Celebrating the women who helped make Luton International Carnival

As Luton International Carnival prepares for another fantastic outing, organisers have been looking at the pioneering women who have helped shape the extravaganza.

By Lynn Hughes
Monday, 16th May 2022, 2:35 pm

This year the carnival takes place on Saturday, June 4 as part of Luton's Jubilee weekend to celebrate the Queen's 70-year reign.

And one women who was crowned Hat Queen at the carnival, just two years after the Queen’s Coronation, is still involved in the event.

Marilyn Gearing was crowned the Hat Queen at Luton Carnival (then a hat fair) in April 1954 at the age of 15. Her crown, made by a Luton milliner, was a replica of the crown used at the Queen’s Coronation.

Marilyn Gearing crowned the Hat Queen at Luton Carnival (then a hat fair) in April 1954

Marilyn still takes part in Luton International Carnival annually, designing and making the Luton Samaritans float that traditionally ends the Luton parade as 'Samaritans are always at the end of the line'.

Margaret Matthew, lovingly known locally as 'Auntie Margaret', is one of the Windrush generation who brought the Caribbean flavour to Luton

International Carnival. Leading the Luton based St Kitts, Nevis and Friends carnival group since 1984, Auntie Margaret, now 82, will still be on the road with her group on Jubilee weekend.

Janet Skepple has been involved in carnival since 1984 and in 2013, formed Luton's only child dedicated carnival band 'Scandalous'.

One of the costumes by Sarah Salim at Luton International Carnival

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Like many people from Caribbean backgrounds, Janet has been brought up in the carnival tradition and passed this to her children and grandchildren, with her daughters designing and making some of Luton's iconic costumes and her son performing as Saint Patrick in the annual Luton St Patrick's Festival hosted by the Luton Irish Forum.

Maureen Scarlet, praised in the carnival world for being one of only a few women in the UK who build their costume frames, is the leader of the Luton Sickle Cell & Thalassaemia Care Forum (SCTCF) carnival band, formed in 2005. Luton International Carnival has given the group a platform to raise awareness of the disease and promote the group's support services for those affected.

Sarah Salim of ALIF New Beginnings is Luton International Carnival's newest queen. Sarah founded the group in 2019 to celebrate Islamic culture and traditional crafts whilst challenging negative stereotypes of Muslim culture in the UK and empowering women from her community.

Janet Skepple's daughter Amara at Luton International Carnival

As well as preparing for Luton International Carnival, Sarah is also working with local groups on Luton's first Eid parade coming up in July.

Cllr Javeria Hussain, Chair for primary funder Luton Rising said: “Luton Rising is proud to fund the iconic carnival showpiece which brings the town alive with an incredible array of colour, dance, music and creativity.

"The return to the town centre signals that our town is ready to party again after what has been a really difficult couple of years for the town.

"This year’s carnival coincides with the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations and follows other wonderful events which bring our communities together and is why Luton Rising is committed to supporting the arts in Luton.

Maureen Scarlet at the Luton International Carnival

"Our schools, charities and local businesses have spent so much time creating incredible costumes and floats and I hope people come down and support this magical event.”

Everyone is welcome at Luton's biggest free family event; for more information, visit www.carnivalarts.org.uk or check the UKCCA's Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Margaret Matthew, aka Auntie Margaret, at Luton International Carnival