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A black-and-white photo showing a large church, with low Roman ruins in the foreground.

The UK's sock capital; Leicester in 1939

Leicester in the 1930s was undergoing a huge slum clearance project, along with the building of thousands of new council homes.

Explore 1930s Leicester in the 1939 Register

Leicester is one of Britain’s oldest cities, dating back to Roman times, as evidenced by the city's Roman pavements and baths. In the 19th century, the newly constructed rail and canal network provided a stimulus for industrial growth, and Leicester became a major economic centre with a variety of manufacturers engaged in engineering, shoe-making and hosiery production. This was still the case in 1939.

Leicester is one of Britain’s oldest cities, dating back to Roman times.

Leicester officially became a city in 1919 and was given a cathedral and a bishop in 1927. The 1920s and 30s saw a large-scale programme of council house construction in and around Leicester. At the same time, slum clearance began in earnest and many slums were demolished in St Margaret’s parish.

Thanks to its diversified economic base and industrial strength the city was in a far better position than many other regions of the UK to withstand the ravages of the 1930s Great Depression. 

In fact, in 1936 the Bureau of Statistics of the League of Nations identified Leicester as the second-richest city in Europe. It therefore became an attractive destination for refugees fleeing persecution and political turmoil across continental Europe. 

In fact, in 1936 the Bureau of Statistics of the League of Nations identified Leicester as the second-richest city in Europe

A black-and-white photograph showing a small shop by the side of a road. The shop is covered in adverts like 'Leicester Mercury' and 'Packer's Chocolates', and newspaper headlines. A small stand of postcards is out in front.
Advertising outside a Leicester shop, using all available space. Image: Mary Evans Picture Library/TOWN & COUNTRY PLANNING

The city escaped heavy bombing during the majority of the Second World War; however, on 19 November 1940, bombs were dropped on Highfield Street and Saxby Street killing 40 people.

If you were a working resident of Leicester in 1939, you’d most likely be employed in the following sectors or roles:

  • Textile Goods and Article of Dress manufacture
  • Commercial
  • Personal Services
  • Clerks and Typists

Today, the most common job in Leicester is listed as 'professional', followed by working in science or in a technical role.

In 1939 the population of Leicester stood at 239,169. A significant extension of the city took place in 1935, with Leicester incorporating Evington, Humberstone, Beaumont Leys and part of Braunstone. Today its population stands at 329,839.

A poster for 'Leicester Palace' in bold red, yellow, and black colours. In the centre of the poster is a small black-and-white image of Laurence Olivier and Penelope Dudley Ward. Below this are the dates for their next show, 'Moscow Nights'.
Poster for Moscow Nights at the Leicester Palace Theatre, starring Laurence Olivier and Penelope Dudley Ward. Image: Mary Evans Picture Library

Since 1939, health and well-being has improved considerably. Back then the average life expectancy was just 61.37 for men and 65.6 for women. Today across the county of Leicestershire, it’s 79.7 for men and 83.5 for women.

Famous Leicester figures from the time include the Attenborough brothers. They were residing at the University of Leicester Campus in 1939, where their father was Principal.  It was here that David Attenborough discovered his love of wildlife through sitting in on university lectures during his childhood.

Famous Leicester figures from the time include the Attenborough brothers...It was here that David Attenborough discovered his love of wildlife through sitting in on university lectures during his childhood.

In sports news from 1939, an open air boxing match between Eric Boon and Len Wickwar, held at Leicester Tigers Rugby Club, saw hundreds of spectators running for cover to escape the downpour. Local lad Wickwar was eventually knocked out by champion Boon in the ninth round.

In football, 1939 proved a bad year for Leicester City Football Club after they were relegated from the Football League First Division. The Foxes finished bottom of the table.

Main image: The Jewry Wall and Roman Forum at Leicester, one of the finest monuments of Roman Britain, with St. Nicholas' Church (also partly made from Roman materials. Image: Mary Evans Picture Library

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