EMIAC 85: Manufacturing - Past, Present and Future

Unversity of Leicester, 27th April 2013

Conference Details


Leicester is an ancient city, still possessing remnants of its Roman Wall and other buildings. It has been associated with the manufacture of hosiery since the seventeenth century but shoemaking, engineering, printing and many associated industries, developed during the nineteenth century, turned Leicester into an important industrial centre producing a wide range of products.

The decline of many of the firms involved during the second half of the twentieth century changed the nature of the city. In this day conference we will explore Leicester's manufacturing heritage, its place in regeneration and the future of industry in the city. Attendees will be invited to share their own knowledge and experiences. And we will make use of the University of Leicester’s Manufacturing Pasts project, whose aim is to make available to everyone visual and documentary sources related to Leicester's rich industrial past.


Organised by the Leicestershire Industrial History Society, The David Wilson Library and the Centre for Urban History, University of Leicester and held on Saturday 27th April 2013 at the Unversity of Leicester.

The conference programme:

09:30 Registration with tea/coffee

10:00 Welcome and Introduction

10:15 Industrial development in Leicester during the 19th century

11:00 Coffee break

11:30 Industrial decline and economic regeneration: Leicester 1945-2000

12:45 Emiac Business Meeting

13:00 Lunch

14:00 Manufacturing Pasts: the resources

15:00 The future of manufacturing in Leicester

15:45 Conclusion

16:00 Tea and departure

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Benjamin Russell & Sons Ltd., c.1960
Benjamin Russell & Sons Ltd., c.1960.
Donisthorpe/Friars Mill from across the canal c.2002
Donisthorpe/Friars Mill from across the canal c.2002.
Wand Street, Leicester c.2000
Wand Street, Leicester c.2000.

Images courtesy of LIHS and University of Leicester.

Conference Report

Emeritus Prof. Marilyn Palmer

The city of Leicester has owed much of its prosperity to the hosiery trade since the 17th century. By the end of the 18th century there 70 hosiers and 3,00 knitting frames. Framework knitting was considered to be a family concern and, because it threatened their independence, the framework knitters always resisted the move to a factory system. Even when frames were standing idle, the hosiers refused to modernise.

The footwear trade had increased by the end of the 19th century; the arrival of the mechanical rivetter heralded further expansion and Leicester once had the largest shoe factory in the world.

Many of the best surviving buildings were used as warehouses for both the hosiery and shoe industries.

Small engineering workshops sprung up from the need to repair the knitting frames; these in turn led to the design and manufacture of parts for the frames. Similar requirements existed for the shoe industry; the rapid growth of the industry led to the formation of companies specialising in shoe machinery.

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Prof. Simon Gunn

Whilst much is known about economic history in the post war years, little, if anything, is known about the social history. Having emerged from the war as an industrial nation, no one expected the decline that was to come. In Leicester 42% of the working population in 1955 were employed in three industries: hosiery, boot and shoe and engineering. By the 1980s employment in these industries had fallen to 20%; yet, contrary to all expectations, no other significant industries emerged to take their place.

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Colin Hyde

Using extracts from the Oral History archive, Colin looked at the breakdown of the community during the second half of the twentieth century. Where once there had been a well-knit community of houses, factories and workshops, the slum clearance programmes of the 1980s resulted in factories and houses being relocated to different areas thereby breaking-up the community.

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Dr Rebecca Madgin

From a study of planning applications, Madgin demonstrated there had been policy of maintaining the industrial buildings. During the 1980s the more attractive buildings were sub-divided to accommodate smaller businesses. Only during the late 90s was consideration given to a change of use to provide office accommodation. It was not until the twenty-first century that saw changes of use agreed to provide housing, cultural and creative spaces. As illustration, she looked at three premises in Rutland Street.

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Tania Rowlett

Manufacturing Pasts, a JISC funded project, created digital resources for those interested in British industrial history during the second half of the twentieth century. The website created by this project provides a range of open educational resources (OERs) and associated digitized historical sources.


As a copyright specialist, Tania's role was to obtain the necessary copyright clearance for all of the material used. More than 300 items had been digitised from 17 different types of material. Her presentation included examples from each of the four main themes chosen for the project.

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Terese Bird

An education specialist, Terese described the technical challenges in digitising the material and making it available both online and on mobile devices.

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Sir Peter Soulsby, Mayor of Lecester

Although Leicester has lost many of its large factories, the manufacturing sector still provides employment for 1 in 7 of the working population, which is above the average for the UK. Some of the old skills still survive but are to be found in smaller work units - sometimes in the older buildings. Sir Peter gave examples of buildings which have been saved from demolition, such as Donisthorpe Mill which was ravaged by fire in 2012.

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Additional material

The following websites provide additional background to the papers presented:

Please note: Although checked at the time of writing, NIAG cannot be held responsible for the validity of these links or the integrity of these sites.

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Images taken during the visit

This conference did not organise any walks or visits.

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