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Turn That Light Out!

What happened when a local hotel keeper didn't turn his lights off one night in 1916?

Helen Cook
Unicorn Hotel 1915
The Unicorn Hotel in 1915

As reported in the Stratford Herald in March, 1916, the proprietor of the Unicorn Hotel (now the Pen and Parchment) on Bridgefoot, Stratford-upon-Avon, one Mr Gilbert Towers appeared before the magistrates. The former self-employed pawnbroker who had moved from Aston in Birmingham to manage the hotel, had been summoned for not shading his windows contrary to the Lights (Central Area) Order of the Defence of the Realm Act.

Police Sergeant Coane reported that, at 1.25am whilst on duty with Police Constable Sumner, he had seen lights coming from the hotel. The beams could be seen as far as twenty-five yards. On closer inspection, Sergeant Coane saw that four windows were fully illuminated with no blinds and one window, facing the Avon, was covered with a blind that was inadequate for the purpose.

Gilbert Towers pleaded guilty. He reminded the magistrates that he had told the police at the time that it was the fault of the guests residing in the hotel. And he had since purchased and fitted red curtains to prevent a repeat of the problem. And might he also remind the gentlemen that he had never been in trouble over the Light Restriction Order before. Never.

Superintendent Lee emphasised the gravity of the offence. Blackouts were not just for when there was a warning for zeppelin raids. There was already a problem in the town with the young people using flashlights. Accordingly, Towers was fined the princely sum of £5 – rather a lot, considering the fine for a domestic offence usually ranged between 30 shillings to £2. James Taylor, owner of the Co-operative Stores on Sheep Street was only fined £1 – and he was a repeat offender.

That the fine was extortionate is borne out by a report in the same edition of the Herald that the residents had rallied in support of Towers. They had raised the full amount among themselves and donated it to him to pay the fine.

There was, however, another reason why Towers had been landed with a relatively severe penalty. As the Herald recorded, when Sergeant Coane had approached Towers on that fateful night to reproach him for having lights blazing, he had been told by the hotel manager to “go and have a cut up Bridge Street”. Which is Edwardian vernacular for “On yer bike!”