New Walk Statue New Walk Trees New Walk Buildings New Walk Art New Walk Fencing New Walk No Cycling Sign New Walk Lampost

History of New Walk

Spanning back to 1785 New Walk encapsulates the history of Leicester.

New Walk Picture


Before 1785, the inhabitants of Leicester had no suburban walks, other than muddy roads, for their exercise so Queen's Walk was laid out, on the line of the Roman Road, the Via Devana (which ran from Colchester to Leicester), as a pleasant promenade through open fields at the expense of the Corporation. This investment subsequently helped to stake out their claim to the right of developing the South Field, which previously had been used for the grazing of animals by Freemen of Leicester. New Walk later became the boundary between St Margaret's and St. Mary's parishes and then provided a pedestrian way from the town to the new racecourse opened on Victoria Park in 1806.

The western side of New Walk was not built on at first, whereas the lower eastern side was sold off to six private developers in the early 19th centuary. The walk was originally called Queen's Walk after Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, then Ladies' Walk and finally New Walk.

The first part of New Walk in the town was designed as a vista seen from the Recorder's Garden at the upper end of Belvoir Street and the walk continued uphill to the fields opposite the windmill standing near the entrance of Evington Lane.

Gas lamps were originally erected in 1832. They were replaced between the years 1895 and 1900 by Victorian gas lamps manufactured by George Perry of Highcross Street. These lamps were identical to those in Paris, being made using patterns which were found in a Paris foundry as recently as 1990, having survived two world wars.

Three open green areas were laid out, namely Museum Square, De Montfort Square and later The Oval (formerly Albert Grove after Prince Albert).

Originally all the properties were residential as on London Road, but today most properties are offices.

Passages taken from the book A History of New Walk, Leicester available from the Friends of New Walk.

The Footwear Industry

In the City and County the making of footwear started on a very small scale for the supply of army boots during the Napoleonic was; but it was only after 1830 that the trade expanded by the manufacture of children's slippers and boots for the surrounding countryside. In 1851 the completion of the local part of the Midland Railway threw out of work local bootmakers who had been making boots for the navvies. A boot-making company which had a Government contract for this kind of footwear opened a warehouse in Cank Street and gave out material for boots to be made up by these and other workmen. In 1853 Thomas Crick invented the process of riveting soles to uppers and revolutionised the trade. At the same time  elastic sided boots became fashionable and Leicester benefited because at that time it had a thriving elastic industry as part of its textile trade.

Crick's factory expanded rapidly (ultimately growing to about 1000 employees) and other entrepreneurs quickly opened shoe factories to take advantage of the new technical developments. At the same time the hosiery trade went into a quiet period and footwear manufacturers took advantage of a disgruntled but dextrous female labour force who were used to sewing machine working part-time at home to bring in a second income. Cut shoe uppers for stitching were carted around homes in both City and County, payment was per unit done, and the carriers were also paid a percentage.

Leicester increasingly became known for the production of ladies and children's' boots and shoes. In 1865 a revolutionary sole stitching machine by Blakes of the USA was introduced by Stead & Simpson and later made by the locally based British United Sho Machinery Company under licence. Further shoe machinery advances were made, productivity increased and more factories were opened. By 1870 there were of 70. At the same time ancillary industries developed to supply heals, soles, insoles, insocks, boxes, tacks etc, and advantage was taken of existing hosiery supply industries for elastics, threads, fabrics, buckles and other items. By the beginning of the 20th century there were over 200 factories making footwear, employing over 35,000 people; the ancillary industries added to this total. This industry vied with the textile industry as the major industry as the major industry in the City and County and the high number of females employed in both ensured that many families had at least two incomes, making Leicester a rich city.

After World War One there was consolidation and amalgamation in the industry; but these were accompanied by productivity gains and the development of exports, particularly to the Empire countries. Leicester became the acknowledged national and world centre for Shoe Technology and Design: a position it held for the rest of the century.

After World War Two the development of satisfactory adhesives, good man-made materials, and the emergence of injection moulding for soles and heals all created dramatic productivity improvements. However the seeds of decline had been sown, lack of innate profitability, increasing competition from low cost countries, the popularity of new types of shoes, such as trainers, and the increasing purchasing power of multiple retailers drove first the inefficient and then the efficient to the wall. In the 1950s there were over 130 footwear factories and the industry employed about 170,000 people, in 1985 there were still 47 factories and 15,000 employees; but when the co-operative Equity Shoes  closed in the 2000s the manufacture of shoes in the area was effectively dead. With the manufacturers have gone the leather factors, the component makers, the machine builders and all the other ancillary industries.

