Rare photo after First World War drama in Dunstable

High Street North, Dunstable
High Street North, Dunstable

Photographs taken in Dunstable during the First World War are scarce. The Dunstable Gazette at the time, not having the equipment to make printing plates for pictures, did not employ a photographer, and no other source has yet been traced.

So this Yesteryear picture, although of very poor quality, is particularly precious. It almost certainly shows the aftermath of an incident in Dunstable in 1914, soon after the start of the war, when there was a wave of paranoia throughout the country about possible German espionage.

Dunstable people were just as alarmed as everyone else, and an excited crowd quickly assembled outside the Sugar Loaf Hotel in High Street North, Dunstable, after hearing that three German spies had been arrested there.

But it was all a false alarm. Three young motorcyclists had fallen under suspicion because they had been questioning soldiers in the hotel bar – probably the Sugar Loaf Tap (now the Ruby Tuesday fashion shop) which was more down-market than the lounge in the main hotel building.

But the trio turned out to be members of the City of London Cycle Corps.

The guess is that they are pictured here, together with a soldier. The photo was never published at the time and it is only recently that it has been connected with the 1914 drama.

It was certainly taken in the high street, near the Sugar Loaf, with the town’s “Manor House” in the background, on the left.

The “manor”, home of hat manufacturer John Cooper, was demolished in 1983 to be replaced by what is still known as the “new” Post Office.

A few days after the Sugar Loaf incident a “German spy”, who had been seen resting under a tree in High Street South, was followed by a large crowd and had to be taken to the police station in Icknield Street for his own safety. It eventually turned out that he was a harmless traveller.

Then, another hunt for a “spy” seen at Bedford led to all entrances to Dunstable crossroads being roped off so soldiers could stop and search vehicles passing through the town. Crowds gathered in the hope of seeing some excitement, but no spy was found

The only vaguely local justification for all this alarm was the arrest of a German soldier at Newport Pagnell. He had been in England when war unexpectedly broke out and had been trying to get home to rejoin his regiment. He was detained as a prisoner of war.

A detailed account of how the war affected Dunstable can be seen on the Dunstable History Society’s website at www.dunstablehistory.co.uk.