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Sport & Leisure in Leicester, 1945-1962

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Sport & Leisure in Leicester, 1945-1962

Much of the information below came from material held by the Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester & Rutland.

This PDF is a printable version of this article that includes references - Sport & Leisure in Leicester, 1945-1962.pdf

Many of the videos linked to below can be seen on the EMOHA YouTube playlists - https://www.youtube.com/user/EMOralHistory/playlists


At the end of World War Two Britain had a large number of young, fit, healthy men and women who had experienced communal life in the military and were keen to continue the comradeship of that experience. For many people this meant joining a sports team or seeking out like-minded people in societies, groups and organisations. In the days before television a huge number of people took their leisure outside of the home and this webpage uses just a few examples to illustrate what people did with their spare time in the 1940s and 1950s.

How much spare time did people have? It depended on the work you did and what agreement you had with your company as to how much holiday you had and whether you were paid for that holiday. The 'Holidays with Pay Act' (1938) gave those workers whose minimum rates of wages were fixed by trade boards the right to one weeks’ holiday per year. Although this didn't cover all workers it did mean that many people were able to plan having more than just one or two days on holiday. It wasn't until the 1970s that many countries in Western Europe legislated for minimum paid vacations of two to three weeks and it was only in 1998 that the UK government implemented the EU Working Time Regulations granting workers 4 week’s annual leave.


The Major Sports

Attendance at cricket matches was huge in the summers after the end of the war and the visit of Don Bradman's Australian team in 1948 drew large crowds. However, sport was played throughout the war whenever possible and organised sport resumed soon after the war ended. In December of 1945 a New Zealand touring rugby team beat the RAF 11-0 at Welford Road in front of 10,000 spectators. The Leicester Mercury noted that the New Zealander's great quality was that they had 'weight and muscle - and they used it'. The war years had seen the Leicester Tigers Rugby Club fall into debt and during the 1950s into the 1960s the club was torn between wanting to maintain the old pre-war ethos – few amenities for spectators, facilities mainly for players – and the need to bring in more spectators. Gradually, the club modernised.

Link to 'Leicester Rugby - Leicester People' video - https://youtu.be/-Trb-ogRk5c

Leicestershire County Cricket Club moved to its current home at Grace Road after the war and benefitted from the post-war boom in cricket attendance. In the first post-war season of first class cricket, the 1946 touring Indian cricket team played 29 first-class fixtures with 11 wins, 4 defeats and 14 draws (Wikipedia). As the scorecard from the first two innings of their match against Leicestershire at Grace Road indicates, it must have been a bowlers' wicket. The match was drawn in the end. In the 1950s the Club experimented by taking county games to Ashby and Hinckley, and occasionally Barwell, Melton, Coalville & Loughborough, although this tailed off in the 1960s and 1970s.

Link to - Scorecard Leics v India 1946.pdf.
Link to information about the 1946 India Tour - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_cricket_team_in_England_in_1946

The first professional season of football after the war was the 1946/47 season. Leicester City FC's manager Johnny Duncan stated that after such a long lay-off it was difficult to predict what would happen, but he was hopeful and his aim was to provide a high standard of football by long-term planning and building. This almost paid off spectacularly in the Foxes' 1949 FA Cup run, which saw them beat the star team Portsmouth in the semi-final but lose to Wolverhampton Wanderers in the final. Leicester's unfortunate habit of losing FA Cup finals continued in both 1961 and 1963.

Link to memories of the 1949 FA Cup campaign - http://www.le.ac.uk/emoha/community/upforcup.html
Link to films of the 1949 FA Cup campaign and other matches - https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL3Rnsga7PXcsae_bIpxk9_vaYZzo_sSYu

The front page of Sports Mercury, Sept 7th 1946.

Leicester City FC made it to the FA Cup Final in 1949.

'Pen Pictures' of the squad for the 1949 FA Cup final.

Other sports

Sport was also reported a lot in the newspapers. At the end of August 1946, as summer sports were winding down and winter sports about to start, the Sports Mercury featured articles on football, cricket, rugby, bowls, athletics, golf, walking, snooker, boxing, swimming, tennis, cycling, greyhound racing, and horse racing.

Writing about boxing in August 1946 the Mercury's correspondent Tom Griffiths advocated the return of boxing to Granby Halls and noted that local promoter George Biddles, 'who before the war had one of the biggest strings of boxers in the country, now has only a couple in his management'. Biddles had moved on to setting up matches and was involved with shows resuming at Cossington Baths in the autumn of 1946. Boxing was very popular in Leicester and the East Midlands Oral History Archive holds several recordings with people who were involved with boxing before and after the war, most of which can be listened to online.

