Mrs Muriel Wilmot came to live in Highfields in 1927.
It's the 4th of August 1994, this is Margaret Speak and I am taping Muriel Wilmot.
Can I just ask you to state your name, age and place of birth?
Yes. Catherine Muriel, do you want my name or my maiden name?
Well your name now is Wilmot and your maiden name?
Where were you born?
Do you come from a large family?
No, I am the only one.
Did you live with your parents?
When did you move to Highfields?
We didn't move to Highfields in the first instance, we moved to Hinckley Road.
When you did move to Highfields, do you remember how old you were?
Yes, I was about seven.
What was the reason for moving to Highfields?
Well, we moved from Coventry where we had settled to take on a business run by my mother's sister. As this was not a success, we moved back again to Leicester and then to Highfields.
Was there any reason why you chose Highfields?
Not really, it was just somewhere my father probably found, there wasn't a particular reason.
You were seven years old at the time, can you remember your impressions of Highfields when you moved there?
Yes I can, very favourable, yes I thought it was lovely. For one thing it was a tree lined road, Mere Road. There were all rather large houses which I found bloody impressive at that age and also there was Spinney Hill Park. I was delighted about that because coming from the country, town seemed a little bit strange.
Your parents were pleased with it?
They were very pleased indeed. We only moved into a flat, we didn't have a house.
Did you get any impression of what the people were like in the area at that time?
Well, in a way because we moved into this big house which had three flats and my mother was always one for people. My father was very quiet, mother was very sociable. She used to take me upstairs where they had a little girl and we used to have a cup of tea and I used to play with the girl.
Was it an old house?
Well I imagine all the houses in the Highfields area were built approximately in the 19th century, because when I had my house done recently, they said property round here was built approximately then.
So it was a large house?
It was a very large family house which apparently used to have servants because in the basement they had a bell fixed on the wall.
Had it been split into three?
It had been split into three flats. We had the ground floor.
Was it nice living in a flat?
Well, it was rather strange at first. We had never been in a flat before, having come from the country, so it was a different type of living altogether really, absolutely different.
Did the people welcome you to the area?
Yes, well we didn't get to know everyone straight away except the people in the main house itself. Mother registered me at school and I started at the school on Melbourne Road. I got to know quite a lot of people and mother sometimes used to come and meet me outside. She got to know the mothers. My father was a quiet man, not very sociable.
Did he work?
Yes, Imperial Typewriter Company, not very far just straight through the Spinney Hill Park.
Your mother was at home?
Mother never went out to work at all, she stayed at home.
Do you remember what life was like in the area?
Yes, I found it rather nice as soon as I got accustomed to it. I used to play in Dronfield Street which was opposite Mere Road, there was a girl about half way down and I used to play with her. We used to go for tea sometimes and she used to come to me for tea.
Did you walk about the area on your own, were you afraid?
Oh well, there wasn't nothing like that then. There was a lovely atmosphere, but of course it wasn't like it is now. I used to go to school on my own. I mean people did then, we used to be able to play out in the dark.
I remember playing out in the dark in the entrance chasing one another, we thought it was great fun.
Do you remember whether the flat had an inside bathroom or toilet?
It had one bathroom which was shared by everyone in the whole house, we had our own kitchen. There was a downstairs and an upstairs toilet, we had the downstairs toilet.
Did you know your grandparents?
I can only very dimly remember my grandfather on my father's side. I can remember him giving me some sweets but it isn't a very clear picture. I didn't know my mother's parents at all.
Did your parents not come from Leicester?
My mother came from Burton-on-Trent. My father came from Hugglescote near Coalville. That was why I was born in Ibstock, because they moved to Ibstock when they got married.
So you didn't know any of the rest of the family really. What about aunties or cousins?
Oh well, I knew my father's sisters, they lived in Ibstock, auntie Lizzy and auntie Nell. Auntie Lizzy was a real village character. She used to have a sort of semi-farm. Everybody used to call her Liz. She used to have a fruit stall, she grew fruit out on the front of the house and sold flowers.
Did you find when you moved to Highfields that you missed the village atmosphere?)
