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The history of Highfields

In the early nineteenth century, the part of the city of Leicester now known as Highfields was a rural area lying outside the city to the east. Known as High Fields, the area was rich in water sources and windmills; the springs in High Fields were said to give exceptionally pure water. An Ordnance Survey map of 1828 shows only a small amount of developement out of the city along the London Road.

An image of a large houseIt was in the mid to late nineteenth century that Highfields began to be developed. Jack Simmons in Leicester Past and Present documents this growth. By 1885, the Ordnance Survey map shows half the area covered by housing and small factories. By 1915 the area was completely developed, with Spinney Hill Park the only open space. The housing in the area was a mixture of small terraces and large, spacious properties; several of the people interviewed for Highfields Remembered can recall these large houses having servants.

The early twentieth century saw the beginning of a trend which was to continue to the present day. Highfields began to be the home of new communities, with a small Jewish community settling in the area. The Highfields Street synagogue, still a thriving centre, was built at this time. From the early 1940s, local street directories begin to show evidence of the middle-European background of some residents.

Before and during the Second World War, the Jewish community expanded, with evacuees and refugees from Europe; a Polish and Latvian community began to be established. The Polish church, day centre and Polish club were set up at this time, and still serve thriving communities, though many of the original Polish residents have dispersed across the city.

After the Second World War, during the early 1950s, some ex-servicemen and many workers from the Caribbean settled in Highfields, drawn by the opportunities for work offered by the need to rebuild the country after the war. As the 1991 census data shows, Highfields continues to have a considerable African- Caribbean community.

An image of an old photo showing bombed out factoryDuring the period following the war, many changes were once more to be seen in the physical appearance of Highfields. Several street in the area had been badly damaged by air raids (notably the Highfield Street/Saxby Street raid of 19th November 1940, when 40 lives were lost). Photographs from the period document the chaos. After the war, huge efforts were made to make good the damage; this was coupled with the renewal of the City Council's slum clearance programme, begun in the 1930s but interrupted by the war. The Jewish community centre on Highfield Street replaced some of the demolished houses there, but some areas (for example, Conduit Street) remained derelict through out the 1960s and 70s. The St. Peters and St. Matthew's housing estates were built to replace the old housing, though some of St. Peters housing was unsuccessful and had to be replaced during the 1980s.

Meanwhile, from the 1960s, street directories show the growth of a small Asian community in Highfields. Labour shortages encouraged recruitment from the sub-continent, and political unrest in East Africa led many Asian families to join relatives in Leicester in the 1970s. In 200 years, Highfields has grown from a sparsely-populated rural area to the thriving multicultural community it is today. All the communities which have settled, either staying or moving on, have made a contribution to the area's development, leaving a legacy of thriving mosques, temples, churches, shops and other secular buildings. The Highfields Remembered project has collected the memories of people from a wide range of communities. Throughout 1994 we have been privileged to share their reminiscences and build up a picture of life in Highfields within living memory. This web site gives a taste of those memories.

De Montfort University