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Leicester Special Collections

Leisure

At the end of World War Two Britain had a large number of young, fit, healthy men and women who had experienced communal life in the military and were keen to continue the comradeship of that experience. For many people this meant joining a sports team or seeking out like-minded people in societies, groups and organisations. In the days before television a huge number of people took their leisure outside of the home and this page uses just a few examples to illustrate what people did with their spare time in the 1940s and 1950s.

Holidays

The traditional July fortnight, which saw most of Leicester's workforce disappear to the seaside, wasn't established until 1965. Before then it had been the first two weeks of August that everyone had as holiday. Trains from the Belgrave Road station took thousands to the east coast, while others headed to Blackpool or down to the south coast. Cycling and walking holidays were also very popular and many people used youth hostels. Dennis O’Brien, recorded for this project, recalls his first holiday in 1949: 

"I’d never been on holiday. Never. In fact, until I was 17 I’d never even seen the sea. And then a friend’s neighbour was running a trip to… Cleethorpes with the local Workings Men’s Club, and we got treated for that and that was my first visit out of Leicester to be honest, apart from the county, and I didn’t think much to it! When I came out of the Forces I saved enough money to buy myself a new bike, a Claud Butler, which I still have, and with a friend we decided we’d go youth hostelling. My first holiday, his first holiday, to North Wales, and we had eight days hostelling for a total cost of £3.50. We did about 350 miles. So, holidays after that, to me, have always been cycling or walking."

Day trips for those without a car could be in one of the many coaches that parked on Humberstone Gate at the weekend and went to country houses, tourist spots or, perhaps, a mystery tour.

Cinema & Theatre

There were many cinemas and theatres in Leicester after the war and it was only towards the end of the 1950s that this changed. The Theatre Royal on Horsefair Street closed for the last time in 1956, the Palace Theatre on Belgrave Gate closed in 1958, and the Opera House in Silver Street closed in 1960. Only the Little Theatre on Dover Street remained until an experimental ‘Living Theatre’, a forerunner of the Phoenix (1963), opened in 1960.

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s there were around 25 or 26 cinemas in Leicester, but by the end of the 1960s there were only 16, including the first cinemas showing Asian films.[1] The cinema was losing out to the television and, as attendances declined and cinemas closed, buildings might be converted to bingo halls or supermarkets.

Link to video about the Theatre Royal - https://youtu.be/ykqeFptGqYI
Link to video about the Royal Opera House - https://youtu.be/Llo7HhRCHjk

Pubs

There were many pubs in Leicester before the slum clearances and redevelopments of the 1950s and 1960s. These varied from 18th century coaching inns in the city centre to suburban pubs built for the new housing estates (Chris Pyrah notes that 15 pubs were built in the late 1930s). However, up to the 1960s pubs in Leicester were often said to be dead on a Saturday night. A 1961 article about jazz in the Leicester Chronicle (see the Popular Music page) claimed that, "No longer can she (Leicester) be called 'The Dullest City in Britain', a title earned not many years ago when, apart from cinemas and working men's clubs, Leicester became dormant after seven in the evening."

June Davies talks about The Coventry Arms, Halford Street, also known as The Brass House.

An unidentified pub in 1945

An unidentifed pub in Leicester, 1945

The main change in Leicester’s pubs came in the late 1950s with the start of closures that led to as many as 112 pubs closing between 1950-1970 and only 27 new ones opening. Some of this can be accounted for by slum clearance and redevelopments, but across the country large breweries often took over smaller pubs and closed unprofitable ones. Newer pubs were often built on a large scale to cater for large estates, while restrictions lifted in 1964 enabled many rooms to be knocked into one with a subsequent loss of atmosphere and character in older pubs.[2]

Link to Chris Pyrah's photo collection of old pubs of Leicester on Flickr - https://www.flickr.com/photos/chrisdpyrah/albums

Television

The BBC started transmitting television programmes after the war in 1946 and a £2 television licence was introduced. At the end of 1949 the Sutton Coldfield television transmitter opened in the Midlands, making it the first part of the UK outside London to receive the BBC Television Service. The Queen’s Coronation in 1953 boosted sales of television sets but there wasn’t much to see compared with today. More choice arrived with the start of ITV in 1955. BBC 2 started in 1964. When local firm TH Wathes celebrated their 50th anniversary in 1953 they showcased their salesroom on the High Street where they sold refrigerators, televisions, food mixers and a variety of modern conveniences. Comparing the trade directories of 1954 and 1960 it is clear that there was an increase in shops selling televisions, radios and electrical goods.

