The Scouts in Luton owe a debt of gratitude to Vauxhall Motors, writes Peter Sutherst.
Not only have they provided many of the town’s adult leaders and given their name to a Scout badge, but they have also opened their doors to some major celebrations.
At a time when the Kimpton Road site is being developed, an iconic image has surfaced in the Scouts’ archive of a memorable event at Vauxhall Motors Recreation Centre, known to countless thousands of Vauxhall staff as the ‘Canteen’.
Taken in February 1957, it shows almost 1,800 Scouts in the canteen alongside an equal number of Guides at a memorial service to celebrate the birthday of founder Lord Baden Powell, born 100 years earlier. It was a time of national pride for a man who had launched the Scout Movement 50 years before.
No other building in the whole of Luton could have housed such an enormous gathering – one of many memorial services around the country.
Built 80 years ago in 1934, the imposing building with its ornamental gardens stood for nearly 60 years before it was demolished in 1990. It was so huge it could seat 10,000 staff at a time for their meal breaks.
In the early days, so the story goes, there were three half-hour sittings for midday dinner of meat and two veg with sizzling jam roly-poly to follow. Later there would be another three sittings for tea of sandwiches and cake.
During the war the Vauxhall plant was attacked by German bombers in August 1940, killing 37 workers and wounding 40. But the canteen remained intact. Various attempts were made to camouflage the buildings, but they remained a target throughout the war alongside the railway and on the flight path from the lake at Luton Hoo.
The Scouts went from strength to strength. In 1935 Luton Scouts numbered 423 youngsters with 50 leaders. By 1955 this had trebled to 1,499 youngsters and 159 leaders in 35 groups.
Today numbers have settled down to 973 youngsters and 345 leaders in 20 groups.
In 1957 Luton’s District Commissioner was the energetic George Waller, who would regularly cycle around the town from his home in Old Bedford Road to visit all his flock – often in surprise visits.
He was one of the main organisers of the memorial service and later became Town Commissioner and Deputy County Commissioner.
Vauxhall still provides welcome support for the Scouts and even gave their name to a Cub Scout Road Safety Badge in 1995.