luton_heritage - RSA

Blog: JFK and Peace Day Riots - A defence of Luton's heritage

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  • Heritage

We’ve done it again. Eleven years ago, Luton topped the ‘Crap Towns’ list of the worst places in Britain. Now the town of my birth has come in at rock bottom in the RSA’s new Heritage Index, which ranks local areas by the strength of their heritage. As the RSA’s token Lutonian, it falls to me to offer something by way of explanation, apologia – and perhaps hope – for the town.

Luton Town Hall

My favourite local excuse for Luton’s industrial decline in the twentieth century is that it was all JFK’s fault. Up until the middle of the century Luton was a thriving, industrious place with its signature industry based around the manufacture of hats. Then in the 1960s Kennedy and his wife Jackie – both dazzling, attractive, young and powerful – moved into the White House and re-set the standards of global fashion. Kennedy didn’t wear a hat. Everybody else immediately stopped buying hats, so the argument goes, and Luton lost its unique selling point over-night.

I’m not sure we can really blame Luton’s fortunes on The Kennedy Assassination (of the hat industry), but it’s certainly true to say that in many ways history hasn’t been kind to Luton in terms of preserving the town’s visible heritage. The hat industry that still informs a good deal of the Luton’s identity was largely a home-based cottage industry that didn’t leave behind many noted or listed buildings in comparison to some of the heavier industries in northern towns with their iconic mills and factories. Meanwhile the more modern manufacturing that also thrived in the town until the 1980s – Vauxhall and Bedford automobiles, chemicals and electronics – haven’t added much in the way of conventional architectural beauty to the town’s landscape either. The very presence of those advanced technical and light industries also attracted German bombing raids in the Second World War, contributing in no small part to the necessary modernist rebuilding of much of the town centre in the 1950s and ‘60s – an era that doesn’t always get a lot of love by the arbiters of good taste and architectural heritage.

You can almost imagine a different and more handsome town by looking at the gaps in the maps – Castle Street runs uphill to what was once a Norman motte and bailey castle, but is now the site of a Matalan discount store. The beautiful Victorian Carnegie Free Library was deemed unfit for purpose in 1962, demolished, and replaced with the more functional but less historically interesting Central Library, as well as much-needed commercial space for the rapidly-growing post-war population. On Peace Day in 1919 – intended as a celebration of the official end of the First World War – veterans protested against the unemployment and poor living conditions experienced by working class soldiers and, when a council officer tried to placate them with a message from the King, rioted and burned the historic old town hall to the ground. (A replacement was built at the same site some years later though, and is actually a not unattractive mix of neoclassical and art-deco styles itself).

Part of our problem in Luton, I think, is that much of what we think is important to the town’s identity isn’t acknowledged in traditional yardsticks of heritage. Nobody outside Luton seems to care very much when we tell them we have the UK’s smallest single-span suspension bridge. Those hat factories are still dotted all over the town but they just look like big houses to the untrained eye. People pour scorn on our underperforming football club in its tatty old stadium – but fans know that when 10,000 of us are squeezed into the ground under its corrugated iron roof, Kenilworth Road can really rock.

People in the town commemorate its social history in ways that don't necessarily leave behind tangible assets or activities that can be easily counted. Veteran journalist Geoff Cox has been sharing fascinating historic photographs of the town in his newspaper column and, more recently, Twitter feed, for years. Local sculptor and painter Frank Casey creates stirring artistic tributes to local heroes, such as Joe Gough who died fighting against the fascists in the Spanish Civil War. The comic and poet John Hegley has made an art-form of the suburban pastoral in his much-loved lyrics about growing up in the town. And Luton Town Football Club – the first professional football team in the south of England - is 130 years old this year, and each week it publishes really smart match-day programmes based on historical designs from different years gone by.

Somewhat paradoxically, the future of heritage in Luton looks bright. Heritage is not just about the past – about old buildings and dusty museums – but is also about a community deciding what is important to its identity, and what should be celebrated about a place. The annual Luton International Carnival, from humble origins as a Victorian-themed celebration of the town’s centenary in 1976, is now the largest one-day carnival in Europe and the town is home to the impressive new UK Centre for Carnival Arts. Grassroots campaigns such as the yearly Community Awards and the council-backed Love Luton initiative focus on what’s best in the town and work to bring Luton’s diverse communities together, while the Bangladeshi Youth League celebrated its 35th anniversary last month and is embarking on a major heritage project exploring the history of community development in some of the town's most deprived areas. From being the number one Crap Town eleven years ago, Luton has more recently been judged one of the top ten best places to live in the country. It is now designated as one of Heritage Lottery’s priority development areas for new funding, meaning that there is a big opportunity for local projects to win funding to bring under-recognised Luton heritage to light. There is much to be optimistic about.

I was born in Luton and spent my early childhood there, and returned to live there again as a young adult. All of my extended family still live in the town. When I worked in Luton I met so many people working really hard to make the town a better place to live, and Lutonians are generally really proud of their patch. It can sometimes feel dispiriting – exhausting even – when the town so often gets mocked by outsiders; as well as the Crap Towns stuff, there are the inevitable impressions of some obscure 1970s TV advert featuring “Lu’on airpor’” that people do whenever you tell them where you’re from. And as well as being the butt of everyone’s jokes, more recently there has been a nastier edge to the anti-Luton sentiment and the town has become unfairly associated with terrorist and far-right activity - which certain national newspapers have exaggerated with savage glee.

