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Shops & Shopping in Leicester, 1945-1962

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Shops & Shopping in Leicester, 1945-1962

This PDF is a printable version of this article that includes references - Leicester Shops & Shopping.pdf


In terms of where people shopped in Leicester, most of the 1940s and 1950s wasn’t much different from the 1930s. Shops in the city centre and in the urban neighbourhoods remained very similar and the main difference was in what people consumed. Rationing meant that few people had much choice regarding food, clothes and furniture - bread came off the ration in 1948, furniture in 1952, sweets and sugar in 1953, and all food rationing finally stopped in the summer of 1954. For the basics most people used local neighbourhood shops where, due to a lack of refrigeration, they shopped for food on a daily basis.  The stability of these neighbourhoods, and an indication of how often the shops were used, is illustrated by the number of people who can still list many of their local shops and the people who ran them.

From the early 1950s onwards slum clearance in many inner city areas cleared houses, shops and pubs alike, but in the city centre the number and variety of shops, cafes, pubs and clubs changed little until the 1960s. Then, a combination of changing leisure and shopping habits, along with planning decisions that redeveloped large sections of the city, signalled the start of the end of the ‘old’ Leicester of plush department stores and fine cafes.

The large stores

Judging from the oral histories in the East Midlands Oral History Archive, the shops that are remembered most fondly are the large, upmarket department stores such as Marshall & Snelgrove’s (formally Adderleys, where WH Smiths is on Gallowtree Gate), Joseph Johnsons (later Fenwicks), Simpkin & James and others, all of whom had been trading since before the war. While many people couldn’t afford to shop regularly in these stores, they were useful for treats or for window shopping. For cheaper shopping the Co-op had many branches around the city as well as a huge store on the High Street. In addition there were many national names such as Woolworths, Marks & Spencer, Boots, Sainsbury etc. and a Lewis’s (not John Lewis) on Humberstone Gate that was renowned for its Christmas decorations.

While we might think of these large shops as ‘Department Stores’ only a few are listed as such in the 1954 Kellys trade directory. Many familiar names are listed as drapers, including Morley & Sons and Gee Nephew, as well as a host of small companies and individuals. By 1960 more stores are listed as ‘Department Stores’, including British Home Stores, Morgan & Squire, and WA Lea & Sons.

PDF files - department stores in 1954, department stores in 1960, drapers in 1954, drapers in 1960
Link to Simpkin & James video - https://youtu.be/rFUXwiWEdzI
Link to oral history about Simpkin & James - http://specialcollections.le.ac.uk/cdm/ref/collection/p15407coll1/id/300
Link to 'The Story of Simpkin & James' in the Leicestershire Historian - https://www.le.ac.uk/lahs/downloads/LeicestershireHistorian-Vol.2No.7-1976.pdf

Gradually, the individual service of the larger stores gave way to self-service, but this had been happening since before the war. The idea of self-service had been developed in 1916 in the USA by the marvellously named Piggly Wiggly store. In the UK many people had got used to serving themselves in cafeterias during the Second World War. After the war, Marks & Spencer opened a self-service department in London, while many Co-op stores developed self-service grocery sections after the war and into the 1950s.

The Market

All of this is not to forget Leicester’s main market. The wholesale fruit and vegetable market was based in Halford Street until the late 1960s, but the market that most people used was where it is now and has been for hundreds of years. Holmes Café provided refreshments. The main changes to the structure of the market had already happened when it was covered with a permanent roof in the 1930s. Redevelopments opened up the area in front of the Corn Exchange in the later 1960s. The market was originally a three day market operating on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. After the war, the ‘off days’ – Monday, Tuesday and Thursday – filled with traders getting rid of surplus stock and selling second hand goods until the market traded six days a week, as it does now.

Link to Leicester Market video - https://youtu.be/iuXMmFPVuE0
Link to oral history recording of Barry Holmes (Holmes Cafe) - http://specialcollections.le.ac.uk/cdm/ref/collection/p15407coll1/id/349
Link to oral history recording of Bert Mason, manager of Leicester Retail Markets in 1933 - http://specialcollections.le.ac.uk/cdm/ref/collection/p15407coll1/id/38


The BBC started transmitting television programmes after the war in 1946 and a £2 television licence was introduced. At the end of 1949 the Sutton Coldfield television transmitter opened in the Midlands, making it the first part of the UK outside London to receive the BBC Television Service. The Queen’s Coronation in 1953 boosted sales of television sets but there wasn’t much to see compared with today. More choice arrived with the start of ITV in 1955. BBC 2 started in 1964. Comparing the trade directories of 1954 and 1960 it is clear that there was an increase in shops selling televisions, radios and electrical goods. When local firm TH Wathes celebrated their 50th anniversary in 1953 they showcased their salesroom on the High Street where they sold refrigerators, televisions, food mixers and a variety of modern conveniences.

