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Leicester Special Collections


The Major Sports

Attendance at cricket matches was huge in the summers after the end of the war and the visit of Don Bradman's Australian team in 1948 drew large crowds. Although professional sport stopped during the war, sport was played throughout the war whenever possible and organised sport resumed soon after the war ended. In December of 1945 a New Zealand touring rugby team beat the RAF 11-0 at Welford Road in front of 10,000 spectators. The Leicester Mercury noted that the New Zealanders' great quality was that they had 'weight and muscle - and they used it'. The war years had seen the Leicester Tigers Rugby Club fall into debt and during the 1950s into the 1960s the club was torn between wanting to maintain the old pre-war ethos – few amenities for spectators, facilities mainly for players – and the need to bring in more spectators. Gradually, the club modernised.[1]

Link to Leicester Rugby - Leicester People video -

Brian Small played for the Tigers in the 1950s. Recorded for this project, he recalls that rugby was so amateur there wasn't even a championship to compete for (the Rugby Football Union feared this might lead to amateur players being paid). The two competitions were the County Cups for clubs and the County Championship for County representative teams.

Leicestershire County Cricket Club moved to its current home at Grace Road after the war and benefitted from the post-war boom in cricket attendance. In the first post-war season of first class cricket, the touring Indian cricket team played 29 first-class fixtures with 11 wins, 4 defeats and 14 draws (Wikipedia). In the 1950s the club experimented by taking county games to Ashby and Hinckley, and occasionally Barwell, Melton, Coalville & Loughborough, although this tailed off in the 1960s and 1970s.[2]

Link to information about the 1946 India Tour -

Rod Pratt grew up in Stoney Stanton and was spotted by Leicestershire while playing at school. He joined the LCCC as a teenager and arrived at the club having never visited Grace Road as a spectator. Recorded for this project he recalls that the facilities were poor and the set-up was not very professional. Indeed, until the arrival of the charismatic Willie Watson in the late 1950s Leicestershire spent most of the decade near the bottom of the championship.

A Leicester Tigers match in 1945

A Leicester Tigers match in 1945

The first professional season of football after the war was the 1946/47 season. Leicester City FC's manager Johnny Duncan stated that after such a long lay-off it was difficult to predict what would happen, but he was hopeful and his aim was to provide a high standard of football by long-term planning and building.[3] This almost paid off spectacularly in the Foxes' 1949 FA Cup run, which saw them beat the star team Portsmouth in the semi-final but lose to Wolverhampton Wanderers in the final. Leicester's unfortunate habit of losing FA Cup finals continued in both 1961 and 1963.

Link to memories of the 1949 FA Cup campaign -
Link to films of the 1949 FA Cup campaign and other matches -

Other sports

Sport was reported a lot in the newspapers. At the end of August 1946, as summer sports were winding down and winter sports about to start, the Sports Mercury featured articles on football, cricket, rugby, bowls, athletics, golf, walking, snooker, boxing, swimming, tennis, cycling, greyhound racing, and horse racing.

Writing about boxing in August 1946 the Mercury's correspondent Tom Griffiths advocated the return of boxing to Granby Halls and noted that local promoter George Biddles, 'who before the war had one of the biggest strings of boxers in the country, now has only a couple in his management'. Biddles had moved on to setting up matches and was involved with shows resuming at Cossington Baths in the autumn of 1946.[4] Boxing was very popular in Leicester and the East Midlands Oral History Archive holds several recordings with people who were involved with boxing before and after the war, most of which can be listened to online.

Link to recording with Mildred Biddles, wife of George Biddles -

Speedway started at Leicester in 1928 with the Leicester Stadium team entering the English Dirt Track League in 1929. However, by 1931 the track, beset with problems, closed. Speedway was also staged at a track known as Leicester Super off Melton Road. After World War II, speedway returned in 1948. The team were nicknamed the Leicester Hunters and ran under that name until closure in 1962.

By 1949 the Leicester Hunters speedway team was thriving. Races were at the track on Blackbird Road and there was a packed fixture list from April to October taking in events all over the country. Writing at the start of the 1950 season the new manager Squib Burton was optimistic about pushing further up the league and encouraging the club's youngsters.[5] The team started in the National League Division Three and moved up over the years operating in the top flight for some time until the end of 1961.[6]

Link to the history of the speedway stadium -
Link to history of the Leicester Lions -

A race at the Greyhound Stadium in 1945

Greyhound racing in 1945 at what was probably the Parker Road stadium that was also used for Speedway.

From September 1949 until 1954, the Leicester Query Motorcycle Club held grass track races at Mallory Park (at Kirby Mallory) on a disused pony trotting track. Tarmac was introduced in 1956 and over 20,000 people came to the opening of the new circuit. Famous names such as John Surtees and Mike Hailwood both won at Mallory Park in the following years and the venue continues to this day having celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2016.

Link to history of Mallory Park -
Link to film of car racing at Mallory Park in 1957 -
Link to film of sidecar racing at Mallory Park in 1956 -  

Cycling, both recreational and competitive, has been very popular in Leicestershire for many years. ‘Cycle Chat’ was the magazine for the Leicestershire & Rutland District Association Cyclist’s Touring Club and in the first issue in June 1959 it was noted that certain members of the Nomads (one of the cycling groups) were ‘intent on getting the section banned from several catering establishments’ due to rowdy behaviour. A letter in the same edition suggests that while ‘teenagers will always be teenagers’, it was up to the more senior members of the section to set a good example.