Well, not me so much, but my mother didn't want to live in a village, it was her decision that we moved to Leicester in the first place. My father didn't want to move because he had been brought up in that atmosphere, but mother wanted to see shops, she wanted the town existence. She came from Burton-on-Trent. She was one of six girls and three boys, all teachers, except mother.
Did your mother want to be a teacher?
Well, she had her mother at home for some reason. She was the youngest. My grandma lost her husband at 45, same as I lost my husband at 45, he dropped dead on the door step going back to work one day. My grandma had to bring all her children up on her own so she had two lodgers and she looked after them. They used to have a proper dinner and their own linen and everything, they used to say she was a marvellous cook. Mother says she has never known such a cook. When she grew up and left school she never had a chance to have a career, which made her sad because all my cousins went to university. I am the only one who didn't go.
So when you were in Highfields, did you go to church?
Yes I did.
Did your family go to church?
Yes. I went to St Peter's Church.
Do you remember what that was like?
Very very nice indeed, I loved it. I used to go to Sunday School in the afternoon and service for grandmother and father at night, and if there was anything on in the week I would go to that also.
Did a lot of people go to that church?
Yes, there were a lot then, it had an atmosphere then which is minus now. I was baptised there because I wasn't christened when I was a baby. I was married there and my mother and father's funerals were from there as well.
So you have got a very strong connection with Highfields, you have lived there nearly all your life?
Well more or less, except for the time when I was married. We bought a house in the Catherine Street area, on Highbury Road. Then my husband decided after 7 years that he wanted to go and live in London, because his mother was there. Well, I had been in the ATS for 4 years during the war and I lived on site, so I knew London extremely well. I didn't really want to move because of my parents, they wanted me to stop here, but we decided to buy a business in London. We went to live in London, Dulwich. I lived in east Dulwich.
How long did you live there?
We went there in 1957, my husband died in 1964.
Did you decide to come back to Leicester?
Well, for a little while I decided to stop on, but I couldn't keep the business going, not on my own. So I let it go and came back to Leicester to live with my parents in Bonsall Street.
How did you think it had changed?
Well, being in London was different. There is so much to do. I am an Opera fan, we both were, and I am very fond of historic buildings, architecture. Pretty much everything and I found London had always got something to offer. Where of course Leicester did not have an awful lot really.
But did you find in the time you had been away that Highfields had changed?
Well it hadn't changed so much, not then, not when I first came back. The changes have been in those later years really. It was more or less the same except that the dark people were starting to come in, the Asian community and the others, so that was a change as well.
How did you feel about that?
Well, I didn't feel bad about it at all really because I have always adapted myself, we had them in London and I got on very well with them. I mean I find that some of them are more friendly than we are. They always say "Good morning, how are you, are you all right?" and I think it's awfully nice. They say to me that they are very sad to see me on my own and that if I was in their community I wouldn't be left on my own, I would be put into a group of people and looked after all the while. They did ask me once or twice to go across to cook an English dinner for them. So I cooked roast chicken, roast potatoes and everything that goes with it. They just wanted to sit in front of an English dinner. Yes I got on very well with them.
So that was a change, the different nationalities coming into the area?
Yes, it was.
Had any of the buildings been knocked down or changed in any way?
Not so much then. That didn't take place till later on.
So you were living in Highfields when all these changes started to happen?
Yes, when all the changes were brought about, in a way. You see as the Asian community gradually moved in, the English people moved out. So gradually every street became more and more empty of white people and of course we are completely in the minority now. There is only two or three in each street now.
That is a big change isn't it?
That is a very big change. But it's happened over a period of years. The shops you see that's another thing. I remember all the shops that were there so well.
Which shops do you remember?
They aren't there now. I was thinking in bed the other night, I can remember all the shops that were there; a lovely pork butchers in Eggington Street, that's were I am now by the way, Eggington Street. A lovely cob shop called Wecrofts and there was a very nice cake shop, Kintons, on the corner. There was a grocers, Simpkins James, rather a classy shop, like Waitrose, they all use to wear black overalls and you would have bought your shopping from there. I always remember that, if you shopped on the Fosse side, everybody got personal service you see. I have always been a shop assistant as that was my job in life, and of course personal service has always appealed to me. I can't get used to the supermarket, not really. There was a fish and chip shop at the corner of Bonsall Street called Thurnbys and there was a lovely fruit shop. Nowadays everything you need is in one shop, which I don't really care for. So I'd say I am rather old fashioned.
