Further to the very real concern surrounding the fate of Leicester’s only surviving example of “one up – one down” housing at 1 Garden Street, I (Claire Wells) decided to look a little into the history of this building which dates possibly from 1810 onwards and the back-story of some of the people that lived there or were its neighbours.
The noted local Leicester historian Ned Newitt in his research tells us that the area surrounding 1, Garden Street was demolished in the slum clearances of 1931 there but that three buildings including number 1 escaped that fate and did so most likely because they were classed as commercial buildings at the time.
In the 1911 census James Cooper(70) and Maria Martin(61) were registered as living there; the former as an ‘elastic maker’ and the latter as a ‘housekeeper’. On digging around further the profession of ‘elastic maker’ was very much rooted in the city of Leicester. The elastic webbing industry dates in the city from 1839 when Caleb Bedells, an inventor from Abbey Mills, Leicester announced the production of ‘improved caouchouc webbing’; an innovative form of elastic first used in the design of braces, later adapted and used in the manufacture of gloves, boots and other garments. Early elastic web makers were always men like James Cooper whereas women were employed as winders,warpers and examiners in the factories.
In 1863 it was claimed that the webbing industry was responsible for the growth of Leicester although the hosiery and the boot and shoe industry must have been equally if not more important? In 1877 there were 47 firms specialising in the production of elastic webbing in and around the city and even as the industry declined in 1911 there remained some 10,000 workers producing 90% of the country’s elastic web products. The industry was set back understandably by World War One and did not substantially recover. The legacy of the industry exists today in the city in the form of elastic webbing manufacture of surgical and medical requisites.
In the 1911 census our one up-one down is listed as 1 Lower Garden Street, thus over time possibly as a consequence of the slum clearance and the disappearance of streets our street has come to be known simply as Garden Street.
Next door at 3 Lower Garden Street Thomas Robinson (55) is registered living with Lizzie Lovell(42), he, as a licensed hawker ‘working on his own account’ from home and she as ‘housekeeper’. Next door to them at 5 Lower Garden Street lived John and Catherine Barrows aged 58 and 54 respectively and their son Alfred(17). In 1911 they had been married 37 years with tragically only 7 of the 12 children born to them still living. John was a ‘trimmer in dye works’ and Alfred listed as a ‘rope maker.’ Next door to them at no. 7 were the ‘flower sellers’ Michael and Alice Pearce originally from London and their two children.
Ned Newitt informs us further that according to the Leicester Chronicle of Saturday 16th August 1873 that sadly three deaths from small pox there were reported. Later on he finds in November 1884 two ‘disorderly characters’, namely Sarah Ann Sleath and Elizabeth Good of 1, Garden Street who were ‘charged with being disorderly prostitutes in Belgrave Gate on a Saturday night’. They were found ‘surrounded by a crowd’ and later ‘sentenced to 21 days hard labour’ for their crimes. In 1901 John White born in 1852 a general labourer is living there with Agnes his wife and son Alfred a ‘bottle washer’.
Much later in 1968 the house is noted as having a change of use from a taxi booking office to ladies’ hairdressing salon and finally in 1980 the shop is being used for ‘cultivation and retail sale of beansprouts’ (strangely enough).
Given that we are able to place some of the people who lived there around the middle and turn of the century and later, 1 Garden Street must be a wonderful resource opportunity and legacy going forward as a small museum or somesuch for the city of Leicester. The saving of these one up -one downs in the city is a good idea and allows us to bear witness through telling the story of 1 Garden Street to a very important part of our industrial heritage which risks being lost forever. We surely owe it to future generations as the custodians of the present to do so.
Research undertaken from British History Online;The City of Leicester, Elastic Web manufacture.
With thanks and grateful acknowledgement to Ned Newitt.