While Hire Purchase schemes enabled people to borrow money to buy luxuries such as televisions, some people, like Olive Freestone (recorded for this project), refused to be in debt:

"I remember... televisions came out. Nana Freestone had a little nine inch screen, and I can’t remember when the Queen was crowned – 1950 something – so we went down to watch. I always remember going to watch Nana Freestone’s. And we decided then, with Den’s overtime, to save up to get our own television, and it took us 18 months. And we bought this television and we were so proud because we had a Console model, a little – not one on the table - a little one that stood like that, nine inch, and we were so proud. Again, we never, never had Hire Purchase."

Radio

After the war there were three BBC radio channels, the Home Service (news, features, drama, local radio), the Light Programme (popular music, variety shows), and the Third Programme (more highbrow – classical music, literature, talks, drama). There were other channels in Europe that could be listened to, Radio Luxembourg being one for popular music. Sitting around the radio could be a family event, and if it was by the fire you could all stay warm too! Dick Barton, special agent, was a favourite of many, Prince Charles was a big fan of The Goons, but there were many more.

Link to a list of popular radio programmes of the 1940s & 1950s that has front covers of the Radio Times - http://www.turnipnet.com/whirligig/radio/
Link to radio and TV listings from 1923 – 2009 on this BBC website - http://genome.ch.bbc.co.uk/ 

Organisations, Groups & Societies

There were many groups, associations and societies in Leicester and Leicestershire before World War Two and most of these continued after the war, often with a new impetus from men and women fresh out of the military. This section will look at just a few examples to highlight the huge amount of 'associational life' of the post-war years.

Kelly's Directory of 1951 lists 24 clubs, 13 sports clubs (although there were clearly many more), 12 political clubs, and 17 working men's clubs in Leicester. There are also more than 140 'societies and associations' listed but these include many professional associations. Siobhan Begley has identified over 70 social organisations that were based in Leicester in 1938.[3] Some of these are still going today, such as Leicester Magic Circle, some have changed their name, such as the Leicester Guild of the Crippled (now Mosiac), and some seem to have gone, such as the Leicester Water Bed Association.

Some groups, such as the Leicester Archaeological and History Society, the Leicester Literary and Philosophical Society, and the Secular Society, have been in existence for many years and were flourishing before the war. Others, such as the Vaughan Archaeological and Historical Society were formed during or after the war (the VAHS was formed in 1947). In the case of the VAHS, it was originally sponsored by Vaughan College, Leicester, and 75% of its members had to be students of that body. In 1955 the status was changed to that of an Associated Society and membership became open.[4] There is a strong tradition of adult education in Leicester. The Worker's Educational Association (WEA) 'flourished' in Leicester and in the last year of the Second World War 126 classes were held with 2,555 enrolments.[5]

The Capital T Club

Another example of a group that formed during and after the war was the 'Capital T Club', which was started in 1943 as a non-alcoholic meeting place for people in the services (the T is for Temperance). Located on the High Street this was one of several establishments created during the war to cater for members of the armed forces. By 1951 it had moved to 71 Granby Street and become a social club for young people. Janet Ingall recalls the Capital T was, for her, a place where politically left-leaning young people (people up to their early 30s) could drink tea and put the world to rights. One of the members was Colin Wilson, who gained a moment of national fame with the publication of his book ‘The Outsider’ in 1956.

Janet Ingall talks about the Capital T Club in the 1950s.