When you were growing up in Highfields and you went to Melbourne Road School, how did you find that?
Lovely, I loved it. As soon as I went there I made very good progress. I was really interested and there was some very, very nice teachers there. When I left, I was fourteen, I was the top girl at the at the school. I've still got the prize .
What prize was that?
It's the prize for general proficiency. I got two or three prizes during two different years and my mother was so thrilled because she didn't think I could do very well. I mean all my mother's nephews and nieces were all extremely intelligent, they all went to university, Anyway, I passed the 11+ exam, I forget what it was.
Was it the scholarship?
No it wasn't it may have been it passes at 11, anyway I could have gone to High school, I could have gone to the Wickerstone or the other one where they wore the green uniform somewhere down by the cathedral, but mother couldn't afford it. We weren't very well off and in that time you had to provide your own books, uniform and everything. I begged to go and my aunties wrote to tell mother to send me if possible because education was so important but mother couldn't afford to.
What job did your father do?
Well he hadn't got a very good job. He was only on the maintenance staff and he only got 30 shillings a week, but of course in those days you could get your groceries for 10 shillings
I remember I have always been one for good quality. Once, mother bought me a cheap tunic from Woolworths and I wanted to see the pleats go in and out but they didn't. I used to go by a big bicycle shop to look in the window at my reflection to see if the pleats went in and out they didn't. So I went back and complained to mother and she said I am awfully sorry but you can't have that type. I said I wanted one of those square necked blouses like Catherine Trip had, that's my friend. She had a velvet top and tunic and mother said that they were in a different situation, and you have to have what you get and be grateful. So that was that.
That's a bit sad for you wasn't it? Did you just accept it?
Yes, you feel like just accepting it, yes.
So you left school when you were 14?
14. We went for a holiday at Blackpool. We always did, every year. Leicester had the first two weeks in August as holiday, it was a regular thing, nobody had any other holiday but the first two weeks in August. Of course that's all changed.
I remember the moment I came back from my holiday, my mother took me to get my first job at Freeman Hardy Willis, a shoe shop in Granby Street. A very nice shoe shop. I started there as a Junior at half a crown a week.
You liked it?
I liked it because I had to do everything. We had to scrape clean the carpet every morning. We scraped on our hands and knees the whole of that big shop. I had to arrange all the chairs, polish them all once a week. I had to get the meals, get the morning break, get the manager's dinner. I used to have to take all light fittings down they were screwed on four screws, take them all down and wash them all and put them all back. When the stock came in I had to fit it into the existing stock. I had to do that all on my own, and I made a good job of it, I loved every minute of it. I used to come home and I was so tired.
What time did you work, can you remember?
Oh the shops had long hours then. We worked until 6pm Monday and Tuesday, 7pm Wednesday,Thursday half day and Friday 8pm, Saturday 9pm. All that for half a crown a week until after three months it was raised to 5 shillings . That wasn't good really?
Yes it was, another half being doubled, he said he was very pleased with me and said that I could have another half a crown in between. There were three shops altogether the other two were in Cheap Side and High Street. If a customer came in and you didn't have the size, we rang the other branch, and if they had it you had to go running up for it, but I loved every minute of it. There was no sitting down.
Where there many assistants?
Yes there was five and then the Manageress and the General Manager. He looked after the whole shop and the men who worked in the Men's department. The Manageress looked over the girls in the Women's department.
And did you work there for a long time?
I worked there for 5 years until I was 19. I was going out with somebody who wanted me to have Saturday afternoons off, which we couldn't do in a shop, so I went to work for Goddess Play Car in Nelson Street opposite the station. I went there in the packing department, mother was very annoyed about it, she wanted me to stay in the shop.
Then I was called for the army , I had no choice. I could either go on the munitions or join the navy,the WAAFFS or the ATS, that is the army the navy or the air force. I went down to Ulverscroft Road where the silver barracks was. I went there for my selection test and I got put into the army and I went to my training at Terevera Camp, Northampton. I received my basic training at Northampton and then I was posted to the firing camp. I was the only one that had to go to a gun site and I was on one of the big computers that control the guns, where you could see all the information fed into it and then the gun is fired on that information, the ballistics and that sort of thing. I loved my army life. I wouldn't have missed it for the world.
