On Tuesday 13th November 1917. King George V, visited Luton to inspect the Thermo munitions works off Hitchin Road, the George Kents works in Biscot Road, and to meet local dignitaries.
It was the first official function of the then new Mayor of Luton Charles Dillingham, and the local press reported that he performed admirably.
His Majesty the King in Bedfordshire
In the course of a tour of some of the Home Counties on Tuesday, H.M. the King visited as important industrial centre in Bedfordshire.
It is very gratifying that the town selected for the visit should at last have been hononred in a manner which every patriotic burgess would have chosen. Like few good things in these days, the visit of the King was entirely unexpected. It has more than once been rumoured during the last two years that his Majesty would visit the town, but rumour was the sum total of expectation. The good news came early on Monday afternoon, and it was announced that it would be an informal visit, and that there would be no civic ceremony. The Major and the Town Clerk were commanded to meet his Majesty at certain works and subsequently to accompany him to the works of Messrs. George Kent, Ltd. No ladies were invited. The Chief Constable received instructions to make the necessary police arrangements. and was commanded to pilot his Majesty through the town, both on arrival and departure. On Monday night the tidings had spread very quickly, but there was an air of scepticism, and it is certain that many people did not actually believe the news until his Majesty had crossed the borough boundary. It was owing to this that comparatively few assembled to witness his Majesty’s arrival, shortly before eleven o’clock, but his departure. between 12.80 and 1 p.m., gave a large number of workers an opportunity of seeing him as they came from or returned to work.
the King’s visit was enhanced by a fine beautiful November day, and his Majesty looked more alert, fitter in health than we have ever seen him since the days he walked the deck of a man-of-war, and, apart from the fact that his pointed beard is now tinged with grey, there were no signs that he had passed the half-century. He smiled genially, and chatted with an ease and freedom quite homely and inspiring. He walked briskly, and although he is reputed to be fonder of Navy blue than any other uniform, his khaki suited him well. His uniform was that of a field marshal. On his left sleeve was the symbol of mourning, a black crepe band.
It was an unprecedented honour for the town, at any rate since the eighteenth century, for although the late King Edward visited it, it was when he was Prince of Wales. Later, a year or so before his death, the late King Edward passed through the town, but Tuesday was the first occasion on which the reigning monarch has visited the town during many memories. November 13th 1917, will indeed be a red-letter day in its history.
It is somewhat remarkable that the first public engagement of the town’s new Mayor should have been so great an occasion, and it has been said the gentleman honoured fulfilled his part most admirably. It was an ordeal for a man of seasoned experience, but no one could have occupied the position with more tact, modesty, and good sense. He was on the spot when required, and it will be gathered from our report that he took the opportunity of impressing upon his Majesty that the town is not merely a centre of the straw hat trade, but of the felt trade also He performed the duty of welcoming his Majesty and of presenting the Town Clerk as if to the manner born, and from the moment he motored up, driven by his daughter in smart motoring attire, to the moment he saw off the Royal Party on the return journey, he fulfilled the role of First Burgess with becoming dignity.
The “ News ’’ representatives were indebted to the Mayor, Town Clerk. and the firms visited by the King for the facilities granted, by which we are able to give as full a report as is possible in the circumstances. Many things are omitted which in normal times would have made interesting reading.
The Royal car, a magnificent limousine, entered the borough almost on the stroke of eleven o’clock. His Majesty was seen to be wearing Field Marshal’s uniform, and was accompanied by Sir Leonard Llewellyn, Commander Sir Charles Cust, Bart., R.N. and Lieut.-Col. Clive Wigram.
Quite a crowd had gathered in the vicinity of the Corn Exchange when, a few minutes after eleven o’clock, the Chief Constable's car was seen approaching, preceding the car in which his Majesty was riding. As the King drove past through the centre of the town general cheers were raised, which were acknowledged by a salute. Flags of various types, the Union Jack predominating, had previously made their appearance at several windows in the neighbourhood. The crowds increased to considerable density, and lusty cheers greeted the Royal visitor as the car pulled up at No. 1 entrance of the first works visited, the King stepping nimbly from the car. In the entrance were assembled the Mayor, the Town Clerk, and the directors of the Company.
