Leicester’s Cultural Quarter
The Regeneration years
by Trevor Locke
The area in Leicester’s city centre that is known as The Cultural Quarter, has undergone substantial changes since it received its title. The area was called St. Georges, after the church that still stands in the vicinity. The area was urbanised between 1741 and 1857. In 1989, St. Georges was designated a conservation area which was enlarged in 2003 and again in 2010. The area was at one time an important focus for industry and commerce and many factories and warehouses dominated the streets.
The run down St. George’s area with its many empty factories became the haunt of drug addicts, homeless people and criminals. The approach of the Council was to attract private developers to come in and bring all these empty factories back into use. The Exchange Building in Rutland Street (the former telephone exchange), Queen Street Apartments, St. George’s Mill, The Fair Brothers building at Alexandra House, and other city centre properties became flats and apartments for the growing number of students coming to the new De Montfort University as well as the growing number of young professionals finding working in the city’s growing design, digital and arts businesses. The large factory at the end of Wimbledon Street was converted into apartments known as St. George’s Mill.
The St. George’s area was transformed from one of run-down, empty factories and warehouses into one of residential, leisure and small business opportunities. On the outskirts of the area, the old Charles Street police station was converted into swanky offices.
City Council review
In 2008, the City Council undertook a review of what it called ‘The St. George’s Conservation Area.’ The Council, at that time, had 24 conservation areas. The city was at the time complying with requirements to regenerate the inner city and had formed a regeneration company to do this. St. George’s had been designated as a regeneration area in 1989. In 2000 central government published its Urban Regeneration white paper. All across the UK, city centres were becoming run down and many large buildings became empty as businesses moved away or lost trade to foreign competitors.
As businesses went bust (or lost their trade to foreign competition) or moved away, Leicester inner city became increasingly run down and blighted. Many of the once prosperous hosiery and knitwear factories became empty. The Council began to develop a vision of making the St. George’s Conservation Area into a ‘Cultural Quarter’ – the name that is now bears. The area was noted at that time for its ‘fine heritage of Victorian buildings.’ Not all the properties in the St. George’s area were fine; many were commercial slums and a number of these were demolished to make way for the site now occupied by Curve (which opened in 2008) and Phoenix, the two flag-ship construction projects that are the icons of the Cultural Quarter.
Some interesting buildings
The centre piece of Leicester’s Cultural Quarter is CURVE, the name given to the new multi-million pound theatre designed by internationally renowned Rafael Viñoly Architects. Curve was the only new Theatre to be built in Europe in recent times. Opened by HM The Queen in November 2008, the building was given a prestigious award by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). It cost a staggering £65m to build and fit with the latest state-of-the-art equipment. With a main auditorium limited to 800 seats, critics saw the new theatre as being too small to attract many of the larger shows that now go to centres like Birmingham and Nottingham. Lauded by local councillors as “world class” and “iconic”, Curve now has a international reputation for its own productions and for touring shows.
The Church of St. George
1823-7. Architect William Parsons. Chancel built 1879 by Sir A. Blomfield. After a fire in 1911, the church was restored by W. D. Caroe. The building is constructed in Ashlar in the Perpendicular style, comprising: nave, north and south aisles, chancel and west tower with porches on each side. The aisles have battlements and crocketed finials at angles, gabled buttresses between tall windows with curvelinear tracery. West tower with twin ogee arch bell openings and clock face below in panelled frieze, panelled angle buttresses in three stages each gabled and topped by crocketed finial, pierced battlements. The tower originally had a spire. The galleries inside were destroyed in the fire of 1911 and not rebuilt. A place of worship with Grade II listing, it is now in use as a Serbian Orthodox place of worship in the centre of Leicester.
Deuce House in a building that stands at the corner of Wimbledon Street and Southampton Street. The name Wimbledon Street is said to commemorate military exercises by the Leicester Volunteers on Wimbledon Common around 1860. Sir Henry Halford was a Leicestershire man who formed a company of volunteer soldiers. He was also the first Chairman of the Leicestershire County Council. He was present at the formation of the National Rifle Association in 1861 at Wimbledon in London. Originally it was built to house Deuce Designs, a knitwear company. The business that installed their factory in Deuce House must have associated Wimbledon with tennis (rather than with Rifle Shooting). Today the building contains 20 residential apartments. The planning application to convert the empty former hosiery factory into flats was put to Leicester City Council in May 1999. The application was for the conversion of an existing four storey factory to 17 self-contained flats. The applicant was a Mr. R. Ekaireb of London. The application was granted in July 1999. At the time the property was in Castle Ward. Deuce House overlooks both Wimbledon Street and Southampton Street; the latter was named after Lord Southampton (1804 to 1872). Previously it was called Brick Kiln Lane (up to 1843.)
In September 2000, another London-based company (Royalstone) applied to the City Council to convert an existing factory in Morledge Street, into 62 flats (car parking to be included.) The Application was approved in December 2000. The large three storey building in Morledge Street was converted into apartments called The Atrium.
In 2002, an application was made to convert another of the Wimbledon Street factories into flats. This was known as Wimbledon Mills. This project was to provide 24 self contained flats between Deuce House and the next building down called, in the application, ‘the former Cygnet hotel’ but later known as the Central Hotel the address of which is given as 57 Rutland Street (which at one time served as the Kosova Reception Centre.)
The Rowley Building (Queen Street Apartments).
