Slums of Leicester – An Introduction

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The slums of Leicester.

Back to back houses with just two rooms – one up and one down – were common in the areas nearest to the centre of town and housed those who worked in the many factories located in the town.

The growth of the towns hosiery, boot and shoe trades led to a surge in population from 38,000 in 1831 to over 211,500 by 1901.

Cramant’s Yard at the rear of 54 King Street (Photo: Ned Newitt)

Horrendous living conditions.

The growing workforce meant that new housing was needed and often these workers lived in cheap and badly built cottages centred around a courtyard.

As the town’s industry grew, more factories surrounded these cottages and they were often lacking sunlight, fresh air and ventilation. There would have been no rear doors or windows.

Due to poor drainage and the lack of piped water, death and disease were often more prevalent in these houses. They were mostly built with inadequate foundations, thin brickwork and floors were usually laid directly on the earth.

Due to there being no direct source of piped water, this was usually rainwater which had been collected from cisterns on the roofs of houses. This water was often contaminated by seepage from cesspits.

There was little regulation around building standards when constructing dwellings for the working classes during this period.


Clearing of the slums.

Prior to World War I, some of the worst houses had been demolished though most of this was likely to have taken place due to the construction of the Great Central Railway and road widening schemes. Post World War I, due to a severe lack of housing in Leicester, the council did not resume its efforts to clear slums until the mid 1920’s. Instead it chose to improve existing slums by adding separate yards, toilets and internal sinks.

Wharf Street, August 1955, during slum clearance. Photo from Leicester Mercury

Many people who were neighbours whilst living in slums were moved to neighbouring streets in newly built council houses. The first of these estates were Braunstone and Northfields. North and South Braunstone were not only divided by a huge park physically but also socially. The large council houses on the earlier built parts of the estates meant that only the more respectable working class could afford the higher rents and so only families from the slums moved to North Braunstone.

Poorer families had previously benefited from their connections whilst living in the centre of town which enabled them to live on very little money. Pawnbrokers, second hand shops, credit in shops and the market place all in close proximity was not known on these new estates and so led to families struggling when already displaced and poor.

Although slum clearance vastly improved living conditions for many, it did not remove the inequalities and poverty already in existence within those communities; some of which is still evident today.


Surviving buildings.

An example of surviving back to back houses in Leicester is those on Belgrave Gate area which is known as ‘Garden Street Island’. These houses have been threatened with demolition many times and so arguably may not be around for much longer.

The Garden Street Island, Leicester

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