This article describes the Market Hill area of Luton from the middle of the 19th century onwards, when photographs started to become available. I’ve attempted to depict the community that existed there and the buildings in which they lived and worked. Information concerning the people and their occupations has been taken from census records.
The map above is an extract from the 1842 Tithe Map and is not to scale. Its only purpose is to assist with the location of the buildings. The numbers of each property should relate to the numbering given in later years. I shall start at Barbers Lane and go round clockwise. Note that Barbers Lane did not get developed as Cheapside until the 1860s.
No. 30 George St.
In 1851, this fine building, shown in photo 1, was occupied by Gustavus Jordan and his family. He was a straw bonnet merchant and draper and he was still living in the upper floors in 1861.
Henry Blundell had begun renting the shop in 1855 and later bought the whole building to add to his growing empire. (There will be more on Henry Blundell later in the article). Photo 1 was taken circa 1900, by which time this building had become the larger of Blundell’s two stores.
The building kept this form until sometime in the 1920’s when a new modern shop-front was fitted and two warehouses next to this building down Cheapside had been purchased and the store extended. The new facade is shown in photo 2, dated 1928. Many Lutonians still have very fond memories of Blundells. The building was eventually demolished in 1973 to make way for the Barclays Bank building. Note the small dome on top of the updated building – did Luton have any other domes and do any still exist?
No.28 George St
James Gutteridge built this fine house, shown in Photo 3, sometime after 1810. It must have been one of the grandest houses in Luton. William Austin states in his history book “the home had on the ground floor a spacious marble hall, four large reception rooms, offices, two kitchens, a laundry, brew-house, stabling for four horses and coach-house with a domed tower and turret clock. The pleasure grounds, nine acres in extent, were described as of great beauty and extended … to beyond the river Lea“.
After James’s death in 1831, his estate, including this property, was sold by auction and John Waller, one of Gutteridge’s executors, bought the property. John was very prosperous as a woolstapler and draper (a woolstapler is a buyer of wool who sorts and grades it and then sells it on). In the 1851 census, John Waller, aged 59, lived here with his wife. After John’s death in 1859, the property was converted into a Bank in the name of Sharples, Tuke, Lucas and Seebohm.
From this time until 1915 the building was occupied by bank staff and their families. In 1896, this Bank was amalgamated with the bank of Barclay & Co. London and is still the site of Barclays Bank today. Also, after John Waller’s death, John Street, Waller Street and Melson Street were laid out over the grounds behind his house. Melson was one of Waller’s executors. Cheapside was also developed at this time to link George Street with Guilford Street.
No. 26-24 George St.
James Cawdell was a hairdresser in this tiny shop in 1851, which can be seen in photo 3, to the right of the Waller house, above the stacked-up market trestle tables. By 1861, his son Charles and wife Mary had taken over the business and by 1891 widowed Mary ran a Tobacconist and Jewellers from these premises.
Both this building (26-24) and No. 28 were demolished in 1915 and a new branch of Barclays Bank erected in their place. “The building is of a handsome character“, said the newspaper report in the week before the opening in 1917.
“It is artistic in design and handsome in its accommodation and appointments”. The banking hall is spacious – 54ft by 50ft -and lofty and easily beats anything among the great Banks of the country for many miles around”.
A photo of the new building can be seen in Photo 4. This new building was eventually demolished in 1973, along with No. 30, Blundells, to make way for the modern Barclays Bank building that stands there today.
No. 22 George St.
This 3 story building can be seen towards the left of photo 5, (taken in 1963 by Eric Meadows) and was a drapery for at least 120 years. In 1851 Edward Beale and his family lived here; then in 1861 it was run by William Cutter.
By 1871 William Underwood, draper and tailor was in occupation. He remained at the property until at least 1881 but by 1891 his son George Underwood, outfitter, is listed as occupier, and he stayed until at least 1906.
By 1910 Foster Brothers Clothing Company was in occupation. Foster Brothers remained here until at least 1972 and the building was demolished around 1973/4.
No. 20 George St.
In 1851 William Pledge traded as a grocer in this small shop, shown in the centre of photo 5, along with his family. He later became the postmaster of the new Post Office in King Street. By 1861, Peter Wootton was running the shop as a chemist and he continued there for many years.
By 1894 the business had become Wootton and Webb, chemists and opticians, and they were still here as late as 1950.
The interior of the shop as it was around 1905 can be seen in photo 6. By 1960 the occupiers were the clothiers, Milletts, who remained until at least 1972 and the building was demolished in 1977.
No. 18 George St.