PDF files - TV sales, supplies etc in 1954, TV sales, supplies etc in 1960
Link to oral history recording of Norman Pilgrim, electrician - http://specialcollections.le.ac.uk/cdm/ref/collection/p15407coll1/id/122


Most of the large stores had cafes but there were many smaller ones as well. From the 1890s JS Winn ran a chain of cafes that included the Oriental (Market Place, closed 1955), Turkey (Granby Street, still there), the Café Royal (44 London Rd, demolished 1974), the Sunset Café (7 Haymarket, demolished 1964). Winn’s made their own cakes in Bath Lane but JD Bennett suggests standards declined during the Second World War and never recovered. Recorded in 2017, Marjorie Lord remembers the Oriental Cafe:

“It was a lovely little café really. It always had blue and white teapots in the window arranged in different ways. Their speciality was these cream buns, they were just ordinary buns but they’d got a slice in them and the cream was in the middle. We always had a coffee and a cream bun.

“We had our wedding reception at the Oriental, because they had a, well, you’d call it a guest room or something you could hire… and it was all oak panelling and the Café was all oak panelling as well, you see. They did the catering but we could only have certain things. We couldn’t have a starter, we had tomato juice for a starter, and we just had a slice of ham and lettuce, and some rolls. It was very meagre because it was still rationed, still short, you know, they could only do certain things.”

Moreton’s Café in Hotel Street (closed 1955) had live music and was celebrated for its pork pies and sausages, while The Mikado Café at 67 Market Place (closed 1966) is remembered for the smell of roasting coffee beans. There were many other cafes of varying sizes and reputations, but those dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries are remembered for fine food, music and personal service that newer establishments didn’t match.

An interesting development that can be seen in the 1960 trade directory is the appearance of two Chinese restaurants, the Chequers Chinese Restaurant at 56 Humberstone Gate and the Chinese Temple Gardens Restaurant at 58 Rutland Street. These were soon to be followed by Indian restaurants, the first of which was the Taj Mahal, which was opened in Highfields Street in 1960 by Noor Ahmed.

PDF files - cafes & restaurants in 1954, cafes & restaurants in 1960
Link to video of Winn’s cafes - http://specialcollections.le.ac.uk/cdm/ref/collection/p15407coll2/id/19
Link to oral history recording of Alice Heighton taking about Winn's cafes - http://specialcollections.le.ac.uk/cdm/ref/collection/p15407coll1/id/443
Link to 'Leicester Cafes' in the Leicestershire Historian - https://www.le.ac.uk/lahs/downloads/LeicestershireHistorian-Vol.2No.10-1979-80.pdf

Places for young people

Other than the local youth club or cinema there were few places for teenagers to go in Leicester before the 1960s. Chris Hill recalls that, as a teenager, her favourite Banners Milk Bar, on London Road by Victoria Park (also on Belgrave Gate), was superseded by Brucciani’s on Horsefair Street, which was more central and convenient.

It was only in the later 1950s that El Casa Bolero was opened on Castle Street by Olga and Leslie Pepper. This boasted the city’s first espresso machine and was the first of the coffee bars in Leicester. It was followed by the Espresso Bar on New Bond Street and others until, by the mid 1960s, there was a thriving coffee bar scene. When the Leicestershire & Rutland Topic reported on this in 1964 they visited El Casa Bolero, The Chameleon (King Street), The Hungry I Pancake House (Freeschool Lane) and El Paso (Princess Road). Local jazz musician Maurice Coleman is pictured duetting with Cecile Green at The Chameleon. Each of these cafes catered for different sections of the older teenage market.

Link to videos about coffee bars in London - https://youtu.be/rW5Oi_gX0dk


There were many pubs in Leicester before the slum clearances and central redevelopments of the 1950s and 1960s. These varied from 18th century coaching inns in the city centre to suburban pubs built for the new housing estates (Chris Pyrah notes 15 pubs were built in the late 1930s).

