A short radical history of Luton in Bedfordshire and surrounding areas produced for the Free the Spirit festival organised by the Exodus Collective in September 2000. An exhibition based on it was displayed as part of the South London stage at the festival, which was held on land next to the M1 Motorway in Bedfordshire. It was distributed as a leaflet and published on the Practical History website.
Some people think that the only things to come out of Luton apart from Exodus are planes from the airport and a Second Division football team. Here we present some of the hidden history of henge builders, heretics, rebels, rioters, strikers, war resisters, animal liberationists, punks and party people. Most of the examples are from Luton and Dunstable, with a few from elsewhere in Bedfordshire.
3000 BC: Waulud’s Bank – Around 3000 BC, people built a settlement near to the source of the River Lea surrounded by a big bank and ditch. Waulud’s Bank is still visible in Luton today, next to the modern Marsh Farm Estate. In his book, the Modern Antiquarian, Julian Cope writes ‘this was once a very important site… for there are no such enclosures like Waulud’s Bank left anywhere in Britain’. He suggests it may have been used for ceremonial purposes as well as being a settlement.
1381: Peasants Revolt – The peasants revolt against a poll tax swept through the south of England. People from Bedfordshire joined in the revolt, storming St Albans on their way to London, where they were defeated at Mile End. William Grindcobbe was executed as a traitor for leading the rebels at St Albans, declaring in a speech shortly before his death: ‘Fellow-citizens, whom now a scant liberty has relieved from long oppression, stand firm while you may, and fear nothing for my punishment, since I would die in the cause of the liberty we have won, if it is now my fate to die, thinking myself happy to be able to finish my life by such a martyrdom’.
1400s: The Lollards – The Lollards argued against the bureaucracy and wealth of the church, and illegally translated the Bible into English so that people could read the scriptures for themselves rather than being told what to think by priests. Some of them argued that all things should be held in common. They were persecuted as heretics, with some being burnt at the stake. Copies of their bible were publicly burned by the authorities opposite St Peter’s Church, St. Albans, where executions also took place. After a Lollard uprising in 1414, Robert or William Morley, a brewer from Dunstable, was hanged at Harringay. The movement and its persecution continued for another hundred years.
1649: the Diggers – The Diggers or True Levellers were a radical movement at the time of the English Civil War who declared the earth a common treasury for all. They are best known for their squatting of land at St George’s Hill in Surrey in 1649, but there were also Diggers active in Dunstable.
The Digger Gerrard Winstanley declared that “The earth with all her fruits of Corn, Cattle and such like was made to be a common Store-House of Livelihood, to all mankinde, friend and foe, without exception” and that “Truly most Laws are but to enslave the Poor to the Rich”.
1757: The Militia Riots – In 1757, the Militia Act was passed requiring all able-bodied men aged 18-50 to be registered to join the Militia (like the Territorial army) with a proportion made to enlist for three years at a time. This included the possibility of being sent to fight abroad. In August 1757 hundreds of people took part in an anti-Militia Act riot in Biggleswade, destroying the register of local men eligible for call up. After this, protests spread throughout the country.
1795: Housewives’ Revolt – In summer 1795 there was a national wave of protests against high food prices which has been called “the revolt of the housewives” by historians on account of the prominent role of women. In Luton where, like elsewhere, corn was scarce and expensive most of the corn that came to the market was bought by one man, a Mr Greaves of St Albans. On one market day a crowd made up mainly of local women seized his wagon and threw out the sacks of wheat to prevent it being taken away.
1830: Captain Swing – In 1830 rebellion spread across southern England, as impoverished agricultural labourers rioted, started fires and attacked machines that were putting them out of work. Threatening letters were sent to employers signed ‘Captain Swing’. There were several incidents in Bedfordshire, including riots at Flitwick and Stotfold. In the latter case two men were transported for 14 years for breaking into a baker’s and stealing a loaf of bread. Others were convicted of having ‘unlawfully and tumultuously assembled’ and conspiring ‘to obtain, by force and violence, an increase of Wages’.
1914 –18 – Refusing War: 1284 people connected with Luton were killed in the carnage of the First World War. The Luton branch of the No Conscription Fellowship supported local people who refused to join the armed forces. Among them was a man who told the Tribunal in 1916: “I was brought up as a socialist, and I cannot go and kill fellow workmen whether they be German or whatever they are. I have two enemies – starvation and hunger and my employers. My fellow workmen in another country are of no account whatever”.
Harold Stanton of Luton was sent to France with about 50 other Conscientious Objectors. There he experienced 28 days of field punishment, first tied by the arms to a kind of crucifix, then roped face-forward to a barbed wire fence. They were sentenced to death by shooting, later commuted to penal servitude for ten years.
1919: Peace Day Riot – On Peace Day, July 1919, Luton Town Hall was burnt down during a riot prompted by the mistreatment of unemployed ex-servicemen and other grievances. During the riot people broke into a piano shop and dragged pianos into the streets for dancing and singing, including ‘Keep the home fires burning’.
1920s: Unemployed protests- In the 1920s and 1930s there was mass protests of the unemployed. Walter Tompkins from Luton died on the first National Hunger March from Glasgow to London in December 1922. 20,000 people followed his funeral procession from Hyde Park to St Pancras station in London; his coffin was met off the train at Luton by a demonstration of local unemployed who accompanied it to the cemetery.
