Luton: A vibrant, diverse town with a rich heritage identity

Luton: A vibrant, diverse town with a rich heritage identity

Six people posing for a picture in front of a Jazz music archive, including posters and frames
Our Engagement Manager for England, Midlands & East, Dawn Bainbridge, tells us about our work and investment into Luton’s heritage – one of our 13 Areas of Focus.

Luton’s heritage is as varied as the communities who live there – from its cultural diversity, historic buildings and ancient river Lea that runs through the town, to the huge industrial heritage of hat making, Vauxhall Motors and Luton Airport.

In my role as Engagement Manager, I’m lucky to do a lot of collaborative work with people and organisations who want to celebrate and share heritage – from one-to-one support, to hosting events with partners. It’s been brilliant to see how heritage has been transformed in Luton over the past three years.

Front view of the outside of an old historical building, a Grade II listed factory
The historic building of the old hat making factory. Credit: Shaun Armstrong

Community-focused projects

…individuals and organisations came together to collectively identify, explore and celebrate what makes Luton’s heritage so special.

Many projects in Luton explore cultures, social history and intangible heritage, particularly from diverse ethnic communities and their memories and experiences (for example: their arrival to Luton as first and second generations).

Here are just some other examples of the varied range of projects we’re supporting in the town.

Hat Works

In 2021, the Culture Trust Luton opened the doors to Hat Works – one of the oldest hat factories left in Luton. With a grant of over £1million, this restoration project breathed new life into the derelict Grade II listed building in the heart of Luton’s Cultural Quarter. Hat works is designed to offer affordable work space for creative industries to grow their business and I can’t wait to see people use this space to thrive.

Two people laughing with a hot drink in a brand new office space - with comfy sofas, desks and draws.
Inside Hat Works’ new work space. Credit: Shaun Armstrong

Luton’s Heritage Strategy

In 2019, we awarded £100,000 to Luton Borough Council to bring in a ‘Heritage Enabler’ – a 12-month post aimed to help local people answer two burning questions:

  • What is heritage in Luton?
  • What does heritage mean to you?

Through online workshops and events, individuals and organisations came together to collectively identify, explore and celebrate what makes Luton’s heritage so special.

A collection of words in a circle that best describe Luton's heritage. The biggest words are: buildings, history, past and culture.
What is heritage in Luton? A word cloud which was developed in the Heritage Enabler workshop.

The project also created a dedicated Heritage Strategy which identifies heritage themes and plans for the town to use now and for future generations. Since the initial project, the council has received a further £249,000 to help bring the Heritage Strategy to life.

Coronavirus (COVID-19) recovery

During the pandemic, we awarded grants to two projects that committed to involving a wider range of people in heritage.

The University of Bedfordshire’s Heritage Impact Accelerator and Heritage Enterprise Hub aimed to push local organisations to develop thriving community heritage projects and enterprises.

A group of nine people sitting on a sofa at a university open space. They are next to a project poster with our acknowledgement logo on it
The team at the Heritage Impact Accelerator Project’s open week. Credit: Greta Zabulyte

And the Wildlife Trust for Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire delivered a programme of community-led and education-based activities to improve access to and enjoyment of Bradgers Hill, a local district and county wildlife site. 

What is an Area of Focus?

In 2019 we launched our Strategic Funding Framework where we committed to providing targeted support to 13 areas that have historically received lower levels of investment from us. This has helped under-served groups with their capacity complete application forms and develop projects.

Since the launch, activity in Luton has ignited – heritage projects have more than doubled (from 12 to 28) and there has been a 34% increase in investment (from £2.2m to £3.1m).

The work is shaped by the passionate voices of individuals, groups, communities and organisations I work with in Luton. Having a deep understanding of the town’s identity, challenges, opportunities and lived experiences of local people, enables me to encourage and support these heritage projects.  

So, what’s next?

As we continue with our work in Luton, I’m really excited to be planning the year ahead. We’re exploring opportunities for community grants schemes, new approaches to encourage more people to apply, and the delivery of fun and inspiring events to create space for networking and collaboration.

By the end of 2024, we want Luton to be one of the great success stories of this historic region.

Get funding for your heritage project

If you have an idea for a heritage project, from community heritage to industrial, maritime and transport, we would love to hear from you – especially if you’re based in one of our Areas of Focus. Find out how to get funding.

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