• One of the earliest factories in Leicester
  • Once run by the inventor of the first successful wool-combing machine
  • Friars Mill got their name from the site which had once been a Dominican Priory (the Black Friars)

The Mill on the Soar

An important link to Leicester’s textile heritage

Friars Mill refers to a cluster of industrial buildings (some now demolished) that form an important link to Leicester´s textile heritage. They get their name from the site which between the 13th and 16th Centuries had been a Dominican Priory (the Black Friars). The main surviving building, Friars Mill, dates from around 1794 and is one of the earliest factories in Leicester. The others include the Boiler House, Pump House, Bath Lane Mill and Cottages buildings. The Pump House is also known as Sarah´s Engine House, named, it is said, after the wife of the mill owner A.R. Donisthorpe, who bought it in 1866.

How a canal and a railway helped Leicester to grow

In the 1790s the building of the Leicester Navigation canal improved trade and meant raw materials and finished goods could be transported more cheaply. Before long, factories and wharves started being built around it. Then, in 1832, the Leicester-Swannington railway opened opposite Friars Mill, linking Leicester directly to the coalfield of North- West Leicestershire. 

A centre for the worsted spinning industry

From the 1820s, this part of Leicester developed into a centre for the worsted spinning industry. The processes housed in the early mill buildings are believed to have included wool preparation - carding and combing - and spinning, the final product being prepared for framework knitting. The main mill building is thought to date to the period 1794-1820, and whilst the initial processes contained within the building may have been hand-operated, the subsequent adaptation and enlargement of the main mill and later extensions and additions were related to powered processes. It is not certain when steam power was first used on the site, but the surviving engine house is thought to date from the 1860s.

Fishing for coal off West Bridge Sidings

Donisthorpe & Co.

Donisthorpe & Co., a textile company, started in 1739. George Edmund Donisthorpe was the inventor of the first successful wool-combing machine and it was his and James Noble’s ‘The Noble Comb’ that revolutionised combing in the 1850s. Wool combing is the preliminary process to worsted spinning, and worsted fabric is processed from longer, finer wood fibres to give a more durable fabric that doesn’t crease as much as woollen fabric. Recognising the potential of the Friars Mills site, Donisthorpe & Co. moved here in the 1860s and by 1938 was describing itself as “suppliers of Hand Knitting Wools and Cotton Yarns to Central Europe and Scandinavia for over 100 years”. Its Ibex trademark was well known.

Friars Mill site circa 1950s. Leicestershire Record Office

A new lease of life for a historic site

From the mid-20th Century, all branches of the English textile industry were in decline, and by the end of the century, the site had been closed with many of the smaller ancillary buildings having already been demolished. Donisthorpe & Co. was bought by a French textile group in 1988 but the buildings were up for sale when a major fire in 2012 led to the City Council stepping in to save these historic buildings. Following refurbishment, they now contain workspace units.

Gallery

Roman Leicester

(47- 500) A military fort was erected, attracting traders and a growing civilian community to Leicester (known as Ratae Corieltauvorum to the Romans). The town steadily grew throughout the reign of the Romans.

Medieval Leicester

(500 – 1500) The early years of this period was one of unrest with Saxon, Danes and Norman invaders having their influences over the town. Later, of course, came Richard III and the final battle of the Wars of the Roses was fought on Leicester’s doorstep.

Tudor & Stuart Leicester

(1500 – 1700) The wool trade flourished in Leicester with one local, a former mayor named William Wigston, making his fortune. During the English Civil War a bloody battle was fought as the forces of King Charles I laid siege to the town.

Georgian Leicester

(1700 – 1837) The knitting industry had really stared to take hold and Leicester was fast becoming the main centre of hosiery manufacture in Britain. This new prosperity was reflected throughout the town with broader, paved streets lined with elegant brick buildings and genteel residences.

Edwardian Leicester

(1901 – 1910) Electric trams came to the streets of Leicester and increased literacy among the citizens led to many becoming politicised. The famous 1905 ‘March of the Unemployed to London’ left from Leicester market when 30,000 people came to witness the historic event.

Early 20th Century Leicester

(1910 – 1973) The diverse industrial base meant Leicester was able to cope with the economic challenges of the 1920s and 1930s. New light engineering businesses, such as typewriter and scientific instrument making, complemented the more traditional industries of hosiery and footwear manufacturing.

Modern Leicester

(1973 – present day) Industry was still thriving in the city during the 1970s, with the work opportunities attracting many immigrants from all over the world. While industry has declined in recent years, excellent transport links have made Leicester an attractive centre for many businesses. The City now has much to be proud of including its sporting achievements and the richness of its cultural heritage and diversity.

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