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Civic History: The Making of a City

Leicester’s civic status has had a turbulent past.

Although it was referred to in the Domesday Book as a ‘civitas’ – or city – it lost that status during the 11th century, when power struggles between the Church and the aristocracy led to Leicester’s civic demise.

For the next 800 years, Leicester – one of the most important places in Britain in terms of wealth, trade and religion – was known as a borough or town.

Ratae Coritanorum, later to become Leicester, was originally an important Roman military centre at the junction of the Fosse Way and the road from Colchester to the centre of the country. When the military frontier was pushed further to the north and west, Leicester became a civilian town with the standard grid iron street layout.

The best remains are of the bath house and its high back wall. The depth of the foundations below present street level shows how accumulations over the 1,500 years since Roman times have raised the height of the land.

There is a strong likelihood of continued occupation after the Romans withdrew to the south, though perhaps at a reduced population level.

A little later, Leicester was an important town in the Danish period, with its own mint. There is also firm evidence of a flourishing town at the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066 and the Domesday Book of 1086, with a recorded population of 2,000.

In Medieval times there was some re-aligning of the street layout from the Roman grid iron pattern but this would not have been deliberate.

Outside the city walls the Fosse Way ran almost straight to Lincoln from the East Gate and south-westwards towards High Cross from the West Gate. The New Walk shows the line from the South Gate. The road to the north was somewhat less distinct, running close to and across the marshes through which flowed the sluggish River Soar.

The town was still small and confined within the medieval walls, with the Castle, the Newarke, Blackfriars and White Friars as extra-parochial areas outside the jurisdiction of the town (see map).

The medieval Gild of Corpus Christi founded in 1343, which met in the Guildhall, had close links with the Church. The Gild had its location close to St Martin's and was the forerunner to the city council of today. The merchants ran the industrial and commercial life of the town and were, in effect, its unelected rulers.

The Church was also strong during the period. Leicester Abbey was a major monastic foundation to the north of St Margaret's Parish and owned extensive areas of land. All the villages that are now part of Leicester's suburbs - Belgrave, Evington, Knighton, Aylestone, Braunstone and the open areas of New Parks and Beaumont Leys - were completely separate at this time.

Transport links were always poor, with the main roads passing to the east (the A1), the south and west (A5) and the A6 to the north down the Soar Valley being subject to winter flooding.

Neither was the River Soar navigable, as it was too small and shallow. This made the import and export of goods very difficult, though this was partially solved by the construction of the Soar Navigation in the 1790s, first to Loughborough and then to Leicester. Gradually it was extended southwards to join up with the Grand Union Canal.

The 1832 Swannington to Leicester Railway enabled coal to be brought into the city at low cost and the Midland Counties Railway with its original station in Campbell Street followed in the 1840s.

The spread of steam power enabled factories to be established, especially along the riverside. The city became one with a large number of chimneys, the factories being concerned with engineering and the manufacture of boots and shoes and of hosiery and knitwear. Suburbs constructed for workers were rapidly built as speculative developments, especially in Belgrave, Highfields and the West End, with more substantial developments for the wealthy out along the main roads, especially the London Road in Stoneygate and Clarendon Park.

After much lobbying, city status was finally restored by King George V at the end of the First World War.


The King visited Leicester on 10th June 1919 to thank the town and her people for their contribution to the war effort.


More pictures from King George V's visit are available here.


Four days later, on 14th June 1919, the Home Secretary, Edward Shortt, wrote to the mayor of Leicester, informing him that: “His Majesty has been graciously pleased to approve the restoration of the town to its former status of a city.”

The See of Leicester – the diocese under the control of a bishop – was finally restored in 1926, and the Church of St Martin became the new city’s cathedral.

Some time later, the city applied to the King for permission for its mayor to be known as the Lord Mayor. The ‘Letters Patent’ required for the change of office were duly granted on 19th July 1928, making Alderman James Thomas the first Lord Mayor of Leicester.

After the First World War the city expanded with the construction of new housing estates, partly to replace unfit housing in the inner areas of the city and partly to house those who were moving in from the countryside. Large areas of land were taken into the area of the city and covered with housing on an extensive scale, including the Saffron and Braunstone Estates.

Also at this time industrial estates were first created, separating industry from the residential areas. Evington Valley was the first.

Since World War Two, a major development has been the growth of private car ownership and the problems that congestion has brought to the city.

Pressure on space has caused major redevelopment requirements and large areas of the city centre have been demolished and rebuilt. The suburbs have being relatively untouched, apart from the construction of the Outer Ring Road.

Pressures of population have also required major new residential growth in New Parks, Rushey Mead, Eyres Monsell, Evington, Thurnby Lodge, Netherhall, Beaumont Leys and Hamilton, as well as in areas outside the city boundary.

There has been major social change within the population structure of the city since the War. Citizens immigrating form other countries, including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Caribbean, now form a large percentage of the city's population.

These residents are making a major contribution to the industrial and commercial life of the city, especially via the creation of a myriad of small family businesses and participation in the professional life of the city.