By Tim Lambert
Leicester probably started as a Celtic settlement. It was the capital of the local Celtic tribe, the Corieltauvi. The Romans invaded Britain in 43 AD and they captured Leicestershire by 47 AD. The Romans built a fort at Leicester in 48 AD. The Celtic settlement nearby prospered as the Roman soldiers provided a market for goods made in the town. About 80 AD the Roman army moved on but the nearby town thrived.
The streets of Roman Leicester were changed to a grid pattern with a space left in the center for a marketplace called a Forum. The Forum was lined with shops and had a kind of town hall called a basilica. Many of the townspeople rebuilt their houses in stone with tiled roofs. The Romans also dug drains under the streets of Leicester (or Ratae Coritanorum as they called it). They also built public baths on the site of the Jewry Wall museum.
There were several temples in Roman Leicester. One, which stood in St Nicholas Circle, was dedicated to the Persian god Mithras. Roman Leicester continued to grow and prosper in the 3rd century and suburbs grew up outside the walls. Roman Leicester reached a peak in the early 4th century and then began to decline. Roman civilization slowly broke down. The last Roman soldiers left Britain in 407. Afterward, Roman towns like Leicester fell into ruins.
After the Romans left Leicester was probably abandoned. There may have been some people living within the walls and farming the land outside but it ceased to be a town. However, in the late 7th century town life began to revive in England. Leicester was given a bishop. By the 9th century, Leicester was a thriving town again.
However, Anglo-Saxon Leicester was crude compared with the Roman town. There were no fine stone buildings only wood huts with thatched roofs. In Leicester, women wove cloth while there were craftsmen such as potters, blacksmiths, and carpenters. There were also men who made things like combs from bones.
In the 9th century, the Danes invaded England and by 877 they captured Leicester. In 918 the English recaptured the town but the short period of Danish rule left the area with many Danish place names. In the 10th century, Leicester had a mint so it was quite an important town.
Leicester in the Middle Ages
At the time of the Domesday Book (1086), Leicester probably had a population of around 1,500. It would seem tiny to us but towns were very small in those days. The Normans built a wooden castle within the town walls. In the early 12th century it was rebuilt in stone.
Leicester was ruled by an Earl. However, the Earl appointed a steward to run the town day to day. By law all grain had to be ground to flour in mills owned by the Earl and all bakers had to bake their bread in his ovens. The Earl also took fines for minor offenses such as baking underweight loaves. He also took the tolls from stallholders in the market.
The Earl caused the people of Leicester much suffering in 1173 when he rebelled against the king. The king’s men captured the town and burned part of it down. But Leicester soon recovered from this disaster.
In 1231 the Earl, Simon de Montfort (c. 1208-1265) banished all Jews from Leicester. He was killed at the Battle of Evesham in 1265.
The main industry in Medieval Leicester was making wool. First, the wool was woven into cloth. Then it was fulled. That means it was cleaned and thickened by being pounded in a mixture of water and clay. The wool was pounded by wooden hammers, which were worked by watermills. After the wool dried it was dyed.
Leather was also an important industry in Medieval Leicester and there were many tanners in the town. Furthermore, in Leicester, there was a weekly market and an annual fair. In the Middle Ages, a fair was like a market but it was held only once a year for a period of a few days. Leicester fair would attract buyers and sellers from all over the Midlands.
In the Middle Ages, the merchants in Leicester formed an organisation called a guild to safeguard their interests. Eventually, the Earl’s hold on the town weakened and the merchants began to run things. From 1464 Leicester had a corporation with a mayor.
Leicester Abbey was built in 1143. Furthermore, in the Middle Ages, the only hospitals were run by the church. In them, monks cared for the poor and the sick as best they could. In the Middle Ages, there were several hospitals in Leicester.
From the 13th century, there were also friars in Leicester. Friars were like monks but instead of withdrawing from the world, they went out to preach. Franciscan friars were called grey friars because of the color of their costumes. Their name lives on in the street name.
In the Middle Ages, a few people in Leicester had private wells but most took their water from public wells. (Cank Street is named after the Cank, a well that once existed there).
Leicester in the 16th century and 17th century
In 1500 Leicester probably had a population of about 3,000. However, like all Tudor towns, Leicester suffered from outbreaks of the plague. It struck in 1564, 1579, 1583, and 1593. Nevertheless, Leicester continued to grow despite periodic outbreaks of plague.