The Leicester section of the Cyclist’s Touring Club was formed in 1896 and in 1925 the ‘standard ride’ became 130 miles in 12 hours (100 miles in 12 hours for the ladies). Rides were held throughout the Second World War although many members were in the armed forces. After the war, new sections were formed in Melton and Charnwood, and in 1955 the first ‘Cyclists Special’ rail excursion enabled associations from across the country to meet for races and rides. As well as the Cyclist’s Touring Club, the Leicester Forest Cycling Club was started in 1923 as the Keir Hardie Wheelers (Keir Hardie was the first leader of the Labour Party), and the Leicestershire Road Club was founded in 1909.

When recalling cycling in the 1940s and 1950s Ron Johnson makes the point that although there was less traffic on the roads than there is today, the telling factor was that the traffic moved slower than it does today and cyclists felt safer.

Further reading – ‘A Century of Cycling 1897-1997’ compiled by Eileen Johnson and Janet Jones, edited and published by Ken Hoxley.

The Leicestershire Tennis and Squash Club is one of the oldest tennis clubs in the world, having started as the Leicester Lawn Tennis and Quoit Club in the 19th century.[7] After the war this was one of many clubs affiliated to the Leicestershire County Lawn Tennis Association. The Association's 1951 handbook states that 'Our tennis equipment is rising in price - balls are dearer - everything carries heavy purchase tax, BUT all this will be forgotten the moment we get to the courts...'. However, some things never change and the huge demand for Wimbledon tickets is noted in the handbook. Applicants had to fill in a form and apply by post, and it was made clear there wouldn't be enough tickets to satisfy everyone. Prices were more expensive than the previous year and ranged from 6/- (30p) for the least popular days to 20/- (£1) for the Saturday of the men's final.

There were 64 clubs affiliated to the LTA in 1951 and they were a mixture of village, church, hospital and suburban organisations as well as many companies. Almost all of these groups had their own tennis courts, with only a few sharing facilities, and some of the companies owned their own sports grounds. These are the companies: Airborne Shoes LTC (Anstey), British United LTC (engineering), Brush Sports & Social Club (engineering, Loughborough), Dunlop (Leicester) Sports & Social Club, Electricity Sports LTC, Genatosan Social & Athletic Club (chemicals, Loughborough), Gent & Co LTC (engineering), Holwell Works LTC (iron foundry, Asfordby Hill), Imperial Typewriters LTC, Leicester Banks LTC, Leicester Co-Operative Employees LTC, Leicester City Police, National Gas Turbine Establishment Sports Club, Stead & Simpson (shoes), Symingtons (Market Harborough), Wolsey (clothing), YMCA.

For those who remember the heyday of industry in Leicester and Leicestershire it will come as no surprise to see so many company teams playing tennis. Most large companies sustained sports teams for both men and women. For example, the hosiery firm Corah was one of the largest local companies, with 4,500 employees in the 1950s. Its in-house magazine, Encore, reported on the progress of the sports teams, which, at various points in the 1950s and 1960s, included angling, archery, bowls, cricket, football (men & occasionally women), hockey (women), judo, netball, table tennis and tennis (men & women).

The tennis clubs are often remembered as places where the middle class women of Leicester met. Recorded in 2017 for this project Christine Grundy recalls her mother’s attitude to this after the war:

“Having come back to Leicester (in 1947), I had lost touch with my friends and so it was my mother again who said 'Don't go to the Leicester Tennis Club, you're not good enough to go there.' It's a wonder I didn't have a terrible inferiority complex, and she said 'I've found a very nice tennis club for you'.   It was called Roundhill Tennis Club, and she was right […] it was really lovely, I really enjoyed it because it was so friendly.  It had a lovely pavilion and we would all take it in turns, we played on Saturdays, or evenings in matches and we would take it in turns to do the teas, it was a really nice club and really nice people.”

Link to history of Leicester Tennis and Squash Club -
Link to history of Oadby (Granville) Tennis Club -  
Link to Roundhill Tennis Club -
Link to Corah Encore magazines on My Leicestershire History -

In addition to the sports mentioned above, swimming, and athletics were also very popular. It is also worth noting that the first African-Caribbean cricket team started in 1948 and became the West Indian Sports & Social Club in 1957. Gradually, migrants from Ireland, South Asia, and the Caribbean got involved with, or formed their own, sports clubs.[8]

See also:

'On the Starting Line' by Jim Sharlott (1994). Written by the former athletics correspondent of the Leicester Mercury, this book charts the course of local athletics from its early days to its most recent years

'A Century of Cycling' by Eileen Johnson, Janet Jones & Ken Hoxley. A celebration of the history of the Leicestershire & Rutland District Association of the Cyclist's Touring Club.

'Sporting Pat' by Nessun J Danaher. The story of sport in Leicester's Irish community since 1800.

Link to a history of swimming in Leicester by Chris Ayriss, the author of ‘Hung Out to Dry. Swimming and British Culture’ -

Link to film that begins with shots of a sports day event at East Midlands Electricity Board sports ground, Aylestone Road, Leicester in 1958 -

Link to film of Leicestershire v. Royal Marines fencing match at Leicester in 1957 -

[1] ‘Leicester in the 20th Century’ edited by David Nash & David Reeder, Alan Sutton Publishing, 1993, p.207.

[2] Ibid

[3] ‘The Sports Mercury’ 31st August 1946, p.3.

[4] Ibid

[5] ‘Leicester Speedway Official Programme’, 31st March 1950.

[6] Information about the history of the Leicester Hunters comes from the Leicester Lions website - (Accessed 30/05/2018)

[7] The history of Leicester Tennis and Squash Club - (Accessed 30/05/2018)

[8] ‘Leicester: a Modern History’ edited by Richard Rodger & Rebecca Madgin, Carnegie Publishing, 2016, pp. 335-339.