A brief history of Leicester

Dating back over 2000 years, Leicester is one of the oldest cities in England and has plenty to interest historians. The history of the origins of Leicester are, of course, lost in time. However, there are two main theories concerning the origin of the settlement now known as Leicester.

The first is that the name is derived from a Celtic one, Coriletav. This theory is supported by the name the Romans are known to have given the settlement, Ratae Corieltauvorum. The other theory is that a mythical British King, Leir, founded the settlement of Kaerleir around the same time as the Celts were supposedly in the area. King Leir, is supposed to be buried under the River Soar!

What we do know for sure is that around in 47 or 48 AD the Romans built a fort there and then by about 50AD a city had grown up around it. Ratae Corieltauvorum was important to the Romans as it was one of the key staging posts on a major Roman road, the Fosse Way, which linked what are now Exeter and Lincoln. Rapidly becoming a market town for local people and their produce, the settlement thrived on the trade that the Romans brought to the area. When the Romans left, moving North to conquer more of England, the settlement was well enough established to continue to prosper. The main feature still visible in Leicester of the Roman occupation is the Jewry Wall and its Bath House.

As with most of England, little is known of the history of Leicester during the Dark Ages following the departure of the Romans. The next significant event was in 680 when Leicester is known to have been given a Bishop; life in Leicester at this time seems to have been a good one with the settlement continuing to prosper. Artefacts have been found showing that Leicester, alongside its farming community, had cloth weavers, potters, blacksmiths and carpenters. The ninth century saw a down-turn in fortunes when the settlement fell to the Danish Viking invaders. The Bishop ran away which, for some canonical reason, left Leicester without a Bishop until the twentieth century.

The Norman Conquest sees Leicester mentioned in the Doomsday book as Ledcestre. This name is thought to have been derived from Ligeraceaster; a combination of Castra - Camp and Ligore - Legro, an early name of the River Soar. In medieval times Leicester was a city of some importance. With a population of some 1500 the Normans deemed it important enough to build a wooden fort, which in the 12th century was re-built with stone. As was custom in those days Leicester was ruled by an Earl. Unfortunately, in 1173 Robert - Earl of Leicester - rebelled against the King (Henry II), causing the citizens much suffering, indeed such was the King's wrath with Robert that many were killed. It was during the Middle Ages that Leicester became well known for the quality of the wool cloth it produced and the hosiery it made from the wool. At this time leather was also an important industry in Leicester, giving rise to its association with shoes and footwear.

In 1464 trade was so strong that the cities merchants managed to form a corporation and Leicester could from then on elect its own Mayor to run the town. By 1500 the population had doubled to 3000 and it continued to rise despite the frequent outbreaks of plague which could decimate the population of a town. In 1619 the town was granted a coat of arms. During the English Civil War Leicester declared itself for the Parliamentarians and was laid to siege by the Royalists in 1645 who, after breaching the town wall, again killed many of the inhabitants. At the beginning of the 18th Century the population had again doubled to about 6000 and the birth of the industrial revolution saw both the population and prosperity of Leicester flourish. By the end of the 18th Century the opening of the Soar canal in 1794 quite literally fuelled the boom in industry, by providing cheap and quick methods of transporting coal and iron into Leicester.

The first national census of 1801 gives the population of Leicester as 17,000. The town expanded rapidly and places that were once rural farms became subsumed in the city as boroughs. The Victorian era is accepted as being an age of enlightenment in terms of science and engineering. In 1832 Leicester got its first railway line and in 1857 got a line connecting it with London. Leicester got its first Public library in 1871, ten years later its first telephone exchange and in 1894 its first electric street lights. By the time of the 1901 census the population had grown to a staggering 210,000 with boot and hosiery manufacturing being the main source of employment. Civic pride must have been at an all time high during the Edwardian period when in 1919 Leicester was made a city by Royal Charter; in 1926 it regained its Bishop and a Cathedral and in 1928 had its first Lord Mayor. A period of light engineering expansion took place when the Imperial Typewriter Company set up premises in the city and between 1908 and 1950 the number of people employed in Light engineering in the city more than doubled from 6,000 to 13,500.

Leicester escaped any heavy bombing during the Second World War but a slum-clearance programme was instigated in 1945 to rid the city of much of the old housing built in the boom years of the previous century. At this time there were influxes of Jewish, Latvian and Polish refugees into the city. These were followed in the 1950s by West Indian immigrants and then in the 1960s the population was swelled by the arrival of Asian immigrants. The last major influxes of immigrants were mainly Indians who had been forced to leave Uganda in the early 1970s. Recently there has been a small community of Somali refugees arriving in the city, apparently drawn by its free and easy attitude and the number of Mosques within its boundaries.

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