Jack Knox: When 400 rioting Canadian soldiers killed a British policeman

Jack Knox mugshot genericHere’s something they didn’t teach you in history class: the time 400 rioting Canadian soldiers killed a British bobby while trying to bust some buddies out of jail.

Metchosin’s David Kirkham knows the story, though. His great-grandfather was the policeman.

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Tomorrow, he’ll join others in Epsom, England, in marking the 100th anniversary of the riot in which Station Sgt. Thomas Green was slain.

It is, as Kirkham says, a tale both tragic and fascinating. It’s also one cloaked in political intrigue, with high-ranking figures on both side of the Atlantic said to be part of a concerted effort to downplay the slaying in the name of British-Canadian relations.

It took place in the summer of 1919. By then, the First World War had been over for seven months, but 4,000 bored, frustrated Canadian soldiers still found themselves camped on Surrey’s Epsom Downs, yearning to be shipped home.

There was little for them to do but stew and drink, both of which they did with predictable results. On June 17, following the famed Epsom Derby horse race, a couple of Canadian soldiers were arrested after a fight in The Rifleman pub.

Their friends didn’t take this lying down. A score of Canadians gathered in front of the police station, intent on springing the pair of privates. They sent word back to camp, and soon 400 soldiers were at the scene, attacking the station and running riot through the previously quiet country town, breaking windows and leaving a trail of destruction two kilometres long.

A dozen police officers, none armed with more than a wooden truncheon, were injured. At some point, someone grabbed an iron bar that had been part of a jailhouse window and cracked 51-year-old Green over the head.

“He was dead by morning,” Kirkham says.

The Metchosin man didn’t learn much of this story from his grandmother, Green’s daughter.

“I was very close to my grandmother, but she never really talked about it,” he says. “I guess it was a generational thing.”

Nellie Green was just 17 years old when her father was killed. Her sister, Lily, was a year older. When their mother died a couple of years later, there was little to keep the girls in England. They decided to make a fresh start in Canada.

Nellie built a life in Toronto, which is where her son, Kirkham’s father, was born in 1925.

On Monday, Kirkham will join others in a procession from The Rifleman — it’s still a pub — to the site of the police station. He’ll be carrying his murdered great-grandfather’s service medals, which he intends to leave behind.

Also invited to the ceremonies, but unable to attend, was the grandson of a man who, in 1929 — a decade after the riot — told Winnipeg police he was guilty of the killing. Allan McMaster could have got away with the crime, but decided to confess. “It had weighed on him all those years,” Kirkham says.

The thing is, McMaster never did get punished for Green’s death. British authorities didn’t want anything to do with him, saying the riot had already been dealt with. McMaster had been one of eight soldiers charged in 1919 with manslaughter and rioting. Found guilty only of rioting, they were sentenced to a year in jail, but were pardoned and sent to Canada after serving just a few months.

Speculation is that Winston Churchill and Prime Minister David Lloyd George were among the leading U.K. figures who were keen not to see the scandal damage relations with Canada.

The story has been documented in a 2010 book by British author Martin Knight, We Are Not Manslaughterers: The Epsom Riot and the Murder of Station Sergeant Thomas Green.

“McMaster … always maintained he received a royal pardon,” Knight wrote in an email this week. “There is no concrete evidence of this, but there is evidence pointing to the establishment engineering the Canadians’ swift return home.”

With the Prince of Wales — the future Edward VIII — touring Canada, the incarceration of Canadian soldiers in the U.K. could have made for an uncomfortable situation.

Likewise, no one wanted to make too much of a fuss when a Canadian soldier turned up dead in a chalk pit within days of the riot. The military camp doctor quickly labelled the death an accident, but Knight’s book suggests it was actually a revenge killing.

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