With the ending of hostilities, Luton town councillors thought they had the ideal alternative use for a mansion that had been serving as a Voluntary Aid Detachment hospital and for which they had no subsequent planned use. They unanimously approved the future use of the Wardown Mansion as a maternity home – little anticipating the storm of protest that would be launched in the Press against the townspeople of Luton not being allowed the peacetime use of a building bought for the public generally.
In 1904 The Luton News had campaigned for a reluctant council to buy Wardown as a pleasure ground for Lutonians. But its initial report headed “Wardown as a maternity home: new use for the mansion” in its January 23, 1919, edition was a straightforward report from the previous Tuesday's council meeting. It read:
The Medical Officer of Health had submitted to the Maternity and Child Welfare Committee a scheme for the extension of the maternity and child welfare work on lines specified in a letter received from the Local Government Board last August. After full consideration, the Committee recommended that, subject to the concurrence of the Parks Committee, Wardown House shall be used as soon as possible for the purpose of a maternity home, an infants' hospital and a home for neglected infants, the Council undertaking to pay a rent of £100 per annum and to be responsible for all repairs.
This will involved application to the Local Government Board for approval to the appropriation of the mansion for the purpose, as it was acquired for the purpose of a public park. But as the Board are pressing for the development of municipal maternity work, it was not anticipated that there would be any difficulty in getting such approval.
The scheme as submitted by the Committee provides for the accommodation of lying-in cases, nursing mothers, infants in hospital and a children's home. Towards an anticipated expenditure of £500 on adaptation and equipment, the Government will contribute half. The annual expenditure is estimated at £1,910, and of this also the Government will pay half.
It was described by Councillor Primett as the first important report this Committee had submitted, and in the discussion on the report there was no criticism as to the necessity of developing this work. The only objection raised was as to the suitability of Wardown Mansion, but on the behalf of the Committee it was submitted that if the work was to be commenced within any reasonable period there was no possibility of alternative.
The Parks Committee in their report stated that, having regard to the urgency and importance of the matter, and to the impossibility of other suitable premises being acquired or erected at present or in the immediate future, they consented to the proposal provided it was limited to a period of three years from July 1st next.
In submitting the report, Councillor Primett said the Committee had decided to concentrate only on what they could carry into effect at an early date. Having regard to the size of the town it was time there was a municipal maternity home. Obtaining a suitable building was the only difficulty, and for months he had been looking round the town for one.
He had considered Lansdowne Road, Studley Road, Hart Hill and other places, but no suitable place could be built or hired immediately, and at last it dawned on the Committee that Wardown was the very place.
He knew some people considered it an ideal place for an art gallery and public museum, but they would be putting it to a much more important use in this way. Of 1,000 births per annum in Luton, 80 or 90 infants died before reaching one year, and it was quite possible in a few years to save 40 or 50 of those lives.
Since he had been on the Council the infant mortality rate had gone down by quite half, which showed they were working on the right lines, and anyone who wished to criticise their methods would find a complete answer in the health statistics.
It must not be supposed that if the scheme was adopted there would be any competition with the Children's Sick and Convalescent Home, which did not take infants under three years of age and which at present was more or less a hospital for operations, and which he hoped to see doubled in capacity.
In fact, this municipal scheme would in some directions be undertaking the very work for which the Children's Home was founded – but which that institution had never been able to carry on, as it had been undertaking far more important work.
Some had said a public park was much too public for a maternity home, but that was all moonshine. It was not public in the way it would be on a busy highway, and it was an ideal spot among splendid surroundings. They did not want, as an authority, to be left behind in this matter, and this was a very suitable and economical method of getting to work quickly.
Alderman Wilkinson was afraid such a scheme would destroy some of the social amenities of the park, and the Mayor said he also had a conscientious objection to using Wardown for this purpose. It seemed to be almost Hobson's choice, but to put such a place in a centre of public recreation seemed hardly right. He was not opposing the effort of the committee to make some such provision, and would not move an amendment, because he had no alternative to suggest. It was a matter, however, which required a little more consideration.
Councillor Barford thought that if Councillor Primett, on behalf of the Committee, would endorse the findings of the Park Committee and say that he was prepared to go on with the scheme subject to te need of Wardown being limited to three years in the first instance, it might remove some members' objections.
Alderman Oakley was going to make the same suggestion, and said they must not allow sentiment to override their better judgment. They were being pressed to make some provision of this kind, and the Mansion had been put to no practical use until the V.A.D. Took it over.
To adapt the place for the new scheme would cost very little, and if in three years time they could acquire more suitable premises they could transfer the centre without any great cost. Otherwise it would be a year or two before they could make a start, and he was in favour of taking Wardown Mansion for the purpose, subject to the limit of three years.
Councillor Briggs also supported, and said there was no immediate alternative. They were already behind then times in this work. As to using the mansion for a museum, or an art gallery, they had too many other schemes in hand at present to be able to consider such enterprise.
Alderman Arnold thought the scheme would go through because no other scheme was feasible at present. If any other scheme was possible within 12 months he would not approve of going to Wardown, for it was not desirable such a place should be permanently centred in a place a recreation. On the ground there was no immediate alternative he supported the proposal.
Councillor Escott said that not as a Lutonian but as an alien, he had the greatest admiration for the park, and considered it would be an ideal spot for the Home.
Councillor Warren: “We do not know any other place to which we can go. The work of the Committee has already begun and is growing.”
Alderman Williams supported the Committee and did not think it was at all necessary to specifically limit the period to three years. He had never been able to see it possible to use Wardown for a museum or art gallery. Before they could have either they must of necessity have things to exhibit, which they had not got at present. And for a picture gallery it would be useless without overhead lighting, which could not be obtained.
As to using it for indoor recreation, he did not think it would be suitable for anything but billiards and bridge and there was no need to cater publicly for that.
Councillot Primett said he glad to find the Council unanimous as to the need for this work. The finest picture gallery they could have was a show of healthy, chubby little children. They were the greatest asset the country could have, especially after the terrible devastation and massacre that had been going on.
He accepted the three years suggestion on behalf of his Committee. The Council unanimously approved the scheme.
On the report of te Parks Committee, Councillor Yarrow (Chairman) said the Committee were very chary about giving up any of their privileges, but in this case they considered the need was greater than the objection so they consented, subject to the three years proviso. He thought it would still be possible to give the public access to the greenhouses and terraces which had been denied them during the V.A.D. Occupation of the mansion.
The V.A.D. Are accordingly to be asked to relinquish their occupation of the mansion by March 25th, if practicable.
[The Luton News: Thursday, January 23, 1919]