Luton Past - Chapter 3 - Men who Saved the Past - by Ken Cooper

Chapter 3 – Men who saved the Past.

William Shakespeare had the enviable talent of writing in eloquent verse thoughts that the majority of people would be unable to commit to paper. Take these lines from his Sonnet Number Thirty for instance;

            When to the sessions of sweet silent thought, I summon up remembrances of things past, I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought, and with old woes new wail my dear times’ waste.

Simple and poignant words from the Bard of Avon but how relevant they are to persons looking for their Luton roots or out of curiosity wondering what the town looked like in years gone by. Luton has seen so many changes in its architecture and general appearance since the end of the 19th century that without the help of printed or photographic images it would be difficult to appreciate its visual impact in former times. Luckily Luton has been left a rich legacy of town images recorded by the sharp lenses and keen observation of local photographers.

Early photography, which started in the mid 1800s, started as the hobby of rich men who afforded time and money experimenting with expensive chemicals and sensitised papers used in developing and printing “true to life” likenesses. They worked in what seemed to be secret conditions in darkened rooms with unpleasant smelling processes but produced pictures that were hailed as modern masterpieces. These local photographic pioneers, like A. J. Anderson, H. Gregson, T.G. Hobbs and F. Thurston, produced large photographs of contemporary local scenes which were often framed and sold in their studios much as paintings are today.

A typical scenic photograph by A.J. Anderson showing boys fishing near the Park Road Bridge on the Luton Hoo boundary. A very popular picture, it was later reprinted and sold as an equally popular Luton post card.

Just before 1900 there were several commercial photographers with studios in Luton offering portraits, group photos, children’s and animal pictures all at reasonable prices, although the charge for pictures of children and animals was sixpence extra because of the extra patience needed mainly by the photographer!

Advertisement for American Photographic Co. showing the range of prices. Notice the American home-spun philosophy and the note about children and animals!

Topographical post cards became very popular on the continent during the days of the Great Paris Exhibition of 1899, but did not make an appearance in Luton until 1902 when sets of six cards portraying views regarded as the “Sights of Edwardian Luton” were put on sale in stationers and newsagents shop-windows.

The first of them containing six assorted pictures showing George Street, Why Axe Ye? (a small thatched cottage in Park Street), Someries Castle, Wellington Street, The Corn Exchange and Bedford Road. Post Cards sold like hot cakes, not only in Luton but country-wide, starting a collecting craze that lasted into the 1920s. It is estimated that in 1903 six million cards were sent through the post with most homes possessing a postcard collection carefully stored in an album, each one being a potential historical picture book.

George Street in 1902, with the Ames Memorial Drinking Fountain in the foreground still regally decorated with a crown-topped gas lamp fitted at the time of Edward VII’s coronation the previous year.

Photographers were quick to take advantage of the post-card’s commercial promise and flooded shops with local views, the work of photographers such as A.J. Anderson of Wellington Street, W.H. Cox of the Gainsborough Studio in Castle Street (who later also moved to Wellington Street), D. Dryerre of Park Street and A. E. Nicholls of Mill Street. All of whom were prolific publishers of pictures of Luton street scenes.

A.J. Anderson’s photographic studio and shop in Wellington Street, with the window full with the latest wedding and scenic view pictures. The door carries two racks of “local views” postcards, while the display cabinet shows a range of small, hard-backed family photos named “midgets”.

Local cards became the equivalent of today’s text messages sent by mobile telephone, for they were so inexpensive to send (only 0.5d) and delivery by the Royal Mail took less than a day. The greatest benefit of the post card came during the first World War when families and servicemen were able to keep in touch with their loved ones by sending nostalgic views of home, or in the case of service personnel, the location of their billets, often marked with a cross. To keep the troops spirits up some of these missives were comical, even risqué, with a double entendre involving the sender’s town.

An example of a first World war picture postcard with an underlying meaning. Relics such as this kept thoughts of days spent in the several military camps in and around Luton fresh in the memory of servicemen billeted in the town.

Toward the end of the Edwardian Era newsprint technology had advanced sufficiently to enable the insertion of high quality photographs into newspapers and magazines. This was a boon to local newspapers that were able not only to describe local events by the written word but visually too. A good example of this point was the inclusion of pictures of the still smoking ruins of Luton Town Hall after the Peace Day riots, printed in the next day’s Special Edition of The Pictorial, a local newspaper.

The addition of photographs into newspapers brought into being the news-photographer, someone who could be called upon at short notice to take pictures of anything from a procession to a party, fire to a fight, or wedding to a wake. These photographers carried the tools of their trade, camera, magnesium flash and sensitised glass plate film in a heavy shoulder bag as they moved from assignation to assignation, becoming well-known characters in their own right.

News photographers had to be prepared for anything when capturing pictures of the past for the next edition. Taking to the rooftops was all in a days work, although on this occasion it was the roof of the Luton News offices in Alma Street. Notice the Hart Hill Water Tower on the skyline.

Probably the best known of these local photographers were Stan Cooper and George Gurney who worked for The Luton News; between them they turned news photography into an art form and added immensely to the vast Luton News glass plate negative collection of views and events, held in trust at the Luton Museum and Art Gallery.

Apart from commercial photographers, there has always been the eager amateur anxious to capture for posterity a favourite scene, building or occasion, which due to changes of fashion, demolition, or rebuilding, may, when examined at a later date, reveal a glimpse of nostalgia or picture of historical interest showing an aspect of “Luton Past” rather than its original purpose.

However, when looking at pictures of Luton Past the viewer cannot help comparing the brash, bustling town of today with the quieter, wistful and more genteel vistas enjoyed by former generations. In a changing world it is perhaps unfair to judge the advantages or disadvantages of either era. As generations grow up, each tends to think of its own time as being the best, claiming their early years as being “the good old days”. The way goods are presented in shop windows and display areas, the change of occupancy of premises and the general shift of customer’s tastes are all reflected unbiasedly when looking through the camera’s lens. Thus each viewer, young or old, will form their own opinion of a town that has changed radically within living memory when examining photographs taken by men who have in truth saved the past.

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