The Wheatsheaf Works, Leicester

CWS Wheatsheaf Works c1913

“Just where the town of Leicester melts into its open, beautifully green pastures, stands the finest boot and shoe factory in the whole world. The outward appearance of the structure is imposing, and combined with its noble proportions there is a lightness, an airiness, and a brightness about the whole place that is almost unknown in ordinary factories. Here we have a grand combination of sweetness, light and industry, and a wonderland of machinery, controlled by male and female operatives, who work in a pure atmosphere, with abundance of daylight and hundreds of shaded electric lamps.”  (Co-operative Wholesale Society Annual, 1900)

John Butcher
John Butcher brought the CWS factories to Leicester

The Wheatsheaf Works was built by the Co-operative Wholesale Society in 1891. It claimed to be the largest shoe factory in the British Empire and cemented Leicester’s position as the UK’s largest centre of footwear manufacture. The Wheatsheaf Works supplied boots and shoes to Britain’s co-op shops where the profits were ploughed back into lower prices. It aimed to combine the latest production technology with good conditions of employment for its workers. The driving force behind the venture was John Butcher who had brought the first CWS shoe factory to Dun’s Lane, Leicester in 1872

In the late 1880s,  the two existing CWS shoe factories in Leicester were not meeting demand. Yet despite their great success, shoe manufacturers were worried by the growing competition from the United States. This fear of an 'American invasion' was exploited by American machinery suppliers who used it to sell the most modern machinery and production systems to British shoe manufacturers.

1896 Wheatsheaf Works
The Wheatsheaf Works from the 1896 CWS Annual

In 1889, John Butcher went to the U.S.A. to see the latest shoe machinery and study the American methods of shoe production. On his return, he embodied the American approach in his proposals for a new factory. The new methods demanded a much larger factory built principally on one floor so the different processes of shoe making could mechanised. Butcher argued that this set up would eventually bring work ‘indoors’ to the factory and thus abolish the unhealthy working conditions and cheap labour of homeworking.  At that time there were still 400 people working for the CWS in Leicester as homeworkers.

The abolition of homeworking had the full support of the union. One official described how finishers could often employ four a five boy labourers and could really make them ‘sweat’ with heavy loads. However larger factories did not end the practice relying on the cheap labour of young people, according to another official, some factories employed so many young girls that at mealtimes they looked like a school.

CWS Wheatsheaf factory
The CWS Wheatsheaf factory from Knighton Fields Road c1897 (ROLLR)

THE NEW FACTORY

The CWS acquired a six-acre site for the new factory and it lay just outside Leicester’s boundaries in the rural surroundings at Knighton Fields. The CWS architect Phineas Heyhurst (1850-1911) provided the design, the clerk of the works was Isaac Mort (1854–1925) and all the building work was carried out by the C.W.S. building department.  The factory was a substantial red brick building which formed a rectangular perimeter around a central, single storey, production area. The four sides were built in the Neo-Jacobean style complete with terra-cotta decoration and gables topped with ornamental balls. The brick walls were 14 inch thick courses of Flemish bond brickwork relieved with Derbyshire stone and the roof was in Welsh slate.

terra cotta detail
Terracotta detailing seen during 2012 renovation (Yorrick, 28 Days Later)
Ornaments - Wheatsheaf Works
Terracotta ornaments seen during renovation in 2012 (Yorrick, 28 Days later)

Although the façade to Knighton Fields Road is two storeys high, the rest of the building is really three. The 30 foot wide ground floor or basement runs around the building on all four sides. The second or top floor was the same width as the basement and was built on iron columns and girders so as not to interfere with the main floor.  The 16 feet high ceilings on the ground floor gave a feeling of spaciousness and airiness to the factory and the rooms on each level were open end to end in order to create a healthy atmosphere. The factory was arranged so that no time could be lost passing the work from one stage to the next and the latest improved American machinery had been purchased and the aim was to eventually mechanise the whole process of shoe manufacture.

