Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The last days of Wheat Street and the loss of Leicester's slums

Copyright © Dennis Calow
Wheat Street in Leicester, now a stub between two factories is an old street that used to be much longer.

And here's the proof in the shape of a 1955 photograph from the Vanished Leicester collection. The houses have already been abandoned and are about to be demolished.

A decade later the area became recognisable beneath Leicester's new ring road, obliterating the city's most notorious slum area.

Could any of it have been saved?

Reading The Slums of Leicester, you are struck by just how had conditions were there.

Here is Cllr Bertram Powell writing in the Leicester Chronicle in 1951:
It would be difficult to estimate the unhappiness, tension and bad health due to the strained human relationships arising from the housing conditions such as exist in St Margaret's Ward. Apart from the insanitary places themselves and the effect on health, the mental torture is grievous. 
Many of the women in the vicinity of Wharf Street are putting up a valiant fight against the odds to keep themselves and their children clean and respectable. It is pathetic to visit some of the houses to see the unceasing effort to keep paper on the walls, the amateur painting to cover rotten woodwork, the polish to tumbledown grates, the care of steps and floors. 
The only good thing one can say about the situation is the patience, cheerfulness and effort shown by the people who live there.
But there is another side to the story: the clearance of these streets involved a loss too.

Here is a Leicester Mercury article from 1955, the year of our photograph:
I took a stroll around the Wharf Street area yesterday afternoon. What a change is taking place there. The once bustling street where years ago small traders made tidy fortunes is at a standstill compared with what one can recall. 
In other days it had such a glorious mixture of shops, butchers and poulterers, not forgetting the rabbits, general grocers, greengrocers and all the rest with a liberal sprinkling of pubs. 
And time was when some people in the sedate parts of Leicester sent to Wharf Street for their best steak and roasting joints, because the butchers there would buy a good beast but the local trade was all for offal and the cheaper cuts. 
In those days the shopkeepers in Wharf Street did more business on Saturday nights open until 11 o'clock and on Sunday morning than they did throughout the rest of a week.
But all that life was swept away as though Wharf Street was the city's dirty secret. The district was not improved: it was destroyed.

Do we find a clue to the caste of mind behind this destruction in a 1902 Leicester Pioneer article by F.W. Rogers?
There are a number of houses in this ward well-known to the Watch Committee as being nothing more or less than brothels. It is an ugly word, but facts are best stated in plain English ... 
Parts of this ward are perfect sinks of iniquity. I understand the Watch Committee are going to light the district with incandescent lamps. Is that all? 
I wager the chairman of the Watch Committee has never been down the district at night more than once in his life. Let some of the committee go down for themselves and see what sort of conditions these people have to exist among.

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