EMIAC 95: Keeping One in Suspenders!

Market Harborough, 6th October 2018

Conference Details


First mentioned in the 12th Century with its name derived from Haver Burgh (oat hill), it could be described as a medieval new town with a wide High Street and wide open town square to contain the regular markets and The Old Grammar School (1614) which has become a symbol of the town. During the English Civil War the town was plundered by Prince Rupert and in 1645 Charles I made the town his headquarters before the Battle of Naseby.

As the road system improved with the introduction of turnpiking, the town prospered as an important horse-interchange point and many coaching inns were established. Twenty six coaches a day and many wagons passed through the Angel Hotel alone and, in its heyday, there was accommodation for 90 horses, more than any other place in Leicestershire. The town was linked to the canal network in 1809 and by 1850 the railway from Rugby had opened, followed by connections to main towns in the East Midlands.

Our EMIAC day will look at the industries which flourished in Market Harborough, the restoration of The Old Grammar School and the canal system which linked the town before the railways to the rest of Britain.


Organised by Leicestershire Industrial History Society and held on Saturday, 6th October 2018 in Market Harborough.

The conference programme:

09:00 Registration and coffee

09:30 Welcome

09:35 Market Harborough: The industries of a market town.

10:30 The Symington Brothers 'From Soup to Suspenders'

11:15 Break

11:45 Rebuilding the Old Grammar School

12:45 EMIAC Business Meeting

13:00 Lunch

14:00 Foxton Lock and the Harborough Arm

14:45 Afternoon tours:

either 1. A walking tour round the centre of Market Harborough to view various industrial buildings. The walk is approximately 2 miles and lasts about 1½ hours.

or     2. Foxton Locks. Drive approx. 5 miles to Foxton locks car park in own car (car park charges apply) to view locks, former incline plane and museum (entrance fee not included). The lock gates have recently been replaced and this is an opportunity to see the restoration.

or     3. Visit the Market Harborough Museum located in the Old Symington Corset factory (within walking distance). The museum celebrates Market Harborough’s long history as a centre of trade and industry in the heart of the Welland Valley at the crossroads between Leicestershire and Northamptonshire. It also houses the famous Hallaton Treasure, one of the most important iron age discoveries in Britain. Admission to the Museum is free.

16:30 Close of conference.

back to the top

The Old Grammar School, Market Harborough
The Old Grammar School, Market Harborough.

Image courtesy of the Leicestershire Industrial History Society.

Conference Report

Rosalind Willatts

In the middle of the 19th century Market Harborough was a prosperous market town surrounded by large farms and estates.

Leading off the High Street can be seen many passage ways that lead to yards where artisans once had their workshops. The arrival of the canal in 1809 opened up transport links to the town; the town's wharf became a distribution centre for coal and timber.

The British Glue and Chemical Works developed by the wharf at Gallow Hill and became a supplier of gelatine to the Symington food factory. Local red bricks were produced by the brick works; when these closed the tallow factory moved in from the town.

John Clarke & Sons of London built a factory, on the site of the present-day Eden Court shops and flats, in Adam and Eve Street for spinning worsted and later making carpets. Across the road could be found Thomas Cook, a wood turner and cabinet maker. In 1841 Cook organised the first group travel by rail from Leicester to Loughborough and went on to found the travel company bearing his name.

In the 1890s the Harborough Rubber Company was established to make rubber mouldings for the shoe industry; it still survives supplying a whole range of industries. George Loom started his manufactory for heels and boot studs. A tannery was built adjacent to the Commons; this was demolished in 1965.

Walter Haddon opened the Caxton Works type foundry in Larkhill Street in 1898. He was the leading advocate for the adoption of the American point system in England and saw its progressive introduction. After the Great War the company diversified into the manufacture of lead-acid batteries changing its name to Tungstone Products. The factory closed in 2002.

back to the top

Mike Stroud

William Symington left the family home in Lanarkshire in 1827 for Market Harborough, where he began a small but very successful tea, coffee and grocery warehouse and shop. In 1832 he bought some land in Little Bowden where he built a small food factory. One of his successes was the creation of pea flour which could easily be made into soup by adding boiled water.

Pea flour became very popular with the military, particularly during the Crimean War, as well as with the domestic market. It even went with Scott to the Antarctic.

On William's death, son Samuel took over and Symingtons went on to develop a range of products – such as gravy powder, custard powder, blancmange powder, table jellies, some of which are still available today. Under the stewardship of Samuel's son Howard Watson, Symingtons became a major brand name. In 1960 with fifth generation Michael at the helm, the business focus changed to producing 'Own Label brands' for supermarkets. Today it supplies all the major players.

William's brother James was aged 19 years when he left home in about 1830. He began a small business as a tailor, hatter and woollen draper and opened a shop next door to William's. Stay-maker Mrs Gold and her daughter Sarah moved to the town from Warwick and took over William's empty shop.

No doubt there was an overlap of both James' and Sarah's business interests and sometime around 1835 they married. Sarah's skills were added to the Symington business and in 1850 James leased a small cottage in a yard behind the High Street to set up a workshop for Sarah. Here they employed three assistants. As the business grew James leased new premises in the High Street.

