Dunstable before the bulldozers

Yesteryear last week mentioned the old drill hall in High Street North, Dunstable, which stood facing the road on approximately the same site as today’s Tesco store and petrol station.

Tuesday, 1st January 2013, 2:01 pm

Photos of the hall are scarce, but here is one taken from the air in 1957. It’s towards the left of the picture, quite close to Tavistock Street.

The hall was not just a centre for military training. It also served as a dance hall. Many locals still remember the venue’s Saturday night waltzes and foxtrots.

The tall building on the right of the photo, facing Chiltern Road, is much more recognisable, having been the feature of many old pictures and postcards. This is Tower House, home of John Dales who made his fortune by making Dales Dubbin, a famous water-proofing material used by Antarctic explorers, Himalayan climbers and millions of more-ordinary hikers. The tins of dubbin were manufactured in a collection of buildings at the back of Tavistock Street.

The mansion next to Tower House was the home of Admiral Sir Lionel Preston, the Fourth Sea Lord, who came to live in Dunstable on his retirement in 1935.

Sir Lionel, who joined the navy as a cadet in 1888, saw service as First Lieutenant of HMS Rosario during the Boxer Rebellion in China. He earned promotion to Commander for his special seamanship in 1907 when his ship daringly rescued most of the crew of HMS Bruiser, which was rapidly sinking in heavy weather off the coast of Malta.

He was promoted to Captain in 1914 and earned fame that year for an incident off Scarborough when trawlers strayed into a German minefield. He bravely sailed into the middle of the area to give assistance and anchored between damaged trawlers and the floating mines until he managed to destroy the explosives.

He became Director of the Admiralty’s Mine Sweeping Division in 1917 and was in charge of clearing mines in British areas after the war.

In 1923 he was given command of H.M.S. Eagle, the first through-deck aircraft carrier to join the Royal Navy. He was made Rear-Admiral in 1925.

When the Second World War broke out he was recalled to service in as Adviser on Mine Sweeping. He was also Director of the Small Vessels Pool between 1940 and 1945, and thus took responsibility for providing the small craft which famously took part in the evacuation from Dunkirk.

After the war Sir Lionel lived quietly in retirement in Dunstable until his death in 1971, but he has left a significant legacy in the town. In 1942 he purchased the old windmill in West Street so that it could become the headquarters for Dunstable Sea Cadets.

The mill remains a hive of activity, appropriately named TS (Training Ship) Lionel Preston.