The main room of the Wheatsheaf Works
The main room of the Wheatsheaf Works looking towards Knighton Fields Road.(Leicester Co-operative Congress Souvenir, 1915)

At the heart of the factory was its main room which covered an area of 6,600 sq yards and was where 700 people worked. This central room housed the clickers, the finishers and the lighter machines. Ranged around this space were other departments or rooms which included lasting, welting, treeing, sorting and the leather stock rooms. The area was roofed with a saw-toothed iron and glass roof which provided north light in the manner of a ‘Lancashire weaving shed.’ The roof was supported by a system of distinctive metal girders. The ground floor and part basement was for receiving and forwarding goods, riveting, press and storage rooms and its street level entrance on Wordsworth Street gave access to a five ton weighbridge

CWS Works Leicester - west wing
Part of the west wing of the Wheatsheaf Works with ceramic lettering in 2013. (Goldie87, Derelect Places)
Machinists at work c1913
Machinists at work in the closing room. (Percy Redfern The Story of the C.W.S., The Jubilee History of the Co-operative Wholesale Society 1863-1913)
An upper floor of the factory
An upper floor of the factory in 2014 (Philip Goodger)
CWS Wheatsheaf factory - stitching room
A view of the 330ft long stitching room where 400-500 women worked. c1897. (Co-operation in Leicester, 1898)

The name of the factory was emblazoned in white ceramics on top of the west elevation so it could be seen from the railway. The first floor on this side of the building was designated as the machine stitching room and here  400-500 women worked in one long room. With windows on both sides and a skylight, the machinists’ work was well lit. There were apparently separate male and female staircases to access this part of the building. The upper floor of the wing on Knighton Fields Road was a ‘ready closed upper’ department where the flat leather was shaped. The wing fronting Cowper Street was to be a stock-room for manufactured goods, whilst that on Wordsworth Road was to be used for making cardboard boxes. Here the street level entrance gave access to a five ton weighbridge.

Main door - Wheatsheaf 1891
The main door on Knighton Fields Road in 2012 (Yorrick, 28 Days Later)
The managers office (Matt Allen)
The manager's office in 2009 (Matt Allen)

The original main entrance was presumably for staff rather than workers and was close to the south-east comer of factory on Knighton Fields Road. This entry, faced in  stone, carries the date 1891 on the lintel. The offices were also on the ground floor of this side of the factory. A glazed and panelled screen, painted in cream and chocolate brown, separated the staff section from factory proper. In the middle was a canted feature which was the manager’s office. In the basement under the offices were separate dining rooms for both sexes complete with ‘independent approaches.’

CWS lasting room
Workers in the lasting room c1897. (ROLLR)
The two engines named Equity and Industry which were used for driving machinery and generating electricity. (Co-operation in Leicester, 1898)
Wheatsheaf offices
The offices at the Wheatsheaf Works (Co-operation in Leicester, 1898)

Power was provided by two separate 150 hp steam engines, named Industry and Equity, housed in the boiler house (now demolished) near to Wordsworth Road. One engine drove the machinery and the other worked two dynamos generating the electricity for the incandescent lamps which lit the building. As time progressed, steam power was phased out in favour of electricity. The factory was heated by a warm air heating system powered from the boiler house. The hot air passed from the boilers along pipes to a 6 feet high fan which forced air through a series of brick tunnels below the basement floor and then rose to all parts of the factory through a series of vertical brick ducts. According to the CWS in 1900: “a noticeable feature of this factory is the entire absence of dust;” apparently various machines were connected to pipes by which the dust was drawn out of building and deposited outside.

The western side of the Wheatsheaf Works shown with artistic disregard for scale and distance. The boiler house is prominent and the clock tower is yet to be added. (1903 CWS Annual)

Work commenced on the Wheatsheaf Works in the early part of 1890 and it was opened on November 4th, 1891 by Thomas Hind who was a member of the CWS Board and Leicester’s Town Council. The Leicester Co-operative Society provided a meat tea for 1,300 guests at one sitting which was the largest tea party ever held in Leicester. The Wheatsheaf Works was claimed to be "the finest boot factory in the kingdom" and the largest in the world. Adjoining the factory was nearly four acres of nicely turfed ground which became a recreation and cricket ground for the workers. The actual cost of the building, exclusive of the land, was £32,000.

1897 CWS advert
An advert for Wheatsheaf gaiters from the 1897 CWS Annual

Settling In

Initially, production at the Wheatsheaf did not run as smoothly as was hoped. In March 1892 the finishers at Knighton Fields went on strike over the alleged tyranny of a foreman and they were followed by workers in other departments. The strikers won and the foreman was moved to another job in the factory. According to Percy Redfern the issue of mechanisation underlay the dispute. 