Their eldest son Robert travelled to America in 1855 in search of business where he met Isaac Merrit Singer who had patented his sewing machine. He bought three for Sarah's workshop, which became the first mechanised corset factory in England.

The business passed to Robert and his younger brother William Henry. In 1861 they took over part of a disused carpet factory in Adam and Eve Street. Using modern production methods, they supplied some of the leading wholesalers in the country. Steam power replaced foot treadles and more staff employed as the business grew. By 1876 they were able to buy all of the factory building, to which the added three extra floors in 1881, and then built a new factory across the road. Soon factories were appearing in other towns.

In September 1898 the business became a public company and R & WH Symington & Co., Ltd. came into being. The family's influence in the company diminished in 1967 when the Courtaulds Group took over the company. The company continued to produce underwear and swimwear in part of the factory until it finally closed in 1990.

back to the top

Bryan Martin

The Old Grammar School, which remained in use as a school until 1908, celebrated its 400th anniversary in 2014 and to mark the event a programme of restoration had been planned. From 1910, the Old Grammar School was managed by the Market Harborough Exhibition Foundation, which was acquired by Market Harborough and The Bowdens Charity in 2005.

A Victorian refurbishment had been undertaken in 1868. English Heritage listed the building as Grade I in 1952 and in the 1970s a local contractor had attempted some restorative work. Following a full structural survey in 2012, local building contractor WW Brown and Sons were awarded the contract for the restoration; in turn they called in a number of local specialist sub-contractors.

Bryan illustrated many of the faults that had been found during his survey – some introduced by the Victorians and some by the work carried out in the 1970s: roof slates and ridge tiles badly fitted; the bell tower full of pigeon droppings and its cladding wrongly fitted; upright timbers not braced; Victorian repairs to the timber frame were faulty with butt joints and render between the timbers; oak roof timbers replaced by softwood; many glass panels cracked due to poor frames; and so on.

There had been much debate as to the baseline for this restoration. Although the Victorians had added their own embellishments, it was decided to make that the baseline as contemporary images were available and English Heritage had included the Victorian changes in their description.

Bryan concluded his presentation with images of the restoration and details of how the many faults were rectified.

back to the top

Mike Beech

Mike gave an illustrated history of Foxton locks. Since EMIAC's last visit in 2007 the arm to the inclined plane has been put back into water.

The Leicestershire & Northamptonshire Union Canal was promoted to link the Soar Navigation near Leicester to the River Nene at Northampton and thence via the planned branch to the Grand Junction Canal (GJC) at Gayton. But by 1797 construction had only reached Gumley Debdale.

Faced with the problem of crossing the Welland valley and with the GJC being built, James Barnes was asked in 1799 to survey a route to meet the GJC at Braunston. He later revised the route to meet the GJC at Norton via Market Harborough. But it had only reached Market Harborough by 1809. The GJC from London to Braunston had opened four years earlier. Barnes and Thomas Telford revised their plans to take a line from Foxton to Norton, which opened in 1814 and provided a direct route from the East Midlands coalfield to London.

The new canal climbed out of Foxton through ten locks to its 22-mile summit level and then descended through seven locks at Watford. Although the tunnels were wide enough to allow narrow boats to pass, both sets of narrow locks were a bottle-neck to the flow of commercial traffic. With increasing competition from the London and Birmingham Railway opened in 1838, the canal company sought ways to speed up the flow of traffic.

Plans for an inclined plane at Foxton to bypass the locks were approved in 1897. Opened in 1900, the 75 ft-high lift comprised two counterbalanced caissons each capable of holding two narrow boats or one wide-beam barge. A 25hp steam engine could raise or lower the caissons in 12 minutes compared with the 70 minutes to pass through the locks.

Rather than build a second inclined plane, it was planned to widen the locks at Watford – but that never happened. Coal traffic continued to decline resulting in the closure of the lift in 1911. It was dismantled in 1926 for its scrap value.

back to the top

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.

back to the top

Images taken during the visit

Joules Yard is typical of the many yards that were once home to local industries
Joules Yard is typical of the many yards that were once home to local industries.
Former workshops of Aldwinkle Yard are now private accommodation
Former workshops of Aldwinkle Yard are now private accommodation.
The former Symington's corset factory
The former Symington's corset factory.
The River Welland is now a shadow of its former self
The River Welland is now a shadow of its former self. Beyond the footbridge can be seen the remains of wooden quays.
The green plaque to Sir William H Bragg who, with his son, shared a Nobel Prize for Physics in 1915.
The green plaque to Sir William H Bragg who, with his son, shared a Nobel Prize for Physics in 1915
A wasp-waist corset made from khaki coutil from c.1890
A wasp-waist corset made from khaki coutil c.1890.
This corset from c.1900 has lacing down both sides and the back and fitted with 28 strips of whalebone. It was patented as having advantages for riding and golfing.
This corset from c.1900 has lacing down both sides and the back and fitted with 28 strips of whalebone. It was patented as having advantages for riding and golfing.

Images courtesy of Terry and Jane Waterfield taken during the visit.

back to the top

Comodo SSL

Contact NIAG

About NIAG

Privacy Notice


©Northamptonshire Industrial Archaeology Group 2010–2024