Were you there right through the war?
Right through the war really, 4 years. I was stationed in London in Richmond Park. It was gorgeous. I paid many visits there when I went back to live in London. I took my husband to see it, mind you the bombing wasn't very pretty. It was very badly bombed people were getting killed all the time. We were out on the perimeter, the guns were all placed on the perimeter outside London so when the planes came up the Thames Estuary, they met a barrage of gun fire.
Were they the ones you worked on?
Yes, then they moved into London and the inner circle took over. We gunned two planes, two general planes and we shot them down yeah. Well, it was lovely,
I loved it because it was an education in itself. I learned more than I had ever known about anything. You learned to mix, to stick up for yourself and learned to live together. There were 24 girls in one barrack room. We were like sisters, it was lovely. We hadn't got our own friends so we used to go up to London and everywhere, all round the shows and everything.
You went there completely on your own from Leicester?
I went completely on my own yes.
Did you feel frightened?
Well I had never been anywhere on my own, not really. I was very attached to mum and dad because we did everything together. The first week was very automatic
We did the basic training; there was marching, learning how to be in the army, learning all the regimentation , learning to take orders, learning how to salute the officers, speak to an officer and all that type of thing, that took six weeks
Did you ever come back to Leicester to visit while you were in the army?
Yes, I used to come back. We used to get shore leave as well. We used to get an afternoon from lunch time, then we would get 24 hours once a month. Sometimes I would come home on 24 hrs but not every time by train then never by coach, always by train from St Pancras .
And how were your parents coping with war in Leicester?
Oh they were bombed out.
Highfields was bombed, Highfields Street itself received a direct hit and several people were killed, it was very bad. We had a land mine so they were out six weeks and they went to back into the country to father's sisters.
Until they could come back?
Until it was clear for them to come back
We didn't have any actual damage to the house itself, but we had one very big crack right down the lawn probably from the vibration. War wasn't a time of misery for me at all. I mean we all had such a good time, we'd got the NAAFFI where we used to go in the evenings and you could play table tennis, you could sit and read, or you could play bingo. I was in a mixed battery, men and women, which was rather nice and I started courting a gentleman in there but it didn't come to anything. I went home with him to meet his parents, he lived in Halifax in Yorkshire. They were nearly all Londoners in our batch, Eastenders now.
You were talking about when you moved away from Highfields and then you came back. Were you were quite happy about the people moving into the area as time went on?
Do you think everybody in the area found it like that?
No I don't no. Even last week I was talking to someone who was very prejudiced about them. They said that they got everything and the English people got nothing. They said that when they get here and they get settled they get their parents to come here and that was not right, and that they get a pension. I didn't think that was so, but they say they haven't paid into our pension and that they get it. Whether that is correct I don't know do you know that?
I don't know, no.
No, but if it is correct it isn't probably quite right in a way but personally it doesn't bother me, I don't really worry about it. I don't get a ha'penny from anywhere and I am only £2.50 less on my pension because my husband's sums were all wrong. I worked but I didn't have sufficient to make it up and I have inquired about it but they say there is nothing that can be done about it because, you see if you've got a little bit in the bank that stops you getting any more money. I should have been better off without that little bit which I probably will not have soon because I want all new furniture as all my mother's stuff is old. An antique dealer saw me yesterday and he called me and he said "Mrs Wilmot, are you going to let me have that old fashioned dresser you've got upstairs?" You see he wants it because it's antique as he had my table which was beautiful. I have no prejudice against them. They have nearly all got one or two cars. Even my neighbour, who is English, hasn't got one. I haven't got a car but we are surrounded by cars.
When these people first came into Highfields, they probably didn't have much of anything did they, do you remember?
Well I can't say exactly.
Some people came from Poland as well, did you know anyone?
Yes, yes well there are two Polish people, still on Mere Road, very nice people, I know them very well. One backs up to my back garden and there is also a Ukrainian as well but I can't remember exactly about the possessions. When I went into this first home of the person who asked me to cook dinner for him, they had got a lot of things and they had already had it modernized. They had gliding doors and because they wanted an extra bedroom had the bathroom taken out from upstairs and built on the back, downstairs. A lot of them had that done because it gives you 3 bedrooms.