There is one substantial legacy. At the end of the 19th Century some of the manufacturers developed nationwide distribution of their products through distribution warehouses and their own shops. For instance Hiltons(who commenced manufacture in 1876) switched entirely from manufacturing to distribution and retail in 1895. Many other once famous names, such as Freeman hardy and Willis and Dolcis were combined in to the British Shoe Corporation, which itself was based in Leicester before becoming part of Shoe Zone, which also includes Tylers Shoes and Stead & Simpson. Even though the glory days of manufacturing are gone, footwear distribution though Leicester  remains.

The Clothing Industry

Prior to the end of the 16th century knitted goods were made by hand knitting; but William Lee of Calverton in Nottinghamshire invented the first mechanical knitting 'the said William Lee hath invented a certeine Invention or Artificialitie being a very speedie  manner of workinge and makinge in a loome or frame. All manner of workes usually wrought by knittinge needles as stockings wastcootes and suchlike'. Thus was an industry born. London and Nottingham were the early homes but by 1650 there were estimated to be about 50 frames and 100 workers in Leicestershire. By a charter granted on 13 June 1657 by Oliver Cromwell the Worshipful Company of Framework Knitters was established, has survived the years and flourishes today as a charity.

Over the next 150 years frame work knitting, making worsted goods, was carried out, mainly as a home industry, on basically the same type of machine, operated by the hands and feet of the knitter. Improvements were fiercely resisted by the operatives, frequently by riots and destruction of machines, of which the most famous were the Luddite Riots, named after Ned Ludd, who came from Anstey and is probably the only Leicestershire man to give a work to the English language.

In 1972 it was estimated that 40% of the people in Leicester were working in the hosiery industry. 50 years later it was estimated that there were 48,482 stocking frames in the whole of England, of which 12,861 were in Leicestershire; John Biggs (whose statue is in Welford Place) and his brother William were reputed to employ a twelfth of all the hosiery workers in the city and county and to own nearly 1000 frames.

During the second half of 19th century steam powered knitting machines were developed (but few hand operated frames were still in use in the 1940s). Among many improvements two main types of powered knitting machines were introduced. The powered circular machine, which only really became effective with the invention of the latch needle by Mathew Townsend of Leicester in 1847, produced mostly knitted fabric, plain, rib or a combination of the two, as well as open work, interlock and plated fabrics. The flat frame, which revolutionised the industry, was patented by William Cotton of Loughborough in 1864 and meant that a number of garments, socks, stockings, underwear and outerwear could be made and shaped at the same time.

The above machines became the foundation of major male and female employment in leicester and the County. In 1851 a quarter of all adult males were engaged in the textile trade. large privately owned firms developed in both the manafacture of fabrics and goods such as Corahs, whose new factory in St Margarets was built in 1865 and became the largest hosiery works in Europe. By 1866 it employed over 1000 people and at its peak in the 1960s it employed nearly 3000.

At the same time the development and production of machinery firms became an industry in itself with the creation of Bentley Engineering and Stibbes as two obvious examples. Employment in textile engineering grew steadily to a peak of 6250 workers in 1971. Alongside the two main industries were scores of businesses which sprang from or supported them; among them thread manufacturers, like Donisthorpes, and packaging experts like Benson Box. There were also button makers, elastic suppliers, dyers and finishers and a score of other trades.

 The 100 years from 1850 were the glory years of the clothing industry. Most of the manufacturers were private companies like Fielding Johnsons, Faires and kemptons, which mean that the money stayed in the family and was spent in Leicester. A great deal of female labour was employed, which meant that many working families had two incomes. In 1948 there were 30,000 workers in Leicester in the textile industry, 32.5% of all employees. They made and supplied the United Kingdom and many overseas markets with socks, stockings, underwear, gloves, wouterwear and fabric. Leicester was a rich City, but, as it always does, change came.

 The growth of large retail chains, such as Marks & Spencers, and mail order firms changed the balance of power from the manufacturer to the retailer. The industry started to consolidate; Coats Viyella bought Byfords and Wolesey amongst others and in the 1960s Courtaulds bought and owned 13 of the old independent firms in the greater Leicester area, including textile machinery, packaging and lingerie wholesaling. This removed local control and the profits transferred from local owners to the shareholders of public companies. After this came the growth of cheaper overseas competition which undercut the prices of the local manufacturers to the point where they ceased to be viable.

