleared the pressure on the police in other areas of the station, and they were able to gain access to the cells without coming under missile fire through the window. They freed Veinot and allowed him to leave the station to cheers from the soldiers. Major Ross capitalised on the lull in fighting and release of the prisoner, and ordered the bugler who was present to sound the fall in, and they returned to camp. Some of the Canadians saw Green lying on the floor and realised he was in trouble; six of the soldiers picked him up and carried him across the road to the house opposite. One of the men gave him first aid for about thirty minutes before they left. The homeowner noted that it was 12:30 am. A local doctor, William Thornely, was summoned to examine Green, and diagnosed a fractured skull. Green never regained consciousness and died at 7:20 am on 18 June.[e]Thornely was also the doctor who diagnosed a fractured skull for Emily Davison, the suffragette who died after being hit by King George V’s horse Anmer at the 1913 Derby when she walked onto the track during the race.
Aftermath 18 June – December 1919
Colonel Frederick Guest, the officer commanding Woodcote Hospital, informed the soldiers of the Green’s death on the morning of 18 June. He did not put Epsom out of bounds to the troops, but instead requested that they refrain from visiting the town. He felt unable to give the order to ban visits as he thought he did not have sufficient control over the men for the order to be obeyed. He warned his men that the police would need to investigate the matter and that they would want to interview those who took part. When the police contacted Guest, he asked them to delay the interviews until 400 men could be sent down from Ripon Army Camp in North Yorkshire, as he was concerned that police intervention in the camp could cause further trouble. Later in the day, Canadian military headquarters placed the town off limits to all personnel.
Although an armed force was soon present at the hospital, the Canadians were unwilling to help the police enquiries. Major Ross and RSM Parson could only identify a limited number of participants, stating afterwards that the there was too much darkness and confusion; the bugler was one of those identified. With no other forms of identification, detectives questioned all men who had head injuries from the night; those who could prove their injuries were from unrelated causes, or that they were not present, were released uncharged. Those who could not account for their head wounds were arrested; on 20 June eight Canadian soldiers were charged with rioting and manslaughter at Bow Street Magistrates’ Court: Private James Connors, 19, 13th Canadian Highlanders; Private Robert Alexander McAllan, 45, C.A.M.C.; Private Allan McMaster, 30, 3rd Canadians; Private Alphonse Masse, 27, C.A.M.C.; Private Gervase Porier, 24 C.A.M.C.; Gunner Herbert Tait, 29, 11th Canadian Division; Private Frank Harold Wilkie, 21, 102nd Battalion Canadians and Private David Verex, 32, Canadian Forestry Corps. A coroner’s inquest opened on 19 June; it concluded on 30 July with the verdict that Green was a victim of manslaughter. The inquest determined that those facing charges – McAllen, McMaster, Masse, Wilkie and Yerex – should go to trial, along with Todd the bugler.
Green’s funeral took place on 23 June 1919. Visitors to the town travelled by train to pay their respects and between seven and eight hundred Metropolitan Police officers were in Epsom, dressed in tunics, black gloves and capes. Many of the town’s shops shut when the funeral procession started, and the staff joined the three or four-people deep crowds lining the route. The procession ended at the Epsom Methodist Church, opposite the police station. After a remembrance service, the procession continued on to the cemetery for the interment.
On 26 June 1919 the body of an American serving in the Canadian Army, Private Frederick Bruns, was found in a chalk pit, near Woodcote camp. His skull was fractured. An inquest was held 48-hours later, and closed the same day with an open verdict. He was buried the same day. Martin Knight, who published a history of the riot and its aftermath in 2010, writes he “is prone to lean towards some sort of foul play taking place. Whether it was directly related to the riot and/or Sergeant Green’s death is a harder decision to make”. Bruns’s body was buried near the Roll of Honour at Epsom Cemetery, near to Green’s grave.
The seven men identified at the inquest appeared at the Surrey Assizes on 22 July, charged with manslaughter and riotous assembly; Mr Justice Darling presided. The trial ended the following day. The judge advised the jury against a manslaughter verdict and the men were all found not guilty of that charge. McAllen and Todd were found not guilty of rioting, but the others were all found guilty on that count and sentenced to a year in prison.
In November 1919 five of the men were released early from prison; the sixth was released in December that year. Reporting the news, The Observer said the release “was based both on the merits of the cases, and the fact that Canada by the visit of the Prince of Wales had demonstrated its unswerving loyalty to the British Empire”. It is possible that the men received pardons from the prince: McMaster referred to this later, but there is no official record of the prince having issued pardons.
In July 1929 McMaster presented himself at police headquarters in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and confessed to Green’s killing. He told police:
Two of our men got arrested and locked up. As soon as we heard about it we all went down town to take them out of the lockup. We made a rush at the building. Sergt. Green tried to stop me. So I picked up an iron bar and hit him over the head with it. He died the following day.
The Canadian Police sent a telegram to Scotland Yard informing them of the confession and asking if they wanted McMaster sent back to Britain. They received the reply “McMaster sentenced in connection with this affair and he is not wanted”; he was released. In about 1928 he was working in a mine, where he saved a man’s life; he died in 1939 aged fifty.
|a||Eight hundred men rioted at Kinmel, a repatriation camp holding 20,000 Canadians. Five rioters were killed and twenty-three injured. Thirteen prisoners were shipped to the Tower of London and twelve were sent to Walton Gaol the same day; fifty-nine men were court martialled.|
|b||There were no deaths at the Witley Camp riot, but there was extensive damage to local property and the camp’s theatre and civilian shops were a target for arson.|
|c||Canadian troops were not alone in rioting during the post-war months. There was rioting by British troops in Le Havre in December 1919, a mutiny in Southampton among British troops in January 1919, and a second rebellion in Calais later that month. In May the same year, 2000 American soldiers and sailors were joined by Australians and Canadians in a fight against 50 police.|
|d||Some sources, including Morton, say two soldiers were arrested at this point.|
|e||Thornely was also the doctor who diagnosed a fractured skull for Emily Davison, the suffragette who died after being hit by King George V’s horse Anmer at the 1913 Derby when she walked onto the track during the race.|
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