The Capital T Club

The Capital T Club provided facilities typical of many youth clubs of the 1940s and 1950s.

The British Legion

The British Legion was formed after the First World War and to this day continues to provide support for ex-servicemen and servicewomen and their families. In 2011 the Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester & Rutland recorded the memories of local British legion members. Speaking in 2011 Robert Hargraves describes the sporting activities going on in the village of Birstall in the late 1950s:

“The Legion ran two football teams and two cricket teams in the village itself, but also in the village there were the local village football and cricket teams, so there was a bit of rivalry going on. But most of us played for either because we virtually all had been to school together and it was that sort of camaraderie between the sports.”

The village also had a rugby club while the Legion angling club had a deal with a local farmer for cheap fishing rights on his land. When the landowner tried to increase the fee his honorary membership was revoked! Like Working Men's Clubs, many branches of the British Legion had a clubhouse, often built by the local Legion, where members could drink, play games, and chat. Although there are still more than 30 branches in Leicestershire, many clubhouses have closed and there are now no branches in the city centre other than the main office. 

Working Men’s Clubs

In contrast to social clubs that don’t serve alcohol, Working Men’s Clubs (WMCs) provide drink and entertainment and are members clubs, with committees, registered under the Friendly Societies Act of 1875. WMCs flourished in Leicester through the first half of the 20th century and created a variety of club buildings across the city. An initial emphasis on self-improvement and education gradually gave way to just providing leisure activities such as concerts, entertainment and the sale of food and drink, particularly after the Second World War.

Indeed, after the war WMCs faced similar challenges to many other leisure businesses. Slum clearances meant more people were moving out to suburban estates. Cinema attendance reached a peak in the 1950s, while the growth of television meant more people stayed at home for their entertainment. New WMCs were built in each of the new post-war housing estates, while almost all the older clubs renovated their premises to make them more modern and appealing. New designs included more comfortable bars and lounges, and larger concert halls (which provided work for many show business acts). Unlike pubs, children were allowed into the clubs and, thanks to changes in regulations in 1957, it became legal to use tombolas and give cash prizes, while in 1965 clubs could install fruit machines, enabling clubs to challenge the bingo halls and raise much needed money.[6]

The 1951 Kelly’s Trade Directory lists 17 WMCs in Leicester and in 1981 a news report claimed that ‘The city had more clubs per square mile than anywhere else in Britain, but the recession and changing entertainment tastes caused a drop in customers’.

Further reading – ‘The Good Old Days? 1881-1981: One Hundred Years of Working Men’s Clubs in Leicester’ by Brian Harding

Link to video about the Saffron Lane Working Men's Club and Institute – https://youtu.be/DyZ26SKxfAA

Link to history of Spinney Hills WMC - http://thespinneyuk.com/our-history/
Link to 1981 news report about WMCs in Leicester - http://specialcollections.le.ac.uk/cdm/ref/collection/p15407coll2/id/42 

Leicester Drama Society

The Leicester Drama Society (LDS) was founded in 1922 and moved to their current premises, The Little Theatre on Dover Street, in 1930. Membership increased after the war and, for a while, rationing meant the canteen’s menu was limited and the Dover Castle pub served as the bar. While the LDS had generally regarded its audience as ‘intelligent but anti-intellectual’ - no Strindberg or O’Neil – it did produce John Osborne’s ground breaking ‘Look Back in Anger’ in 1959, only three years after the play’s debut. In 1960 there was a production of Samuel Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’, which had premiered in London in 1955. It was ‘quite well attended’ although ‘there was the usual handful of customers who did not come back after the interval that we get when we present a play that outrages the conservative’.[7]

By 1960 The Little Theatre was the only theatre in Leicester as the Opera House had closed in 1953, the Theatre Royal in 1956, and the Palace in 1959. For a couple of years, if you wanted go to the theatre in Leicester, the Little Theatre was the only option. Professional theatre returned to Leicester in 1961 when the Living Theatre was set up in temporary premises and in 1963 the Phoenix Theatre was built (now the Sue Townsend Theatre).