Link to recording with Mildred Biddles, wife of George Biddles - http://specialcollections.le.ac.uk/cdm/ref/collection/p15407coll1/id/91

Speedway started at Leicester in 1928 with the Leicester Stadium team entering the English Dirt Track League in 1929. However, by 1931 the track, beset with problems, closed. Speedway was also staged at a track known as Leicester Super off Melton Road. After World War II, speedway returned in 1948. The team were nicknamed the Leicester Hunters and ran under that name until closure in 1962.

By 1949 the Leicester Hunters speedway team was thriving. Races were at the track on Blackbird Road and there was a packed fixture list from April to October taking in events all over the country. Writing at the start of the 1950 season the new manager Squib Burton was optimistic about pushing further up the league and encouraging the club's youngsters. The team started in the National League Division Three and moved up over the years operating in the top flight for some time until the end of 1961.

Link to the history of the speedway stadium - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leicester_Stadium
Link to history of the Leicester Lions (from which some of the information above is taken) - http://leicesterlions.co/history

From September 1949 until 1954, the Leicester Query Motorcycle Club held grass track races at Mallory Park (at Kirby Mallory) on a disused pony trotting track. Tarmac was introduced in 1956 and over 20,000 people came to the opening of the new circuit. Famous names such as John Surtees and Mike Hailwood both won at Mallory Park in the following years and the venue continues to this day having celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2016.

Link to history of Mallory Park - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mallory_Park
Link to film of car racing at Mallory Park in 1957 - http://specialcollections.le.ac.uk/cdm/ref/collection/p15407coll2/id/5
Link to film of sidecar racing at Mallory Park in 1956 - http://www.macearchive.org/films/midlands-news-00071956-sidecar-racing

Cycling, both recreational and competitive, has been very popular in Leicestershire for many years. ‘Cycle Chat’ was the magazine for the Leicestershire & Rutland District Association Cyclist’s Touring Club and in the first issue in June 1959 it was noted that certain members of the Nomads (one of the cycling groups) were ‘intent on getting the section banned from certain catering establishments’ due to rowdy behaviour. A letter in the same edition suggests that while ‘teenagers will always be teenagers’, it was up to the more senior members of the section to set a good example.

The Leicester section of the Cyclist’s Touring Club was formed in 1896 and in 1925 the ‘standard ride’ became 130 miles in 12 hours (100 miles in 12 hours for the ladies). Rides were held throughout the Second World War although many members were in the armed forces. After the war, new sections were formed in Melton and Charnwood, and in 1955 the first ‘Cyclists Special’ rail excursion enabled associations from across the country to meet for races and rides. As well as the Cyclist’s Touring Club, the Leicester Forest Cycling Club was started in 1923 as the Keir Hardie Wheelers (Keir Hardie was the first leader of the Labour Party), and the Leicestershire Road Club was founded in 1909.

The Leicestershire Tennis and Squash Club is one of the oldest tennis clubs in the world, having started as the Leicester Lawn Tennis and Quoit Club in the 19th century. After the war this was one of many clubs affiliated to the Leicestershire County Lawn Tennis Association. The Association's 1951 handbook states that 'Our tennis equipment is rising in price - balls are dearer - everything carries heavy purchase tax, BUT all this will be forgotton the moment we get to the courts...'. However, some things never change and the huge demand for Wimbledon tickets is noted in the handbook. Applicants had to fill in a form and apply by post, and it was made clear there wouldn't be enough tickets to satisfy everyone. Prices were more expensive than the previous year and ranged from 6/- (30p) for the least popular days to 20/- (£1) for the Saturday of the men's final.

There were 64 clubs that were affiliated to the LTA in 1951 and they were a mixture of village, church, hospital and suburban organisations as well as many from companies. All of these groups had their own tennis courts, with only a few sharing facilities, and some of the companies owned their own sports grounds. These are the companies: Airborne Shoes LTC (Anstey), British United LTC (engineering), Brush Sports & Social Club (engineering, Loughborough), Dunlop (Leicester) Sports & Social Club, Electricity Sports LTC, Genatosan Social & Athletic Club (chemicals, Loughborough), Gent & Co LTC (engineering), Holwell Works LTC (iron foundry, Asfordby Hill), Imperial Typewriters LTC, Leicester Banks LTC, Leicester Co-Operative Employees LTC, Leicester City Police, National Gas Turbine Establishment Sports Club, Stead & Simpson (shoes), Symingtons (Market Harborough), Wolsey (clothing), YMCA.

