Luton has an industrial pedigree to be proud of and one which has shaped almost every aspect of the town. No, not car manufacture (although that is undoubtedly important), but an older industry – hat manufacture.
The town produced as many as 70 million hats a year in the 1930s – an astonishing number, and yet Luton’s role as a global centre of hat manufacture is largely forgotten. Our new book, The Hat Industry of Luton and its Buildings, seeks to rectify this by celebrating the town’s remarkable industrial and commercial history.
Luton is sometimes likened to a northern town that has found itself in the south. This is understandable. The town grew rapidly in the 19th century – faster than almost any other urban community in southern England – dominated by factories, workshops, warehouses and terraced houses required by the hat industry.
This built heritage may be functional, but it is not without architectural merit. Despite an extraordinary 17 acres of the town centre disappearing under the Arndale Centre (now called The Mall) in the early 1970s, many fine buildings associated with the hat industry survive and are deserving of our attention and appreciation. Much of this legacy, following the long, slow decline of the industry since 1945, is neglected. These often decaying fragments of a once vital industry need to be identified and understood if they are to be successfully incorporated within future regeneration plans.
Accordingly, we set about writing a book for our Informed Conservation series with a focus on the architectural legacy of the hat industry. The book also seeks to explain the development of the region as the centre of the hatting industry in the south and explores the lives of the people working there during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Whilst tangible heritage is perhaps our bread and butter it is important to note that we do not look at buildings in isolation. Buildings influence people, and people influence buildings. However, we simply cannot protect our intangible heritage through the designation system in the same way that we can the tangible, so we must find alternative means where they are found to be under threat.
Whilst a number of hat manufacturers still based in Luton use buildings, processes, skills and machinery seemingly unaltered by the passing of more than a century, their future is by no means certain. In an attempt to address this we have created a short film documenting the processes involved in making a hat – from the creation of the block right through to the finishing touches. I hope it will serve as an alternative form of protection outcome – insurance, if you like, should the unthinkable happen.
I fell in love with Luton over the course of the project and I sincerely hope that our work encourages more people – locals and outsiders alike – to take another look at the town and perhaps to see it in a new light. For now, just sit back and enjoy the film.
Katie Carmichael is an Investigator in the Cambridge Assessment Team, and The Hat Industry of Luton and Its Buildings is her first major publication. Katie is currently working with her colleague John Minnis on another book in the Informed Conservation series, examining the historical environment of Boston, Lincolnshire – expected to be published in early 2015.