Luton’s present aspirations are rooted in ancient times Earliest settlements in the Luton area can be traced back over 250,000 years, but the town’s foundation dates to the sixth century as a Saxon outpost on the River Lea, from which Luton derives its name. The Domesday Book records the population of ‘Loitone’ as 750, with agriculture the economic mainstay.
The manor of Luton was passed between different nobles at the behest of the King, one of whom, the first Earl of Gloucester, commissioned St Mary’s Church in 1121, completed and consecrated in 1137. St Mary’s is considered one of the finest examples of medieval church architecture. Today, it also hosts the graduation ceremonies of the University of Bedfordshire.
Luton has played a special role in the Queen’s life, and may do so again Her Majesty’s Diamond Jubilee coincides with the 65th wedding anniversary of The Queen and Prince Philip. The Royal couple spent part of their honeymoon at Luton Hoo, at the time owned by Sir Harold Wernher and Lady Zia, a granddaughter of Czar Nicholas I of Russia. The Wernhers were close friends of the Royal Family and every year for their anniversary, The Queen and Prince Philip would visit the estate and attend the Sunday morning service at St Mary’s Church.
The hat manufacturing industry, for which Luton became famous, began in the sixteenth century, quickly making Luton the main centre for Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire. The industry so dominated the local economy that during the Great Depression of the 1930s, Luton’s unemployment was significantly lower than the national average. As production shifted from straw to felt, Luton’s hats were marketed as far afield as America, Australia, Canada and New Zealand as well as around Europe.
The Chamber’s New Industries Committee, established in 1877, boasted of Luton’s strengths: good transport links, housing and educational facilities, effective local government, a skilled workforce and a pleasant living environment – similar to Luton today. A variety of multinational companies moved headquarters here, including, by 1910: Laporte, the chemical firm; Skefco, the ball bearing company; and Electrolux, as well as Vauxhall Motors moving from London in 1905.
Vauxhall’s initial operations in Luton were rather modest until the company was bought by General Motors in 1925. The sturdy ‘Bedford’ trucks built by Vauxhall were known throughout the world. During the Second World War the young Princess Elizabeth, serving in the Women’s Auxiliary Training Service, was famously photographed working on a Bedford van. Different versions of the Churchill tank were built at Vauxhall and then tested in the grounds of the stately home, Luton Hoo, which also hosted Eastern Command.
The 1950s and 1960s were boom years for Vauxhall. The company paid good wages and its expansion aided Luton’s growth, attracting new residents from across the UK and the Commonwealth. However, the national decline of the motor industry from the 1970s led finally to car production ceasing at Vauxhall’s Luton headquarters in 2002. With commercial vehicle manufacture also under threat, the flexible and proactive approach of local van workers culminated in the 2011 announcement that new Vivaro vans would be produced in Luton, safeguarding more than 6,000 jobs. However, it is how Luton responded to wider local and national economic shifts that sets it apart from other areas facing similar challenges.