© 2024 The Friends of Luton Museums is a Registered Charity, No. 298513

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How the Friends of Luton Museums began

(Abridged from articles first published in the Friends' Newsletters in 2006 and 2007).

The reports, statements of accounts and lists of subscriptions of the early Friends of the Luton Museums are stored in the museum archives. They cover the period from 1930 to 1949 and make very interesting reading. The early Friends had as their aim “to enrich the collections and stimulate public interest in the Museum”. They were guided by two fundamental beliefs, first, that material possessions alone do not give personal satisfaction, and second, that in order to understand the problems of the present it is necessary to have some knowledge of the past

The membership was never large: in 1930 it was less than 25 and in 1949 it numbered only 11. However, quantity does not always mean quality. Although the Society’s income from subscriptions was small, it was eked out by generous gifts and donations from members and friends, and from collectors, such as Sir William Burrell, who had similar interests.

When, in 1929, a small exhibition of objects of local interest was held in the former Carnegie Library (near the Town Hall, on the corner of George Street and what was then Williamson Street), it was agreed that a room in Wardown House should be set aside to house it permanently. As the collections grew, more space was needed, and finally it was decided that Wardown House should be converted into a museum. The work was costly, and was carried out over a period of eight years, with a suspension of work during the war years, when Mr Bagshawe, the Director and Mr Freeman, the curator, were on active service with the Royal Air Force, and part of the building was occupied by the War Department.

The Committee of the Friends wisely decided, as space and funds were limited, to purchase objects mainly of local interest, and Wardown still retains this intimate local character. The first important acquisition was a donkey wheel and shed from Kensworth.

In their second report, the Friends stated that they had bought the museum some pictures of Bedfordshire scenes. These were part of the collection of Mr J.C. Kershawe, which was sold when the owner died. Three of these pictures are watercolours of the Bedfordshire countryside painted by the Bedfordshire artist Sylvester Stannard. More recently, two more of Stannard’s watercolours have been donated to the museum; they, too, capture the beauty of the English countryside in summer.

In 1940 a fine collection of lace bobbins was donated, many with interesting inscriptions, such as “Love will U marrey”. One bobbin, inscribed “Joseph Castle, hung 1860”, commemorates the execution of a man who murdered his wife. On the night of the execution, his wife’s friends held a ball at which they presented every guest with a bobbin, thus inscribed, as a memento.

In 1945 the collections of three Bedfordshire botanists were acquired. One dates from 1798. Dr John Dony, the eminent Bedfordshire botanist and local historian, had used the museum as his headquarters, and had built up one of the best herbariums in the country from these collections and his own.

In 1946, a special appeal for funds was made to purchase the illuminated Register of the medieval Fraternity of St John the Baptist at Dunstable, which was being auctioned at Sotheby’s. The committee felt that this was of great local interest, but they did not have the money to make a large bid. However, they were lent £400 by the Pilgrim Trust and were granted £100 by the Victoria and Albert Museum. The people of Bedfordshire subscribed generously to try to repay the loan, and the Friends were able, in one year, to repay £300. The Pilgrim Trust kindly made a gift of the remaining £100. The Register is now housed with the Luton Guild Register in the museum.

Throughout the war years the Friends continued their work, although the War Department took over the Art Room and so display space was limited. They issued annual reports, incorporating in them a report on the museum, since the publication of the official reports was suspended. The Friends

continued to hold exhibitions of interesting articles on loan and so continued to provide Luton with a cultural centre.

However, by 1946 the membership of the Society had dwindled to eleven, in spite of appeals for membership. Some of the older members had died, others had moved away. Thriving private businesses were being replaced by large public companies. Luton was no longer the pleasant small town it had once been. With dwindling funds it was no longer possible to purchase objects of interest, since these had become very costly.

The last report of the Friends was produced in 1949 and no gifts were recorded after 1956. In 1965, Mr Freeman, the curator, died suddenly and a close link between the Friends and the museum was severed. Although the accounts were not officially wound up, the Society ceased to function as an active body.

Twenty-one years later, in May 1986, the President of Luton Chiltern Rotary Club, circulated a letter inviting interested people to attend a public meeting to decide whether the formation of a new group of Friends of Luton Museum, was a desirable project and to elect a steering committee. The letter highlighted the fact that Luton Museum and Art Gallery had been one of the town’s least publicised amenities, (this was before the opening of the Stockwood unit), but acknowledged that its collections had for the previous 58 years “afforded interest, instruction and benefit to our citizens of all ages”.

The public meeting was held on 21 May 1986 at Wardown museum and chaired by the Deputy Mayor. Presentations were given by Frank Hackett, the museum’s curator and John Marjoram, curator of North Hertfordshire Museums. The meeting agreed unanimously to the proposal that “a new organisation should be formed, known as the ‘Friends of the Luton Museums’, for the purpose of supporting the Museums and encouraging interest in their collections”.

A steering committee was elected, with Mr John Lunn as chairman, Mr Ken Woodbridge as vice-chairman, Mr Bob Barker as treasurer; and Mr Pat Eling as secretary. Miss Turner, Mrs Bateman, Mr Davidson, Mr Hill, Mr Shaw and Mr Rizvi were elected as committee members.

The committee held its first meeting on 28 May 1986, when it was noted that £100 was available from the earlier group of Friends, and a further £150 from museum funds, for setting up the new Association. Mr Nicholas Phillips of Luton Hoo was nominated as the first President of the Friends.

A further public meeting was then held on 17 October 1986, chaired by Mr Lunn, to receive the recommendations of the steering committee, to adopt a draft constitution, and to elect officers and an executive committee for the new Association.

It was confirmed that £629.93 was available in the Friends’ new account, including £355.02 transferred from the earlier Friends’ account. The Association of the Friends of Luton Museums was subsequently registered as a charity,

No. 298513.