The Plough Inn, as seen on the right of photo 5, is an update of a very old building which was either demolished and rebuilt or very substantially altered circa 1833. The Inn was also referred to as the Footplough, Woolplough and Wheelplough at various times and in various publications. It closed for the last time on 2nd January 1972 and was demolished in 1977. The bar fittings were saved and are now on display in Wardown Park Museum. The modern Debenhams store now covers the site of these 3 Buildings (nos 22,20 &18).
No. 16 George St
This was a very old building with the main portion probably dated back to the 15th century. Photo 7, taken by F. Thurston, is how the building looked in 1892, just before demolition. The last owners were the Seabrook family, who were corn merchants for several generations and were in occupation certainly from 1842 to 1894. The building was demolished when Blundells (see No. 14 below) wanted to enlarge their premises.
During demolition some curious old parchment writings were discovered hidden in the chimney stack, identified as 14th century manuscripts. Some of these were lost in the 1919 Town Hall fire but some were preserved in the Public Library.
No. 14 George St.
Francis Davis was a grocer here in 1851. The following year, Henry Blundell opened a small drapers shop at this location, shown in the centre of photo 8. In 1878 he bought No.12 George St. (see below) and in 1894 he bought No. 16 George St. (see above) and extended his shop to cover all 3 sites with a new modern shop-front (see photo 9). Isadore Newton (from Dream Homes) took control of the stores in 1955 but he retained the familiar Blundells name.
In 1973, Blundells became the major department store in the new Arndale Centre. In 1978 the Blundells name disappeared and the building was demolished to be replaced by the modern Debenhams store.
No 12 George St.
The Black Swan Inn was located at No. 12, shown on the right of photo 8. In 1851 Thomas Tomlinson ” Victualler and Hairdresser” was inn-keeper and in 1861 John Millard “Publican” was in charge.
The Black Swan closed on 5th October 1877 and was eventually sold in 1878 to Henry Blundell, draper, for £2000. The premises was then described as “a messuage with a stable, yard and appurtenances lately used as a public house called the Black Swan, now converted into a private house and shop in Market Hill, Luton, formerly in occupation of Mrs. Millard, now of Henry Blundell”. The property continued to form part of Blundell’s store until was demolished in 1978 and replaced by the modern Debenhams store.
No. 10-8 George St.
This building is shown nearest to the camera in photo 10, taken in 1925 by the Luton News shortly before demolition. Before the mid-1860’s there were two separate shops in this building but then the two shops were combined and became an “outfitters”, run by members of the Mares family until the business came to an end at this location and the building was demolished to make way for street-widening. Mares moved to 65 – 67 George St.
No. 6 George St.
This 3-story building can be seen in the centre of Photo 10. The building was owned and lived in by the Smith family for many years. Robert Smith built and owned many properties in Luton. In the mid-1800’s it was a short-lived beer-house called “The Grapes” and by 1891 Mares were making use of the ground floor as an extension to their shop next door. As with No 10-8, the building was demolished soon after 1925 to make way for street widening.
No. 4-2 George St.
This building marked the top end of Market Hill on the eastern side and can be seen centre right of photo 10 with Park Square in the distance. The building was split into two separate addresses, No. 4 facing onto Market Hill and No. 2 facing onto Park Lane, later Smiths Lane. Number 4 was used as offices from as early as 1851 and No. 2 was in continuous use as a shop, firstly as a tea dealer run by Charles Chapman and then as a pork butchers run by Mr & Mrs Schoeppler.
The town council wanted to widen the road in this area for many years, but it was not until 1921 that they managed to purchase nos. 10 to 2 inclusive.
Soon after photo 10 was taken, the whole block of buildings were demolished and replaced by a fine new 2-story block of shops with offices above, set back to allow a wider road.
This new building can be seen on the left of photo 11, taken in the 1930’s with Barratts and Burton trading.
Photo 12 shows how much the new 2 story building, on the right, was moved back compared to the main Blundells building frontage on the left.
Indeed, Blundells took over the first unit of the new building and added the new angled entrance to join the 2 buildings together as shown.
Incredibly, the right-hand end of this 1920’s building still exists today, as seen in the centre of photo 13.
The rest of the building was replaced by the modern Debenhams store, as can be seen on the extreme left, circa 1978.
We now cross over the road and look at the buildings to the south of Market Hill. Note that the numbers of the buildings are as they were from the 1860’s to the 1930’s.
No. 3 George St.
This was, and still is, the Crown Public House, shown in photo 14, taken by Eric Meadows in 1968. There has been an Inn on this site from at least the 16th century. The current building is early 19th century, greatly extended in the 20th century and is Grade 2 listed. The pub was given a number of different names from the 1980’s (Nickel Bag, Rat & Carrot, The Heights) but has now reverted back to the Crown. The building to the right of the Crown is No. 5, described below.
