A large crowd gathered here in Church Street when war with Germany was declared in August 1914. They watched as Dunstable's volunteer soldiers made their way to this building to assemble and await orders. It had been the town's drill hall and armoury since 1890.
The volunteers had left their work to put on uniforms when the war began. The town's post office remained open all night to receive telegrams for reservists and all leave was cancelled for police and railway employees. Dunstable's soldiers left the town by train the next morning.
The drill hall, which still bears the date 1872 on its frontage, may have been built originally as a warehouse or a workshop by Mr William Milligan. He also owned the Crown hat factory in High Street North. His son wanted to be a clergyman rather than go into the family business and by the late 1870s the Church Street building was a boot and shoe factory owned by James Billington.
In 1885 the newly formed Salvation Army came to Dunstable and took over the building, calling it the Assembly Rooms. Their first meeting was led by a young, female evangelist named Captain Selby who gathered her first congregation by singing a hymn, accompanied by her tambourine, underneath the central street-lamp at Dunstable crossroads. A crowd collected, joined in the hymn, and then followed her to the Church Street rooms. The congregation became too big for the hall and services spilled out on to the road.
The Rooms became the venue for a mixture of straw plaiting and hymn singing during weekdays, but the Sunday services continued to outgrow the Church Street premises. There were disturbances outside when other locals arrived to complain about the noise.
The Salvationists found other premises in Market Hill, close to the Nag's Head, and moved out in around May 1888.
The building was then converted into a drill hall. A Grand Supper was held in March 1890 to mark its opening.
A well-known antiques dealer, William Rixson, bought the hall in the 1930s as an addition to his other premises further down the road. Part of the building was used as a base for the Home Guard during the Second World War.
The hall's battements provided the inspiration for the name of a new shop, the Book Castle, which was opened by Mr Paul Bowes in February 1980. He not only sold books - he also published them – and created a treasure trove of knowledge about the area. Over 100 different volumes about local history were issued by the Book Castle before it closed in 2011.
The building was then substantially renovated to create the Leveloff grocery business.
Text: John Buckledee of Dunstable and District Local History Society. ©
Design: David Turner.
Narration: Katy Elliott of Dunstable Repertory Company.
Recording: David Hornsey.
Website developer: Joshua Buckledee.