Oldham Historical Research Group

'What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
- Only the monstrous anger of the guns.'
from 'Anthem for Doomed Youth' by Wilfred Owen

1914 - 1918



Oldham people, men and women, with a strong contingent of men from the battery of New Zealand Artillery at Chadderton Camp, joined on Monday night in the mobbing of a few hapless missionaries of peace, who had intended to hold the first of a series of open air meetings arranged for the present week as a peace mission in Oldham. These men, dishevelled, sore, and bleeding, found the Police Office at the Town Hall a haven of refuge into which, rescued from a crowd of thousands, they were rushed by the police.

They were:
Wilfred Hill, Gibralter Street, Insurance Collector, Secretary of the Oldham Branch of the I.L.P. and formerly a police constable in Oldham.
Smith Slater, a joiner of Harper Street who before the Oldham Tribunal has stated that he is a conscientious objector against military service.
George Hird, Gloucester Street, a cop packer.
Arthur Winterbottom, of Chamber Road, formerly a bank clerk at Hollinwood, latterly as a conscientious objector, working on the land.

The peace meetings were advertised, and the first was to be held at the Market Place, Henshaw Street. This was supposed to mean, and was no doubt intended to mean, the vacant piece of land at the back of the Red Lion Hotel, the usual standing ground for the open air orator. If wet, the week's meetings were to be held either in the I.L.P. rooms at Rhodes Bank or in the Friends' Meeting House, Greaves Street. Before the hour of the meeting, half past seven o'clock, a fair sized, but not at all unmanageable, crowd had assembled there. The New Zealanders were conspicuous here, as later, by their height and uniform. The Chief Constable was present, with policemen in uniform and in plain clothes unobtrusively scattered about. But the only sign of the peace mission was a lady who stood alone and was mistakenly suspected by some of the crowd to be Miss Margaret Ashton. She was, of course, not meddled with at all at that time, but after the trouble had broken out and as a result of some outspoken remarks by her in the street several of the soldiers made a ring, and as she cried out for peace and free speech passed her, not roughly, from hand to hand round the ring until, when she had no more breath left for propaganda purposes, they let her go.

The crowd waited patiently behind the Red Lion Hotel, and the general conclusion had just been reached that the meeting was given up by the promoters when the news got round that they were at the corner of Henshaw Street and one of the side entrances to Tommyfield, where there is a little bay off the footpath. Gradually more and more of the people waiting made off for Henshaw Street, but most of them were only in time to join in the crowd that filled Henshaw Street, and following on behind Mr. Hill and his friends and the Chief Constable and a few police officers crowded the Market Place in turn, and then was crammed and pushed into the narrow High Street.

For Mr. Moore, of Rochdale the speaker announced, and Mr. Hill and several other members of the I.L.P. and pacifists had quietly set up a little portable ptlaform, just enpugh to raise a speaker a foot or two above the level of the audience, in that quiet corner. It was a mistake, for either they should have boldly faced the music, had a lurry on the Red Lion ground and asked for fair play and a hearing, or they should have promptly given up their intention to hold a meeting and stolen away silently, standing not upon the order of their going. They lingered about the place they had chosen, not making a beginning, until the Chief Constable, being told where they were, went off as unobtrusively as he could to see what they were about. He told them rightly, that they could not hold a meeting at that spot, practically on the footpath and with no room for the crowd. But they would neither make up their mind to try the Red Lion Ground nor to clear away quickly. The people around grew in numbers; a few soldiers came that way; taunts were heard. One well-known tradesman was urgent with them to begin, telling them that the New Zealanders had come 10,000 miles to fight for them, and what had they to say? A silly cry was heard as to what the Germans paid them for their peace talk. Mr. Turner checked sharply one or two of the rougher suggestions. One of the peace missionaries tried to say that his three sons were fighting but few heard, and it made no impression.

Slowly, too slowly, they packed up and got ready to go. At last they moved away along Henshaw Street, Mr. Hill's tall figure easily the most conspicuous, and the Chief Constable and several officers near at hand, ready for trouble, as the New Zealanders heading the crowd were close behind. There was a stop at the entrance from the Market Place to the vacant ground behind, but only for a little while. Then on went the march again, those people in the crowd behind knowing nothing, but following on. All went well until the Union Bank was reached. There were not many people near the Town hall, though some had gathered there, seeing High Street crowded and a few had run along the back street to get ahead of the rush.

All at once an attack was made on Mr. Hill. It is said that he made some remark to the front rank of soldiers coming on behind, and this was the spark that set fire to the tinder. Down he went on the setts. Up he was pulled, and battered, struck at by anyone who could get near enough. Helpless, he was hauled along, the police trying to rush him into the Town Hall for safety, the soldiers and their helpers trying to hold and thrash him. He and his protectors had not reached their haven when another brutal struggle, more ugly to see, for women were in the thick of it, was going on behind.

