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Leicester Special Collections

Working Lives and Industry in Leicester 1945-1962

Work in Leicester 1945-1962

At the end of the Second World War the many thousands of men and women returning from the forces didn’t just want a home to live in, they wanted a place to work. Things had changed during the five years they were away – there had been a decrease in the number of people working in Leicester’s traditional industries of footwear and hosiery, and an increase in those working in engineering and related industries, particularly electrical engineering. The period after the war also saw a shift from manufacturing to service industries.[1]

The Leicester Works of British Steam Specialities Ltd.

The Leicester Works of British Steam Specialities Ltd. in 1945

Back to work

Working conditions in factories could be hard; years of conflict had taken their toll and rationing was in place for several years after the war. The harsh winter of 1947 caused some companies to temporarily shut down due to lack of fuel. However, the building trade benefitted from the post-war regeneration of housing, and other industries prospered, particularly if they had benefitted from government contracts during the war. Individuals coming back from the forces sometimes found they weren’t being paid as much as the men who had stayed behind (a common complaint after the First World War too).

For many companies it wasn’t a smooth journey back to peace-time production after the war. The example of Equity Shoes demonstrates this: having switched to making utility shoes during the war, the shortage of materials after the war was as bad as it had been during it. The factory closed for several days in February 1947 and management made grants to support affected workers. Working hours were staggered to comply with government plans for increased production, and female employees started a new five day week of 45 hours, working to 6.15pm each day. By the summer of 1952 the company’s prospects hadn’t improved. Wages were reduced twice in 1953, but orders improved in 1954 and the company was able to prosper. A new pension and life assurance scheme was introduced in 1959, and the hours worked gradually declined until, in 1966, the working week was 40 hours and the factory closed at 5.15pm.[2] This pattern of a stuttering start to recovery followed by better conditions and eventual prosperity was mirrored by other Leicester firms.

In 1947, Leicester’s Official Industrial Handbook highlighted the hosiery industry, knitting machine design, the boot and shoe industry, engineering, printing, and tyre manufacture. The full ‘Leicester Can Make It’ list of trades covered 150 things that were made in the City.

Margaret Rud talks about working in a wool factory, the hosiery industry and knitting work in Leicestershire in 1952

Advertisement for Vanity Knitting Wool

Advertisement for Vanity Knitting Wool 

The Hosiery & Knitted Industry

The history of the hosiery industry in Leicester can be traced back to the 17th century, with the arrival of Mr. Allsopp and his stocking frame.[3] The hosiery industry of Leicester was world famous and the greatest hosiery production centre in Britain.[4] Therefore, it was often said that “Leicester clothes the world”.[5] Hosiery is a generic term that is applied to stockings, socks, gloves, scarves, jumpers, jerseys, pullovers, dresses, blouses, shawls, cardigans, bathing costumes, neckties, and, indeed, to all sorts of types of outwear and underwear. It also covers knitted material for skirts, coats, dresses, etc. During World War Two the hosiery industry of Leicester extended its manufacturing, although much of its work force served in the military.[6] Leicester lost around half of its hosiery workers in the war and was affected by government policies such as the Concentration of Industry and Direction of Labour.[7] In the 1960s Courtaulds controlled thirteen firms in the Greater Leicester area, and another yarn firm, Coats, also established ownership links, its most notable Leicester subsidiaries being Byfords and Wolsey.[8] The industry maintained its dominant role in the local manufacturing economy; in 1948 they had 31,964 workers and in 1950, a 32.5 per cent share of local employment, while in 1964 it was 29 per cent.[9]

Link to video about the Wolsey company and sock making - https://youtu.be/v_kJ1PPQOcQ

Kathleen Weller talks about the situation in World War Two and working in Hosiery factories, Leicestershire. 

