The Victorians were as keen on pulling down old buildings as they were on putting up new ones so there is little of industrial Leicester that predates the middle of the 19th century. After sympathetic refurbishment the 1840s Pex building (sock manufacture) survives as the Land Registry, but Friars Mills (also known as Donisthorpe Mills), which dates from c.1800 suffered a terrible fire in 2012 and awaits redevelopment. On a smaller scale, on Darker Street, there are the last remaining ‘master’ hosier’s workshops, which are in a poor state of repair. Also notable from this period is Maker’s Yard, a very early factory (1850s) which has fared much better and now contains artist studios and a gallery.
The most exuberant building of the late 19th century isn’t a factory but a warehouse that was used for boot laces! Alexandra House (1897) has been converted to flats but was home to Jumbo bootlaces, among other brands, which explains the elephant heads on the building. The area around Alexandra House – the Cultural Quarter – was full of warehouses and several narrow streets create the canyon effect common to other warehouse areas in cities such as Manchester or Bradford.
The Luke Turner & Co elastic webbing factory on Deacon Street (1893) has an iron-frame construction but the nearby Harrison and Hayes hosiery factory (1913) points the way to the more typical one and two storey buildings of the coming century. The late 19th century also saw a number of good buildings in the area developed by Arthur Wakerley in North Evington, many of which are still industrial units.
Moving into the 20th century, large factories were built both centrally and in the suburbs. Companies such as Corah and the British United Shoe Machinery Company employed thousands of people in huge buildings. In the 1920s and 1930s firms such as John Bull/Dunlop opened large factories in the suburbs (Evington Valley Road) where smaller businesses also thrived.
The Pfister and Vogel building (1923) on Rutland Street is an architectural oddity for Leicester as there is nothing else like it. Originally built for leather importers it has now been converted into flats. Industrial Art Deco is best represented by the Berkley Burke Building (formally Goddard's Plate Powder and Polish Co. factory) on Nelson Street (1932), which is used as offices to this day.
After the Second World War companies started to move out of the city due to inner city slum clearance and government relocation policy. Industrial estates such as that at Barkby grew on the fringes of Leicester and eventually areas such as Troon and Braunstone became better known than the city centre for industry. Companies such as Walkers, Fox’s, and Everards are all based outside of the city centre. Good modern industrial architecture is found in small scale buildings such as those built for Artisan Press (1980) or the Monarch Knitting Machinery (UK) Ltd (1982) at Beaumont Leys. However, it is perhaps telling that there are no recent industrial buildings of note in Leicester.
For a further explanation idea of how industrial buildings fit into the overall story of architecture in Leicester have a look at the book ‘The Quality of Leicester’ Leicester City Council, 2nd ed, 1997.
Using the link below you can view a wide variety of images to do with Leicester's industrial past:
The fates of old industrial buildings are varied and the following examples illustrate some of the uses they are now put to.
Frisby Jarvis, Frog Island. A hosiery factory that was still being used when it burnt down in 2005. The open area became a car wash and at the time of writing awaits redevelopment. A spate of fires in the neighbourhood saw another three or four factories severely damaged and only Friars Mills looks likely to be restored.
The Liberty Building. Although the statue of Liberty survives, the building (which was arguably more important than the statue) was demolished and replaced with a similar looking, but blander, block of flats for students. The list of demolished buildings in Leicester is a long one and includes the castle-like Archibald Turner ‘Bow Bridge’ works by West Bridge, and the art deco influenced Kirby and West building on Western Boulevard.
Alexandra House in the Cultural Quarter has been turned into flats. This is another common fate for industrial buildings and although the façade of the building usually remains – and Alexandra House has one of the best anywhere – the interior is changed beyond recognition. Many of the buildings in the Cultural Quarter have become flats and this has been repeated across the city.
Once a huge shoe factory, 106 East Park Road is now the Guru Teg Bahadur Gurdwara. Many buildings of all sorts have been turned into temples, gurdwaras, mosques and madrassas.
The former Imperial Typewriters building on East Park Road is a good example of an industrial building that is still used for making things. Although the building has been broken down into smaller units, the manufacturing past of Leicester continues into the present. The giant former Corah complex on Burleys Way also houses smaller businesses, while Makers Yard on Rutland Street is an example of a smaller factory that has been converted into workshops for artists.