In July, there were serious problems in fulfilling orders and the plant made a loss. The CWS board rather hastily made a public statement blaming the workers, claiming that they were restricting output. The union and individual workers said this was simply not true. One worker said the real explanation was that as the machinery had only just been put down and the men were new to the work, they were still only learners. Consequently they could not turn out as much work as the management expected. Another worker said that as they had to stand up to work, instead of sitting down, older workers were not physically capable of performing so much. William Lowe (a member of the NUBSO executive) said he believed the true explanation was that ‘some gentleman’ had been to America had brought the machines over and because they did not quite come up to expectations, the men were blamed.

The finishing room c1897
The finishing room (Co-operation in Leicester, 1898)

Outside of the Wheatsheaf Works similar introductions of machinery had created suspicion and hostility upon a grand scale. This culminated in the employers’ lockout of 1895 when 46,000 shoe workers were locked out for six weeks. According to Percy Redfern: Those who were distressed by the relatively slight C.W.S. disputes might then have taken heart from the sight of the Wheatsheaf Works remaining at peace with its 2,000 employees.

It is obvious that the artist who made this engraving had never seen the Wheatsheaf factory, since the ground is shown flat and the Knighton Fields elevation is shown as three storeys. He probably worked from the architectural drawings. (1905 CWS Annual)
cigarette card
A cigarette card isued as part of a set co-operative buildings & works by C.W.S Tobacco Ltd in 1916
Wheatsheaf work
A view of the western side of the factory before the addition of the clock tower,
Wheatsheaf clock tower
The Wheatsheaf clock tower in 2011 (Ashel Dance -Geograph)

The Clock Tower

The landmark clock tower was added about ten years after the factory opened. The records of the John Taylor Bell Foundry in Loughborough show that they delivered the bell for the tower in 1904, which is most likely to be when the clock tower was added. The tower had a striking clock powered by clockwork which had four faces. It could be seen for miles around and became known as the “Wheatsheaf Clock." It was restored in 1945 by N. Ball & Son, Wharf Street when it was probably converted to electricity.

The tower followed the local obsession with clock towers. These include: the Corn Exchange (1856), Haymarket Memorial Clock Tower (1868),  Gas Works on Aylestone Road (1879),  the Cattle Market. (1872), the Lancaster Road Fire Station (1927) and Victoria Park Pavilion (1958).

The John Taylor foundry in Loughborough made the bell for the clock tower in 1904. (Philip Goodger)
Wheatsheaf clock
The clock tower in 2016 (Clock This)

Roads were laid out round the factory and private builders soon put up houses in the surrounding area.  The CWS Annual for 1896 noted how others had reaped rewards from the Co-op’s investment:
The demand for dwellings for these employees has doubled and even quadrupled the value of the land in the district. But, although the action of co-operators caused this increase in value, they have not reaped the benefit, because they did not own the land; and individual landed proprietors have reaped this enormous unearned increment, while the co-operators who created the value have got nothing. 

CWS Upper Leather Room
The upper leather room at the Wheatsheaf Works c1897 (ROLLR)
CWS Workers in the Sorting Room
Workers in the sorting room c1897 (ROLLR)

The railway sidings at the Knighton Junction close to the factory provided easy access to the rail network. It was intended that a new Aylestone Park Station should be built at this location and this expectation led to the building of the Manchester Hotel at 168 Knighton Fields Road c1895.  The hotel was named to reflect the Wheatsheaf factory’s connection with Manchester based CWS, but unfortunately the station was never built.

CWS Packing room
The packing room c1897 (ROLLR) (2)
CWS show room
The showroom at the Wheatsheaf Works c1897 (ROLLR)
CWS trademark
CWS trademark c1896

Initially all CWS shoes carried the Wheatsheaf trademark, but by the 1890s different brands had begun to appear. Some brand names like the "Northern Boot,"  "Tyneside Boot" or the "Dewsbury Gentleman's Shoe" reflected the location of its customer base. Increasingly the heavy industrial boots became the province of the CWS Heckmondike works and the Wheatsheaf concentrated more on gents' and eventually just ladies' and children's shoes.

Advert in the Co-operative News 1922. Glace kid was a very fine soft leather made from goat skin.
An advert in the Northampton Chronicle & Echo 1923

Mechanisation

As the new factory became operational, the output of footwear increased from 90,000 pairs in the West End Works' first year to 1,237,701 pairs in 1896 at the Wheatsheaf works. By 1891, Leicestershire had become Britain’s premier footwear-producing region and in 1907 it accounted for 59% of the total UK output of shoes.  With the larger scale of operations the quarterly profits rose. By 1913 2,113 people were employed in the plant which was producing 36,000 pairs every week.

