'Hands off Wardown' 7: Too many still silent

The future of Wardown House was again making front page headlines in the Saturday Telegraph of February 22nd, 1919, following further Council debate the previous Tuesday. And the newspaper kept up its uncompromising attack, although it saw a possible change of attitude on he part of the prime mover, Council Primett, Chairman of the Maternity and Chid Welfare Committee. It wrote:

Walter PrimettWhen Councillor Primett (pictured during his earlier term of office as Mayor) proposed to the Town Council on January 21st to take Wardown House away from the general public for the purpose of providing a lying-in home and infants hospital, he declared to the Council “there was no possible alternative”.

Today he is not so positive, though let it be noted the Council have not yet abandoned the Wardown idea.

In the interval, under pressure of the gathering opposition, Councillor Primett and his Committee have visited at least two alternatives. They were urged to act promptly. They have not told us the Park Street proposition was unsuitable; in the opinion of some who viewed it the place was sufficiently commodious and adaptable to meet the needs of the Committee for some time to come, yet they missed it – someone else slipped in and bought the property while they were “considering”. Apparently they fell between two stools, and next it was said the second alternative – a highly desirable property – was also 'off,' though for what reason no information has been vouchsafed. Its situation was delightful, its accommodation ample, but, well, there you are!

But mark the change of attitude! A month ago there was “no possible alternative”; in the meantime they have viewed at least two properties, and Councillor Primett tells his colleagues in the Council “in a short time they would probably consider another”.

“No possible alternative!” But under pressure of popular opinion they found two to consider, and may “probably consider another”.

“The Committee have an open mind thus far,” adds Councillor Primett. Then let them openly disavow their designs on Wardown House and seriously set about business in another direction.

They are still hanging on to Wardown. Vain, vain hope! The public wil never forgive them if they do not quickly retract.

We cannot but note with pleasure Councillor Primett's change of attitude; we welcome his assurances, but we think they would have a stronger ring if he could bring himself to declare “Wardown is off; we WILL find and alternative”.

Councillor Primett doesn't like the suggestion that his Committee are usurping the rights of the public or that they are masterful or dictatorial.

There is an easy way for him to disprove it: abandon Wardown, and he will find the public with him all the way for a modest scheme elsewhere.

Councillor Primett was “extremely gratified” at Tuesday's meeting by a letter from “a representative body of ratepayers from the Labour Women of Luton”. We wonder if Councillor Primett took the trouble to inquire of his friend Mrs Slatter how far this “meeting” which “whole-heartedly supported the scheme” was “representative” of the Labour Women of Luton.

Our information is that this “representative” body numbered FIVE LADIES, that Mr Primett's backer, Mrs Slatter, was one of them, that the resolution represented no more than a tiny section of the members of the Party.

And to this meeting Councillor Primett “masterly” applies the dual description of “a representative body of ratepayers and from the Labour Women of Luton”.

So much for Mrs Slatter's advocacy on behalf of Labour. We wonder if Councillor Primett knows all that has happened since “among the Labour Women of Luton”.

Now let us turn to the position as it stands today. It is evident that the Council as a whole now realise that the opposition was more widespread than they were prepared to admit a fortnight ago. It also has the virtue that it was spontaneous, and Councillor Primett can hardly claim so much for even the small measure of support the scheme has received.

Mrs Slatter, as a lady of some importance in the Labour Party, could perhaps enlighten him a little about her meeting. Possibly it will cheer the hearts of the Labour Party as a whole to know that even that small section of their organisation – we do not say an unimportant section – is regarded now by Councillor Primett, at any rate, as “representative”; that they have gained a standing at municipal headquarters. We have a recollection of a previous petition from the same body failing to find a champion in the Council Chamber, even if they were not dismissed as inconsequential.

We do not grudge the Labour women such recognition,although we wish it was in a matter which is consonant with the ratepayers' desires; indeed we would have liked to know that they had won this benediction on some point which he whole of their Party approved. We have an idea, however, that the great majority of the Labour Party in this town is dead against the Wardown scheme.

Councillor Primett would appear to have quite an eye for the theatrical. He made a great show of indignation over the skit which appeared in last Saturday's Telegraph on 'The Wardown Incubator'. It is perhaps not for us to defend our contributors, more than to say that we inserted the article in the spirit in which it was handed on to us, a spirit of fun, but one of the contributors has record quite as honourable as most of the Council, although perhaps he does not talk about it to the same extent as some. He has also probably done as much to preserve the sanctity of motherhood, and only by a dexterous twist of words and a careful disregard of the context, could Councillor Primett, for it is he who tried to credit us with the insolent suggestion that we wanted the Corporation to ask the Sworder family to GIVE their old and beautiful home in the town.

If there is going to be this twisting of criticism we are going to analyse it. We have said during the whole of the dispute that we are opposed not from any desire to counter Councillor Primett because he is Councillor Primett. He knows that he had always had out hearty support in anything for the best interests of the whole town.

Let us dwell for a moment on this point of the sacredness of motherhood and assure ourselves how far the Maternity Committee have considered it. Here is a very important point. We are assured on the authority of a member of the Council that until the question was raised in the Telegraph, the natural aversion of the respectable married woman to lying-in at the same institution as the unmarried had never been mentioned; had never been considered, wither in Committee or Council. Surely the sanctity and nobility of true motherhood is deserving of fuller consideration than this.