Pyrah also states that the main change in Leicester’s pubs came in the late 1950s with the start of closures that led to as many as 112 pubs closing between 1950-1970 and only 27 new ones opening. Some of this can be accounted for by slum clearance and redevelopments but large breweries often took over smaller breweries and closed unprofitable pubs. Newer pubs were often big and were built to cater for large estates, while restrictions lifted in 1964 enabled many rooms to be knocked into one with a subsequent loss of atmosphere and character in older pubs.

PDF files - pubs in 1954, pubs in 1960
Link to Chris Pyrah's photo collection of old pubs of Leicester on Flickr - https://www.flickr.com/photos/chrisdpyrah/albums
Link to silent film of an Asian publican in 1962. Does anyone recognise the pub? - http://www.macearchive.org/films/midlands-news-20121962-asian-publican-leicester

Drive in bank & post office

Much of the above could be written of any town of comparable size in this period, but there is one feature of Leicester’s shopping landscape that is unique. In 1959 the country’s first drive-in post office was opened, closely followed by one of the first drive-in banks.

The post office was in the new Wharf Street Telephone Exchange building next to the site of the soon-to-be-built Lee Circle car park. The idea was that the customer stayed in their car while a tray extended towards them to enable transactions to take place. Unfortunately, the post office didn’t prove popular. It wasn’t centrally located, the road through the Exchange could act as a wind tunnel, and people often stopped too far from the tray. Only a few years later it was barely being used.

Information about the drive-in post office comes from the British Postal Museum & Archive Blog - https://postalheritage.wordpress.com/2013/02/04/the-first-drive-in-post-office-in-the-united-kingdom/

The drive-in bank was in the Charles Street branch of Martin’s Bank, next to the Royal Standard pub. It was built as a response to a rival bank opening a drive-in in Liverpool and, although it suffered from similar issues to the drive-in post office – wind tunnel effects etc. - Martins persevered and the drive-in survived until 1988.

Information about the drive-in bank comes from the Martins Bank website - http://www.martinsbank.co.uk/Leicester%20Drive%20In%20Bank.htm

What happened next?

By 1962 the shops and shopping habits of pre-war Leicester were mostly intact, although change had been happening and more was to come. National High Street names such as Woolworths, Boots, Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury etc. thrived while others fell by the wayside. Fenwicks bought Joseph Johnson in 1962 and continued on Market Street until 2017. Marshall & Snelgrove’s wonderful building was demolished in the late 1960s with only the Market side façade surviving; Simpkin & James closed with much lamenting in the local media in 1971.

The future arrived in Leicester in the shape of a multi-storey car park and supermarket at Lee Circle.  In 1961 the multi-storey car park at Lee Circle was completed at a cost of £750,000. It could accommodate 1,050 cars. When the first Tesco supermarket outside of London opened on its ground floor another change in shopping habits was marked. You could park in what was known as the ‘Auto Magic Car Park’ and shop in the latest self-service supermarket – made very popular by Tesco’s use of Green Shield stamps. These stamps could be redeemed for gifts and were a way of getting round government controls on prices (Retail Price Maintenance) that were eventually dropped in 1964, thus enabling the larger chains to cut prices. Of course, this caused many smaller shops to go out of business. The whole experience was extremely modern and a world away from popping out to the corner shop in a terraced street. A ten pin bowling alley was also built and for a brief moment Lee Circle was the place to be in Leicester. In the 1963 film ‘Two Town Mad’ Ray Gosling described the bowling alley as clean and classless and was clearly fascinated by the automatic barriers and modern design of the car park.

Link to film of reactions to the new Tesco in 1961 - http://www.macearchive.org/films/midland-montage-14121961-new-tesco-supermarket
Link to 'Drive in and Buy' video of Lee Circle, 1961 - https://youtu.be/S0X1OzCH6i4

In 1967 the first Woolco superstore (and one of the first of its kind nationally) opened in Oadby on the site of the current Asda. This signalled the beginning of the out of town superstore that eventually led to shopping centres such as Fosse Park, and is a subject for another day.

The following advertisements were all taken from 1956 editions of the Leicester Graphic, whose readership included many people who had enough money to spend on the latest modern conveniences.


This project is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.


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Last updated: 09/06/2017
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