CWS wheatsheaf  Clickers at work
Clickers at work in the main room, cutting leather c1897 (ROLLR)
CWS Workers in the Treeing Room
Workers in the treeing room c1897 (ROLLR)

At the Wheatsheaf plant, shoe making was broken down into specialised processes which could be mechanised and repeated deputations to America increased the number of new machines within the C.W.S. works. After John Butcher retired in 1903, the drive to fully mechanise the factory continued and it also continued to cause strained relations with the workers. Faced with competition, the CWS probably had little choice.

CWS Wheatsheaf clicking dept
Clickers at work (Co-operation in Leicester, 1898)

Lasting was the remaining manufacturing process done by hand. It was a skilled and a well-paid job as it involved considerable manipulation to accurately form the leather around the last, especially at the heel and toe. A hand laster could only process up to 60 pairs of shoes a day, so the components made by machine could pile up while waiting to be used if there were not enough lasters on hand.

CWS Wheatsheaf welting room
The welting room c1897. The welt is a strip of leather which runs along the perimeter of the outsole. Its primary function is for attaching the upper to the outsole. (ROLLR)

In 1911, the American ‘Rex’ puller-over lasting machines were introduced. It could pull the upper leather over the last, so reducing the time taken and the cost involved.  40 lasters were consequently discharged from the ladies shoes departments at both the Wheatsheaf and Dun’s Lane factories. They were replaced by ‘boy labour.’ There was an outcry over this and a public meeting was held at the Trades Hall. There was concern that the Co-operative movement should setting an example good employment practices to the private sector and that work should be found for the discharged lasters. It was also thought that the work produced by the new machines would be inferior and there was even a proposal for a protest march from Leicester to the CWS headquarters in Manchester. Copies of the resolution passed were also circulated to the press and other Trades Councils asking for their aid in “making the CWS works something that co-operators need not be ashamed of.”

CWS lasting room
The lasting room at the Wheatsheaf factory c1897. Lasting was the process where the boot or shoe was moulded into a foot shape around the last. (ROLLR & Co-operation in Leicester, 1898)

The protest had some effect because  the CWS gave those redundant lasters who could not find a job £10 each in compensation. The CWS chairman William Lander said that in paying this compensation they were doing something that other manufacturers had not done and would not consider.

CWS Wheatsheaf treeing room
A women and young girl in an upstairs treeing room c1897 (ROLLR)

The ’One Girl' Strike

This strike at the C.W.S. provides a good illustration of how working for the C.W.S. could be little different to working for a private company. In 1913, two woman workers, Esther Faulkner and Olive Coulson, were dismissed by the management at Enderby for ‘bad work.’ The union regarded this as unfair dismissal, since the management could provide no evidence of the alleged ‘bad work.’ The root of the problem was that of an animosity between the girls and their forewoman. Initially 90 women workers came out on strike at Enderby on March 13th  and this incident culminated in open rupture when 1,800 workers went on strike at all three factories. 

Women working in the stock room c1897 (ROLLR)

After hours of negotiation the CWS management reinstated Esther Faulkner, but refused to reinstate 19 year old Olive Coulson. The management dug their heels in and refused to go to arbitration, even when the union nominated the former manager John Butcher as arbitrator.  This was not just a local decision, but one supported by the directors of the CWS. Practically all the women at Enderby joined the union and it took up their complaint  that the ‘girls’ at Enderby were being paid 1/- a week less than the going rate for Leicester. 

Mary Jane Bell (Mrs Bell-Richards)
Mary Jane Bell was the leader of the of the Women's branch of the National Union of Boot & Shoe Workers. (NUBSO)

Miss Mary Bell spearheaded the campaign to recruit all the women workers at the Wheatsheaf and Dun's Lane factories.  She told the women that they held the key and she predicted that unless the girls got their demands, within a day or two the men would be forced to come out because they had no work.

She urged the women to be loyal to each other and adopt the motto "Each for all and all for each."  She told them that  because the men were organised, the management would not try to pay them less in one factory than another. As Mrs Bell-Richards, she became a champion of working women's rights in the interwar period.

The strike dragged on for eight weeks and it became known as the ‘one girl strike.’ Olive Coulson was one of six children and lived at 55 Mill Lane. The Census shows that she was a shoe machinist in 1911, so she was not an inexperienced worker. Being the focus of such local and national interest must have placed her in a very uncomfortable position.   