Henry VIII closed Leicester Abbey, the friaries, and the hospitals of St Leonard and St John. His son closed the merchants guild (The Tudors dislike guilds as they felt they restricted trade) and confiscated their property, including the Guildhall. In 1563 it was sold to the town council.
In 1545 a grammar school was founded in Leicester.
There were more outbreaks of plague in Leicester in 1604, 1606, 1610, 1625, 1636, and 1638. But the outbreak in 1638 was the last.
Then in 1642 came civil war between the king and parliament. The king’s army laid siege to Leicester in 1645. The royal army was made up of 5,500 men. Inside Leicester, there were only 2,000 defenders. Traitors left the town at night and revealed where there were weak spots in the walls. The royalists aimed their cannons at these spots and made breaches. The defenders tried to plug the gaps with sacks of wool but the royalist infantry attacked. They attempted to reach a breach in the wall near Newark 4 times but each time they were repulsed. The royalists then attacked a breach by the Eastgate. They caused the defenders to withdraw by throwing hand grenades at them. Then they swarmed through the breach. Soon Leicester was captured. The royalists then sacked the town killing many people.
However, their triumph was short-lived. The royalists were routed at the Battle of Naseby. The parliamentary army then laid siege to Leicester. The royalists had not had time to repair the breaches in the walls and they were soon forced to surrender. However, they were allowed to leave provided they left behind all their weapons. Afterward, the castle was destroyed to make sure it never fell into the royalist’s hands again.
Leicester soon recovered from the effects of the civil war and by 1670 it probably had a population of about 5,000.
At the end of the 17th century, a writer said that: ‘Leicester has four gates. The streets are fairly large and well made. There are 5 parishes. The marketplace is a large space, very handsome with a good market cross and town hall. The town’s buildings are of timber except one or two of brick.’
In 1612 a conduit was built to carry water from springs into Leicester. The name survives in Conduit Street. In 1681 Leicester purchased its first fire engine and in 1686 a scavenger was appointed to clean the main streets. Also in the late 17th century, a hosiery industry flourished in Leicester.
Leicester in the 18th century
By 1700 there were about 6,000 people in Leicester. The population rose to about 8,000 by 1730. Growth then stabilized till 1760 when it again began to grow rapidly, reaching 17,000 by 1800.
Meanwhile, in 1711 the land that had once belonged to the Grey friars was sold for building and by 1720 it was built up. New Road was built in 1737 and the Corn Exchange (where grain was bought and sold) in 1748.
In 1759 pumps were installed by public wells and Leicester Royal Infirmary opened in 1771. The town walls were removed in 1774 as improvements in artillery had made them obsolete. Then in 1785, the town council created a public walk, the New Walk.
In the late 18th century Leicester was transformed by the industrial revolution. The Soar Canal was completed in 1794 and it allowed an engineering industry to grow up by providing a cheap way of transporting coal and iron into Leicester. The shirt trade in Leicester began in 1796.
Leicester in the 19th century
In 1801 at the time of the first census, Leicester had a population of around 17,000. The town continued to grow rapidly. Houses were built outside Belgrave Gate in the 1820s. At the same time houses were built south of the town. Northampton Street, Conduit Street, and Prebend Street were built around 1830.
Between 1835 and 1860 St Margaret’s parish became built up. Houses were also built along the roads leading to the villages of Belgrave and Humberstone. Meanwhile, in 1835 the boundary of Leicester was extended to the West Bank of the Soar.
The population of Leicester rose to about 40,000 in 1841 and to 68,000 in 1861.
Amenities in Leicester improved during the 19th century. In 1821 Leicester obtained gas street lighting. Furthermore, by 1830 most of the streets were paved. Then in 1836 Leicester got its own police force.
In 1849 Leicester suffered an epidemic of cholera. Afterward, a Board of Health was formed. The Board built proper drains and sewers. In 1855 Leicester gained its first sewerage works. In 1853 it gained a piped water supply (although it was a long time before all houses were connected).
In 1882 Victoria Park opened. Abbey Park also opened in 1882 and Spinney Park followed in 1886.