His Majesty, without ceremony, briskly stepped forward with extended hand greeted the Mayor most heartily: "Good morning, Mr. Mayor."
"Good morning, your Majesty." replied the Mayor, grasping the King's hand. " We are delighted to welcome you, your Majesty.
" I am delighted to have the opportunity of visiting the town,” replied the King.
" May I present our Town Clerk? " asked the Mayor, and the Town Clerk stepped forward and was cordially greeted.
the Earl Russell then presented Mr. Archibald Finlay MacLaren, who, in turn presented General Sir H. C. L. Holden, K.C.B., F.R.S.. Commander Francis Barkley Henderson. R.N.. G.C.M.G.. D.S.O., Mr. Henry Montgomery Carlile, Mr. Ernest J. Baty. B.Sc. (works manager), Mr. W. H. Cooke (Borough Electrical Engineer), Mr. Fred. G. Brown (the Thermo Co.'s representative in Queensland), and Sir John Saglesome. of the Non-Ferrous Materials Branch of the Ministry of Munitions.
Photographers had a busy time during the exchange of greetings.
The tour of the works at once commenced, Mr. MacLaren and the King leading the way. In every department Mr. MacLaren explained the process from the reception of the material to the finished product. So interested was the distinguished visitor that the visit was double the scheduled time. Over and over again he asked Mr. MacLaren to explain the why and the wherefore of this piece of machinery or that piece of metal, and he frequently expressed his admiration of the strength and courage of the men. With his cane he pointed out certain parts of the machinery they were passing, and asked for an explanation of its relation to the particular product, and when it was possible he critically examined the chief features of each department. He was obviously impressed by the smoothness of the working, the economy of labour, and the celerity with which the various articles are produced. He was very interested, too, in the work of the female employees, especially in the warehouse, where he inspected samples of the raw material and specimens of the finished article's.
In the oxide department he paused as they were passing ope of the machines and spoke to a workman. 'Mr. George Fern. With that sympathetic observation which is one of the humane characteristics of the King-Emperor, he noticed that Mr. Fern wears a patent boot owing to an injury to his leg, and he said to him: “ How did that happen to your leg? ”
Mr. Fern replied: “ I met with an accident when I was eight years old. I was crawling on the floor when a needle ran into my foot.” “Does it hurt you to work?” asked the King.
“ No, I don't feel any pain now.” replied the workman, who was Quite at ease by his Majesty’s sympathetic speech.
Right through the works the King went, and he smiled with pleasure when, as he left at the top exit, a large crowd cheered heartily. the King saluted several times as he crossed the road and entered the offices of the Company, proceeding straight to the Board-room. with Earl Russell, Mr. MacLaren, and other directors, Sir Leonard Llewellyn, Commander Sir Charles Cust, and others.
Addressing Mr. MacLaren, his Majesty said:
have been extremely interested in all I have seen, in the whole of the processes from the beginning. Although one cannot hope in such a short time to grasp the intricacies and complicated scientific processes. I am glad that your plant has been brought to such a standard of efficiency. Now that we are able
to procure our supplies, both from Burmah (sic) and Queensland, as well as our own country, I hope and believe this industry will never return to Germany again. I must congratulate you most heartily on the way your men have stuck to their work, which is certainly of a very heavy nature, but most important. I must personally thank you for the lucid explanation and care you have taken to make my visit so interesting, and I trust that your prosperity will continue after the war.
“ I thank your Majesty," replied Mr. MacLaren.
The King then returned to his car, before entering which he shook hands very warmly with the directors and Mr. Baty. While he was in the offices the workpeople had assembled, the women in smart Royal blue overalls and caps at the top end of the works, and the men at the lower end. the King smiled broadly as the women and girls waved their handkerchiefs and cheered. and the shrill applause was drowned in the full-throated cheers of the men. The King leaned forward and saluted again and again, repeating his acknowledgments as the car swung along between the crowds on the footpaths. Many sightseers obtained an excellent view of his Majesty, as the Royal car proceeded to Kent’s Works.
Here a large body of the staff had gathered at the entrance gates, presenting an effective appearance in their working garb. His Majesty drove through a line of the employees, acknowledging the enthusiastic cheers which were given by frequent saluting.
