It was popularly believed that after Mayor Henry Impey fled his seven-hour ordeal of being barricaded in Luton Town Hall during the Peace Day riots on July 19th, 1919, that he never returned to the town.
In fact he was back as early as the following Thursday, July 24th, albeit on a surprise flying visit lasting only about an hour. He briefly had talks with Town Clerk William Smith at the Carnegie Library before giving an interview to the Luton Reporter and Luton News newspapers. The Reporter article said:
Probably no topic has been so much discussed locally as the absence of the Mayor from the town during the most critical of times, and the story we have been able to piece together concerning this aspect of the matter is both unique and extraordinary.
In last week's Reporter was exclusively given a description of how the Mayor was got out of the Town Hall in the uniform of a special constable by the small bodyguard of aldermen and councillors who remained with him and the Mayoress in the doomed building right up to the last. Just as the crowd was getting excited and threatening and starting to rush and smash the building at the front on Saturday night, the Mayor quietly walked out by the back way into Upper George Street and was able to get away unobserved. A veil was drawn over his subsequent movements and they remained a complete mystery for two or three days. Few were in on the secret, and they kept it well for nearly 48 hours.
The Town Council had a trio of private meetings during the weekend prior to their customary public sitting on Tuesday evening, and the Mayor was not present at any of these, or at the Board of Guardians meeting on Monday morning. The Mayor's absence resulted in the Board being presided over by a lady, Mrs Attwood, for the first time in its history. [Mrs Attwood had also been inside the Town Hall when the Saturday afternoon rioting began.]
During Monday it became clearly established that the Mayor was away from the town altogether, and subsequently it leaked out that he and the Mayoress had gone to Harringay. Nothing more was heard concerning him until Thursday afternoon, when, to the surprise of pretty well everybody, he paid a flying visit to the town.
He arrived by a train just before half past twelve, had a brief consultation with the Town Clerk about local public affairs in the lecture hall of the Public Library that is temporarily serving as the administrative offices of the Town Clerk's department, and incidentally appended his signature to a notice now displayed in the vestibule at the Williamson Street entrance convening a special meeting of the Town Council for this Tuesday evening. He subsequently saw local newspaper representatives and returned by a train at about half past one.
A Luton Reporter representative met him in Manchester Street just as he had left the library, and he readily accompanied our representative back to the office and made a statement.
About the incidents precedent to the rioting, he intimated straight away he was not in a position to say anything.
"I am quite prepared to, and I have all along wanted to, make my position clear," he said, "but I have been advised it will be better to wait until things have quietened down. I have written and sent along a statement meant for the Press, but the Council thought it had better not go in at present, and I bow to their decision."
Time after time the Mayor emphasised that he only left the town and was staying away for a time because he was advised by the Town Clerk and Chief Constable that this course was advisable in the interests, not only of the health of the Mayoress and himself, but in the interests of the town generally.
"I should not have gone away if it had not been for the very definite opinion they expressed that it would be wise," he said. "I have never wanted to be out of it. I wanted to speak to the crowd on Saturday afternoon, after they had asked for the Mayor and Town Clerk and broken into the place. I was willing to go out - in fact I thought I ought to do so - but the colleagues left with me were all against it. They thought it would only exasperate the crowd more as they were not in a fit condition of mind to be talked to, and I thought there was a good deal in what they said.
"After we got away on Sunday I wrote and told the Town Clerk I was willing to come back on Monday morning if he and the Chief Constable thought it advisable, although I can tell you I felt nothing like fit, but the Town Clerk thought I had better stay away for a time.
"It has been a very trying ordeal for the Mayoress as well as myself," added the Mayor. "My wife was the only woman left in that building at the finish, and she was there until after ten o'clock on Saturday night. I stayed until just about half past ten when the crowd had started to smash the windows and were trying to get in again.
"We were in the Mayor's parlour until the last two or three hours, and then we moved into the Council Chamber. It was thought it would be only inciting the crowd if a light was shown in the parlour.
"My wife surprised me by the way she kept up all that time, but the strain was too much for her. At the finish she had become quite overwrought and cried every time she was spoken to. I think she stuck it remarkably well. After we got away from the Town Hall she had a bad collapse and she has since been suffering from the effects of a severe nervous breakdown. She was in bed all of Sunday and part of Monday, and is still far from well, although much better than she was.
"I fainted away four times on Sunday, and I can tell you neither of us has had two hours sleep at night since we have been away."
The Mayor added that he had to some extent been able to keep in touch with local affairs during his absence, as he had been in communication with the Town Clerk by telephone and letter the whole time.
"But I do feel it," he added. "It is enough to break a man's heart to feel compelled to keep away from a town he has lived in the whole of his life and served in public office the years I have when you know you have done nothing to deserve it. After all, as far as this is concerned, I am only one with the rest. It was not me and the Town Clerk only, and it is not right or fair we should have to shoulder the whole responsibility. Still, the Town Clerk tells me in a letter, public feeling is still strongly against me and himself, and perhaps it is as well to wait until things have calmed down a little."
The Mayor showed us a letter from the Town Clerk stating "The Council unanimously directed me to convey to the Mayoress and yourself their deep sympathy, their great regret at the whole occurrence, and their fervent hope that you may soon recover from the shock and trouble that has fallen upon you."
He also said he had received telegrams from the Mayors of Bedford, Dunstable, Folkestone and Newcastle, and scores of letters from residents and friends in all parts of the country expressing their sympathy.
Asked about his return to the town, the Mayor said he would say no more than that he was leaving himself in the hands of his colleagues, the Town Clerk and the Chief Constable.
"For myself I am ready to come back as soon as they think it advisable," he said, and he gave the impression that he was fully expecting to return to Luton and take up the threads of his public work within a very short time.
A brief newspaper report recorded Henry Impey visiting Luton again on August 11th, giving little detail other than he returned to London in the evening.
Mayor Impey did chair two meetings later, his first being that of the Board of Guardians on Monday, September 1st. Appearing to be suffering under considerable emotion, as the following day's Tuesday Telegraph reported, he said: "I should like to express my thanks to the Board for the very kind expression of sympathy with me in my illness. I am sorry to say that I am not better. I am not anything like what I ought to be, and I don't feel the slightest interest in public matters at present. My absence has been absolutely forced - through illness - and I don't expect that I shall be able to take part in public matters for a few years; at any rate unless there is a very strange alteration. Thank you all."
He also chaired a meeting of Luton Town Council the following night.
Henry Impey resigned from the Town Council at the time of the November 1919 council elections. He eventually returned to public life in Lincolnshire, where he died on April 17th, 1930, at the age of 65. He was finally brought home to be laid to rest at the Rothesay Road Cemetery following a funeral service at Mount Tabor Primitive Methodist Church, at the junction of Castle Street and Hibbert Street.
[The Luton Reporter, Tuesday, July 29th, 1919]
For the Mayor's statement to the Luton News on July 24th, click here.