Though it cost the union £8,000 (£944,000 in 2020), the union recruited many of the women on striker and showed to its newly established rival, the Independent National Union of Women Boot and Shoe Workers, that it too stood up for women workers.  The matter was compounded by the fact that the union argued that the ‘girls’ at Enderby were being paid 1/- a week less than the going rate for Leicester.

CWS advert 1913
The only time the CWS had a full page advert in the local press was in the middle of the dispute. (Leicester Daily Post, 14th June 1913

The strike dragged on for eight weeks and it became known as the ‘one girl strike.’ Olive, one of six children living at 55 Mill Lane, was working as a shoe machinist in 1911, so she was not an inexperienced worker. Being the focus of such local and national interest must have placed her in a very uncomfortable position. 

Though it cost NUBSO £8,000 (£944,000 in 2020), the union recruited most of the women who came out on strike; it also demonstrated to its newly established rival, the Independent National Union of Women Boot and Shoe Workers, that it also stood up for women workers.

This episode won the CWS few friends and its intransigent behaviour over such a seemingly trivial issue was greeted with incredulity by local trade unionists and co-operators. They had always argued for negotiation, panels and arbitration to settle disputes with private employers and here was a supposedly workers’ organisation behaving as badly as any private capitalist. Eventually the directors of the CWS climbed down and agreed to reinstate Olive and the strike ended. However, the CWS capitulation was marked with bad grace when they offered Olive a job in the stock room at Dun’s Lane rather than at Enderby where she lived. The union took up the cudgels again and although the management said there was no job for Olive at Enderby, she resumed work there on July 4th 1913 .

1918 Royal Army Clothing Dept - Wheatsheaf Works
Royal Army Clothing Department, 1918 - Wheatsheaf Works, Leicester (Imperial War Museum)

A new wing: the second factory

A new wing of the Wheatsheaf works was built for use as a warehouse sometime prior to 1914. It was to the west of the clock tower with a frontage on Knighton Fields Road East and it took some of the land by the sports field. (It may have led the Wheatsheaf Cricket Club to seek a new ground.)  The front elevation of the new building faithfully matched the façade of the original factory including the terracotta urns and other decorative details. It was linked to the original factory by means of an enclosed double decker bridge which avoided the need for a separate entrance to the building. Before the CWS could bring it into use, the First World War broke out and the new wing was taken over by the Government to house a branch of the Royal Army Clothing Department. (RACD) It was then used as a warehouse and distribution centre for uniforms, boots and other items of clothing. The CWS did not regain possession of the building until after the end of the war.

The Defence of the Realm Act had given Royal Army Clothing Department draconian powers over the footwear trade. It could tell factories what they could produce and allocated contracts to different firms. It took taken control of the supply of leather to the factories. The Wheatsheaf factory was probably just an outpost of the RACD and control over the local footwear industry may have been exercised from London.

Wheatsheaf Works 1918
The Checking & Packing Department at the Royal Army Clothing Department at the Wheatsheaf Works in 1918. (Imperial War Museum)

The Defence of the Realm Act had given Royal Army Clothing Department draconian powers over the footwear trade. It could tell factories what they could produce and allocated contracts to different firms. It took taken control of the supply of leather to the factories. The Wheatsheaf factory was probably just an outpost of the RACD and control over the local footwear industry may have been exercised from London.

Wheatsheaf works 1918
Unpacking & stacking clothing at the Royal Army Clothing Department, Wheatsheaf Works in 1918. (Imperial War Museum)

It was said that during the war, the boot and shoe trade had never been so prosperous. There was a huge demand and the CWS along with other employers gave war bonuses to its workers. Northampton shoes firms who had concentrated on men’s wear in pre-war years got the bulk of orders for army boots. Leicester firms had not worked on army boots before and had to adapt, nevertheless about 60-70,000 pairs of army boots were being produced in Leicester at the height of the war. According to press reports, about 20% of the Leicester’s footwear production was for the military.  It is not possible to know the precise contracts the Wheatsheaf Works had at this time, since the RACD usually split contracts up between firms. Contracts to supply boots to the British, Russian, Serbian, French, Romanian and Italian armies were all administered by the RACD. These were huge contracts and the one from the Russian army in 1916 was for 3 million pairs of Cossack boots. No doubt a portion of these would have been given to the Wheatsheaf.

