What’s under the bonnet in the home of Vauxhall?

An Irishwoman’s Diary about the hat trade


It is bin collection day in Luton, Bedfordshire. On one the side of the street there is a row of rubbish bins overflowing with strips of chiffon, coloured ribbons, fine net and feathers that have my needlecraft fingers itching.

But raiding bins in broad daylight is not the done thing when you are up town in Luton in the company of a very glamorous daughter. She glares at me and shakes her head.

Luton. The home of Vauxhall cars. A cheap fare from Dublin to London. A passing through town. But with my airline crew daughter based there, it is a glorious opportunity to pause and take stock of the town and its history. I visit the museum in the park and discover that Julius Caesar passed through here, as did the Saxons, Scots and Vikings. I suppose this could be said about several towns and villages in England but Luton has a unique history and it’s all to do with the bits and pieces overflowing from those rubbish bins. The town, in fact, has had a long engagement with straw bonnets and hats.

Mary Queen of Scots started it all, they say. When she came to settle in Scotland in 1542 she brought her personal bonnetmakers from Lorraine. They were to be on hand to create straw bonnets and hats for the royal head.

The problem was that in Scotland they could not get the raw material required. They continued their search down over the border into England and travelled southwards until they found the right kind of malleable straw in the swamplands surrounding Luton. Thus began an industry that is still carried on today.

The French bonnetmakers trained Luton locals in the fine art of plaiting straw. A plait is made from a stalk of straw spliced lengthways six or eight times and braided into a long strip for the making of the bonnets. The people of Luton became expert at plaiting.

To give some idea as to the size of the industry there’s a record of a deputation representing 14,000 bonnet and hat workers from the Luton area travelling to London in 1689 to protest at a new law that called for people to wear felt hats instead of bonnets at certain times of the year.

This would undoubtedly have had a dire effect on the straw bonnet industry.

No wonder the people of Luton were protesting. The revenue from their bonnet- and hatmaking contributed mightily to the prosperity of the town. New roads, a bridge and a better coach service, even churches and schools were built with the wealth generated. In 1800 a school was set up in Luton which, besides teaching the three Rs, also instructed some 10,000 children in the art of plaiting.

But with the changing times felt hats came into vogue and some of the straw bonnet and hat manufacturers diversified into the production of hats from wool.

Straw bonnets were replaced with felt hats that came in three shapes, three colours and three sizes until Thomas Lye came on the scene and invented aniline dyes that revolutionised the hatmaking industry.

Tools and machines were invented which produced superior hats at a faster and cheaper rate. And some of the companies founded back then are still manufacturing hats today.

Proof of the fact that the industry is still thriving lay in the overflowing rubbish bins that had me wishing I could gather up a fistful of the discarded materials.

I return home from Luton without those bits and pieces but delighted with all the historical information I had gleaned at the local library.

“Guess,” I ask my football-crazy son, “what Luton is most famous for.” I expect him to say Vauxhall cars but without as much as taking his eyes off some match on TV his immediate reply is “Hats.” To say that you could have knocked me over with a feather is putting it mildly. And how does he know that? With a look of absolute scorn, he informs me, “Easy, the Luton football team is known as the Hatters.”

That put me in my place, I can tell you. Mothers beware. Teenagers really do know everything.

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