We repeat that this Maternity Home scheme for Wardown has been ill-considered and rushed in a manner unworthy of the Committee and of the Council.

Wardown House was acquired for the whole of the town and not for the benefit of a doubtful few. Lest we are again accused of making aspersions on the character of Luton's womanhood, we add here that the word 'doubtful' is quantitative only. The whole scheme is an experiment and an experiment, we claim. Should be begun in a more modest way.

To Wardown and its house and gardens – acquired for the public – the public should have free and unrestricted access. The central institution in a public park is not the place for a lying-in home. Councillor Primett talks glibly of alternatives in Studley Road, Downs Road and London Road. If Councillor Primett implies there might be objections to the establishment of such an institution in private residential parts of the town can he not appreciate that the objections are far weightier against setting it up in the centre of Luton's most popular resort?

The discussion at Tuesday's meeting revealed a very decided opposition, and it also disclosed a curious attitude on the part of Councillor Briggs.

In the first place, Councillor Briggs supported taking Wardown House on he same plea as some others – that “there was no immediate alternative”.

In the present instance he seconded the adoption of the report – a report recording the arrangements with the V.A.D. for handing over Wardown for the purposes of a maternity home – but admitted “there was more opposition than he thought to encounter. People were saying that the rights and facilities of the public were being taken away; that other arrangements could and should be made. He was...glad to hear the Chairman...had, so to speak, another site up his sleeve”.

We thought Councillor Briggs had already decided to bow to the public will, but apparently he is still wobbling. We hope he will soon drop on the right side of the fence.

There are still too many silent members round the Council board on this question of taking Wardown. The report was carried. Members who have made their position clear are:

To take Wardown FROM the public – Councillor Primett, Alderman Oakley, Alderman Williams, Councillor Bone, Councillor Escott.

Uncertain – Alderman Arnold, Councillor Briggs.

To save Wardown FOR the public – The Mayor (Councillor Impey), Deputy Mayor (Councillor Dillingham), Alderman Staddon, Alderman Wilkinson, Councillor Yarrow, Councillor Attwood, Councillor Barford, Councillor Unwin.

This account for 15 of the 24 members of the Council. Councillor Gilder, by reason of his age, is hardly likely to get out to a Council meeting during the present bad weather, but the public will want to know where other members stand. Here are the names:

Alderman Cain, Councillor Green, Councillor Hawkes, Councillor Stewart Hubbard, Councillor Merchant, Councillor Chapman, Councillor Rainbow and Councillor Warren.

What have they to say for themselves? The public wants to know.

Alderman Oakley describes Wardown House before its occupation by the V.A.D. as “a white elephant,” but he did not attempt to answer the question, “Whose fault is it that better use was not previously made of the House?”

And in Alderman Oakley sure that as a lying-in hospital Wardown House will not be comparable to a more voracious animal than the white elephant he describes?

We are inclined to think that the administration expenses of this ambitious hospital scheme will “eat its head off”. The home is advocated as “an experiment”. Then let the experiment be on a less pretentious and more modest scale. It is the ratepayers who will have to pay the money.

In the discussion as to the suitability of Wardown, very little attention has been paid to the question of expense. Wardown House will prove a very expensive place altogether, apart from the loss which the general public will bear in the deprivation of its use.

This is Councillor Primett's scheme: Rent of Wardown House £100; adaptation and equipment £500; annual expenditure £1,910. Total £2,510.

It is argued in support of the scheme that the Government will pay one half. What if they do? The taxpayers have to find it. Is it an excuse for an elaborate scheme that the Government will pay half? A delusive sort of argument surely.

That the Government will pay half is no excuse for an extravagant experimental scheme; in a more modest undertaking the fact still remains that the taxpayer will find one half of such items and the ratepayers the other half.

But taking Councillor Primett's figures, the annual upkeep of Wardown as a maternity home will cost the half of £2,110 (£100 plus £1,910) – A PENNY RATE.

But this is not all. On top of a penny rate in the first year there will be £250 to find from the rates (a farthing rate) for adaptation and equipment, and another farthing rate to provide a substitute for Wardown House as a refreshment centre.

Assurances were given on Tuesday evening that “provision would be made, of course, for the users of Wardown who desired refreshment,” and Councillor Primett earlier in the evening had referred to one section of the community.

We join issue with him on that point. Wardown House is used by all sections of the community, not only as a place of refreshment but as a place of shelter, and is a joy and a pride to them as townspeople.

And however much money is spent on the shifting of the wooden annex at Wardown House to some other place in the Park, it will not only cost money but will be a very poor substitute and a bad investment.

The proposal as we heard it was to add some sort of extended front, under which the general public could seek refuge from the sweltering summer sun or occasional storms and enjoy a cup of tea or a penny bun, as Councillor Escott would say.

And what will it be when it is finished? A ramshackle old barn with low roof, making the place unbearable when the sun shines. What a pride to the town: what a monument to the enterprise of an up-to-date Council.

No, Mr Primett, once again, “IT WILL NOT DO!”