For those who remember the heyday of industry in Leicester and Leicestershire it would come as no surprise to see so many company teams playing tennis. Most large companies sustained many sports teams for both men and women. While the hosiery firm Corah was one of the largest local companies with 4,500 employees in the 1950s, and should not be taken as typical, its in-house magazine, Encore, reported on the progress of the sports teams. At various points in the 1950s and 1960s these included angling, archery, bowls, cricket, football (men & occasionally women), hockey (women), judo, netball, table tennis and tennis (men & women).

Link to history of Leicester Tennis and Squash Club - http://leicestershire-tennis.co.uk/history-of-the-club/
Link to history of Oadby (Granville) Tennis Club - http://www.oadbytennis.co.uk/wordpress/history/
Link to Corah Encore magazines on My Leicestershire History (sport is on p.8) - http://specialcollections.le.ac.uk/cdm/ref/collection/p16445coll2/id/3471

In addition to the sports mentioned above, swimming, and athletics were also very popular. It's also worth noting that the first African-Caribbean cricket team started in 1948 and became the West Indian Sports & Social Club in 1957. Gradually, migrants from Ireland, South Asia, and the Caribbean got involved with, or formed their own, sports clubs.

Further reading:

'A Century of Cycling' by Eileen Johnson, Janet Jones & Ken Hoxley. A celebration of the history of the Leicestershire & Rutland District Association of the Cyclist's Touring Club.
'Bats of Willow & Balls of Leather. The History of Burbage Cricket Club' online at https://www.hinckleypastpresent.org/batsofwillow.html
'Highfields Rangers. An Oral History' by the Highfields Rangers Oral History Group and the Sir Norman Chester Centre for Football Research, University of Leicester. Published by the Living History Unit.
'On the Starting Line' by Jim Sharlott (1994). Written by the former athletics correspondent of the Leicester Mercury, this book charts the course of local athletics from its early days to its most recent years.
'Sporting Pat' by Nessun J Danaher. The story of sport in Leicester's Irish community since 1800.

Link to a history of swimming in Leicester by Chris Ayriss, the author of ‘Hung Out to Dry. Swimming and British Culture’ - https://youtu.be/T1jt6DFhpIs
Link to film that begins with shots of a sports day event at East Midlands Electricity Board sports ground, Aylestone Road, Leicester in 1958 - http://www.macearchive.org/films/pole-sports-leicester
Link to film of Leicestershire v. Royal Marines fencing match at Leicester in 1957 - http://www.macearchive.org/films/midlands-news-26011957-leicestershire-v-royal-marines-fencing-match


There were many groups, associations and societies in Leicester and Leicestershire before World War Two and most of these continued after the war, often with the new impetus from men and women fresh out of the military. These groups catered for people with interests in music, sport, natural history, radio, religion, politics, gardening, photography and many other subjects. This section will look at just a few examples to highlight the huge amount of 'associational life' of the post-war years.

Kelly's Directory of 1951 lists 24 clubs, 13 sports clubs (although there were clearly many more), 12 political clubs, and 17 working men's clubs in Leicester. There are also more than 140 'societies and associations' listed but these include many professional associations. Siobhan Begley has identified over 70 social organisations that were based in Leicester in 1938. Some of these are still going today, such as Leicester Magic Circle, some have changed their name, such as the Leicester Guild of the Crippled (now MOSAIC), and some seem to have gone, such as the Leicester Water Bed Association.

Groups such as the Leicester Archaeological and History Society, the Leicester Literary and Philosophical Society, and the Secular Society, have been in existence for many years and were flourishing before the war. Others, such as the Vaughan Archaeological and Historical Society (1947) were formed during or after the war. In the case of the Vaughan Archaeological and Historical Society, it was originally sponsored by Vaughan College, Leicester, and 75% of its members had to be students of that body. In 1955 the status was changed to that of an Associated Society and membership became open. There is a strong tradition of adult education in Leicester. The Worker's Educational Association (WEA) 'flourished' in Leicester and in the last year of the Second World War 126 classes were held with 2,555 enrolments.

For many young people their first taste of joining a group might have come through the local church or chapel youth club, or the scouts and guides. Recorded in 2017, June Davies recalls her social life as a teenager in the late 1940s:

“I went out every night... all to do with the church (Holy Trinity). Monday was, I can’t remember what it was called, but some sort of youth club, Tuesday was youth club, Wednesday was guides, Thursday was drama group, Friday was scouts and the guides all went and met the scouts, and Saturday was youth club again. It was purely table tennis, various games, they had a kitchen where we could have coffee and biscuits, or whatever, just socialising, just talking to each other, somewhere to meet. All quite innocent but very good fun.

