Luton is a large town, borough and unitary authority of Bedfordshire, England, north of London. Luton and its near neighbours, Dunstable and Houghton Regis, form the Luton/Dunstable Urban Area with a population of about 255,000.
Luton is home to Conference Premier team Luton Town Football Club, whose history includes several spells in the top flight of the English league as well as a Football League Cup triumph in 1988. They play at Kenilworth Road stadium, which has been their home since 1905.
The University of Bedfordshire is based in the town.
The town was for many years famous for hat-making, and was also home to a large Vauxhall Motors factory; the head office of Vauxhall Motors is still situated in the town. Car production at the plant began in 1905 and continued until 2002, but commercial vehicle production remains.
The earliest settlements in the Luton area were at Round Green and Mixes Hill, where Paleolithic encampments (about 250,000 years old) have been found. Settlements re-appeared after the ice had retreated in the Mesolithic period around 8000 BC. Traces of these settlements have been found in the Leagrave area of the modern town. Remains from the Neolithic period (4500–2500 BC in this area) are much more common. A particular concentration of Neolithic burials has been found at Galley Hill. The most prominent Neolithic structure is Waulud's Bank – a henge dating from around 3000 BC. From the Neolithic onwards, the area seems to have been populated, but without any single large settlement.
The first urban settlement nearby was the small Roman town of Durocobrivis at Dunstable, but Roman remains in Luton itself consist only of scattered farmsteads.
The foundation of Luton is usually dated to the 6th century when a Saxon outpost was founded on the River Lea, Lea tun. Luton is recorded in the Domesday Book as Loitone and also as Lintone. Agriculture dominated the local economy at that time, and the town's population was around 700–800.
In 1121 Robert, 1st Earl of Gloucester started work on St Mary's Church in the centre of the town. The work was completed by 1137. A motte-and-bailey castle which gives its name to the modern Castle Street was built in 1139. The castle was demolished in 1154 and the site is now home to a Matalan store. During the Middle Ages Luton is recorded as being home to six watermills. Mill Street, in the town centre, takes its name from one of them.
King John (1166–1216) had hired a mercenary soldier, Falkes de Breauté, to act on his behalf. (Breauté is a small town near Le Havre in France.) When he married, Falkes de Breauté acquired his wife's house which came to be known as "Fawkes Hall", subsequently corrupted over the years to "Foxhall", then "Vauxhall". In return for his services, King John granted Falkes the manor of Luton, where he built a castle alongside St Mary's Church. He was also granted the right to bear his own coat of arms and chose the mythical griffin as his heraldic emblem. The griffin thus became associated with both Vauxhall and Luton in the early 13th century.
By 1240 the town is recorded as Leueton. The town had a market for surrounding villages in August each year, and with the growth of the town a second fair was granted each October from 1338.
In 1336, much of Luton was destroyed by a great fire; however, the town was soon rebuilt.
The agriculture base of the town changed in the 16th century with a brick making industry developing around Luton, many of the older wooden houses were rebuilt in brick.
During the English Civil War of the 17th century, in 1645, royalists entered the town and demanded money and goods. Parliamentary forces arrived and during the fighting four royalist soldiers were killed and a further twenty-two were captured. A second skirmish occurred three years later in 1648 when a royalist army passed through Luton. A number of royalists were attacked by parliamentary soldiers at an inn on the corner of the current Bridge Street. Most of the royalists escaped but nine were killed.
The hat making industry began in the 17th century and became synonymous with the town. By the 18th century the industry dominated the town. Hats are still produced in the town but on a much smaller scale.
The first Luton Workhouse was constructed in the town in 1722.
The town grew strongly in the 19th century. In 1801 the population was 3,095. By 1850 it was over 10,000 and by 1901 it was almost 39,000. Such rapid growth demanded a railway connection but the town had to wait a long time for one. The London and Birmingham Railway (L&BR) had been built through Tring in 1838, and the Great Northern Railway was built through Hitchin in 1852, both bypassing Luton, the largest town in the area. A branch line connecting with the L&BR at Leighton Buzzard was proposed, but because of objections to release of land, construction terminated at Dunstable in 1848. It was another ten years before the branch was extended to Bute Street Station, and the first train to Dunstable ran on 3 May 1858. The line was later extended to Welwyn and from 1860 direct trains to King's Cross ran. The Midland Railway was extended from Bedford to St Pancras through Leagrave and Midland Road station and opened on 9 September 1867.