 Textile engineering suffered a dramatic decline in the early 1970s, Stibbes was liquidated, Bently Engineering was sold and the businesses dependent on them followed. The clothing businesses and associated businesses, such as knitting wool, thread and trimmings, declined dramatically; employment in the industries fell 21% between 1981 and 1989 and has continued ever since. Many substantial firms, such as Pex Stockings, have ceased operations and their elegant Victorian factories converted to other uses.

 Although the glory days may have gone there is still a substantial number of smaller private, businesses, both manufacturing and dealing in clothing: importers and exporters, machinery dealers and suppliers of accessories; Next plc has grown into a major retailer and Bodens and Joules represent the mail order market; clothing design flourishes at De Montfort University. it is a substantial legacy. 

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New Walk
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Whose statue stands in
De Montfort Square

Robert Hall was born in Arnesby in 1764, one of the 14 children of the local Baptist Minister. He was educated at Mr Simmon’s school in Wigston, then at Dr Ryland’s school in Northampton, then at the Bristol Baptist College and finally as a Scholar to King’s College Aberdeen.

He became a minister in Bristol , where he also taught, but then moved to Cambridge, where he revived the local chapel, wrote books and pamphlets and became famous for his eloquent preaching. His health, which had never been good, broke down and he returned to Leicestershire in 1806. As he reovered he took to occasional preaching, which lead to his appointment as minister of the plain, red-brick Baptist Chapel in Harvey Lane, Leicester in 1807, when the Napoleonic War was at its height, two years after the Battle of Trafalgar and eight years before the Battle of Waterloo. In the early 19th century the Baptists were the most numerous noncomformist body in Leicester, although the Unitarians, dominated by those of the Great Meeting in East Bond Street, grew more and more influential and after 1830 dominated Leicester politics.

Robert Hall was active in the middle class, low church reform movement, which agitated for peace in the wars with France and America, for the relief of poverty which was rife among working people, for parliamentary reform and religious emancipation. He was, for instance, with many other Whig supporters, a signatory in 1813 of a requisition demanding the use of the Town Hall for a meeting to demand parliamentary reform. The requisition was refused by the Tory Corporation, so the meeting was held at the Bowling Green Inn.

In 1818 the hosiery workers in Leicester were agitating for better pay, better conditions and limitation of machine made goods. Robert Hall was active on behalf of the workers. In particular he was a leading proponent of disguising what was effectively a fighting union (which by law was not allowed to pay workmen who were on strike) as a friendly society which could make payments to its members, that is unemployed workers who were actually out of work because they were on strike! In 1821, with the unrest showing no signs of abating, Robert Hall published anonymously a pamphlet “The Question at Issue between the Framework Knitters and their Employers”, which specifically attracted the wrath of William Cobbett in his Political Register. Although he was quite prepared to advise the radical element and to write in their support, on the whole Robert Hall preferred to remain aloof from political meetings, speech making and other active involvement in radical politics.

He was, however, famous for his preaching. Apparently he would start in a low voice with a hesitating manner, but “as he proceeded”, said one listener, “his voice gained strength and flexibility, his utterance became more rapid, and so neat was his delivery that I have distinctly heard twenty or thirty syllables in one breath”. Shorthand writers attempted to take down his sermons, but failed. He poured forth a torrent of words while his body gently swayed and “his spirit seemed to be abstracted into the image he was creating“.

His audience contained not only his congregation, but also strangers visiting Leicester. Public speakers, barristers and Judges at Assize all made a point of hearing him. It was not uncommon for visitors to come from London by Saturday’s Mail Coach, attend his service and return to London on Sunday night. It is recorded that John Ryley, who was the first editor of the Leicester Chronicle, the mouthpiece of the radical Whig opposition in Leicester, had originally moved from Cambridge to Leicester entirely for the purpose of enjoying the spiritual ministrations of Robert Hall.

Robert Hall moved to Bristol in 1826, where he died on 21 February 1830 of heart failure. He was succeeded at the Harvey Lane Baptist Chapel by the Reverend J P Mursell, who was just as radical. In 1845 the Harvey Lane chapel became a school room and the Harvey Lane congregation, still led by the Reverend Mursell, moved to a new Baptist chapel in Belvoir Street (the Pork Pie Chapel) which had been designed by Hansom, the leading local architect.

Robert Hall died in 1831 and the statue in De Montfort Square, made of white Sicilian marble, was erected to his memory.

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