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  3. Hosiery and heavy bombers; Leicestershire in 1939
A black-and-white photograph showing the cross tower at Ashby-de-la-Zouch.

Hosiery and heavy bombers; Leicestershire in 1939

In 1939, Leicestershire was a county with a thriving textile industry. During the War, it would be home to vital RAF training bases.

Explore Leicestershire on the eve of war in the 1939 Register

By the 1930s, the prosperity in Leicestershire that had accompanied the industrial revolution of the 19th century had begun to wane. Despite this, engineering continued to be a growth industry, employing some 13,500 people in 1939 compared to only 6,000 at the turn of the century.

The top four occupations of the period were in textiles, the raw materials for textiles, in the commercial world and finally personal services. Although the silk industry had died out in the 1860's, it revived considerably post-WW1, as skirts became shorter and there was more incentive to buy hosiery which could be seen. By 1939 there were some 33,310 insured hosiery employees in the city of Leicester, producing an estimated 25% of the nation’s demand. 

By 1939 there were some 33,310 insured hosiery employees in the city of Leicester, producing an estimated 25% of the nation’s demand.

A black-and-white photograph showing a shop on a street corner. There is a car parked on the street, and a bike leaning against a street lamp. Around the shop there are many tobacco advertisements.
Oakham, Shop in the Market Place 1932 Image: Mary Evans Picture Library/Francis Frith

With the outbreak of World War II in September 1939 the county found itself, like the rest of the nation, being forced to make rapid adaptations for wartime living. Royal Air Force Station Desford, less than seven miles outside Leicester, became an important Midlands airbase and training centre for British pilots. Causing a great furore at the time, the RAF also enacted a mock air raid over the city of Leicester in which fighter planes swooped low over residential districts and buildings, provoking a storm of complaints from local citizens in the process.

Causing a great furore at the time, the RAF also enacted a mock air raid over the city of Leicester in which fighter planes swooped low over residential districts and buildings, provoking a storm of complaints from local citizens in the process.

A sepia-toned postcard showing Rockingham Castle in the distance beneath a cloudy sky. In the foreground are long, low gardens - mostly grass, with wide pathways and some small bushes.
The Castle & Gardens, Rockingham , Market Harborough, Leicestershire, England. Image: © The Wentworth Collection/Mary Evans Picture Library

In September, not long after the official outbreak of War, Able Seaman Sid May of Braunstone become the first Leicester casualty of the conflict when a German U-boat sank the liner Athenia. Within the densely populated region of Leicester, concern arose about the city’s susceptibility to German bombing attacks. Every sixth house along residential streets was allocated a stirrup pump and a bucket of sand with instructions on how to deal with incendiary bombs. Unlike other industrial cities, however, Leicester was fortunate enough to face only a handful of bombing raids during the war.

Main image: The Cross at Ashby-de-la- Zouch, Leicestershire, England. Image: Mary Evans Picture Library

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