Newspaper printing arrived in the town in 1854. The first public cemetery was opened in the same year. Following a cholera epidemic in 1848 Luton formed a water company and had a complete water and sewerage system by the late 1860s. The first covered market was built (the Plait Halls – now demolished) in 1869. Luton was made a borough in 1876. A professional football club – the first in the South of England – was founded in 1885 following a resolution at the town hall that a 'Luton Town Club be formed'.
The crest also includes a hand holding a bunch of wheat, either taken as a symbol of the straw-plaiting industry, or from the arms of John Whethamsteade, Abbott of St Albans, who rebuilt the chancel of St Mary's Church in the 15th century.
In the 20th century, the hat trade severely declined and was replaced by other industries. In 1905, Vauxhall Motors opened the largest car plant in the United Kingdom in Luton. In 1914 Hewlett & Blondeau aviation entrepreneurs built a factory in Leagrave which began aircraft production built under licence for the war effort; the site was purchased in 1920 by new proprietors Electrolux domestic appliances, and this was followed by other light engineering businesses.
In 1900, the Bailey Water Tower was built on the edge of what was to become Luton Hoo memorial park. It is now a private residence.
In 1904 councillors Asher Hucklesby and Edwin Oakley purchased the estate at Wardown Park and donated it to the people of Luton. Hucklesby went on to become Mayor of Luton. The main house in the park became Wardown Park Museum.
The town had a tram system from 1908 until 1932, and the first cinema was opened in 1909. By 1914 the population had reached 50,000.
The original town hall was destroyed in 1919 during Peace Day celebrations at the end of World War I. Local people, including many ex-servicemen, were unhappy with unemployment and had been refused the use of a local park to hold celebratory events. They stormed the town hall, setting it alight (see Luton Town Hall). A replacement building was completed in 1936. Luton Airport opened in 1938, owned and operated by the council.
In World War II, the Vauxhall Factory built Churchill tanks as part of the war effort. Despite heavy camouflage, the factory made Luton a target for the Luftwaffe and the town suffered a number of air raids. 107 died and there was extensive damage to the town (over 1,500 homes were damaged or destroyed). Other industry in the town, such as SKF, which produced ball bearings, made a vital contribution to the war effort. Although a bomb landed at the SKF Factory, no major damage was caused.
The pre-war years, even at the turn of the 1930s when a Great Depression saw unemployment reach record levels nationally, were something of an economic boom for Luton, as new industries grew and prospered. New private and council housing was built in the 1920s and 1930s, with Luton growing as a town to incorporate nearby villages Leagrave, Limbury and Stopsley between 1928 and 1933.
Post-war, the slum clearance continued, and a number of substantial estates of council housing were built, notably at Farley Hill, Stopsley, Limbury, Marsh Farm and Leagrave (Hockwell Ring). The M1 motorway passed just to the west of the town, opening in 1959 and giving it a direct motorway link with London and – eventually – the Midlands and the North. In 1962 a new library (to replace the cramped Carnegie Library) was opened by the Queen in the corner of St George's Square.
In the late 1960s a large part of the town centre was cleared to build a large covered shopping centre, the Arndale Centre, which was opened in 1972. It was refurbished and given a glass roof in the 1990s.
In 2000, Vauxhall announced the end of car production in Luton; the plant closed in March 2002. At its peak it had employed in excess of 30,000 people. Vauxhall's headquarters remain in the town, as does its van and light commercial vehicle factory.
A major regeneration programme for the town centre is underway, which will include upgrades to the town's bus and railway stations as well as improvements to the town's urban environment. St George's Square has been rebuilt and reopened in 2007. The new design won a Gold Standard Award for the Town Centre Environment from the annual British Council of Shopping Centres awards.
Work was completed on an extension to the Mall Shopping Centre facing St George's Square, the largest of the new units to was taken by TK Maxx. Planning applications for a much larger extension to the Mall Arndale Shopping Centre (In the Northern Gateway area – Bute Street, Silver Street and Guildford Street) and also for a new centre in Power Court (close to St Mary's Church) have been submitted. On the edge of Luton at Putteridge Bury a high-technology office park, Butterfield Green, is under construction. The former Vauxhall site is also to be re-developed as a mixed use site called Napier Park. It will feature housing, retail and entertainment use, including a new casino.