Knighton Fields - Wheatsheaf
1928 Ordinance Survey map before the building of the third factory

There was also a huge demand for recruits, but if skilled workers were taken from the shoe factories, then the army could not have the boots they needed. As a result, some shoe workers were exempted from military service and the union agreed to women being employed in ’men’s jobs.’  At the Wheatsheaf, it appears that a substantial part of the workforce was conscripted, since only 1,144 were employed in 1917  - a reduction of a 1,000 from 1913.

The CWS promised that those workers employed before August, 1914 would be guaranteed full wages and reinstatement after the war.

1940 advt
CWS Wheatsheaf So-pliable shoes, 1940s
1930s CWS boots
A pair of Wheatsheaf size 10 boots made in the 1930s. A staple item which had changed little over the years.
CWS 1930s shoebox label
A shoe box label from the 1930s

Social Life at the Wheatsheaf

In 1920, a Canteen and Recreation Room was built on side of the original factory next to Lord Byron Street. It was run by a Welfare Committee which was elected by the workers. In 1939 the Leicester Mail reported that:

The Works are fortunate in having an enormous canteen which lends itself admirably to any social functions the committee organise, and, consequently, few weeks go by without some party or another being held. Two large rooms can be opened out to make one large hall, and, as it has a very good floor, dances are very much in favour among the younger generation. But to cater for all sections, each Saturday night one half of the hall is used for dancing and the other for a whist drive. This winter the committee has had a very bright idea. At each of the dances Mr. E. J. Elton, one of the departmental manager. has chosen several girls from the dancers to compete for the honour of being the Wheatsheaf beauty queen. 

Wheatsheaf-dinning room
The dining room in the basement at the Wheatsheaf prior to the building of the new canteen in 1920. (Co-operation in Leicester, 1898)

In 1988 the Canteen and Recreation Room was acquired by Leicester Co-operative Society for use as a Members Relations Unit whilst the Wheatsheaf Theatre had various community uses. The building has since been acquired by the Knighton Park Table Tennis Club with the aid of a grant from Sport England and Table Tennis England.

The Leicester Wheatsheaf Relay Team and the Coronation cup (Pat Cooke)
Wheatsheaf Theatre
The entrance to the Wheatsheaf Theatre in 2008

Prior to the First World War, the Wheatsheaf Works was probably one of the only factories in Leicester to have its own sports ground and this was situated on the land adjacent to the factory. In the late 1920s an additional sports ground was acquired at Belvoir Drive where the YMCA and Stead and Simpson also had grounds. From 1929, the Leicester Co-operative Wheatsheaf Welfare Club organised its first annual sports day there.  Other sporting activities included a Wheatsheaf Cricket Club, which included a women's cricket team, a ladies hockey team and a men's football team.  

During the 1930s, the Wheatsheaf football team proved to be quite formidable and carried off the championship of the Leicester City League (Division 1), but by 1959, it had become a struggle to keep the team together.  There were tennis courts adjacent to the factory; however it seems that all of this land was given over to air raid shelters during World War Two whilst the land at the rear of the canteen became allotments. It is not known when the Belvoir Drive ground was given up, but it is likely that this was after 1965.

A drill of the Co-operative Wheatsheaf Works Fire Brigade c1910. The photo, looking toward Knighton Fields Road, was taken before the new wing of the factory was built. (Leicester Mercury)
C.W.S. Co-op Wholesale Services, Fire Brigade, cap badge
A cap badge for the C.W.S. Fire Brigade.

The Wheatsheaf Works had its own private fire brigade which was formed c1903 and consisted of outside staff, engineers, stokers, watchmen and members of the St. John Ambulance Service. It was re-formed after the 1914-1918 war when returning members of the staff were asked to join. As members of the Leicester Fire Brigades' Association, the brigade took part in open competition in all parts of the Midlands with a certain amount of success, winning the All England Championship in 1923 from fifty two competing teams. It was still in existence in the 1960s and is known to have put out a fire at the factory in 1911.

1948 Wheatsheaf Works
The Wheatsheaf Works at 12.45 pm 12th April 1948. The last vestiges of wartime camouflage can be seen. (Britain from the Air)

The Third Factory

In response to increased trade, a rather basic, utilitarian factory extension was added in 1935.  This third factory was a single storey, brick infill unit with a saw­tooth roof and was built next the factory’s sports ground and tennis courts. This unit extended northwards to the Boiler House complex of the original factory. 