Further reading – ‘Before My Time. The Story of the Leicester Drama Society’ by John Graham.

Link to film of Little Theatre opening after fire, 1958 - http://www.macearchive.org/films/midlands-news-13011958-little-theatre-leicester
Link to a history of theatres in Leicester - http://www.arthurlloyd.co.uk/LeicesterTheatresIndex.htm
Link to news report about The Living Theatre, 1962 - http://specialcollections.le.ac.uk/cdm/ref/collection/p15407coll2/id/38  

Natural History Groups

There are many natural history groups in Leicestershire, most of which started after the Second World War. The Leicester Literary and Philosophical Society (founded 1835) had a Geology Section from 1849 and started a Natural History Section in the 1960s. The Leicestershire & Rutland Ornithological Society (LROS) was also formed initially as a section of the Leicester Literary and Philosophical Society, in 1941, but soon outgrew its parent Society and became established in its own right. The Leicestershire & Rutland Wildlife Trust (LRWT), was founded in 1956 by a small group of naturalists and was originally known as the Leicestershire and Rutland Trust for Nature Conservation. The Loughborough Naturalists Club was started in 1960.[8]

Many other groups have formed since the 1960s and there are now local specialist groups interested in moths, butterflies and insects, fungi, mammals, badgers, bats, botany etc. as well as branches of national groups such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). Since the war these groups have given many adults and children the opportunity to get out of their homes and engage with nature, and, if they were so disposed, to make lots of notes on moths, fungi, bats etc. Recorded in 2007, Hugh Dixon recalls the start of the LRWT:

“Ron Hickling was really the founding father of the Leicestershire & Rutland Wildlife Trust. He moved in those circles of Ted Smith, who was one of the founding fathers of the movement along with Max Nicholson, and they encouraged Ron Hickling to form a trust in Leicestershire & Rutland. After a few years I joined and Ron persuaded me to become treasurer of the Trust, which I remained for 30 years believe it or not. It was terribly small beer in those days, I mean they probably had about 50 members, or something like that, there were no nature reserves and no money so being treasurer didn’t amount to very much to begin with. Now, of course, we’ve got 12,500 members, or something like that, and own quite a lot of land and manage quite a bit more.” 

What was on in Leicester in March 1956?

As today, each month there was a programme of talks, exhibitions and events in Leicester that were open to the public. As can be seen there was a full range of subjects covered: talks and lectures on a variety of subjects, exhibitions, golf, classical music, French films, natural history, cine film, folk dance, verse speaking, health, photography, travel, show jumping, poetry, theatre, gramophone 'request nights', geography, museums, drama, adult education, debates, opera.

A 'What's On' guide for Leicester, March 1956.

[1] The History of Leicester’s Cinemas by Brian Johnson (revised 2009), p. 19.

[2] ‘Inns and Taverns of Leicester’ by Chris Pyrah (1984).

[3] ‘Leicester a Modern History’ edited by Richard Roger & Rebecca Madgin, Carnegie Publishing Ltd., 2016, p.51.

[4] Information from the Vaughan Archaeological & Historical Society website - http://www.le.ac.uk/elh/vahs/society.html (Accessed 24/05/2018)

[5] ‘Leicester in the 20th Century’ edited by David Nash & David Reeder, Alan Sutton Publishing, 1993, p.180.

[6] Nash & Reeder, p.178.

[7] ‘Before My Time. The Story of the Leicester Drama Society’ by John Graham, chapter 7.

[8] Information from the websites of the groups mentioned: Leicester Literary and Philosophical Society - http://www2.le.ac.uk/hosted/litandphil/sections ; Leicestershire & Rutland Ornithological Society -  http://www.lros.org.uk/aboutlros.htm ; Leicestershire & Rutland Wildlife Trust -  http://www.lrwt.org.uk/about-us/organisation/ ; Loughborough Naturalists Club - http://www.loughboroughnats.org/about-the-club/ (All accessed 24/05/2018)