For the people of Hitchin, like most people in England, the declaration of war on 4 August 1914 came as quite a shock. Indeed Hitchin’s weekly newspaper failed to even make mention of the deteriorating situation in Europe until 8 August – by which time we were already at war. One day the residents of Hitchin were enjoying the summer sunshine, church fetes and wonderful excursions on the Great Northern Railway and the next they were witnessing some of the ugliest scenes ever in the town.
At first Hitchin received the news of war calmly but within hours the situation was to change. The town’s shops saw a rush of panic buying of basic commodities. This was by the monied classes as the numerous poor working folk living in the town had not the cash to buy in stocks of food. One provision merchant was so overwhelmed with orders for delivery he had to close his shop to enable his staff to devote themselves to the delivery orders.
The shelves of the grocers in the town soon grew denuded. Suspecting replenishment from wholesalers was likely to be difficult, the shopkeepers raised their prices for bread and bacon and flour, claiming they were not profiteering but merely doing so to ensure limited supplies of staple foods were available to all. This claim had a somewhat hollow ring to it.
And so, on the evening of 5 August, the first full day of war a massive crowd of agitated people meet in Hitchin town centre to protest at the unjustified rises in the prices of food stuffs. A rumour spread that W. B. Moss and Son, the largest provisioners in the area were behind the rise in prices. By 7 p.m. the crowd had swelled to 2,000 strong and tempers were rising.
The crowd commenced a noisy demonstration outside Moss’s shop on Hitchin High Street before deciding to confront the owner at his nearby home. The mob surged off to Mr Moss’s substantial house “Westbourne” in Bedford Road.
The protestors entered the grounds of the house and ripped up shrubs and trees and even cut a garden hose into small sections. Dark threats were uttered against Mr Moss and his family. Stones were thrown and windows smashed and the more militant members of the group called for the house to be burnt down.
The Constabulary arrived under the command of Superintendent Reed. The police officers invited Mr Moss to come out of his house and address the gathering. However, when he tried to do so he was shouted down and the crowd made a rush to get at him. The officers drew their staffs and beat off the protestors.
Having conferred with Mr Moss, Superintendent Reed then stepped forward and addressed the crowd, informing them that prices in all Mr Moss’s shops would next day revert to those being charged before the declaration of war.
Not convinced the crowd moved back to the town centre where the windows of Moss’ shop in Bancroft were broken before the riot eventually petered out about midnight.
In 1914 Hitchin had a considerable number of labouring classes who suffered oppressive working conditions and miserable housing in slums centred around what is now Queen Street. For them the price rises had simply placed their every day foods beyond their reach, a position unlikely to be readily accepted.
The next evening the unrest was repeated with an even larger demonstration directed against Mr Bowman who owned a large flour mill close to Hitchin railway station. To inflame things further, Mr Bowman was a town councillor and chairman of the Urban Food Control Committee.
The mob once again decided to move from the town centre to the home of the businessman in The Avenue and demonstrate there. However, their actions had been pre-empted by Superintendent Reed and his men who placed a cordon across the road and the Superintendent appealed to the better nature of the protestors who then dispersed.
The local police had done well to cope with what was a very nasty situation over the two days. But not everyone was satisfied
Mr Moss made a claim against the Constabulary under the Riot Damages Act 1886 which states Where a house, shop, or building in any police district has been injured or destroyed, or the property therein has been injured, stolen, or destroyed, by any persons riotously and tumultuously assembled together, such compensation as herein-after mentioned shall be paid out of the police rate of such district to any person who has sustained loss by such injury, stealing, or destruction; but in fixing the amount of such compensation regard shall be had to the conduct of the said person, whether as respects the precautions taken by him or as respects his being a party or accessory to such riotous assembly, or as regards any provocation offered to the persons assembled or otherwise. The Watch Committee granted Mr Moss £13.7s. 4d in full compensation.
It is interesting to note that the very same Riot Damages Act is currently being used to claim compensation following the countrywide riots of 2011.
With prices returned to their pre-war levels the grocers of Hitchin set about using the local press in a weak attempt to convince locals the price rise was unfortunate but necessary to protect food stuffs against panic buying and stock piling by the rich. Few were taken in.