EQUAL PAY

Although the boot and shoe trade employed large numbers of women, they were only employed in certain departments. As a means of protecting rates for the more skilled jobs, the union sought to keep women from working in the clicking, press, lasting, and finishing departments. With the exception of the First World War, this ban was largely successful. Although the Women’s branch of NUBSO sought equal pay and equal access to all jobs, it failed to convince the union to adopt this as policy.

May Goodwin
May Goodwin

May Goodwin started her working life at the Wheatsheaf aged 14 c1907 and earnt 4s 6d per week. She was always a union activist and in 1939 became president of the Women's Branch of the Boot & Shoe Workers Union which campaigned for equal pay. She was later elected to the City Council and became Lord Mayor in 1961.

During the World War Two, women were once again allowed into the jobs previously reserved for men. However, the concentration on the war effort meant that the production of shoes for civilians was seriously curtailed. Shoes were rationed and fewer varieties were produced which meant the size of the workforce was much reduced. The basement of the factory was used for the production of munitions and other war materials were produced on the upstairs floors. Although the factory was camouflaged, it was still prominent from the air. Luckily the factory survived the war with only a couple of minor hits and one larger one in the grounds. It was said that: "They'd never bomb the Wheatsheaf, or else how would the Germans know the time?"

From Factory to Warehouse

From the mid-1950s, vulcanised rubber moulded soles and heels had gained in popularity at the expense of the more labour intensive leather soles. Sole and heel units could also be bought from specialist suppliers and needed only simple assembly in the shoe factory. This inevitably cut labour costs and increased productivity. One union delegate saw that vulcanising and redundancy went together and it led to the first major contraction in the local CWS factories.

In 1958, the Enderby CWS plant was closed and vulcanisation led to redundancies at the Wheatsheaf Works where the third factory ceased production. This factory now became the CWS Wine and Spirits Depot, and the Soft Drinks Depot, Wordsworth Road and this use continued into the 1970s. It is probable that at this time Fox’s Glacier Mints began to use part of the original works as a packing factory. 

1960 advert
An advert from the 1960s. The CWS concentrated its production of children's and nursery shoes at the Wheatsheaf Works

In 1968, the Leicester Chronicle reported that “Behind the austere exterior of the Wheatsheaf Works is an up-to-date shoe manufacturing concern in pleasant, light and airy working conditions,” and that it was not uncommon for an employees to retire with over 40 years' service. However the Wheatsheaf works was now more of a shoe assembly plant than a complete shoe manufacturer. It was no longer economic for the factory to make all the components required for a shoe and many parts, such has heels or stiffeners, were now delivered to the factory.

Productivity in the factory had been aided by the use of transporters and conveyors, rather than racks, to move shoes round the factory. In 1968, the factories output was 12,500 shoes per week which was a third of its 1913 production.  At that time the factory was making women’s shoes, children's moulded sole school shoes, ladies moulded sole bootees and children's crepe sole summer sandals. There was still a bespoke shoe department which specialised in making shoes by the old hand lasting method.

The Wheatsheaf in 2002  (Andy Haigh)
The Wheatsheaf in 2002 (Andy Haigh)

The story of the Wheatsheaf Works during the last decades of the 20th century was one of contraction and a slow progression from a factory to warehouse. Its demise began in the late 50s and 60s with cheap imports from Italy, Portugal and Spain. However, UK imports of footwear tripled when even cheaper imports arrived from China, Brazil and India from the 1970s onwards. Unable to compete with ‘low cost’ imports, manufacturing at the Wheatsheaf went into terminal decline.

By 1978, the Wheatsheaf’s workforce was down to 300 and large areas of the factory were given over to warehousing. At that time the second wing was the last part of the factory to produce footwear; the ground floor was used for stores, the first floor for lasting and finishing and the second floor for clicking. At some time in the early 1980s, all the shoe manufacturing machinery was stripped out of the first factory and it became a warehouse and office facility for the Co-operative Society. In the late 1980s, footwear production ended in the second factory and it was left empty apart from the pigeons.