No. 5 George St
This building still stands today, although much altered, The first chemist shop in Luton was opened at this location around 1825 by Mr Newcombe Rumley. After he left Luton at the end of 1830, the business was bought by William Phillips, a gentleman of considerable scientific attainments. The Luton Gas Works (1834 – 1965) was a memorial of his talents and many of his early gas experiments were carried out on these premises.
Mr Phillips retired around 1857 and devoted his energies to the development of the Gas Works, at which time “clever but eccentric” George Gage (“manufacturing and dispensing chemist and straw dyer and bleacher”) took over the shop.
Then, in 1876 George Duberly took over as “pharmaceutical and dispending chemist”.
From 1902, the business was known as Duberly and White, with Walter White in charge. The General Fire and Life Assurance used the first floor of the building from at least 1931 and the building was sold to the Halifax Building Society in 1955. These 2 businesses shared the building into the 1980’s, since when it has changed occupiers several times.
Photo 15 shows the building in 1928 and photo 16 shows the building in 2017, on the left, with the Crown Court on the right.
Numerous properties can be seen in photo 17, taken in 1860, photographer unknown, looking East. This is one of my favourite photos of old Luton.
From left to right, we can see the back of the Corn Market House, then some of the buildings that constituted Middle Row, all of which will be described below.
Robert Smith’s building (No. 6 George St) can be seen in the distance and then on the right, two of the buildings that stood on the southern edge of Market Hill, No. 9 on extreme right , then 7 next to it, just showing.
No. 7 George Street
Appears to be a 2-story building in photo 17, but became a 3-story building before the end of the 19th century. James Cook was a Maltster here in 1851 and his widow Elizabeth was listed as a “retired brewer” in 1861. In 1871 the building was unoccupied. By 1898, William Starke was using the 3-story building as a mantle warehouse (a mantle was a loose sleeveless cloak or shawl). By 1928 it was owned by Mrs. Starke, presumably William Starke’s widow, and occupied by Mrs. J. Seamarks, later Seamarks Ltd, as a ladies’ outfitters.
By 1965 the occupier was Tudor Inns Limited and by 1968 the premises were vacant. For many years, the right-hand ground floor of the building, address 7a, was used as a small shop/office, the last occupants being William Hill, bookmakers. The only good photo I’ve found of the building is shown in the centre of photo 18, dated 1982, shortly before demolition.
No. 9 George St
This was a 2-story building for most of its life and was used as a grocery store for many years. It was run by Ann Bell in 1851, George Farmer in 1861 and William Smith in 1871. By 1877, Smith was listed as “grocer, provision, wine and spirit merchant”. He continued to be the occupier until 1890. The address is not listed again until a directory of 1906 when it was occupied by Smart and Co, grocers. By 1910 the occupier was Thomas Forman and Co., grocer, wine and spirit merchant and wholesale tobacconist. By 1924 the occupier is listed as T. Foster and Company, wine merchants, and they continued to occupy the building until at least 1972. I believe that the building became a single story sometime in the early 1950’s. By the time of the last Kelly’s Directory for Luton in 1975 the occupier was the Westminster Wine Company Limited. The last business occupant before demolition was the Mykonos Tavern, as seen in photo 18. This building, along with, No 7, was demolished in the 1980’s and replaced by the Luton Crown Court building which opened in 1991 and can be seen to the right of photo 16.
11 George Street
This is the site of one of the most ancient Inns in the town. The Red Lion Hotel building, shown in the centre of photo 19 (taken circa 1976), is still standing and was listed by the former Department of Environment in 1981 as Grade II, of special interest. The description describes the Red Lion as a “complex group of late 19th century and Edwardian buildings”. It notes that the main building “is in florid Edwardian style” and is “Stucco faced with a hipped Welsh slate roof“.
The Castle Street frontage had a cartouche bearing the date 1881 which suggests that either the much older building was demolished and a new one built on the site at that date, or that the old building was so substantially altered as to appear 19th century, and then altered again when it received its Edwardian front.
