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A district of inner city Leicester and its origins. . . . . . .

Image: York Press. York Station 2021

In idle moments travelling, masked up, on today’s trains, you can feel the train slow to a junction or a stop and look up to see a railway landscape, as I think of it. It’s not so much the peculiarities of bridges and stations, signals, cabins, but those rows of terraced houses that cluster in narrow streets around the railway - sometimes running parallel to the lines or at right angles, cutting the townscape into regular squares of streets and back yards. Of course, they are the reminders of housing often built for railway workers, 100 years or so back in time. Here in York, for example it’s not hard to work out where the Carriage Works were or the engine sheds, if only by the nearby housing that remains.

Collecting oral histories around Leicester, several interviewees mentioned ‘Newfoundpool’, sometimes ‘the’ Newfoundpool. I looked it up and it was an interesting story.

In 1830 Isaac Harrison discovered a natural spring in his market garden, on the outskirts of Leicester, a city then swelling with new industries and new arrivals. Referring to it as the New Found Pool, he thought he could turn it into a spa, but the good citizens of Leicester weren’t ready for a spa – Buxton, maybe, but not Leicester. It didn’t work. So, turn the clock forward to 1885 when Orson Wright, a local builder, buys some of the land and starts to construct Newfoundpool. He laid out the streets so that the first names spelt “IHarrison’ (I for Isaac). In the middle, a larger building, the original spa hotel, became the Empire Hotel. Wright either anticipated developments or simply speculated on the growth of the city. Either way, as the Great Central Railway arrived in Leicester, many of the houses became homes for railway workers or for those displaced by the building of the Great Central station and yards close by.

Empire Hotel, Fosse Road North, in 1955 Image: Leicester Mercury

‘Keith’ remembered it as a real community when he lived there as a child, with his parents and siblings. Living, now, in sheltered accommodation away from Leicester, he sat in his arm chair and reminisced for me about days, long ago, in the Newfoundpool. ‘It was a community then, and it still is. I still go back there to get my hair cut…… It was surrounded by allotments, hundreds of them, and my dad, a railwayman, built himself a big shed on his allotment. He used to go and sleep up there in the summer instead of sleeping at home when he was on the night shift.’

‘I remember the streets were cobbled and you had the noise all the time, horses and carts, clompity clomp, all day and night. There was the knocker up, too, to get you down to the shed on time. He must have gone up to the allotments as well, because quite a few men slept up there, like my dad.’

Keith’s memories have that rose-tinted hue in them, of a wonderful past, a childhood that never seemed to have a bad moment. But then, he mentioned illness and how neighbours came together to tend sick children while parents went to work. And father too, if he was not around: “you were given a brass ring, I think, and if you gave them that at the window, you could pick up his wages.’

Keith went silent a few times, conjuring up images of ‘the old days’ and a railway family, how and where they lived. ‘But it’s all nationalities now, of course, mainly east Europeans, but still a community. The railway’s long since gone but I think it was the railway that held everyone together.’

It’s an interesting thing, this nostalgia. In my travels collecting oral histories, I find it fascinating to collect stories of life in the communities we all know about – railways in different cities and in small towns like Woodford Halse in Northamptonshire, mining communities, sometimes mixed with railways such as at Annesley and Hucknall in Nottinghamshire. It would be easy to be seduced into thinking it was an idyllic life when it was quite the reverse. But I think Keith was right about one thing – the sense of community that employment such as railways brought to people. It’s a powerful source of memories and Keith was no exception in remembering the past, emotionally at times.

1964. Woodford Halse station. An enthusiasts' train calls at Woodford Halse shortly before closure of the line.
Image: Geograph project collection. © Flying Stag

1964. Woodford Halse station. An enthusiasts' train calls at Woodford Halse shortly before closure of the line.

When I visit Locomotion at Shildon I like to walk or drive around Shildon itself. Locomotion, today, is a large modern building but surrounding it are the elements of a community built for railways and for coal – an extension of Locomotion perhaps, a chance to glimpse back into the past.

Locomotion: The National Railway Museum Shildon. Image: website

Museums have a difficult task today of bringing this sense of the past alive. Some museums – Beamish in County Durham, for example – are able to do this more by the reconstructions, the characters in costume, the recordings, and old photographs they show. But others, such as the NRM, don’t have the space to create a railway village. Maybe we should, though? Maybe community spirit today matters as much as it ever did. That said, the NRM’s exciting development plan is now coming alive and so, if not a ‘village’, then an equally important means of connecting with the railway past for all of us.

Image: National Railway Museum. Vision 2025

Find out more information about Newfoundpool here


John Swanwick

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