Memories of Luton 3
The Shops of Wellington Street
In his fascinating book ‘Strawopolis. Luton Transformed 1840-1876’ Stephen Bunker says that the Marquess of Bute planned and laid out Wellington Street sometime between 1821 and 1824. Later on in the book Stephen Bunker refers to a number of buildings erected in the Street in the mid 19th century, such as schools, chapels and, of course, pubs too. Perhaps the most notorious of the latter being The Wrestlers which he says was little more than a brothel. Now you wouldn’t expect that in Wellington Street these days, would you! The site of most of these places is now difficult to identify but the Street became, perhaps, the chief shopping thoroughfare of the town.
As a young teenager in the 1950s it became my chief shopping thoroughfare too. Apologies for forgetting names, or getting them wrong, but here goes.
Farmer’s music shop at the start of the street was nirvana for me. The shop fronted both the Street and Upper George Street too and seemed to sell a thousand different kinds of musical instrument. It was the obvious place to buy a Spanish guitar, which my grandmother gave me the money for, which I still have, and which, I can no more play than I could the day I bought it (sorry gran!). However it was the record section which mostly drew me. 78s at first, but when I was eventually given a state of the art Dansette, it was 45s, 45EPs and then 33 1/3LPs. The latter seemed to cost a fortune and heaven knows how long it took to save up enough to buy my first LP, Dvorak’s New World Symphony. It was played and played again (I didn’t have any other’s at the time) and I bought the score, and conducted the whole orchestra, all of whom were neatly jammed into our front room! Sometimes I just hung around the shop listening to the assistant talking intellectually about the latest releases (I wanted to be like that). Other times I plucked up courage; asked to hear one of the LPs on sale; went into the sound proofed cubicle; listened; and then beat it!
Further up on the opposite side was an art shop. Again I fancied myself as a budding old master and so used my pocket money to buy one of a set of painting by numbers. If, feeling extra lazy, I bought just an A4 template sheet with an attached sheet of figures and shapes, which you could cut out and stick on the sheet.
Right next door, I think, was Stalkers, the book shop. Perhaps it was the only bookshop in the centre of town but it was an Aladdin’s cave of knowledge and I just used to go in and browse. A couple of times I won a school prize and could use the money at Stalkers. There was never enough prize money to buy more than the cheapest book and, one time, I ended up with one which I didn’t want and never actually read. So then you chose the book and it was delivered to the school for presentation on speech day.
So up the street and cross over Stuart Street and on the right was a fish shop which doubled up as a fish and chip shop in the late afternoon and evenings. This was a great place to earn money because you could take your old newspapers, used for wrapping the food, and get a few pence in payment. That might be enough to buy a small amount of ‘scrumps’ (bits of batter from the fried fish) or even a small packet of chips.
Later, nearby, a Chinese restaurant and takeaway was opened, and in the late 1950s I remember sitting in there, with a friend, eating god knows what. I tried to encourage mum and dad to go there too but they said they wouldn’t touch the muck. Who knows what might be in it.
Also on that side was an extraordinary pork butcher. His shop steamed with cooked pigs trotters, freshly made pease pudding, faggots, chitterlings (cooked small pigs intestines), and roast pork.
Next, for me, was a newsagent which sometimes stocked the latest copy of the Eagle comic before Mr. Noun’s (?) shop in Dumfries Street had it, and next to that was a very nice greengrocers. One of the assistants working there was the wonderful Edie. She was an expert at flower arranging and regularly did the display for the communion table at Ceylon Baptist opposite. Edie’s other claim to fame was that she had a singing voice which could easily shatter glass and which could also determine the pace of singing for the rest of the congregation (much to the annoyance of the organist).
In this sector of the Street and on the same side of the Church was a sink of iniquity called the Wellington Cinema. My mum told me not to go there and I didn’t need much persuading. The films were always very old; the projectionist kept his bike in the back row (always a tell tale sign of something) and each showing began with the ritual spraying of everyone with DDT (?). Not for nothing did we call it the ‘bug hole’.
So on from Adelaide Street to Dumfries Street and to the bakery run by the Cripps sisters and their brother. This was a very sedate shop and not used by us very much. We went there more because I was ‘chosen’ to go weakly (sic) to Miss Cripps for piano lessons. I didn’t make much progress and one week when, with my mum collecting the bread, I was asked by Miss Cripps if I had been practising, I assured her that I had been. Disastrously, she then said she was surprised because I had left my music there the previous week. I didn’t go back, and we got our bread elsewhere.
On the corner of Dumfries and Wellington Streets was the Fountain Public House. Mum and Dad seemed to make a pilgrimage every Saturday night around the pubs in the area and I was deposited in each garden with a glass of lemonade and a packet of crisps. The Fountain had the worst garden and I hated it. It also clearly had an effect on my grandparents because I saw them emerge one Saturday afternoon and while climbing the hill my grandma clouted my granddad around the head with her handbag. Beware the effects of drink!!!
Opposite the Fountain was a nice greengrocer owned by a couple; the man’s name was Eric. In the mid 1950s some strange looking green, bell shaped vegetables appeared and I told mum we had got to try one. Eric said they were called capsicums and you had to fry them. Well, mum fried and fried but the smell wasn’t a pleasant one. We nibbled on one and then decided the bin was the best place for them. Wonder whatever became of capsicums!
Just before the end of Wellington Street, and on the corner of one of the many alleys in the area was a small dairy shop. It was called Sheafs I think, but in the 1920’s it was Charlie and Nell’s shop (my grandparents). I don’t know what became of that project, though suffice it to say that afterwards when 3 Salisbury Road was purchased as their home, it was owned in the name of my grandmother, and that seems strange. You don’t think someone was not very dependable with money, do you?