People and Community

British United Shoe Machinery Company building shown here in 1965 when the company was Leicester's largest employer

British United Shoe Machinery Company building shown here in 1965 when the company was Leicester's largest employer

Thanks to its diverse industries, for many years Leicester was renowned as a prosperous city where there was work for both men and women. The fact that so many women worked gave Leicester and the other towns of the East Midlands a distinctive flavour. Sometimes the whole family took part: in the early 19th century ‘almost all the children of framework-knitters and many whose parents were not in the industry were employed in some branch or other of the hosiery trade’.

The poor conditions faced by framework knitters in the 1840s were highlighted in the Royal Commission of 1844 and large factories came late to Leicester as much work was done at home. For the hosiery industry the move into factories was accelerated after the 1870s by technological change and the passing of various Acts, in particular the abolition of frame rents in 1875. Leicester’s industries gradually moved out from homes and workshops and by the end of the 19th century many factories were established across the city.

Chimneys small and large from homes and factories alike belching out smog over South Leicester - looking towards the location of the King Power Stadium

Chimneys small and large from homes and factories alike belching out smog over South Leicester - looking towards the location of the King Power Stadium

Legislation that improved the lot of the working person (shorter working hours, paid holidays, pensions etc.), meant that the conditions people worked under slowly changed for the better. From the mid-19th century onwards housing was built to accommodate the influx of workers from outside the city and communities of people who lived in terraced housing near places of work formed. These communities were self-contained and comprised houses, schools, shops, religious buildings, factories, parks etc. While much of the housing from after 1875 remains, a lot of older housing has gone and the industry that fed the people in these communities has relocated away from the inner city areas.

While work provided a chance to earn money it also created a social life of its own, particularly at larger firms such as Corah, Wolsey, and the British United Shoe Machinery Company. These companies were like small villages and had hundreds or thousands of employees. Sports and social clubs were formed and, for those who wanted to, the factory could provide a social life as well as a working life.

The social life of the factory

If you lived near a factory – and many people in central Leicester did – the sight, smell and sound of the factory was always present. The average day would be punctuated by factory hooters and sirens announcing the start and end of shifts; chimneys belched out soot and dirt that would pollute the air; huge industrial buildings overshadowed the smaller terraced houses.

The factory and the community

However, each chimney represented work. Extended families sometimes worked at the same factory, or parents worked in different trades ensuring that when one industry was in a slump, money could be earned in another. The work itself could be boring and repetitive, it might be dangerous, but for many it was a skilled profession and a source of pride. Of course, not all work was done in factories and some parents forbade their children from getting a job in a factory. For some people office work was seen as a better, cleaner option.

The manufacturing floor of the Henderson Shoe factory in 1980

The manufacturing floor of the Henderson Shoe factory in 1980

Since the 1950s there have been many people who have migrated into the city from both outside and inside the UK. These migrant groups have provided not only many workers in local industry and business, but many owners of businesses as well.

The Wolsey factory chimney standing proudly after most of the factory itself had been demolished

The Wolsey factory chimney standing proudly after most of the factory itself had been demolished

To give an idea of how the decline in manufacturing has altered the work patterns of Leicester we can look at the statistics. In 1951, 102,111 men and 64,996 women over the age of 15 were working in Leicester, and 10,509 men and 20,698 women worked in textiles alone. By 1987 there was a total of 19,700 people working in textiles (men and women over the age of 16). By 2011 the total for all manufacturing in the city was 20,584. This story of de-industrialisation isn't unique to Leicester but its impact on a city once ranked as one of the most prosperous in Europe has been dramatic.

Workers protesting against racism outside the Imperial Typewriters factory in 1974

Workers protesting against racism outside the Imperial Typewriters factory in 1974

Sources:

British History Online

Census 1951, England and Wales: Industry Tables (London, HMSO, 1957), pp. 48-50.

Key facts about Leicester (Leicester, Leicester City Council, 1988)

 2011 Census, Key Statistics for Local Authorities in England and Wales


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