Mr. Slater had been seized upon, and had he once gone down in the crowd, swaying and struggling there just before the narrow entrance to Mill Street, it would have gone very hard with him. Women were clutching at his hair and screaming and the men were hitting out at him. The crowd gave a lurch, and those on the outer edge were forced up onto the Town Hall steps. Police and soldiers all mixed up together, with a black head bobbing up and down in the midst of them as a token that their prey or their prize was still on his feet, rushed down Mill Street. It was found when Mr. Slater was examined in the Police Office that his nose was cut. In Mill Street Mr. Hird also had a rough time, but his ordeal was brief, for he was quickly bundled into the Police Office.

With the three men safe in the Town Hall there seemed to be a chance of peace and quiet again. The police got the crowd which had blocked the entrance to Mill Street on the move, and things cleared so much that the injudicious behaviour of some young women who were with Mr. Winterbottom was easily to be seen. They came up when the pressure was eased and began to speak of the way in which the brutal crowd had dealt with their friends, "like lions and tigers, my love," and how they had the right of free speech and the right to walk the streets freely, words true in the abstract but foolish under the circumstances.

Mr. Winterbottom stood by quietly, saying nothing. His excited friends went down the street but saw nothing, of course, but the closed door of the Police Office. The Chief Constable advised them to go, but they would not until, after a while, a constable told them to be getting away. But they had been noted by this time, and as they went along Clegg Street and Union Street they were followed. They were near St. Patrick's Church when several of the New Zealanders made a rush at Winterbottom. No harm was done to the young women, but the man was 'frogmarched' back again, shouting for mercy. He was badly maltreated. The police came to his rescue and there was a free fight.

P.C. Allen tried to get Winterbottom's umbrella from between his legs, and he was mistaken for for one of the pacifists and struck several blows in the face. When it was found out he was a police officer the soldiers apologised for assaulting him. In the end, Winterbottom, battered and bloody, and in much the worst condition of the four pacifists, joined his friends in the Town Hall, where his hurts were at once attended to.

Meanwhile a crowd of some hundreds, headed by the New Zealanders, had rushed down Clegg Street to the Central Station. There was no resisting there storming rush, and indeed, nothing to resist them for, as, though they over-ran the station and looked into every room, they found no-one resembling a missionary of peace. Presumably they were on the track of Mr. Moore, suspecting that he would make for the Rochdale train. When they found nothing and had paid a similar visit to Clegg Street Station over the way, again without result, they returned to the main streets which by this time were thronged with all who had come together at the prospect of a row or of excitement and all who had come out from the first shows at the places of entertainment. Not for a long time had there been such excitement in the streets, for after the attacks on the pacifist came a raid by the New Zealanders on the I.L.P. Rooms at Rhodes Bank.

The scene in Union Street was remarkable and will live in the memory of those who had no option but to witness it. Just when the first houses of the theatres are over High Street is naturally very busy. At 8:50 the air was rent by the cheering of the crowd. Some 50 or 60 Colonial soldiers, headed by the civilians, were seen marching down Union Street accompanied by more than a thousand people, who shouted and cheered themselves hoarse. A straight line was made for the rooms of the Independent Labour Party situate in the block of buildings opposite the Conservative Club. The stairs were rushed, but the door at the top of the stairs withstood assaults for a short time during which period the street below became densely packed. Tram-cars, heavy motor-lurries and horse-drawn vehicles were held up, and there was no mistaking on whose side the sympathies of the crowd were.

Wounded English soldiers supported their colonial comrades to the fullest extent of their lung power, women shireked to the soldiers to throw the cranks down the stairs. Upstairs the soldiers paid a visit to to the Managers' and Overlookers' Club, but when told of their mistake quietly left, and the passage in which Mr. Clynes' office is was left alone. A big rush indicated the door had been forced, and then the fun began to be fast and furious. One of the windows was thrown open and apparently everything loose was put out. Leaflets, books, papers, playing cards, flags and curtains were thrown to the crowd amidst derisive cheers. Bottles of mineral waters were then handed round to the soldiers, who, when they had removed everything suspicious returned to the street. One was placed shoulder high and addressed the crowd. then came a lull in the storm and the colonial was heard saying, "Now, New Zealanders, altogether," and the weird war cry beginning "Ka mate, Ka mate, Ka ora, Ka ora," was gone through with the wild gesticulations which usually accompany it. More cheers, and the soldiers had presumably had enough for they marched away, and the crowd dispersed.


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