The Luton I Remember
It was the centre of my world for about 15years and was situated on the corner of Dumfries Street (number 56) and the Walk
We moved there during the war and my mum set about making it a place for heroes to live in – the special hero being my dad, who arrived in 1945 to a home he had never seen and to a son who didn’t know him.
For a small child the Walk seemed to be a wide and long thoroughfare. At the Adelaide Street end stood out the imposing Ceylon Baptist Church where I was sent every Sunday afternoon for Sunday School and which gradually, and more and more, became the centre of my social life until I finally left Luton in 1960.
A few steps up the Walk was the depot where our milkman John loaded up his milk float for his deliveries. The hum of the engine and the rattle of the bottles went well before him as he did his work. There was a good neighbourliness about John; he knew who could afford his produce and who had a struggle and he worked hand in glove with the young people of the Ceylon Church so that they could deliver Christmas hampers, full of goodies, into the arms of needy, astounded and extremely moved old people.
Walking up the lane one passed the back yards of houses which fronted Wellington and Hastings Streets and since they were hardly used by the owners it became an empty, safe and enjoyable place to play hop scotch and other games.
The back entrance to Fleckney’s the Florist (Hastings Street) was in fact a large stable and there was room in it for Mr Fleckney’s car and for the horse which Mr. Darbyshire used for his removal business. Generally the horse was quiet and safe to visit, when the gates were open, but at other times it reared and neighed and was extremely frightening.
There was a small hat factory next to this, the side wall of which adjoined our back garden. Since my mum was a milliner this was one of a number of places she did work for. They were extraordinary places those factories. At ground level men worked with the gas heated model heads which the felt hoods were placed over and compressed to various fashionable shapes of the day. Steam hissed out of them when the tops were pressed tightly together and then, when dry and more stiff, they were taken upstairs where the women sowed, decorated and sometimes feathered them. Health and safety wasn’t strong in those factories and there were famous examples of dreadful fires in which the workers were burned to death. This factory, in particular, had a serious fire one evening and I remember my dad playing a water hose onto the wall to ensure it didn’t collapse in the heat.
The side to our house which fronted the Walk was long and high and perfect for use as a tennis court. Hour upon hour people had to put up with the thump of the tennis balls as they hit the wall. My back hand and fore hand strokes must have been brilliant – the neighbour’s headaches less satisfying.
There were about 8 of us kids who played in the Walk. Mostly we got on well together and enjoyed ourselves but when we took to tying peoples door knockers together with string, and thus making people unable to open their front doors or when opening them making other peoples knockers, across the street, bang, we were less popular. Tying the lids of pig bins (where food scraps were deposited) situated on the corner of the street to door knockers, so that the occasional car would plough through the string and make the lids clatter on the pavement, was also not popular.
Across the street on the opposite corner of the Walk was the brightly plastered imposing structure of the Ebenezer Chapel. It was only used for one evening a week and then on Sundays, morning and evening. The people who worshipped there were Strict Baptists; were they strict like my teachers and caned people, I wondered? The caretaker of the church was forever coming out and telling us off for making a noise but that was nothing compared to the noise the people made in the church. They sang without an organ accompaniment and sounded as though they were human sirens, like the ones we had heard during the war. When they finally left at about 11 they used to kiss each other but they never seemed to smile.
The four corners of the Walk at Dumfries Street were memorable for all kinds of reasons. I remember the piles of snow during the winter of 1947 which were so high that I couldn’t get to school. The corner was where an old couple used to meet almost every evening – my mum said that that they weren’t married to each other and were meeting secretly; I couldn’t understand why they were always arguing. That corner was also the place that people coming out of the nearby pubs, the Fountain and the Standard, used to congregate. Often they would shout but sometimes they would fight and my dad use to sit in our front room just in case our windows might be broken. Finally the corner was a sad place because I remember seeing an old lady collapse there; I ran to tell mum and she was brought into our front room and mum told me that she had died.
Further along the Walk was a carpenters business and another big hat factory which my mum worked in. Clearly we didn’t have a lot of money and so mum had to work long hours. After school I was allowed to go to the factory and wait for mum to finish and then as soon as she got home there was a knock on the door and a man would bring in huge boxes of hat shapes which mum would turn into fashionable hats. Sometimes the hats were black ones and called ‘flu’ hats because it was thought there might be a flu outbreak, people would die, and they would need black hats for the funeral. In the 1950s it was fashionable for hats to be covered in feathers which were stuck on with glue. That glue was extremely pungent and smelled like ether. For all I know we were all high as kites as we inhaled the glue, the smell of which never seemed to leave the house.
I rarely went further along Windsor Walk, it was foreign territory! I do remember an event one day however. On occasion cows were herded along George Street to go for sale at the market in Park Street. One time one of the cows broke free and raced up Wellington Street only to reach the top part of Windsor Walk for sanctuary. A lady happened to be carrying her shopping along there and turned round to have a cow looking her in the eye. She yelled, dropped her shopping and ran. I had to tell mum, we were hysterical.
Round about 1958 we went up in the world and moved from 56 to 83 Dumfries Street. It was good bye to Windsor Walk and, even though our move was a couple of hundred yards, I rarely went back there. We were now in the big league. We had a hall, a third bedroom and a larger kitchen but it wasn’t until I went to university that I lived in a house which had a bathroom and an inside toilet. We now have 3 toilets in our house, a testimony to having escaped the horrors of walking outside in the depths of winter, just to go to the loo.