Thursday, July 13, 2017

The slums of Leicester: homes or hovels?

Many of my ancestors were born, lived, worked and died on the streets of Leicester and Belgrave, streets that we now label "slums", and which have, for the most part, now all been demolished, paved over, and replaced by car parks and shopping centres and traffic flyovers.

The houses were tiny, often built with single-brick walls, had outside toilets shared with multiple homes. They were overcrowded and unhealthy and yet they were home to so many people.

There's a collection of photos here on Radio Leicester's website. This book by Ned Hewitt documents the now-disappeared streets and living conditions. There are many photos in the Vanished Leicester, a Leicester University special collection. The Leicester Mercury has a gallery of old photos from the city, too.

Of the now-long-gone streets, Wharf Street, for example, is remembered by many in Leicester as a terrible slum area--probably because it was one of the last parts of the centre of town to be demolished--but that's where several generations back, some of my family lived. John Bonnett (1800-1863), blacksmith, lived on Wharf Street in 1861 (much more about him later--he had me banging my head against a wall for years).

I still question the sanity behind demolishing old buildings and replacing them with concrete and high-rise apartments, breaking up the community of the street rather than taking the time to enhance what already existed. A very few of the remaining slum homes have now been preserved and renovated... wouldn't it have been better, if they could all have been repaired and restored and built into better homes? Old barns in the countryside become fashionable abodes... why not a street of "slum" housing? Couldn't two or three tiny houses have been converted into one home, with a bathroom and heating? If those same houses were there today, would the same decision be made?

Leicester has some beautiful Victorian housing, too: tall and imposing houses with soaring roofs and wooden trim. Every time I return to the city, I want to take out a power washer and a paint brush and a tool kit, and restore them to their original beauty.

Leicester: your homes are part of your history and of your peoples' heritage. Please take good care of them!

NOTE: There is a wonderful book about the terrace housing of Leicester, by Dennis Calow, available as part of Leicester University's special collection.

No comments:

Post a Comment