At the offices, he was received by Mr. Walter G. Kent (managing director) and conducted upstairs. Here were presented to him several of the departmental heads, including Mr. Leigh Kent (general manager), Mr. W. G. Ardley, and Mr. Leslie Kent (directors), Mr. R. W. Bedford (works manager), Messrs. Coulson, C. W. Escott (an employee of the firm for fifty-four years), Hodgson, Gowan, Handford, Curling, Hovenden, Noble, Pulman, Meyjes, Mrs. Leigh Kent, Mrs. Morton and Miss Hammond (Welfare Superintendents), Mies K. M. Austin and Mrs. Nicholls. Certain of the shop foremen were also presented to his Majesty as he went round the works.
When Mr. C. W. Escott was presented, Mr. W. Kent informed the King that he had put in. fifty-four years’ service with the firm. His Majesty appeared to be surprised, and remarked to Mr. Escott: “ Well, you look very fit on it.”
Piloted by Mr. W. G. Kent, His Majesty then made a detailed tour of the establishment, displaying a very keen interest in the various departments, and the nature of the work therein carried on, at they were explained to him by the managing director.
At the foot of the stairs, the large body of workmen who hare already served with the Forces and have received their discharge from the Service, were drawn up in two ranks. As the King reached them, the men stood smartly to attention, and His Majesty stopped for a moment to converse with several of the discharged soldiers.
Standing near there was Violet Golding, the young lady who has been honoured by receiving the Order of the British Empire for her bravery in returning to work on the same job after having lost two fingers through an explosion. The King spoke to her for some moments, congratulating her upon her pluck, and inquired if her hand was not better.
Next in array came the Kent’s Corps of Girl Guides, whose officers smartly saluted as the King went by.
Touring the various shops, his Majesty asked frequent questions as to the character of the duties. At one stage he stopped and spoke to a young girl: " How many of those can you do in the course of a day?” asked the King.
Shyly the little lady replied, “ I don’t know, sir. We don’t count. We just carry on.”
“ Capital,” returned the King. " What is required of us is that we should carry on to the best of our ability.”
At another point his Majesty referred to the wonderful work of the girls.
Passing through the workshops, the Royal visitor stood for several minutes, keenly noting the deft manner in which the machinery was handled. He also paused for a few moments watching girls manipulating massive mechanism, and stamping other essential portions of the manufactures.
In going through the Inspection Room, the King observed that a young officer, in uniform, appeared to be in charge. He was informed by Mr. Kent that this was Lieut.. Pelly, who was presented and with whom, the King shook hands.
Subsequently a visit was paid to the Hospital and to the canteen.
At the conclusion of his tour of the works, when his Majesty was in the Board-room, he expressed his thanks and appreciation to Mr. Walter Kent for the splendid reception and the manner in which the work had been explained. He said he had thoroughly enjoyed the visit. Following on this. Sir Leonard Llewellyn came out and said to the Mayor: " His Majesty would like to speak to you.”
The Mayor followed the Knight, and the King very cordially said to him: “ Mr. Mayor, allow me to thank you very much indeed for the trouble you have taken. I appreciate it very much.”
the Mayor replied: “On behalf of the
town, I thank you very much indeed for your visit."
the King: “ I suppose the straw hat trade is the staple industry? ”
the Mayor: “ Yee, sir, the straw hat trade combined with the felt hat trade, for we also ' make felt hats now. The two are making us very busy indeed, and, in fact, we are now very busy on the shipping trade."
the King: " I am very pleased to hear it."
A large body of employees had assembled to greet the King as he entered his motor-car on finishing his visit of inspection. Three ringing cheers were given as he drove off, followed by “ one more for luck.”
Just before leaving Messrs. Kent’s his Majesty summoned the Chief Constable and expressed a desire that he should be presented. In his smart silver-braided trappings, the Chief Constable had the honour of being presented by one of the King's equerries. Commander Sir Charles Cust, and he was warmly complimented by the King for the manner in which the arrangements for the route through the town had been made. the police arrangements were excellent. The retails were well mapped, with due consideration for as little hindrance to traffic and as expeditious a passage as possible, consistent with enabling as many people as possible to see the King.
The roadways were lined with sightseers as the Royal car travelled back to the London road en route for London.