“I went to the cinema every week, at least once… because there were five cinemas within five minutes’ walk. We were theatre minded so we went most weeks to the theatre, we went to the theatre a lot. We would go to the Opera House, the Palace, the Floral Hall, saw all the shows.”

Link to a film made to promote the work of a Methodist Association youth club at Market Harborough in Leicestershire in 1961 - http://www.macearchive.org/films/second-thoughts

The Capital T Club

Another example of a group that formed during and after the war was the 'Capital T Club', which was started in 1943 as a non-alcoholic meeting place for people in the services (the T is for Temperance). Located on the High Street this was one of several establishments created during the war to cater for members of the armed forces. By 1951 it had moved to 71 Granby Street and become a social club for young people. Janet Ingalls recalls that there were few places for young people to go after the war (most people say this) and the Capital T catered for both those who wanted to head off to Derbyshire rock climbing, pot holing or trekking, and those who preferred to chat over a cup of tea. She remembers being socialist - verging on the communist - and the Capital T was, for Janet, a place where left-leaning young people (people up to their early 30s, perhaps) could put the world to rights. One of the members was Colin Wilson, who gained a moment of national fame with the publication of his book ‘The Outsider’ in 1956. Recorded in 2017, Janet recalls:

“We would meet there and have very intense conversations about everything under the sun. I think we were very anti-establishment, had very little regard or deference for authority, I think… a bit rebellious, I think. We were all politically on the left, or at least the group I was associating with was politically on the left, and we certainly weren’t going to have society go back to where it was before the war if we knew anything about it.”

When it first started the Capital T Club ran a canteen.

The idea of the Club was to provide a place that men and women in the armed forces, some of whom were a long way from home, could come to for food and non-alcoholic drinks.

As well as a canteen there was a games room and a space for general chat.

Once the war finished the Club continued as a social club for young people.

The British Legion

The British Legion was formed after the First World War and to this day continues to provide support for ex-servicemen and servicewomen and their families. In 2011 the Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester & Rutland recorded the memories of local British Legion members. Speaking in 2011 Robert Hargraves describes the sporting activities going on in the village of Birstall in the late 1950s. As well as football and cricket teams the village also had a rugby club.

“The Legion ran two football teams and two cricket teams in the village itself, but also in the village there were the local village football and cricket teams, so there was a bit of rivalry going on. But most of us played for either because we virtually all had been to school together and it was that sort of camaraderie between the sports. You'd got to be an ex-serviceman (to join the Legion). Nearly all the serving members were basically officers or senior NCOs (non-commissioned officers), on the committee. My impression was, it was a gentleman's club. They didn't drink beer, they drank glasses of whiskey and suchlike - gentlemen.”

Like Working Men's Clubs, many branches of the British Legion had a clubhouse, often built by the local Legion, where members could drink, play games, and chat. Although there are still more than 30 branches in Leicestershire, many clubhouses have closed and in 2017 there are now no branches in the city centre other than the main office.

Working Men's Clubs

In contrast to social clubs that don’t serve alcohol, Working Men’s Clubs (WMCs) provide drink and entertainment and are members clubs, with committees, registered under the Friendly Societies Act of 1875. WMCs flourished in Leicester through the first half of the 20th century and created a variety of club buildings across the city. An initial emphasis on self-improvement and education gradually gave way to just providing leisure activities such as concerts, entertainment and the sale of food and drink, particularly after the Second World War.

Indeed, after the war WMCs faced similar challenges to many other leisure businesses. Slum clearances meant more people were moving out to suburban estates, cinema attendance reached a peak in the 1950s – the decade when there were most cinemas in Leicester - while the growth of television meant more people stayed at home for their entertainment. New WMCs were built in each of the new post-war housing estates, while almost all the older clubs renovated their premises to make them more modern and appealing. New designs included more comfortable bars and lounges, and larger concert halls (which provided work for many show business acts). Unlike pubs, children were allowed into the clubs and, thanks to changes in regulations in 1957, it became legal to use tombolas and give cash prizes, while in 1965 clubs could install fruit machines, enabling clubs to challenge the bingo halls and raise much needed money.

The 1951 Kellys Trade Directory lists 17 WMCs in Leicester and in 1981 a news report claimed that ‘The city had more clubs per square mile than anywhere else in Britain, but the recession and changing entertainment tastes caused a drop in customers’. Since then many clubs have closed but some are still going.

