As a prominent landmark on Market Hill it was inevitable that the Corn Exchange should become a focus for recruiting during World War 1. It gave a vantage point over George Street to speakers urging young men to enlist and it gave crowds a chance to cheer the recruits as they mounted the steps to sign on.
It was also an assembly point for members of the Luton Volunteer Training Corps before they set out for drills and exercises at Stockwood Park, for example.
By the start of the Great War the Corn Exchange had been standing for around 46 years. It was officially opened on Monday, January 18th, 1869, a day of double celebration with the opening also of the Plait Halls by the Lord Lieutenant of Bedfordshire, Earl Cowper, accompanied by American diplomat Mr Reverdy Johnson. The town's streets were decorated with arches of flags and flowers for the occasion.
The foundation stone was laid on January 9th, 1868, by landowner, magistrate and management committee chairman Lieut-Col Lionel Ames, of The Hyde (a memorial was erected to him in front of the Corn Exchange the year after his death in February 1873). This was how The Luton Advertiser described the Corn Exchange at the time of its opening:
The Corn Exchange is an ornamental building in the Italian Gothic style, with a clock turret rising to the height of 85 feet. It is situated on the Market Hill, and its cost, including the ground, will be about the same as that of the Plait Halls [about £8,000].
The principal room is covered with an open timbered roof, stained and varnished. A gallery is erected at the end capable of seating about 150 persons, thereby giving nearly as much sitting accommodation, if used for public meetings, as the Town Hall.
The Corn Exchange is entered by two polished oak doors up a flight of steps on each side. There are here four small committee rooms, access to which is by a circular stone staircase. The windows are glazed with plate glass.
A large bay window, with two centre and two side lights, faces George Street. The structure is built of Bath stone and red brick and banded work, the local crimson being rubbed to make it look like a pressed brick, and the effect is very pretty.
Beneath the Exchange is a meat and provision market which on a Saturday night, when lighted up with gas, presents a very busy scene. In the centre are massive iron columns, and for the protection of the Exchange there is one of Dennett's fire-proof roofs.
The architects are Messrs Grundy and Messenger, of London, and Messrs Smart Brothers, of Luton, are the builders.
Thirty stands have been provided in the Exchange, but whereas every inch of space in the meat and provision market is utilised every Saturday night, only four or five [out of 16] have as yet been taken. The meat and provision stalls were quickly caught up, and were the accommodation four times the extent there is little doubt but what it would find ready occupants.
The Local Board of Health had decided two years previously to erect the Corn Exchange and Plait Halls at an estimated total cost of around £15,000 to provide suitable accommodation for agricultural and manufacturing operations. The Plait Halls would do away with an old custom under which the plait straw was sold in the open streets, to the hindrance of traffic and the injury of the sales people.
The upper structure of the Corn Exchange was demolished in 1951 due to structural safety concerns, and most of the remainder of the building in 1953. In 1956 a plan to move Luton War Memorial from its site outside the Town Hall to Market Hill was rejected after strong opposition from ex-servicemen.