Did in your house in Highfields have a bathroom?
No bathroom. No but dad made an improvised bathroom. He had a lovely bath which people say I should have never let go of because it was worth something. It was stood on those legs and it was in beautiful condition, they say the builders took it out and sold for a lot of money.
There was an inside toilet?
No inside toilet in our house. Outside, in all weathers up that little yard.
What about at night? You had to go out in the dark?
Terrible if you had to go at night. I used to have my own little bucket. The people next door used to empty a little bucket every morning.
What about washing do you remember how you did the washing?
Well I remember when I was younger that mother used to do the washing the old fashioned way, boil in a big copper which was stalled from underneath by coal and she used have what you called a 'punching' thing with holes in the bottom and she used to have a big grey sort of a board, I don't know whether it was made of glass or metal but you rubbed your clothes up and down on them and that's how she washed.
Very hard work, and they starched. I used starch table cloth and everything. I used to to make them nice and crisp.
Did you help your mother round the house?
Yes, I was always one for helping, yes.
Did you have a car at home?
No. We hadn't got any money for a car but we always had a holiday. My father always insisted on a weeks holiday at Blackpool and we used to go to Bagworth frequently. We used to walk to Bagworth from here across the fields to Anstey and we used to think it was marvellous. We would take a picnic lunch and probably have an ice-cream, that was a luxury. We used to go to a coloured boat house as well.
My mother had a sister at Coventry, the one that was very well off. She had a very big business, retailed dresses. She used to send mother parcels of clothes and inside she used to put a £10 note or a £5 note so that her husband wouldn't know. She was very good to us, she kept us going really.
Did you feel that you lacked for anything?
No never. I had everything that was going, within reason, I never asked for anything.
We had a wireless. My father was very fond of making a Crystal set, I don't suppose you'd remember the Crystal set.
I have seen pictures.
Yes, he used to make the Crystals for the wireless set. When we lived in the country, he used to go round all the villages selling them. I can see him now sitting listening with the head phones on, I was about 3 or 4.
Mother used to be mad on having it on, she used to have it on nearly all day.
So that was your entertainment?
My mother was very good pianist too but we didn't possess a piano not until my mother's sister bought us one. I never had lessons. I never did learn to play, yet my mother could play beautifully. I am extremely fond of music. I wish I could play an instrument or something.
Did she sing when she played?
Yes. All families on a Sunday night used to gather round the piano and they used to have a sing song. You would probably sing hymns or home sweet home or that type of thing. You made your own amusement. There was court playing. You get little games on the lawn, battle door and shuttle cock and those things, which I don't think kids really experience the pleasure of now, they just sit there looking at that box all while it spoils conversation in a family household. They do say the television has spoiled the art of conversation. Families don't talk like they used to do
Did you talk a lot to your parents?
Yes we were extremely close, very close indeed. I was particularly close to my father.
I thank my father for a lot of things I know, because he always used to talk to me. When he came home from work, he used to take me down the country lanes and he used show me the trees and he used to say "Look dear, that's an Oak tree" and he would show me the wild roses and the tips and tell me that you can make syrup out of those tips and everything like that, I learned from my father. I am terribly fond of gardening and flowers. Now my mother, she wasn't mad on flowers at all. I always remember my husband, he bought her a great big bunch of roses for her birthday, beautiful they were, and I said "Aren't they marvellous mother?" Well she said they were all right and then she said "I would rather have a box of chocolates."
That's because she was a town girl. Aren't you a town girl really?
I was a town girl but I have always been extremely fond of gardening. When we married we bought a house in London with a big garden. It is just a shame that I had to give it all up when he died. It was the business you see, it made him worry. We were always getting bills; you buy stuff on credit, and the bills kept coming in. People didn't buy from small shops, they go to the bigger stores where they can buy in quantity and they get a bigger selection. He died of cancer in the end, it was terrible. We went to see him in St Joseph which was the first hospital in Hackney it was very very sad.
Were you left in London on your own?