13 George Street
Is the all-white 3 storey mid-Victorian building to the right of the Red Lion in photo 19. John Shepherd, a “Straw Manufacturer” occupied the building in 1851and later, his son Charles ran a butchers from here. It is then mentioned in a directory of 1885 as occupied by the Northampton Brewery Company, presumably as an off-licence. In 1898 it is listed as occupied by Henry Sach, boot-maker and leather seller and as can be seen on the left of photo 18, taken by T G Hobbs, circa 1905, Henry seems to have covered the front of the building with writing. By 1914 Henry Sach has become Sach Brothers, leather merchants; the last mention of this firm in directories is in 1920. The building then had several uses including a stockroom for the Red Lion. In 1950 the occupiers were Bennetts, furriers, and they were here until at least 1965. In 1968 the premises were listed as the Red Lion annexe and continued to be so listed until the last Kelly’s for Luton in 1975. The building still stands today.
15 George Street
This building is shown in the centre of Photo 20, taken circa 1905 by T.G. Hobbs, after the building had become the “Conservative and Constitutional Club” around 1893. Before this, in 1851 it was occupied by Benjamin Bolton, a straw Manufacturer, and in 1861 it was occupied by Charles Robinson, “Tuscan, straw and fancy hat and bonnet manufacturer”. Charles Robinsion was heavily involved in the development of Luton; he was a member of the Board of Health, the School Board and a promoter of the Water Company. He was followed by Henry Smith who continued the business until 1893/4 when the building is listed as occupied by South Bedfordshire Conservative and Constitutional Club.
In 1907 it was decided to rebuild and improve the Club and this update is shown in photo 21. This later building was demolished in 1975 and a new office block stands on the site today. The only image I have of this building is shown on photo 20 to the right of the Conservative Club. In the 1851 census Alfred Heale, a medical practitioner was living at this address and he was still here in 1861 and 1871.
No. 17 George Street
By1 881 it was occupied by David Thompson, “surgeon, medical officer and public vaccinator, Leagrave district, Luton Union” and his family. By 1890 the building was no longer a home it and became offices to a number of different companies until around 1906 when straw hat manufacturers Read and Horn converted the building to a hat factory. At some time, the building was heightened and given a new frontage. Whilst preparing the 1928 list of rateable values of all the buildings in the town, the valuer commented: “Fine modern factory but out of the way”. Read and Horn continued to occupy the building until at least 1950. Kelly’s Directory for Luton of 1960 implies that the premises were vacant and not even the number is listed in 1965. It was certainly demolished by 1967. Today, a modern office block occupies the site.
No. 19 George Street
This small building, shown on the left of photo 22, taken circa 1976, was only ever used as offices and is first listed in a directory in 1885 when it was occupied by auctioneer, surveyor and estate agent John Canon Conder. In 1928 the building was used as offices for Read & Horn’s hat factory which was next door at 17 George Street.Directories show that Read and Horn still had the premises as late as 1950.
By 1960 the occupier was builder J. Bryce. No further directories list the property but the building is still in use today.
No. 21 George Street
This Grade II listed building opened as the London and County Bank on 2nd May 1839 and is shown in the centre of photo 22. Around 1848, William Bigg was transferred from a branch of the Bank in Oxfordshire and became the manager of this branch. He is recorded as living here in the 1851 and 1861 censuses and he would become a man of great influence over the development of Luton, becoming the town’s first Mayor in 1876. The building has had many uses and multiple occupants since the 1870’s, with offices above and a shop front added later to the ground floor. By 1950 the shop was occupied by Brighter Homes, wallpaper merchants who continued in occupation until at least 1976. (For many years, I had my hair cut in this building, but was unaware of its history). The property is still in use today and maybe deserves a blue plaque in honour of Mr. Bigg.
No. 23 George Street
This narrow 3-storey 19th century building, shown in photo 23, was occupied in 1851 by Joseph Mantica, a jeweller from the Lake Como district of Italy. He was still here in 1861.
By 1869 this was the site of “The Grapes” beer-house and in 1881 Andrew Smith was a “Coffee House Keeper” here. It then became a butcher’s shop for over 70 years, becoming J H Dewhurst Ltd from the 1930’s and this firm remained in the premises until at least 1972.
The building still stands today.
No. 25 George Street
This was the location of “The Shoulder of Mutton” (SoM) public house. No photos exist of the original building, but an engraving is attached – image 24. This original SoM was demolished in 1837 and a new SoM was built in its place, a building which still survives today. The new SoM closed between 1871 and 1876 and the building has been used as a shop ever since. The first mention of it in any directory is in 1885 when John Welch, fishmonger is there.
By 1903 Arthur Edmund Fisher, butcher, was in occupation and there would be a butcher’s shop on the premises for the next sixty years and more, competing with the one at No. 20. Fisher was still in occupation in 1950, when Kelly’s Directory for Luton noted a Ministry of Food slaughterhouse stood at the rear. A photo of the building as it was in 2010 is shown in the centre of Photo 25 and coloured a nice shade of pink.