In January 1923 the unemployed marchers reached Luton. The local board of guardians (responsible for the unemployed) refused to offer more than bread, margarine and tea from the workhouse. The marchers decided to ‘go out in batches of ten into the town, enter the high class restaurants, order meals, and, after having gratified their hunger, pass a note to the proprietor stating that the bill would be paid by the Luton board of guardians’.
1926: General Strike – In May 1926, millions of workers went on strike in support of the miners, who were striking against having to work for longer hours for less pay. During the General Strike the owners of the Luton News agreed to use the paper’s presses to print the government’s scab newspaper, the British Gazette. There were clashes in Alma Street as pickets tried to prevent lorries delivering newsprint and collecting the printed papers.
1960s: Vauxhall Strikes – The Vauxhall car factory in Luton was the scene of major workplace resistance in the 1960s. In the early 1960s, a sociologist named Goldthorpe made a detailed study of Vauxhall workers at Luton. Interviewing them separately, he enquired about their feelings concerning work, wages, and their life situation, and concluded that the workers were integrated into the system. A few militant workers obtained a summary of Goldthorpe’s report (‘the Affluent Worker’) and circulated copies to workers. Shortly after, a newspaper reported on Vauxhall’s large profits which were being sent to General Motors in the United States. After this news was also made known to the workers, rioting broke out at the Luton Vauxhall factories, lasting two days. So much for the sociologist’s happy workers.
1972: Band Of Mercy- In 1972, the Band of Mercy (later the Animal Liberation Front) was founded by Ronnie Lee and other Luton hunt saboteurs to carry out direct action against hunts, laboratories and others involved in animal exploitation. After attacking local hunt vehicles its first major action, in 1973, was to sabotage the building of the Hoechst vivisection laboratory in Milton Keynes.
1973: The Luton Three – Three members of Luton Sinn Fein, Sean Campbell, Gerry Mealy and Phil Sheridan, were sentenced to ten years in prison for ‘conspiracy to rob persons unknown at a time and place unknown’, framed by a Special Branch agent provocateur called Kenneth Lennon. Lennon later made a full confession of his role to the National Council for Civil Liberties before being found mysteriously shot dead in Surrey in April 1974. Sean Campbell was badly beaten up by screws during a protest by Irish prisoners at Albany jail, Isle of Wight, in September 1976, sustaining a broken leg, broken finger and cracked ribs.
1976 – Early 1980s: Punk – The Luton area had a lively punk scene in the late 70s and early 1980s. On October 21st 1976, the Sex Pistols (supported by the Jam) played at Dunstable’s Queensway Hall on the Anarchy in the UK tour –although only 80 people turned up.
The best-known local band was UK Decay, with others including Pneu Mania and the anarchist Karma Sutra. One focus for the scene was the Blockers Arms pub in High Town, described disapprovingly by one local historian as ‘a mecca for some of the undesirable elements of Luton society’. It lost its licence in 1986 and closed soon after.
In 1985 a former TUC Unemployed Centre in Luton was briefly squatted for a punk benefit gig. The flyer declared: “We want to show people we don’t need the parasitic middle men and promoters who feed off the dead corpse of the music business… there will be no hired thugs to look after the place we will not need them. We can create an atmosphere where all the hostilities that they thrive on will be gone”.
1981: Uprising – In 1981 there was an active movement against racism in Luton, prompted by a number of serious racist attacks, including an attack on a mosque and the petrol bombing of a Sikh temple. In May an anti-racist march organised by Luton Youth Movement was confronted by racist skinheads. Things came to a head in July, when in the same month as riots shook Brixton, Toxteth (Liverpool) and many other towns and cities, black, white and asian youths in Luton attacked a pub frequented by racist skinheads and fought with the police in Bury Park.
1984: Unilever Raid – In August 1984 three hundred people took part in an Eastern Animal Liberation League raid on the Unilever vivisection laboratory at Sharnbrook, north of Bedford, cutting through the high security fence. 25 people were later jailed for taking part in the action.
1985: Stop Business – In April 1985, as part of the international Stop Business as Usual Day, protests were held inside Luton branches of Barclays Bank, MacDonalds and the Army Careers Office with leaflets and stink bombs. Banks and the benefits office were graffitied. On 30 September 1985 a similar Smash South African Business Day was also marked in Luton.
1985: Claimants Action – Luton Bed and Breakfast Claimants Action Group occupied the local DHSS office, an Anglia TV office, and disrupted a council meeting in an attempt to stop benefit cuts to unemployed people living in B&B. One man was jailed for six months after being falsely accused of hitting a councillor.
1990: The Poll Tax – Tens of thousands of people in Luton refused to pay their poll tax supported by the active Luton Against the Poll Tax group.
1993: Exodus – On 30 January 1993, Police raided Exodus at Long Meadow Farm and arrested 36 people. 4,000 people surrounded Luton police station and everybody was released without charge.
1999: Free the Spirit – On the August bank holiday weekend in 1999 Exodus Collective organised the Free the Spirit Festival, the biggest free party since the Criminal Justice Act became law. Thirty sound systems filled up a triangle of land with no real neighbours to disturb except the M1. The pirate station Interference FM broadcast over the local area from a telegraph pole at the top of the festival, beaming out the message that this was ‘dance with a stance.’