Yes but not entirely on my own because I had my mother-in-law living nearby in Westerly. She is still alive as is my sister-in-law and a nephew but I NEVER have any contact with them. I rang them last Christmas, after years, and they didn't even know who I was.
Have you got any more relatives now in Leicester?
No. I had three dreadful miscarriages, I lost three babies. I nearly lost my life as well with the first one, but I seem to have coped.
Where did you meet your husband, was that in Leicester?
Yes. I was taken to the De Montfort Hall to what they called a Rose Cart Carnival Ball. It was the old time bank then. I was taken by a friend, an elderly gentleman who was 67, I was 26. We were dancing around and this fella came up to him and said "May I dance with your daughter?" Of course he wasn't my father but I didn't say anything and he said "Yes of course you can." Then he asked me for two or more dances. After that, he went home and I went home and that was that. Then we saw him again when my friend and I went old time dancing, somewhere near Belgrave, near Cossington Street. When he saw me, he came to me for a dance and I had quite a few dances with him. Then he asked me if I would like any refreshments and I explained that I was with my friend and he said bring her along too. Then he asked whether I would like to go out with him sometime and I said yes. He said what about next Saturday? I said "I'm sorry but I'm working in the shop until 5.30 to 6." So I met him at 8 o'clock and I remember that it was under the big clock, across the road from what used to be Woolworths. Anyway, I met him there and I always remember he took me to a city cinema and I will never forget he bought me Brital clean up toffee instead of a chocolate or something, so I assumed that he hadn't been out with many girls and I found out that was true because within five weeks he asked me to go home with him to meet his mother and we all roared with laughter when I told her about the toffee. Of course, soon after that we got married.
And where did you live when you first married?
Highbury Road, up Catherine Street. My husband worked in an office. He was extremely intelligent. I wouldn't say he got on too well with my mother and father because he was too reserved. He didn't say much when he came for tea, he hardly ever opened his mouth and my mother used to say "How do you live with him?"
So your husband didn't live in Highfields at all?
In a way yes. I remember the night I met him again at the Ballroom in Silver Street, he said to me "You didn't say where you live?" I said I lived in Bonsall Street, top of Mere Road and he said how funny because he lived the Highfields area too. He lived at 444 East Park Road, near the very end as you go onto the Evington Road. So it was very convenient really. He lived there quite a while but he came from Holland originally.
Can I just ask you one last question? Do you have any feelings as to how Highfields compares today to when you were a child?
Not favourable feelings. No I wouldn't say so, not really.
In what way do you think it has changed?
Well, for one thing you dare not go on the park. Somebody was stabbed there a fortnight ago. I would love to go, I would dearly love to go on that park, it would be a godsend for me, being on my own. If I could take a book or something and be able to sit and talk, but you can't because somebody can come up from behind you and probably take your bag or stab you. We have a lot of burglaries. My neighbours have been burgled twice next door, which makes me rather frightened now. Where I am living at the moment, I keep the back entry locked all day long.
That's very different to how it was?
Oh no, it was nothing like that. It was a lovely area. As a matter of fact, my father used to say when we walked onto Mere Road, it was a beautiful area, look at all the lovely trees, very residential. The trees are still there and it is quite nice in its appearance but it's the burglaries, they happen all the time. My friend Mary, she has been burgled twice.
Do you think it is a general thing?
Well, I think it is over the whole of England. Everywhere. I suppose you have heard Leicester is supposed to be a very bad area. You hear people from Nottingham and Birmingham say "Oh, you live in the Highfields area, how dreadful."
And apart from the feeling of not being safe?
I love it. I get on ever so well with the neighbours now I speak to them. I don't know whether they are Muslims or what but they do pray a lot. They pray at certain times of the day, have a little shrine in the front room. They have got children who keep throwing things over into my garden. The other afternoon they threw a rather heavy metal car, it just missed the window and I said "I hope you don't mind but this is not my house and that car nearly hit the window". She said she was ever so sorry but she can't control them. She has just had a new baby and she has got her hands full you see. I said that I was not being funny. I loved them all, but in case they broke the window, I didn't want to have anything to do with it. I have got about six or seven plastic things to give them back tonight when they get back, they just throw them you see they don't mean anything by it.
Well, has it been all right?
Yes thank you.