There is a story that connects the introduction of straw plaiting in Scotland to Mary Queen of Scots who is said to have brought plaiters with her from Lorraine in France in around 1552 so that they could teach their craft to the people of Scotland. Subsequently they travelled to England with her son King James I and they settled in Luton in the care of his friend Sir Robert Napier of Luton Hoo.
Unfortunately there is no evidence to support this romantic tale and it does not explain why the first centre of straw plaiting was Dunstable rather than Luton. It is not known exactly when or why the industry should have developed in the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire area, but its closeness to London and the availability of plenty of good quality wheat-straw must have been key factors.
What is certain is that straw plaiting and the making of straw hats and bonnets was well established in Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire by the end of the 17th century. A petition presented to parliament in 1689, against a bill which would require people to wear woollen headwear, claimed that over 14,000 people living in and around Luton and Dunstable, earned their living from the making of straw hats.
Wardown Park Museum
Luton has a long association with the hat industry, both in this country and around the world. As one of our significant collections we have over 700 hats and pieces of headwear alongside material and objects from the trade and retail sections of industry.
There are new hats that came directly from local companies and old hats that have been worn. We have men’s, women’s and children’s hats. Most are made from straw, but we also have fabric and felt hats.
We have hats from the 1700s and hats that were made recently. Many of the hats are fashion hats, but we have some interesting hats that were used for work or as part of a uniform.
In the Luton Life Gallery, you can only see a sample of what we have in the collection, but you can learn about the breadth of Luton’s industry and hear about the working life of people who made their living from hats.