Chapter 7 – A look at two main Streets of Luton Past.
George Street has certainly seen more than its fair share of changes over the years, from village High Street lined with huddled farmhouses and ancient inns to today’s paved concourse thronged with jostling pedestrians. In its time it has witnessed the passage of peddlers with pannier-laden ponies, trim horse-drawn carriages serving the gentry bands of armed men on the move during the Civil War and the rumble of stage coaches travelling the rutted roads to London.
As the expansion of Luton began to accelerate in the 19th century it is not surprising to find that the burgeoning hat industry took root in the main street. Gradually the old farmsteads public houses and sleazy hotels were bought out and replaced by plait warehouses and large hat factories. By 1823 the Marquess of Bute had laid out the select private road, Wellington Street, which was lined with attractive housing intended for professionals and hat manufacturers. Unfortunately, as with many private roads, the maintenance was neglected and in 1845 the Board of Health assumed the responsibility of the street’s upkeep. A few of these old town houses still exist in Wellington Street hiding behind the facades of modern shop-fronts.
In the 1850s, because the street was no longer private, some of the residents moved out, changing the character of the street and paving the way for an influx of retail traders. The shops that the traders opened soon led to Wellington Street being acknowledged as the best street for shopping in Luton. Many of the originally founded businesses stayed in the street for over a hundred years until denuded of trade by the opening of the Arndale Centre.
Although recent attempts to regenerate Wellington Street have been partially successful, today’s shoppers would find it hard to credit the number or variety of business ventures it housed in its heyday in the early years of the twentieth century. An analysis of the type and number of businesses and shops in Wellington Street, well established by 1905 – 8 Drapers, 2 Confectioners, 1 Butcher, 1 Hardware, 4 Boot & shoe, 2 Piano & organs, 1 Dairy, 1 Jeweller, 4 Chemists, 2 Printers, 1 Dentist, 1 Photographer, 4 Outfitters, 2 Milliners, 1 Dyeworks, 1Sewing machines, 3 Grocers, 1 Baker, 1 Fruiterer, 1Tobacconist, 3 Plait merchants, 1 Blockmaker, 1 Furnisher and 1 Watchmaker.
Changes in the occupancy of properties in shopping streets are inevitable and yet Wellington Street, until its decline in the late 1960s, kept its aura of sharp respectability. Members of the older generation will no doubt recall collecting their school uniforms from Lacey and Son or Alexander and Son. The chemist shops were identified with ornate golden framed lamps, shaded with blue or ruby-red glass and their shop windows decorated with large flasks of luminescent fluids. Odours permeating from shop doorways also played their part in creating the special atmosphere that pervaded Wellington Street. The smell of starched linen from the drapers, leather from the boot and shoe shops, the dry, dusty smell of paper from the book-sellers and the “new” smell of clean clothes in the outfitters all added to the business-like charm to be found in this, Luton’s first shopping street.
At the same time that Wellington Street was being developed, new roads and properties were being built to the east of George Street to satisfy the rapidly growing hat industry. Today, the three entrances giving access to the Arndale Centre from St. George’s Square and George Street mark the location of Williamson Street, Bute Street and Cheapside, streets that ran between George Street and Guildford Street before the shopping centre was built. Although Luton’s hat trade was fragmented throughout the town, the area bounded by these old streets is considered to be the heartland of the industry, where the majority of the larger factories were situated.
Gradually the spaces left in George Street by relocated hat factories, demolished public houses like The Cross Keys and The Black Swan, and some old houses, were replaced with banks and new shops to augment the successful businesses in Wellington Street. The early years of the twentieth century saw a proliferation of shops in Luton especially corner shops and general stores, often in small groups to serve a local community.
A comparison of the contents of Wellington Street in 1905 and George Street 1950 shows the significant changes in type of shops and facilities over 45 years. In 1950 the clothing shops in George Street catered mostly for middle-class male or female Lutonians. There were ten men’s and eight women’s clothiers in George Street alone, choice that is only dreamed of by shoppers of today. George Street also boasted three dispensing chemists, two outlets selling wines and spirits, a furrier, a DIY materials shop, two butcher’s shops, a cinema, two furniture stores, six boot and shoe shops, five hairdressing salons, two grocers, two tobacconists, Electricity and Gas showrooms, two jeweller’s shops, a British Home Stores, an ironmongery shop, an F. W. Woolworths and Marks and Spencer stores, five banks, a library, the George Hotel, three cafes and a Corn Exchange.
Some fifty years later (in 2000), of the businesses listed, only the Marks and Spencer store, four banks and the British Home Stores Ltd. remain in George Street.