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  • Surrey's Military Heritage by Paul Le Messurier

    Canadian troops riot in Epsom, Surrey in June 1919

    Just over one hundred years ago, the First World War officially came to an end with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on the 28 June 1919. The brutally of combat had ended the previous year following the armistice of 11 November 1918. Yet sadly, in the same month that the Treaty was signed, the war would claim one more victim as a result of a tragic incident that would change the lives of a Surrey family forever.

    The grave of Station Sergeant Green in Epsom cemetery. (Copyright Paul Le Messurier, Surrey's Military Heritage, Amberley Publishing)

    Following the end of hostilities, repatriation of Commonwealth troops proceeded at a very slow pace leading to frustration, boredom and confusion. By the summer of 1919 there were still over 2,000 Canadian soldiers in Woodcote Park Camp near Epsom in Surrey.

    Trouble had been brewing over a period of time between local men, mostly ex-soldiers, and Canadians in Epsom town centre. One such occurrence took place on the evening of Tuesday 17 June 1919, during which a Canadian soldier was arrested. A group of soldiers attempted to free their colleague but were seen off by the local police who arrested a further soldier for obstruction. The group returned to their camp and word spread about the arrests. At around eleven o’clock that evening, an estimated four to five hundred Canadians left the camp heading for Epsom police station. Armed with iron railings and wooden stakes, they stormed the station.

    After about an hour of fighting, the police were eventually overwhelmed. The Canadians managed to free their two colleagues and returned to the camp. Practically every policeman had been injured during the battle, some worse than others. Station Sergeant Thomas Green, aged 51 and close to retirement, was taken unconscious to the local hospital and died the following morning having suffered a fractured skull.

    The memorial to Station Sergeant Green erected by the Metropolitan Police. (Copyright Paul Le Messurier, Surrey's Military Heritage, Amberley Publishing)

    A scene of devastation met the crowd that gathered around the police station the following morning. Local magistrates issued an order closing all public houses to prevent further trouble and the town was placed out of bounds to all troops at the camp. The Canadian authorities had claimed that the original disturbance started when a Canadian soldier, walking with his wife, was insulted by a group of locals. This explanation was strongly refuted by Epsom Council.

    Station Sergeant Green had been in the police force for 24 years after having served in the Royal Horse Artillery in India. A large number of residents assembled in Epsom town centre for his funeral procession, local shops were closed. Several hundred members of the Metropolitan Police Force were in attendance. He was survived by his wife and two daughters aged 19 and 18.

    A plaque near the site of the riot in Epsom town centre. (Copyright Paul Le Messurier, Surrey's Military Heritage, Amberley Publishing)

    Seven Canadian soldiers appeared in court charged with manslaughter and riot. The charges against two were dismissed. The remaining five were found guilty of rioting, but not guilty of manslaughter, and sentenced to one year in prison. The men were released early, handed over to the Canadian authorities, and returned home in December 1919.

    In August 1929, New Scotland Yard received a telegram from the Chief of Police in Winnipeg. One of the soldiers, who had appeared in court in 1919 on a charge of manslaughter, was in custody for a minor offence and had decided to clear his conscience. He admitted killing Station Sergeant Green by striking him on the head with an iron bar. The telegram read, ‘Am detaining Allan McMaster, who admits being murderer of Police Sergeant Green at Epsom on June Seventeenth Nineteen Nineteen. Do you want him. Wire instructions.’.  New Scotland Yard replied that since the case was closed no further action would be taken. McMaster would take his own life 20 years after the tragic incident in Epsom.

    Station Sergeant Green is still remembered to this day. One hundred years on from his death, memorial events were recently held in Epsom in his honour.

    Paul Le Messurier's book Surrey's Military Heritage is available for purchase now.

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