No. 27 George Street
The building that stood here on the corner of Chapel Street during the 1800’s is shown in Photo 26, taken just before 1900, and was occupied for all that time by the Pigott family, who ran a butchers shop from here.
By 1903, Boots Cash Chemist (Eastern) Limited was in occupation and the building had become a single storey, as shown on the right of photo 27, taken circa 1909.
Then, around 1915, the building had 2 extra floors built on top, a composition of barge-boarded gables to a steeply pitched roof. This revised building is shown in photo 28, taken circa 1959. Boots continued to occupy the building until at least 1960;
Kelly’s Directory for Luton of 1965 indicating that the premises were then vacant.
By 1968 J. Hepworth Limited, tailors, who had occupied 47 George Street since 1903, were in occupation and were still there at the time of the last Kelly’s for Luton in 1975. The building is still in use today.
These last 3 buildings (23,25 & 27) are still standing and they are considered to be of local architectural or historic interest but, at present, they do not have the protection of being listed.
Middle Row (The Clump)
Up until 1876 an island of shops, tenements, the Kings Arms Inn and the Corn Market House stood in the centre of Market Hill.
This collection of buildings can be seen on the 1842 Tithe map above and in photo 29 (taken circa 1860) which shows the view looking south from George Street. Park Square is off to the left and Castle Street off to the right. The old Market House is on the right of this group and the remainder of the buildings on the eastern side of the Market House were known as “Middle Row” but referred to as “The Clump” on the 1851 and 1861 censuses.
Some 50 people were living or working in these buildings at that time. The Kings Arms can been seen in the centre of the photo and was built in the early 19th century, replacing a previous brew-house called the Half Moon, which had been here since at least 1706.
Another view of the buildings in Middle Row can be seen in photo 30 (taken circa 1866) and shows the impressive general store on the south-east corner owned by George Chambers. Frederick Davis, shoe-maker and first historian of Luton had the shop immediately to the right of Chambers store. Note the sign for the Crown Inn in the top left of the photo.As early as 1841 the Manor Court Leet presented Middle Row as a “nuisance” – its days were numbered.
The majority of the buildings, especially those on the western side, were demolished in 1867 to make way for the new Corn Exchange. Three remaining buildings were eventually demolished in 1875.
The old Market house once stood in the centre of Market Hill alongside Middle Row, described above. There are no photos of it in its prime, but I’ve attached an engraving of it produced in 1775 by R. Todd – Image 31. It had originally been a fine building – the upper walls of the sides had small columns set in them and the windows were placed between these columns. There was an open hall below, with the upper storey supported on wooden columns, though the end walls were of brick.
At the end of its life, it had become a decrepit building, with one part boarded up and used as a wood store and the ends covered in advertisements. The side walls were now plain and all the windows were bricked up. Alone of its ornamental features, the cupola, where the fire bell had been housed, remained on the roof. Photo 32 shows the building just before demolition in 1867.
It was replaced by the Corn Exchange. The foundation stone was laid on 3rd January 1868 by Lieut.-Col. Lionel Ames and it opened for business a year later. This magnificent new building is shown in to the right of photo 33, taken circa 1870, soon after completion. Fred Davis described the building thus in 1874 –
“It is constructed of local bricks, with stone facings and ornamental string courses. It comprises an excellent commodious Corn Market, 60 feet long and 30 feet wide, having a bay window, with a small light on each side of it, facing the Town Hall ; on each side of the room are four windows, and at the end opposite the bay window a large circular tracery window, and four smaller windows below. There is a gallery across one end of the room. The entrances to the building are two in number, which form two wings, each containing entrance halls or lobbies, with two rooms over each.
The roof is an open one, lofty, of matched boarding, stained and varnished, the ribs and purloins standing out boldly from the ceiling. It is lighted with gas, has two large fire-places, and is fitted with moveable lock-up desks and stalls for the dealer’s. This building is surmounted by a clock tower, eighty-five feet in height, having a four-faced clock which was presented by Messrs. Sharples & Co., Bankers, Luton. The lower part of the building is fitted up as a Meat Market, with all necessary hooks, racks, meat stalls, etc”.
The south west corner of the building, is shown in Photo 34, taken around 1905 by T.G.Hobbs. This building, like so many others in Luton, was demolished in 1951, but the lower floor remained for a year or two before that was cleared away as well. The remains can be seen in photo 35, taken in 1952. That completes my look at the old buildings that used to exist around Market Hill.
I hope it was of interest; I certainly enjoyed doing the research.
A surprising number of the buildings still exist today and I hope they will be recognised for their historic interest and protected in some way.