Shoe Manufacturing in Leicester 1945

Shoe Manufacturing in Leicester 1945

The Footwear Industry

The shoe industry of Leicester played an important part in the city’s prosperity and Leicester was considered to be one of the largest industrial production centres.[10] However, the most striking feature of the post-war economy was the decline of the footwear industry as a major employer.[11] The decline temporally recovered in 1951-52.[12] In 1964 employment fell 38 per cent to 12,521 employees, and the share of the local labour force fell from 20 per cent in 1948 to about 11 per cent in 1964.[13] The decline affected the footwear machinery industry too, although the British United Shoe Machinery Corporation was still a stronghold during this period. Some of the worldwide known names in the footwear industry started to disappear, like Liberty.  Later in the 1950s saw the merger by aggressive take-over of several large and hitherto independent retailers - Saxone, Lilley and Skinner, Freeman Hardy and Wills, Dolcis and Curtess - to form the British Shoe Corporation, which later led to growth within the industry.[14]

Engineering Work in Leicester 1945

Engineering Work in Leicester 1945

The Engineering Industry

The engineering industries of Leicester consisted of many manufacturing parts and instrumental industries. At the end of war there was steep fall in employment in the industry but from 1945 to 1965 growth was seen with a rise in the share of local manufacturing employment from to 26.2% in 1964.[15] Some of the engineering firms like Livingston, Doughty, Imperial Typewriter company etc. were very well known during this time. The list of things Leicester made included typewriters, electric vehicles, electric clocks, lenses and optical instruments, shoes,  clothes, cranes, lifts, heating and ventilating equipment, dust extractors, baker’s and laundry equipment, fire alarm and boat drill systems for the big liners, time recorders, fountain pens, watches, electric transformers, turbo-generators, diesel and aero engines, etc.[16] All of these were made in Leicester.

Norman Martin talks about the Engineering industry and rise in wages in 1958, Leicestershire. 

The Printing Industry

Leicester established a reputation as a centre for “printing of high quality” after a rebellion against the low standard to which printing had fallen.[17] Leicester was one of the first centres to have a technical school for teaching high quality printing techniques.[18] During the war there were temporary restrictions on the use of printed matter. Later, there was a shift from general printing to marketing products for various industries in the form of advertisements and brochures.[19] These local printing industries produced various materials for local industries like hosiery, shoe, food packaging etc.[20]

Tyre Manufacture in Leicester 1945

Tyre Manufacture in Leicester 1945

Tyre Manufacture

Tyre manufacturing in Leicester was well established and not only produced tyres but also the accessories for cycles, motorcycles and cars.[21] The highest quality of rubber was used and mechanization for the product was never compromised to produce a high quality of product.[22]

Changing work

Between 1946-1951 the government nationalised various industries: The Bank of England, the National Coal Board, Cable and Wireless, British Transport Commission (inc. rail), British Electrical Authority and Area Electricity Boards, British Gas Council and Area Gas Boards, Iron and Steel Corporations.[23]

Anthony Ratcliffe talking about the Nationalisation of Coal Mining

It would be easy to overstate how much the Second World war expanded opportunities for women in Leicester, as there had always been work available in the hosiery factories for women and the idea of having a second wage to supplement that of the husband was well-established. One notable change was that fewer women went into Domestic Service (maids, cleaners etc.) after 1945, mainly because there were many more job opportunities available than before the war, but also because the families who would have employed the young women could often no longer afford to do so.

Dennis O'Brien talks about the East Midlands Electricity Board services and new opportunities in 1956

Brass in pocket

Wages varied from sector to sector and factory to factory. According to the National Office of Statistics, the average gross weekly wage for full time manual work in 1945 was just over £6 for men and £3 4s for women. By 1962 it was £15 12s for men and almost £8 for women.[24] Another source quotes the average weekly wage rate in 1945 as £8, with earnings after overtime being close to £10, and almost £18 in 1962 with earnings after overtime being around £22.[25]

Nationally, average wages in the hosiery industry in 1955 were 246s 3d (around £12) for 45.6 hours for men and 118s 11d (around £6) for 41.1 hours for women.[26]

In the early 1950s Les Vann recalled earning 15s a week (75p) as an apprentice electrician working for TH Wathes. This rose to £8 a week in 1956 when he became a fully qualified electrician working a 50 hour week.[27] In Leicester in 1954 a bus driver’s basic weekly wage was £7 3s, which could be made up to £9 with overtime.[28]

In 1960, nationally, male manual workers were said to be earning just over £14 a week on average.[29]

So, while the average household income might be quite high – taking into account both parents might be working as well as some of the kids – individual wages might not be so good. Mary Chapman, interviewed for this project, recalls it was the late 1960s when she finally felt she had enough income to feel comfortable.

