This plaque commemorates the Haslemere Riot of 29 July 1855.
The event is significant because it arose as a consequence of the coming of the railway to Haslemere, which was to completely change the face of the town and shape so much of the town as it stands today. It also led to the death of the first serving police officer in the Surrey constabulary to die in the course of his duties.
Haslemere, by the end of the first half of the Nineteenth Century was a rather sleepy and far from prosperous place: a place to pass through rather than to visit. In 1832 it had lost its status as a parliamentary constituency and improved communications had proved a mixed blessing. The building of the turnpike road (today the A286) to Milford in the second half of the Eighteenth century had increased the flow of traffic to and from Chichester, but by 1850 much of this traffic was using the route through Chiddingfold. Furthermore, the introduction of the first phase of the national railway network in the 1830s had opened faster routes to the south coast.
The building of the railway through Haslemere, which is at the heart of this story, was to dramatically change the town for ever.
Following a lull after the first commercial railway was introduced in 1830 by the mid-1840s the country experienced a boom of railway construction subsequently known as railway mania.
The bubble burst at the end of 1845 and investment stopped virtually overnight, leaving many companies without funding. As a result, by 1851 the country had an extensive but strategically incoherent railway network. Portsmouth, the country’s principal naval port, had two routes from London: Waterloo to Gosport via Basingstoke, and London Bridge to Portsmouth via Brighton, both highly circuitous.
Against this background and renewed investor appetite, the Portsmouth Railway was authorised on 8 July 1853 to build from just north of the Godalming terminus to Havant via Witley, Haslemere and Petersfield.
Work got underway fairly quickly and by 1855 around 200 “navvies” were lodging in Haslemere, swelling the population by 40 percent. As a group, railway “navvies” had a reputation for fighting, hard living and hard drinking.
Their presence set the scene for the tragic events of the night of 29 July of that year. The full story of the tragic events of that night can be read by downloading the leaflet on our website (or however it should be referenced).
In brief summary, 29 July was a Saturday and it was payday. The pubs were full and the protagonists were drinking in the Kings Arms (today the site of Raymond Reid photos and Hamptons Estate Agent). At midnight Inspector Donaldson arrived with PC Freestone to support the widowed landlady, in calling last orders.
In the ensuing events, one David Smith was locked in the Market Hall, today’s town hall and in the ensuing fracas, Inspector Donaldson was fatally wounded by one Thomas Woods and three other assailants. PC Freestone had undoubtedly escalated a minor skirmish by assaulting Woods, breaking his truncheon on his head in the process.
The incident was quickly and widely reported, both as a riot and a murder. However, although it is clear that there were still a good number of people milling around in the street at the time of the incident, it was perhaps not strictly a riot as only a handful of individuals were actively involved.
Nor did the trial conclude that it was a murder. When sentenced, Woods, who was deemed to have struck the fatal blow, and his co-conspirators were all found guilty of manslaughter.
Inspector Donaldson was a man of unblemished record who seems to have acted in an exemplary manner, to have tried to contain events, and to have had no agenda beyond fulfilling his duty of bringing drinking to an end before the onset of the Sabbath.
Inspector Donaldson was largely forgotten until 1984 when local historian J.S.Harwood researched and revived interest in the event.
The single track railway finally opened on 1 January 1859 ushering in a new era for Haslemere which so defines the town to this day, a place now to come to rather than pass through.
Click here for the Haslemere Society Blue Plaque leaflet on The Haslemere Riot.
Haslemere Town Hall, c.1900