In Queen Street, the large factory (The Rowley Building) was converted into what we now call the Queen Street Apartments.’ It was formerly the knitwear factory of R. Rowley & Co, established in 1867 and was housed in this building from 1913 to 1999. The Rowley Building was home to R. Rowley and Co. Ltd which was established in a small building in Queen Street in 1867 by the 21-year-old framework knitter Robert Rowley. The warehouse burned down in 1911 and was rebuilt in 1913. The building was bought by Courtaulds in 1960s and closed in 1999. During the 1950s the company began to struggle with the decline of its fully-fashioned stockings and fully-fashioned knitwear departments following changes in fashion. In 1962 the family connection of the firm was severed with the retirement of the grandson and chairman of Rowley, Leslie C. Robertson, and in 1968, in common with wider trends of conglomeration, Rowley’s was bought out by the textiles giant Courtaulds. Masterminded by Frank Kearton, Courtaulds aimed to build a massive vertically-integrated textile empire consisting of a variety of textile businesses across the country, and later abroad. By the end of 1968 Courtaulds controlled around 20 per cent of the hosiery industry in Britain, and owned thirteen firms in the Greater Leicester area.
With reinvestment in plant, equipment and maintenance Rowley’s weathered the general decline in the hosiery industry experienced during the 1970s, and did not follow the movement of others out of the city centre to suburban industrial estates. This only prolonged the eventuality of decline, however, and by the 1990s the company struggled to compete with the lower production costs of the newly industrialising countries of the Far East. Courtauld’s payroll rapidly decreased from 80,000 in 1980 to 40,000 in 1986 then to 20,000 in 1994 as the group began to shutdown unprofitable subsidiaries. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s Rowley’s was a victim of these redundancies until finally, in 1999, the Queen Street location was closed altogether.
J. Herbert Marshall Music Depot
This building was constructed in the late 1870s for the wholesale and retail bookseller James Marshall. Not long after, in the 1880s, it was taken over by his son Joseph Herbert Marshall and used as a showroom for his piano wholesale business; its distinctive and impressive Victorian shop-front still survives today. The building now houses the Helsinki Nightclub.
The LCB Depot
The 1960s Leicester City Bus Depot at 31 Rutland Street was converted into a centre for business and the arts and now functions as The LCB Depot. It opened in July 2004. Not far from Curve and The Athena, is another new building, The Leicester Creative Business Depot. Converted from the entrails of the Leicester City Bus Depot, the two-block site now offers offices and studios for arts and creative businesses and organisations. It was in fact the birthplace of Arts in Leicestershire, when we had a studio there, three years ago (in the block shown in the above picture.)
Run by the City Council, the complex features rentable spaces, a cafe, an exhibition hall and meeting rooms. The project proved popular and nearly all of the units were filled within two years of the opening. The building housed the Leicester Comedy Festival and the organisers of the Caribbean Carnival were also based there for a while.
Much later on, an old hosiery factory was converted into starter units for arts and crafts business – Makers Yard. The listed building is the oldest surviving hosiery factory in the East Midlands. It’s been sensitively restored into 10 studios which house a growing creative community of artists and designer-makers. In 1854 John Brown built a warehouse on the site and rented frame knitting machines. In 1862 Brown completed a complex of buildings and another warehouse. The hosiery industry was initially dominated by male workers, but women became a large portion of the work force when men left to first in the first world war. In the 1960s Leicester’s hosiery trade boomed and the city was said to ‘clothe the world.’ In the 1980s the building became known as the Charnwood Hosiery Factory. In 2002 the building became empty. It was granted Grade II listing status in 2006. As part of £1.05 million project – funded by the European Regional Development Fund and Leicester City Council – building was refurbished into a creative workspace. Period features such as cogs, wheels and original paintwork were retained to enhance the creative industrial feel of the building.
The Central Hotel
The one building that has escaped these developments is the Central Hotel, at the end of Rutland Street. Since being used as a hostel for refugees, it has stood empty and continued to be a blight on the area.
The new digital media centre, not far from CURVE, attracted sceptical comments about its location. The quality of its facilities and the inventiveness of its programmes is beginning to pay off. The centre in Morledge Street cost over £21 million and is a multi-use project including a cinema, work spaces for media businesses and apartments.
Standing right by the side of Curve, is The Athena Theatre. Converted from the 1938 Odeon Cinema, the Athena bears all the hallmarks of the Odeon Style of the 1930s. The re-vamped venue opened in 2005 and has a capacity of nearly 1,300 and now caters for shows, exhibitions, conferences and dinners.
Opened in September 2011, Manhattan 34 bar in Rutland Street is styled around the theme of the prohibition era in the 1920s. Run by Roop Kahlon and Chris Baker, the venue has a ground floor bar area and a basement room downstairs. Roop and Chris say they are “two of Leicester’s longest standing bartenders”. The ambience is fresh, clean and themed around the ‘roaring twenties’ in New York. Even the clocks are set to Manhattan Time. Hopefully they don’t call time by them! “No, we open and close according to Greenwich Mean Time”, Roop said.
At the back of the Leicester Mercury building stands one of Leicester’s new breed of live music venues. Occupying what used to be the old Queen Victoria public house, in Southampton Street, The SoundHouse opened in 2010 after an extensive refurbishment.
The old pub used to put on live music but the sound system and staging were less than adequate. The building stood empty for a couple of years, until new landlords moved in and invested in a considerable upgrade of the facilities, to turn it into the vibrant live music centre that we see today. A new stage was built, new production lighting was was fitted and a permanent sound system was installed. Whilst the main body of the building still retained the ambience of the twentieth century (and in some aspects, Victorian) pub, the performance area took on a whole new lease of life. In 2015 several refurbishments were made to the bar area.
Some of the material in this article was drawn from the old Arts in Leicester Magazine, articles published between 2011 and 2013.
This is an archive article