The Book of Life

Current Location

County Records Office
Bedford
United Kingdom

Classification

On Monday, October 14th, 1918, with the Great War almost at an end, the Vicar of Luton, the Rev Arthur E. Chapman, sat down in the St Mary's Vicarage composing a letter for inclusion in the following Thursday's Luton News. In it he said he was anxious to do in Luton what was being done in other towns, that was, to have a book in which the names of all Lutonians who had fallen in the war should be inscribed.

"The book must be the best that money can buy," he wrote, "and will be placed in a conspicuous place in the Parish Church, there to remain a record for all time of all who have died for us. At present I understand there is no such list, and it is of the utmost importance that there should be one.

"The Book of Life, as it is called is not meant to take the place of a memorial, but simply to be a record of the names of the men who have gone from the borough and have died for their country. I think all will agree that such a historical record will find a fitting setting in Luton's most ancient, historic and beautiful building."

Churchwarden Samuel Green, who was also a Town Councillor, undertook the compiling of the names. By January 1919 he had 221 names for inclusion for the 'Book of Life,' which he said really meant 'The Book of Life Hereafter'.

By October 1919 the number of names had risen to around 800, the Luton News publishing them in its columns over a period of nine weeks between October and December 1919. By then 'The Book of Life' had taken on even more significance after the town's record of all who had fought in the war - estimated at between 8,000 and 9,000 local men - had been lost in the July 1919 Peace Day riots when the Town Hall was burned down.

After publishing in December 1919 the final instalment of 785 names submitted for inclusion in The Book of Life, the Luton News pointed out that it was likely there would still be omissions but the book would become in later years one of the most important documents of the town's history.

"The aftermath of big battles, such as those which took place at Festubert and Givenchy in the summer of 1915, on the Somme in 1916, that last stages of the battle of Arras in 1917, the Cambrai advance and retreat at the end of 1917, and the big German drive in March and April 1918 has inevitably left its mark in a number of cases, where all that can be recorded is this and that man is 'missing, believed killed'.

"Quite a number of Luton parents had months of anxiety after receiving an announcement of this character, and in regrettably few instances was it cancelled by later and more favourable news. In the majority of cases no further news was received, and the men concerned rest in some of those tragic little graves marked as the resting places of 'unknown British soldiers' which are not an uncommon feature on some parts of the Front where the fighting was of a fluctuating character.

"A few men rest on German soil, having failed to survive the rigours of their captivity, and one or two failed to see the day when their captors, the Turks, were overthrown. Just one or two, also, paid the price of the adventure in Russia, and there are many naval casualties in the list.

"The only other feature which requires comment is that quite a number of deaths from wounds or disease have been recorded since the signing of the Armistice.

"It is impossible to say with any accuracy how many men went from Luton into the Forces, but from very exhaustive inquiries which had been made, a total of between 8,000 and 9,000 names had been compiled at the Town Hall before the disastrous happenings in July last resulted in all the records being totally destroyed. It is practically certain that this record, which promised to be exceptionally interesting, will now never be made, and all future generations will know is that as far as is known the number of Luton's fighting men was somewhere between those two figures."

The Book of Life with its illuminated text was finally unveiled and dedicated on Sunday, November 14th, 1920, and housed in a special setting within St Mary's Church. Two years later, to mark the unveiling of the Luton War Memorial in 1922, a Luton Roll of Honour was compiled which contained the names of over 1,200 men commemorated on the memorial. The Book of Life was used as a basis for compiling the Roll of Honour.

The photographic illustrations are taken from the 1924 T. G. Hobbs book devoted to Luton Parish Church.

Author: Deejaya

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