116 Bury Park Road (Luton Islamic Centre)

Brief History

Built during the 1800s the building was used as a factory in connection with the then owner, Mr E. L. Barber’s, general building and shop fitting business. With the outbreak of WW1, Mr Barber adapted the factory to manufacture aeroplane propellers supplying the Royal Flying Corps as part of the war effort.

By 1921 the factory had been purchased by a local resident William Southan Morris, who converted the old factory into a then state of the art cinema called The Empire. Initially The Empire had 440 seats, but in 1927 the cinema was enlarged with an additional 340 seats.

Mr Morris eventually owned a number of local cinemas and traded as the Southan Morris Circuit.

In 1933, the Empire was acquired and operated by the Associated British Cinemas, until the opening of their new cinema, The Savoy, in George Street, in central Luton,  in 1938.

Although The Empire was reacquired by the Southan Morris Circuit, it never reopened at a cinema.

During World War 2, The Empire was requisitioned for “government purposes”.

The next chapter for 116 Bury Park Road was in 1949, when the local Jewish Community purchased the building and converted it for use as a Synagogue, opening 4 years later in 1953. At that time the local Jewish Community numbered around 2,000 people. The building remained as a Synagogue until 2000, but as the local Jewish Community numbers have reduced, 116 Bury Park Road became too large for their needs and they decided to sell the building and found an alternative building as their place of worship.

The Jewish Community were keen that the building should remain as a place of worship and in 2000 the building was sold to the local Islamic Community, who converted into its current use as a cultural, religious and educational centre for the Islamic Community, which remains as its use today.

Dallow School, Foxdell Infant and Junior Schools and Bury Park Rd Islamic Centre

Results from Childrens’ Work

Schools Involved:

  • Foxdell Junior School: Year 4 – 3 classes took part – 80 children
  • Dallow Primary School: Year 3 – 3 classes took part – 90 children
  • Foxdell Infant School: Year 1 – 3 classes took part – 77 children
Foxdell Junior School

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Dallow School

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Foxdell Infant School

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Historical Summaries Prepared by the Teaching Staff

In preparation for this project the teaching staff in conjuction with Cultural Histories CIC produced a series of Powerpoint presentations to help the school children get started with their investigations into Luton’s past in relation to this building at 116 Bury Park Rd. The following documents look at different aspects of the history of 116 Bury Park Rd from when it was used as a propellor factory during WW1 to its use as a synagogue supporting the Jewish community in the area prior to it becoming the Islamic Centre it is today supporting the Islamic community. They all use the Time Explorers theme developed during the Luton 1919 Peace Riots Centenary celebrations in conjuction with the Chiltern Learning Trust for Key Stage 2 school children.

Propeller Factory Teacher Input

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Empire Cinema Teacher Input

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Synagogue Teacher Input

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In total 247 young Lutonians engaged in the project viewing the videos and working with the teaching staff, the children reviewed the research information to learn about the different aspects of the history of 116 Bury Park Road, developing a series of class-based projects.

Comments from the teaching staff included:

  • “We are aware that children know more about TV personalities than their local area and this project certainly confirmed that…”
  • “From a teacher view, I like how the past was brought to life and a lovely building was given a chance to shine again…”
  • “Seeing how little the children knew about an area so close to us made me realise just how important local history and geography teaching is…”
  • “Working together with Cultural Histories  meant we could use authentic, firsthand resources…”
  • “For instance, authentic stories from Mrs Scott’s childhood helped children to compare their own life to times 100 years ago…”
  • “The project helped my pupils develop their self-awareness further…”
  • “This project also highlighted an alarming issue that some children were unaware that they live in a town called Luton. One thing I take away from the project is that as teachers we should teach topics connected to our neighbourhood or town as much as possible…”
  • “The Cultural Histories Project links the individual into the community, strengthening both the community and the individual as part of the community – the more they know about their town, the more they belong and the more they appreciate it…”

Personal Stories (Recorded Interviews)

We have recorded interviews from:

  • Eddie Grabham, the author of ‘Grand to Grove’ the authoritative historical work on theatres and cinemas in Luton and Bedfordshire, who talks about the history of the Empire Cinema,
  • Ros Scott, a Luton centenarian, who went to the Empire Cinema in the1930s and shares her experiences,
  • Sid Rutstein an Elder from the local Jewish Community, describes how the building was adapted and explains some of the Jewish traditions and religious practices, and
  • Mahmood Shah ‘Mumzy’ a community outreach worker at the Islamic Centre, takes you on a virtual tour of the building, describes Islamic traditions and practices and how the centre works with the wider Luton communities.