By 1962 Leicester’s economy was strong and there was work for everyone in a wide variety of industries. This period is remembered as a golden age, although there were signs of trouble, particularly in the footwear industry, for those who were looking. That said, all the problems that were to beset industry both national and locally were still several years away and, for most people, life in the 1960s in Leicester was as good as it ever had been.

Advertisement for Knitting Machinery by Bentley: The Komet Knitter

Advertisement for Knitting Machinery by Bentley: The Komet Knitter

Page compiled by Nidhi Saryal

[1] Leicester in the 20th Century p. 58

[2] 100 Years of Equity by SW Pepper, 1986. Equity Shoes Limited was the name taken by the Leicester Co-operative Boot & Shoe Manufacturing Society Limited in 1958.

[3] Leicester City Official Industrial Handbook, ED. J. Burrow & Co. Ltd., Cheltenham & London, 1947. p. 41

[4] Leicester City Official Industrial Handbook, ED. J. Burrow & Co. Ltd., Cheltenham & London, 1947. p. 38

[5] Leicester City Official Industrial Handbook, ED. J. Burrow & Co. Ltd., Cheltenham & London, 1947. p. 38

[6] Leicester City Official Industrial Handbook, ED. J. Burrow & Co. Ltd., Cheltenham & London, 1947. p. 40

[7] Leicester City Official Industrial Handbook, ED. J. Burrow & Co. Ltd., Cheltenham & London, 1947. p. 40

[8] Leicester in the 20th Century p. 65

[9] Leicester in the 20th Century p. 64

[10] Leicester City Official Industrial Handbook, ED. J. Burrow & Co. Ltd., Cheltenham & London, 1947. p. 49

[11] Leicester in the 20th Century p. 61

[12] Leicester in the 20th Century p. 61

[13] Leicester in the 20th Century p. 62

[14] Leicester in the 20th Century p. 63

[15] Leicester in the 20th Century p. 67-68

[16] Leicester City Official Industrial Handbook, ED. J. Burrow & Co. Ltd., Cheltenham & London, 1947. p. 63

[17] Leicester City Official Industrial Handbook, ED. J. Burrow & Co. Ltd., Cheltenham & London, 1947. p. 63

[18] Leicester City Official Industrial Handbook, ED. J. Burrow & Co. Ltd., Cheltenham & London, 1947. p. 63

[19] Leicester City Official Industrial Handbook, ED. J. Burrow & Co. Ltd., Cheltenham & London, 1947. p. 64

[20] Leicester City Official Industrial Handbook, ED. J. Burrow & Co. Ltd., Cheltenham & London, 1947. p. 64

[21] Leicester City Official Industrial Handbook, ED. J. Burrow & Co. Ltd., Cheltenham & London, 1947. p. 65

[22] Leicester City Official Industrial Handbook, ED. J. Burrow & Co. Ltd., Cheltenham & London, 1947. p. 65

[23] 20th Century Britain: Economic, Social and Cultural Change, edited by Paul Johnson, Longman, 1994, p.310

[24] From the NOS website at https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/earningsandworkinghours/adhocs/006301newearningssurveynestimeseriesofgrossweeklyearningsfrom1938to2016 (Accessed 25/08/2019)

[25] Index of Money Wage rates and earnings of Manual Workers in the UK, 1900-1968 quoted in Trends in British Society since 1900 edited by AH Halsey, Macmillan, 1972 p.121.

[26] The British Hosiery and Knitwear Industry by EA Wells, 1972, p. 121

[27] TH Wathes, a Century of Service by Colin Hyde, 2004, p.20

[28] Post War Leicester by Ben Beazley, Chapter 6.

[29] From https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/written-answers/1960/nov/29/national-average-wages (Accessed 22/08/2019)

Working Lives and Industry in Leicester 1945-1962