Henry Brown and Sons, Luton's oldest major employer, spent the early days of World War One producing material for munition works, only to see its staff, machinery and premises commandeered by the Ministry of Munitions and temporarily ceasing to exist as an independent business.
Its story was told in The Luton News in 1919, two years after the firm celebrated its centenary. The business had been founded by the great-grandfather of the then directors. In the days of stagecoaches, Henry Brown's grandfather lived in George Street with a garden and duck pond at the rear surrounded by open fields.
The founder of the timber business was originally a maltster in Chapel Street (then called Hog Lane). But being a Quaker and unimpressed with the drinking habits of the times, he gave up that business from conscientious motives. He then inaugurated the timber business, even though the only means of transport at the time was by road and canal. The wood had to be hauled by road from Surrey Docks or brought by water from the Thames to Leighton Buzzard or from the East Coast to Shefford and then carted to Luton. The result was that the firm's first year's profit was £17.
Eventually, in June 1898, the firm opened the Bute Saw Mills in Dunstable Road and moved its entire operations there. The seven acre site had previously been Luton Town FC's Dallow Lane ground.
While producing material for munition works in the early days of the war, the ordinary business of builders merchants and producers of hat crates gradually ceased. Then came the drastic change when the Ministry of Munitions commandeered the staff, premises machinery and offices, taking over the entire operation.
The mills were managed in every detail by the Ministry, the Dunstable Road depot being one of 13 mills in England, plus others in Scotland, that were commandeered. But unlike the rest, the Browns mills were not derelict and practically about to close down. During the war it rendered invaluable service directly to the Forces.
Before the change, Henry Brown and Sons had installed from its Great Northern Railway siding a steel gantry 30 ft high and 300 ft long on which ran an electric crane capable of lifting a weight of 10 tons that could unload a truck in one operation. Other modern machinery was worked by steam during the day and by electricity at night.
Early in 1916, owing to shipping and transport difficulties, the firm instituted a new tree felling and haulage department for the Government. The bulk of the home grown timber was taken to the mills from the Luton Hoo, Stockwood and Hyde estates.
Each mill taken over by the Government was given special work distinctive to the mill. The production at Luton included what were known as Bethlehem shell cases. Thousands of hammer handles were also produced, and from July 1918 until the signing of the Armistice the mills supplied Woolwich Arsenal with 75,000 ash felloes (rims of wooden wheels) for the artillery.
The Luton mills also supplied huge sleepers to allow better utilisation of railway transport near the front.
During the time the Government were in control of the Luton mills, a special drying kiln was erected. It was 120 feet in length, 11 ft high and 30 ft wide. It allowed 150 tons of timber to be dried in from two to three weeks, a process which previously took from 18 months to two years.
The centenary article said big stocks of timber would be left when the Ministry relinquished the mills on March 22nd, 1919, all of that stock having been bought up by Henry Brown and Sons. The problem for the firm was that they had not had time to obtain sufficient orders to justify a large staff. The firm hoped to receive the support of former customers, especially local builders and hat exporters, to avoid unemployment.
[The Luton News: Thursday, March 20th, 1919]