The town’s disappointing position at the bottom of the RSA heritage index should not be taken in the spirit of yet more Luton-bashing. Instead, if like me you’re a Lutonian who’s a little bit stung by the ranking, it should be seen as a call to action. Luton actually does moderately well on the Index measures relating to publicly accessible stores of heritage, being in the top half nationally for museums and archives, though it scores lower on measures of heritage activity, natural heritage and green spaces, and - for reasons outlined above - industrial and built heritage. As the accompanying report to the Index recommends, you can help to boost the town’s position on the Index by visiting and supporting the local museums and using archives to look up local history or family genealogy. Volunteer investment to improve the town’s greener areas such as the neglected stretches of the river Lea would do the place a world of good – not just in terms of heritage but also for the environment, public health, and recreation. Traditionally, social history is underrated in considerations of heritage – for example I love that story about the radical Tommies burning down the town hall – but you can help to change that, for example by plotting sites of important social history on HistoryPin, the crowd-sourced online history map so that others can learn about the important historical sites. All places have heritage of course – but it’s equally important to consider what people do to share that heritage and make it relevant to the life and identity of a place.

Finally, let’s all be louder and prouder about Luton. The town has been knocked for too long; let people carry on doing their “Lu’on airpor’” impressions if it amuses them, but don’t tolerate them telling you that Luton’s a crap town. Over the years we’ve survived raids by both armies in the English Civil War, bombing campaigns from the Luftwaffe, an American President’s assault on our hat industry, and several successive relegations for the football club. We’ll survive the bottom-placed ranking in the Heritage Index too. We’ve got pluck, we’ve got pride, and we’ve got the smallest darn suspension bridge in the UK.

Lutonians unite, and support the town’s heritage!


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  • I'm currently working with Lou Matter on a joint RSA-Chiltern Society meeting in Birkhamsted on 22 March 2016. Luton is just about 'in' the Chilterns and since we will certainly be discussing the Heritage Index with Joanna Massie (as well as general RSA affairs), it would be good to think more about all this there.

    Chilterns in general seems to score pretty low, despite its many positives and it could be that governance dispersed across so many authorities means there is little sense of identity. However, in such a swiftly changing world local/global identity is very fragmented. 

  • I looked up my home town of Chersterfield (bottom 47% - so only JUST bottom!) and I am a bit perplexed at the results.  We're very close to the Peak District and yet landscape environment and natural heritage is bottom 13%.  So what's being looked at?
    I understand why the area has a low culture and memories score, I think - when the coal mines closed, the town just folded up on itself. Where there's no work, people leave, taking their culture and memories with them. Like me.  I moved out when I was 23 because there was no work. I daresay there are many other young people who do the same.

    Not knowing what these categories mean makes it all a bit arbitrary. 

    • Hi Karen, you raise some interesting points.


      The simple answer is that the council boundary lines of Chesterfield end before the Peak District begins, and so Chesterfield itself doesn't include much in the way of landscape and natural heritage within its borders despite its proximity to beautiful natural places.

      Of course though, this is in itself largely arbitrary and to some extent an accident of political geography; the borough of Sheffield does extend into the Peak District and so Sheffield scores a higher rating on natural heritage than Chesterfield does, even though whether you live in central Sheffield or central Chesterfield it's just as easy to access that national park. This issue of 'access to' heritage is something that we haven't been able to capture with the Index as we used formal Local Authority boundaries as our geographical units (this is the level at which most of the available data is recorded, and so that's what we had to use for the index even though, of course, people don't exist as islanders exclusively within Local Authority boundaries).  We have released the data into the public domain though, so one thing people can look at (and other researchers and tech-wizards) is how much heritage is accessible within a reasonable journey time. 

      I think you're right that the meaning of some of the categories isn't quite clear enough on our main project pages. All of the datasets are available to download so people can check exactly what has been recorded for each area, and a technical summary report is available at  But we will now look at how the categories can be made clearer on the interactive map pages so that people can more easily see what we mean by 'Culture and Memories' for example, which we accept isn't immediately obvious.

      Thanks a lot for your feedback - we'll have a look at how to make the presentation a bit clearer in response to your points.

      • Thanks Matthew and Joanna.  I should just add, last night I was at the Annual Conference and a number of people were saying that the RSA was not responsive.  My experience here has been exactly the opposite!

  • Great piece showing great spirit, and I for one am taking the same 'call to action' meaning from my own hometown's mediocre performance. Wrexham shares much in common with Luton I suspect - especially when it comes to football!

    • Thanks Gary. Indeed I've visited Wrexham a number of times to watch football matches over the years and always found Wrexhamites a charming bunch! Looking at the data, it does look as though Wrexham is similar to Luton in that it isn't blessed with a huge amount in the way of built heritage assets (although parks and green spaces are a strong point) so it really is about local people working together to tell a story about how the social history of the place is reflected. It's great to see that you're one of the Heritage Ambassadors who will be leading the response to the call to action! There are ideas for how to ramp up heritage activity in the area at  

      It's worth noting that the process of indexing has a certain harshness about it - Wrexham actually records middling scores for most individual indicators, but tends not to excel in any particular area and so doesn't perform well overall. There are definitely positive stories behind the top-line of the index though.

  •  The town has been knocked for too long; let people carry on doing their “Lu’on airpor’”

    Not sure if you're serious, but that old chestnut was replaced many years ago with Luton having a reputation for Islamic extremists and a breeding ground for bombers (7/7, TA barracks on Marsh Rd), while the blinkered Council bang on on about "Luton In Harmony."

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