The main room in 2009
The main room in 2009 (Matt Allen)

An extensive refurbishment programme of the original factory took place in 1988 which included a new main entrance near the south-east comer of the east range of building. This provided disabled access and replicated the details of the original 1891 door. There was a reorganisation of the building and a considerable amount of internal partitioning was put up. The upper floors were then used as offices for various Co-op departments until they moved out around 1997.

clocktower & skylight
A skylight view of the Wheatsheaf clock in 2017 (Urban Rhythm - Hazelton Homes)

The Wheatsheaf Works became a grade II listed building in 1994 and in 2011 permission was granted to redevelop the Wheatsheaf Works into housing. By the time the developers arrived to convert the complex into housing, there was not a trace of shoe manufacturing left in the building.  

The development has 172 new properties, ranging from one to three bedroom homes. More than half of them are based around the main room of the factory. This has been now been converted into large, landscaped courtyard which has retained the original girders. The courtyard now has both open and covered spaces. New homes went on sale from 2016. More on the development can be found here: https://www.facebook.com/wheatsheafwork 

A time lapse video showing the removal of the roof to the factory's main room in June 2016. (Urban Rhythm - Hazelton Homes)

Endnote

The Wheatsheaf factory was once a hive of activity for thousands of workers. Its boots and shoes were worn by millions of people, yet as warehousing replaced manufacturing, our awareness of the Wheatsheaf’s importance to Leicester’s local economy has faded. The CWS may have been co-operative in name only, but once the tensions over mechanisation had eased, it provided secure employment and a decent social life for its many workers for nearly ninety years.

A linocut by Sarah Kirby to mark the conversion of the factory to housing.

Photographs

Many of the photographs from the Record Office (ROLLR) have not been published before. This is largely because the glass negatives have no clear identification as to when and where they were taken. Closer examination shows that they are unmistakeably from the Wheatsheaf Works and were taken soon after the factory opened. This is confirmed by the fact that some of them appeared in the book Co-operation in Leicester (1898). Unfortunately, glass negatives are viewable from both sides and the near symmetrical design of the factory was such that it confused the publishers who put in a couple of photos back to front. This confusion lives on and despite my best efforts it is entirely possible that some pictures included above may also be the wrong way round. 

Ned Newitt

A promotional video of 'Wheatsheaf Court' by Martin Paston, estate agent, 2020

Sources: Co-operative News 16th August, 18th October 1890, Leicester Daily Post 5th November 1891, 7 March 1892, 28th September 1895, 12th, 13th, 19th March, 8th April, 6th & 31st May, 7th, 13th & 14th June 1913, 13th August 1915, 22nd September, 21st October 1916, 28th December 1917,  Daily Citizen (Manchester) 15th & 21st March 1913, Leicester Evening Mail 28th November 1935 & 17th April 1939, 18th July 1958, Leicester Chronicle 16 July 1892, 18 October 1963, 22 March 1968; Yorkshire Evening Post 25th July 1916, Henry Demarest Lloyd: Labor Copartnership, (sic) 1898; R. A. Church: The Effect of the American Export Invasion on the British Boot and Shoe Industry 1885-1914, (1968); Norman Hertz: Shoes, Leather and Hides in Great Britain, (1924); Rob Hayward, David Lyne and David Smith, Historic fabric report concerning the Co-operative Wholesale Society's Boot & Shoe Factory complex 2010; Percy Redfern The Story of the C.W.S. (The Jubilee History of the Co-operative Wholesale Society 1863-1913); E. Hum CWS Wheatsheaf Works m/s study Leicester College of Education; Cedric Beniston BBC Article ID A1948313, 2003; CWS Annual 1890, 1892, 1896, 1897, 1900, 1903, 1905, 1907, 1913, 1914, 1817 & 1918; 1907 Census of production statistics; 1911 Census

5 thoughts on “The Wheatsheaf Works, Leicester”

  1. Fantastic read. I’ve lived in Wheatsheaf Works (on the Cowper Street side) for nearly 3 years now, and this post has given me a much better understanding about the important history of the place. Some great historical photos too. Thanks!

  2. Hi there,I haven’t read all of this artical properly but I will,it is most interesting,just wondering if the club The boot and shoe on wharf st and the pub the wheatsheaf on wheat st came from this history.

    1. There are loads of Wheatsheaf pubs all over the country and I think most of them predate the CWS – so I do not think there is a connection. The connection between Wheat Street and the Wheatsheaf is self evident. There is a connection with the Manchester Hotel as you will see in my article.

  3. Hi Ned loved the article a great work. Living in Sheridan Street my gran worked at the Wheatsheaf and the abandoned air raid shelters was part of my playground in the fifty’s

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *