Luton History

The history of Luton and specially selected photographs

'You must have been whisked here from paradise', said the silver-tongued Lothario in a 1970s TV advert, to actress Lorraine Chase. 'Nah, Loo'ton Hairport', was her dampening riposte. Lorraine soon had her own TV series, and Luton went on to become the butt of bad jokes, suffering perhaps even more than its close neighbour Milton Keynes.

So why isn't Luton heaven all round? Situated in a natural amphitheatre on a fan-shaped wedge of gravel at the northern end of the Lea gap, it has had a lot going for it in the past, and ought to have good prospects for the future.

The attractive countryside owes much to the Ice Age, when the glaciers' melted water flowed through the gap following a new course. The chalk hills, once extending further into the county, were eroded, leaving outlying spurs like Galley Hill. The Ice Age buried early settlement from a quarter of a million years ago, when people camped by the hillside lakes, surviving by hunting and gathering. Around 3000 BC, Neolithic or New Stone Age men arrived from France and the Rhine, bringing pottery, cattle and seed corn; they crossed the nascent channel on rafts. The Icknield Way, which connected East Anglia and Wiltshire, was an important natural -and dry- route for these early trading farmers. By the time of the Iron Age, it was a major trading route; people grouped to fortify hilltops as territories were marked out for agriculture and settlement. Belgic tribes from Gaul invaded and made camp at Wheathamstead in Hertfordshire. In 55 BC the Romans came; their influence was all-pervading. They built Watling Street (now the A5) which cuts through modern Dunstable; south of it, where the ancient Icknield way branched to Luton, was the Roman posting station Durocobrivae.

The Roman occupation brought a long period of order. Then, as their empire became decadent, came decline. Picts and Scots rampaged across Hadrian's Wall, leading to the massacre on Galley Hill in about AD 360. Ancient Britons had the upper hand in the area for half a century; civilisation had to wait until the mid 7th century for Christianity to re-direct it. As part of King Offa's kingdom of Mercia, 500 acres were given to the Abbot at St Albans in AD 792, and a wooden church and bishop's house were built at Biscot.

The pagan Vikings enjoyed the church's prosperity and raided its treasure - the Saxons were ill-equipped and not disposed to fight. King Alfred did better than most, holding Wessex and making peace with the Danish king, Guthram. Luton was on the Saxon boundary with the conquered land, falling briefly under Danish law. Inevitably, the Danes returned to complete their conquest under King Sweyn Forkbeard in 1013, succeeded by Canute in 1016.

Further conquest by William of Normandy in 1066 established the nation's feudal pecking order. William's Domesday survey of 1086 assessed Luton (then known as Loitone) at 30 hides, with land for 82 ploughs, 4 ploughs on the King's private land, 80 villeins, 47 boardars (cottars), 6 mills yielding 100 shillings, meadow for 4 plough teams, woodland for 2000 swine, 10 shillings and eight pennies from wood tax, and 100 shillings from market tolls. Leighton Buzzard, Arsley and Bedford were the only other towns in the county holding markets, and Luton's importance ranked second to Bedford.

Although still over 90% Saxon when William died, England was under the Norman fist. Henry II gave the manor of Luton to his illegitimate son Robert, Earl of Gloucester, and a new church was built south of the present St Mary's. Henry gave land to the monks to build a hospital and chapel on Farley Hill; another hospital, the House of God of the Virgin Mary, was founded by Thomas Beckett on a hill between the present car factory and Luton Airport.

Henry II spent much time in France, and his son Richard I went on the crusades. Richard sold the manor to a crusader named Earl Baldwin de Bethune for £80; the Abbot insisted on his right to maintain fairs and stalls in the market. Baldwin's 4-year-old daughter was pledged in marriage to William Marshall with Luton as dowry. When she died in 1216, King John forced Marshall to give Luton to his crony the illegitimate Falkes de Breaute, a vile man and a thief, by most accounts. De Breaute built castles at Eaton Bray and Luton. He also had designs on Dunstable, being a powerful man of many estates, including one gained from his wife in Surrey. This was Falkes Hall. Its name was corrupted many times until it became Foxhall; eventually it became a part of London, and was developed as Vauxhall in the 19th century. When damming the river near his castle, de Breaute flooded houses and stopped the Abbot's water mill; he could only wish he had waited until the corn was gathered so as to utterly destroy it. Out of favour with the new king, de Breaute met his death by hanging.

William Marshall's widow married Simon de Montfort, who led a rebellion against Henry III. He ruled for a year before being killed. The manor reverted to his father-in-law, the Earl of Pembroke. Life was harsh for the common folk, while the most brutal of their masters gained the best rewards, luxuriating behind the manor's drawbridge, eating plenty of pork, beef, vegetables, and bread and cheese, and drinking soup. The workers would have been clustered around in their cosy huts, at least when they were not slaving in the fields or fighting for their masters. Matthew Parris, a monk at St Albans in the 13th century, portrayed Luton as 'a place abounding with parishioners and richly endowed'.

Wooden huts fell prey to the fire of 1336, and the Black Death thinned the ranks. Harvests rotted, and rich folk suffered higher costs. Locals joined the peasants' revolt against 15 shillings poll tax, but Wat Tyler's victory was short lived; his rebellion was harshly put down by the young King Richard. But the ruling class would ignore this lesson at their peril. Parliament then provided no real democracy, but there was a local link with Thomas Hoo, the Speaker of the House of Commons in 1376: Luton Hoo, set in a 1600-acre park south of the town was the family home.

King Henry VIII did his best to force the country to modernise and cohere; he seized church property during the Reformation, but Luton had no monastery to dissolve. Serious trouble came with Charles I, who was determined to pursue Divine Right to the limit when he introduced Ship Money tax beyond the coastal ports. Parliamentary rights and privileges became an issue; the Civil War ensued, bringing considerable troop movements to the area. The king refused to accept defeat. His execution was considered the only solution if the rising, but rather austere, middle classes and their leader Oliver Cromwell were to enact their vision for prosperity and rights in government. Restoration of the monarchy after Cromwell's death renewed religious differences, leading to the Act of Uniformity in 1662. With that came something to rebel against, and non-conformity was born.

By this time, straw hat making had become established in the south-east; there had been a steady import trade from Tuscany since the 14th century. In 1681 Thomas Baskerville passed through Dunstable, and noted that 'some people of this town are here very curious in making straw hats and other articles of that nature'. In 1689 Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire straw hat makers petitioned against a bill favouring the wearing of woollen caps, saying that it would harm around 1000 Luton families. When Daniel Defoe toured England, he saw 'the industry wonderfully increased', and at Dunstable Arthur Young noted 'a manufacture of basket work which they carried to great perfection and neatness'.

Still aristocracy ruled the roost, and Luton's early Quakers had to be careful. The fearsome and unpopular Earl of Bute occupied Luton Hoo. Favoured by George III, he helped to break the Whig monopoly; he became Prime Minister in 1762, and in the absence of modern-day spin doctors brought the office into outstanding unpopularity when he concluded the Treaty of Paris to Britain's disadvantage. Hounded from office, Bute spent his wealthy wife's money extending the estate gardens from 300 to 1000 acres, which became a bulwark against the town's southern expansion; he then retired to his other mansion in Hampshire, where he fell down a cliff while studying plants.

The Napoleonic wars and heavy import duties stifled Italian hat imports, encouraging cottage industry and the tiny straw-plaiting schools. The Walker brothers, Thomas and Edmund, also exploited the war by buying plait from French prisoners at Yaxley in the Fens. Peace restored the competition with Swiss fancy hats and Saxony plain straw, and falling prices meant destitution. Chinese imports were a quarter of English prices, and local plaiters could not compete with the machine sewing industry. Japanese imports after 1891 were literally the last straw. The industry collapsed.

Luckily, Alexander Wilson's Vauxhall Iron Works Co had outgrown its Vauxhall site in London, and by chance in 1905 moved to another area associated with its namesake, Falkes de Breaute. In the meantime, Luton had experienced modernisation in local government, with the Board of Health taking over key responsibilities involving water supply, care of the poor and a regular fire brigade. The first town hall, in Georgian style, was built in George Street; a room was rented to the Literary Institute, and other rooms were used for entertainment, meetings, the police and County Courts. A clock was added to commemorate the victory in Crimea in 1856. As further evidence of the zeal to improve minds, a corn exchange and plait halls were built in Cheapside to rid George Street of sales. In 1882 a cattle market opened off Castle Street, thus clearing the way in Park Street. The provision of education moved from the era of generous benefactors and non-conformist churches caring for their own, to the 1870 Education Act, which was designed to produce more literate workers suited to advances in industrial methods.

Times were becoming more enlightened, but health care was minimal. Non-conformists believed that all would be resolved in an afterlife, but were often divided on issues of practice and organisation. The established church suffered declining flocks in a system which even to the uneducated seemed to be obviously run by the wealthy for themselves. Dr Thomas Peile had to modernise the parish to compete; he gave up much of his income to allow new churches in east Hyde (1859) and Stopsley (1860).

Luton joined the railway map. It was connected to London by a branch line in 1858 and then by part of the LMSR mainline in September 1867. J S Crawley was compensated for land lost, and bought that part of Great Moor isolated by the railway. As part of the deal, he donated land between Old Bedford Road and High Town, now known as Pope's Meadow, People's Park and Bell's Close. He went on to develop Crawley Road, Moor Street and Francis Street.

The town grew from 2,986 in 1821 to 36,404 in 1901, and therefore needed improved transport, among other things. The tramway opened in 1908; it was noisy and took up much of the road. The system was made obsolete by improved motor buses in the 1932, but at the time it provided cheap transport for a growing army of workers. More new businesses were coming to Luton: they included British Gelatine, whose product was used to stiffen hats, Laporte Chemicals, who found a market for their dyes in the local hat industry, Davis Gas ovens, Skefko ball bearings, Commer trucks, and also Chevrolet/Bedford trucks following the GMC takeover of Vauxhall in the late 1920s.

With so many people flocking into Luton, the town needed more entertainments than the many pubs. The Grand Theatre opened in 1898, offering a fixed venue for visiting players and variety acts. Wardown Park was bought from the brick magnate Halley Stewart in 1904. The Council extended the lake for open-air swimming, and the park became a venue for fetes, where the first moving pictures were shown in a tent. A number of exotically-named cinemas, like the Anglo-American Picture Palace, would soon follow. Football was invented by the British working class, and locals proudly followed their own team - at the outbreak of war it was back in Division One of the Southern League.

Luton and District shared in the slaughter of the Great War (1914-18), and there were riots at the town hall when the peace parade did not offer room for returning soldiers in the official celebration. The Town Hall was gutted, and the mayor fled in disguise.

If local government was still inadequate, there was no shortage of reformers. County Councils were effective from 1888; Luton's efforts to become a County Borough were frustrated by having only half the requisite 50,000 population for such status. The town did not even have a grammar school: the Higher Grade school could not meet the town's needs, and bright pupils had to go to Dunstable. Even in 1914, when the population had reached 49,978, Parliament opposed raising the town's status because the town had much of the county's population; the change would have meant duplicating services like education and raising rates for the rest of Bedfordshire.

World War Two brought a pasting as German bombers sought vital targets like Vauxhall (who were working on the Churchill tank); but more damage was done to surrounding property. Luton's Gas Company made tar for airfield runways, and the electricity supply struggled to meet the demand - this had reached 61,500 kw by 1945, despite strict fuel economy. It was economy all round: there were transport restrictions and the loss of the town's Greenline Coach service, because the vehicles were needed as ambulances. The corporation bus fleet was reduced from 64 to 21 following raids in August 1940, and vehicles were borrowed from Eastern National and Birch Brothers.

Before the war, Luton avoided the national unemployment misery, drawing workers from as far as Scotland, but by 1939 there were 1200 empty properties. By 1945, pre-war house prices rose from £600 to £1000, and in some parts even doubled. There would be shortages for years to come, and utility furniture was the only style for the new home maker. By 1945 the Borough issue re-surfaced. The solution was to merge police and fire brigades, and delegate powers over education. The electricity supply was nationalised. By 1951, the population had reached 110, 381, but full Borough status waited until 1963.

Americans stationed in Britain during the war left a lasting influence and a longing for excitement. GMC executives came over to modernise the Vauxhall plant. By 1957, the new style was evident in the Victor and Cresta models. Driving was still a male preserve, and in 1962 'Country Life' advertised the Velox and Victor models as virile.

The 1960s were going to swing, and Luton was in the mainstream. It was chosen by sociologists Goldthorpe and Lockwood as part of a study called 'Affluent Workers in the Class Structure'. During 1963-4, they were testing the theory that well-paid workers were now middle-class. Goldthorpe and Lockwood looked at 229 workers and at a comparative group of 54 white-collar workers from Vauxhall, Laporte, and Skefco Ball Bearings. They concluded that the working man's social world was much more limited to his family, and that these workers lacked even the community of the more traditional working class of older industries. They felt that the workers were involved in work mainly for money and what they could buy. And for the worker's needs Luton had it all, including Europe's first Arndale Centre.

One reason given for the demise of Vauxhall at Luton is the industrial relations record of the Kempton Road plant. Workers rallied desperately to protect their livelihoods, and the town's, before car production at the plant ceased in 2002.

Hats, hatch-backs - and what next for Luton? After all, the town has a delightfully multi-cultural community, which could become a model for the future.

More Luton history

What you are reading here about Luton are excerpts from our book Luton Photographic Memories by Robert Cook, just one of our Photographic Memories books.

Luton Photographic Memories

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