The first public library in Leicester opened in 1871 and a new Town Hall was built in 1876. In 1881 the first telephone exchange opened in Granby Street and in 1894 some streets were lit by electricity for the first time. Silver Arcade was built in 1899.
New industries grew up in Leicester during the 19th century. Engineering flourished after the Britannia ironworks was opened in 1804. Much larger works, the Vulcan works opened in Welford Road in 1878. The Boot and shoemaking industry boomed. In 1831 there were only 425 boot and shoemakers in Leicester. By 1861 there were 2,741. The elastic web industry began in 1839 when a factory opened in Southgate.
In 1832 a railway was built from Leicester to Swannington. In 1840 another was built from Leicester to Rugby. In 1849 another line, to Burton opened. In 1857 a railway through Market Harborough to London was opened.
Leicester continued to spread rapidly into the surrounding countryside. From the mid 19th century onward houses were built east of the town in the area called Highfields. In the late 18th century a house called Stoneygate was built. By the mid 19th century a hamlet had grown up around it. By the 1880s the area had become a suburb of Leicester.
South Knighton also became built up in the 1880s.
Meanwhile, in 1885 an architect called Arthur Wakerley bought land at North Evington and then built houses and factories there. As Leicester grew it also absorbed other areas. In 1874 Belgrave was still separate but in that year a horse-drawn tram connected the two. As both Leicester and Belgrave grew the land separating them became built up. In 1879 Aylestone was connected to Leicester by horse-drawn trams and it too soon became built up.
Leicester in the 20th century
Leicester was described in a magazine in 1909: it is difficult to think of Leicester as a town of considerable industrial importance. The impression remains with one of a clear and sunny atmosphere with wide streets, clean brick buildings, and a constant background of green trees. The boot and hosiery factories appear to give out little or no smoke.
Leicester continued to grow rapidly during the 20th century. It was made a city in 1919. In 1927 Leicester was given a cathedral and a bishop and the boundaries of the city were extended in 1935.
Palace Theatre opened in 1901 and Leicester General Hospital opened in 1905. The first cinema in Leicester opened in 1910 in High Street. In 1926 the Guildhall was opened as a museum. Belgrave Hall opened in 1937 and in 1940 Newarke Houses were opened as a museum.
Meanwhile, in 1901-4 the horse-drawn trams in Leicester were converted to electricity and in 1924 the first corporation buses began running.
The engineering industry in Leicester continued to grow rapidly in the 20th century and in 1908 the Imperial Typewriter Co. came to Leicester. In 1900 only 6,000 people were employed in engineering in Leicester. By 1939 the figure had risen to 13,500 and by the 1950s 29,000.
Leicester Council began building houses in 1914 when they built an estate in North Evington. Council house building continued in the 1920s and 1930s. Many new council houses were built at Braunstone in the 1930s. At the same time, slum clearance began and many slums were demolished in St Margaret’s parish.
Leicester escaped heavy bombing during the Second World War but on 19 November 1940 bombs were dropped on Highfield Street and Saxby Street killing 40 people.
After 1945 slum clearance continued and large areas of Leicester were redeveloped. Existing council estates like Braunstone were also enlarged. In the 1970s a new development of mixed council housing and private houses were built at Beaumont Leys. This estate was built with a popular shopping centre. Meanwhile, the last trams ran in Leicester in 1949.
In the early 20th century a Jewish community grew up in the Highfields area and after 1945 Polish and Latvian refugees moved into this area. In the 1950s West Indians moved into the area. In the 1960s some Asians came to Leicester and their numbers were swelled in the 1970s when Indians were forced to leave Uganda. Leicester is now a multicultural city.
The old industries like hosiery remained important in the late 20th century. However new industries such as metal fabrication, electrical and precision engineering, printing, pharmaceuticals, and food processing came to Leicester.
The University of Leicester was established in 1957. Then in 1969, Leicester Polytechnic was formed from the old College of Art and Technology. It became De Montfort University in 1992. Meanwhile, in 1973 the Haymarket Centre opened.
The Phoenix Arts Centre opened in 1988 and Highcross Shopping Centre opened in 1991.
In 1997 Leicester was made a unitary authority.
Leicester in the 21st century
In 2011 Sir Peter Soulsby became the first directly elected mayor of Leicester. In 2012 the body of Richard III was found in Leicester.
In 2020 the population of Leicester was 355,000.