Pocket Number 20: Waller Street and Luton Irish Forum

The Mall (formerly called ‘Arndale’) is a 1970s shopping mall built above old historic roads and demolished buildings in central Luton.

Bute Street and Cheapside (formerly ‘Barber Street’) pass under and through the mall and out the other end, connecting George Street to Silver Street and Guildford Road.

I searched The Mall for plaques of old street names, but to no avail so I zoomed in on Google Maps. On Google Maps the main street dissecting the mall along its is called ‘Walter Street’. I’m not sure if that is a misspelling or re-naming of the old Waller Street which disappeared beneath the Arndale.

At Luton Library and online I unearthed old pictures of the buildings which were demolished to make way for The Arndale, such as:

  • A five story tall Grand Theatre which fronted Waller Street
  • A large Wesleyan chapel situated between Cheapside and Bute Street
  • ‘Plait Hall,’ which fronted Cheapside and Waller Street. It formed the central hub of shops and stalls for Luton’s straw hat-making trade between 1869 and 1925. It was converted into Luton Indoor Market in 1925 and then demolished in the 1960s to make way for the Arndale
  • Swimming baths

I will be mounting photographs of the former Waller Street buildings onto the assemblage, as per the instructions of David.

In place of all those buildings squats the 1 million square foot shopping centre pictured above. It houses 122 retailers, including: Primark, Lidl, Tesco Express, Footlocker, Sports Direct, WHSmith, Wilkos, Poundland, etc. It also leads into Arndale House which is a five storey office block containing Luton Justice Centre, Luton and Dunstable NHS Trust, Adult Learning Centre and Luton Sexual Health clinic.

The shopping centre was recently put up for sale by Capital and Regional in the summer of 2022 and retail tycoon Mike Ashley’s Frasers Group is poised to buy it in a £70 million deal. No doubt Frasers Group owned chains will soon be appearing in some of the empty units.

I posted in the ‘Luton Creative Forum’ and ‘Luton I Remember’ forums on social media enquiring if anyone wanted to chat about the pre-mall city center. I was told by Noelette that members of Luton Irish Forum would be pleased to help on a Thursday morning.

I visited the Irish Forum’s office at Hitchin Road the following Thursday morning. Tea and chatting was happening. Marion introduced me to the members and before long I was talking to Tom, Pat and Mary about the Luton of yesteryear.

Pat says she vividly recalls the Irish dance nights which used to take place at the TUC dance hall which used to sit opposite St Mary’s Church. Jazz nights happened on Thursdays; talent nights on Sundays.

Mary liked the old high street Sainsbury’s, especially the service she received at the cheese counter.

Tom served in the forces in Malaya, Aden and Kenya and showed me pictures from his youth. He moved to Luton after his time in the forces and did a variety of driving jobs in his life including truck driving in Germany and emergency delivery driving. He says back then someone could just walk into a job at the Vauxhall factory.

Tom recounted how the Blooming Wild primary school across the road used to be a pub. He said the fence was erected following a tragic incident when a pub regular was hit by a truck.

He said he doesn’t understand why everyone hates on the mall as he finds it to be an improvement to when he had to carry shopping home in the rain. He says the mall is nice and warm and gives him somewhere to sit.

Many of the people I spoke to remembered fondly how there used to be flamingos in the centre of the mall and it was noted that these are now being brought back to Luton by popular demand.

For the assemblage, I was given an Irish flag and I was sent to see the ‘penguins’ at the new park by Bute Street. I am able to approach anyone there.

Pocket Number 21: Laura, Corey and Fiona at Hat Gardens >>

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