Further reading – ‘The Good Old Days? 1881-1981: One Hundred Years of Working Men’s Clubs in Leicester’ by Brian Hareling
Link to video about the Saffron Lane Working Men's Club and Institute – https://youtu.be/DyZ26SKxfAA
Link to history of Spinney Hills WMC - http://thespinneyuk.com/our-history/
Link to 1981 news report about WMCs in Leicester - http://specialcollections.le.ac.uk/cdm/ref/collection/p15407coll2/id/42

Leicester Drama Society

The Leicester Drama Society (LDS) was founded in 1922 and moved to their current premises, The Little Theatre on Dover Street, in 1930. Membership increased after the war and, for a while, rationing meant the canteen’s menu was limited and the Dover Castle pub served as the bar. In the 1940s and '50s the LDS mainly produced what would be thought of as conventional plays (Shakespeare, Shaw) and generally regarded its audience as ‘intelligent but anti-intellectual’ (no Strindberg or O’Neil), but it did produce John Osborne’s groundbreaking ‘Look Back in Anger’ in 1959, only three years after the play’s debut. In 1960 there was a production of Samuel Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’, which had premiered in London in 1955. It was ‘quite well attended’ although ‘there was the usual handful of customers who did not come back after the interval that we get when we present a play that outrages the conservative’. At this point The Little Theatre was the only theatre in Leicester as the Opera House had closed in 1953, the Theatre Royal in 1956, and the Palace in 1959. For a couple of years, if you wanted go to the theatre in Leicester, the Little Theatre was the only option. Professional theatre returned to Leicester in 1961 when the Living Theatre was set up in temporary premises and in 1963 the Phoenix Theatre was built (now the Sue Townsend Theatre).

Further reading – ‘Before My Time. The Story of the Leicester Drama Society’ by John Graham.
Link to film of Little Theatre opening after fire, 1958 - http://www.macearchive.org/films/midlands-news-13011958-little-theatre-leicester
Link to a history of theatres in Leicester - http://www.arthurlloyd.co.uk/LeicesterTheatresIndex.htm
Link to news report about The Living Theatre - http://specialcollections.le.ac.uk/cdm/ref/collection/p15407coll2/id/38

Natural History Groups

There are many natural history groups in Leicestershire, most of which started after the Second World War. The Leicester Literary and Philosophical Society (founded 1835) had a Geology Section from 1849 and started a Natural History Section in the 1960s. The Leicestershire & Rutland Ornithological Society (LROS) was also formed initially as a section of the Leicester Literary and Philosophical Society, in 1941, but soon formed an identity of its own. The Leicestershire & Rutland Wildlife Trust (LRWT), was founded in 1956 by a small group of naturalists and was originally known as the Leicestershire and Rutland Trust for Nature Conservation. The Loughborough Naturalists Club was started in 1960.

Many other groups have formed since the 1960s and there are now local specialist groups interested in moths, butterflies and insects, fungi, mammals, badgers, bats, botany etc. as well as branches of national groups such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). Since the war these groups have given many adults and children the opportunity to get out of their homes and engage with nature, and, if they were so inclined, to make lots of notes on moths, fungi, bats etc. In 2007 the Natural Heroes project recorded local natural historians. Recorded in 2007 for Natural Heroes, Hugh Dixon recalls the start of the LRWT:

“Ron Hickling was really the founding father of the Leicestershire & Rutland Wildlife Trust. He moved in those circles of Ted Smith, who was one of the founding fathers of the movement along with Max Nicholson, and they encouraged Ron Hickling to form a trust in Leicestershire & Rutland. After a few years I joined and Ron persuaded me to become treasurer of the Trust, which I remained for 30 years believe it or not. It was terribly small beer in those days, I mean they probably had about 50 members, or something like that, there were no nature reserves and no money so being treasurer didn’t amount to very much to begin with. Now, of course, we’ve got 12,500 members, or something like that, and own quite a lot of land and manage quite a bit more.”

What was on in Leicester in March 1956?

As today, each month there was a programme of talks, exhibitions and events that were open to the public. Open this What's On in Leicester in March 1956.pdf to see the full programme. As can be seen there were talks, lectures, exhibitions, and events covering a wide range of subjects: golf, classical music, French films, natural history, cine film, folk dance, verse speaking, health, photography, travel, show jumping, poetry, theatre, gramophone 'request nights', geography, museums, drama, adult education, debates, opera.



This project is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.


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