Secret Luton and Secret Bedford by Paul Adams
Writing a local history book would appear to be a reasonably straightforward task. If you know your area and your subject then the book almost writes itself. For the two titles that I have contributed to Amberley’s ‘Secret Towns’ series – Secret Luton which appeared in 2017 and Secret Bedford which is published July 2018 – I found that things were not that easy.
This was entirely due to the fact that from the outset I made a rod for my own back, something that was intentional, but ultimately was to make better books of each. In both cases I decided that if the reader already knew about it then it wasn’t a secret and the fact would either be ignored or only mentioned briefly in passing. For Luton this meant dismissing the town’s famous hat industry and ‘The Hatters’ themselves (Luton Town FC), and giving no place to either Vauxhall cars or Luton Airport (sorry Lorraine Chase). In Bedford, noted eighteenth-century prison reformer John Howard and the earlier Puritan preacher John Bunyan, author of The Pilgrim’s Progress, are conspicuous by their absence, as are the town’s indigenous brick making and lace industries.
Both Secret Luton and Secret Bedford demonstrate an eclectic undercurrent of local history that is decidedly off the beaten track. I also felt that it was important to explore the connections with subjects that have personally interested me for a long time, namely true crime, film making, music and ghosts! I also wanted each book to be practical, which is why both end with a guided walk around the town centre pointing out locations, buildings and other features of interest.
George Mossman (1908-1993) from Caddington on the outskirts of Luton is one of the un-sung heroes of the British film industry. His collection of horse-drawn coaches and carriages, the finest in the country, was donated to Luton Museum in the early 1990s and is on display at the Stockwood Park Discovery Centre. If you watch any British period film from the 1950s and 1960s, the chances are that the coaches in it were supplied by the Mossman Company, and in many cases George Mossman himself plays the coachman. Horror fans who take a trip to Stockwood Park can see in person several vehicles used by the famous Hammer Films including the Victorian hearse driven by Christopher Lee in the 1968 Dracula Has Risen From the Grave as well as coaches used in 1958’s Dracula, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969) and Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter from 1974. Jon Pertwee-era Doctor Who was also filmed around Luton in the early 1970s, while Bedford’s film and television connections include 1965’s Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines and the comedy classic, Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em, which was filmed in numerous locations in and around the town.
Although urban development has taken place in Bedford through the years, the layout of its main streets and many historic buildings remains the same. The noted architect Alfred Waterhouse (1830-1905), creator of the iconic Natural History Museum in London, designed the town’s Shire Hall, while another architect Francis Penrose (1817-1903), who held the same position as Surveyor of the Fabric of St Paul’s Cathedral once occupied by Sir Christopher Wren, also worked here. When researching Luton’s architectural history, it became clear that many fine buildings from the town’s past have been lost. One such casualty is the old Grand Theatre which was officially opened in 1898 by the Edwardian beauty Lillie Langtry, former mistress of Albert Edward, Prince of Wales.
The mysterious world of the paranormal is both well represented in both towns. The first ‘official’ investigation into a haunted house in 1947 involved Luton Council which was requested to lower the rates of a building alleged to be haunted by the ghost of Dick Turpin! In the 1970s, the daughter of the famous Scottish materialisation medium Helen Duncan (1897-1956) also lived in Luton and ran a Spiritualist centre in the town. Bedford has strong connections with another medium, the Victorian William Stainton Moses (1839-92), but its most interesting ghost story is one that connects the flamboyant psychical researcher Harry Price, the investigator of the famous Borley Rectory, with the spirit of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, and the ill-fated R101 airship which left Cardington on the outskirts of Bedford on 4 October 1930 never to return.
Bedford’s Corn Exchange is intimately associated with the wartime concerts of Glenn Miller. The American bandleader was based in the town and left nearby Twinwood Farm on 15 December 1944 never to be seen again. There is also a proud history of music making – the BBC Symphony Orchestra was based here during the Second World War – and British premieres of major orchestral works by composers such as Stravinsky and Shostakovich were given in wartime broadcasts by Sir Adrian Boult and Sir Henry Wood. Nearer to our own times, the popular violinist Nigel Kennedy gave his first profession performance with the Luton Symphony Orchestra in 1984, while the town was a major centre for the development of punk music and culture in the mid-1970s.
Where true crime is concerned, Bedford Prison’s status up until the 1960s as a hanging prison brought several notorious murderers both to the town and the gallows. They include the 1961 ‘A6 killer’ James Hanratty and the earlier perpetrator of the 1930 ‘Blazing Car Murder’ Alfred Arthur Rouse whose victim has to this day never been identified. In 1944, the Luton Sack Murder gripped the town when an unidentified body was retrieved by factory workers from the River Lea. This proved to be Irene Manton whose husband ‘Bertie’ Manton escaped the hangman but died in Bedford Prison in 1947. The Sack Murder involved the celebrated London pathologist Professor Keith Simpson whose celebrated cases include the murders at Rillington Place and ‘Acid Bath’ killer, John Haigh.
These are just a few of the facts and figures which go to make up the secret history of these two seemingly unassuming Bedfordshire towns.