Family history

Walter Steel (b1890), known to family and friends as ‘Robert’, was an architect who, by 1919, was a partner in the Luton architect and surveyor’s firm of Manning and Steel. The firm made a significant contribution to the rapid development and expansion of Luton after World War I, notably the areas around and towards Warden Hill, Old Bedford Road and Stopsley, but also had large commercial customers, such as Electrolux, which still has its headquarters in the town. Robert, together with his business partner, Frederick J. Manning, and local businessman, Arthur J. Powdrill, purchased land together in the 1920s and 1930s, and it was through this connection that he met his future wife, Marjorie Powdrill (b1904), Arthur’s only daughter.

photo from the Steel archive

Marjorie’s grandfather, George Powdrill, set up what became a well-known family business – G. Powdrill & Sons Ltd – when he moved to Luton from Leicestershire. His obituary in the Luton News of 1918 demonstrates a certain flair for opportunity and innovation. When George died, Marjorie’s father and uncle took over the family business with Arthur taking responsibility for the management of 2,000 acres of farmland. He became a respected figure and philanthropist in the town.

Robert and Marjorie were married in St Mary’s Church in the town centre on 12th April 1924. The county records show that Marjorie lived at 16 Crescent Road, presumably with her parents, and Robert lived at 7 Church Street, which is likely to have become the couple’s first home.

Church Street is only a stone’s throw from Luton’s hat district, which would have been thriving in the 1920s. There is very little housing on Church Street these days except for these flats, built in 2017. Church Street has become one of the main trunk roads through the town centre and is now laid out mainly to car parking. In 1927, Robert designed and built his own house on Old Bedford Road – at that time, on the outer edges of the Luton borough – and lived there, with Marjorie, until his death in 1983.

G. Powdrill & Sons Ltd. was finally dissolved in 2017, over 110 years after it was first incorporated. Hints of it still remain, however, as seen on this building in Hitchin Road, built in the year George’s grand-daughter, Marjorie, was born.

Marjorie Steel outlived her husband by 16 years and saw the Trust’s grant-giving come to fruition. Here she is in 1995 at the signing ceremony for the 20-year endowment of the (then) University of Luton’s inaugural Powdrill Chair in English Language Acquisition. She died in 1999.

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