It may come as a surprise to readers that Leicester once had thriving extractive industries within the city limits. Notably these were the extraction of clay for brick-making, gypsum for plaster, sandstone and sand for building, as well as limestone quarries for the manufacture of mortar. Little surface trace of these remains today.
A glance at the geological map (BGS sheet 156, description by Carney et al. 2009) shows that there is a band of Mercia Mudstones (formerly Keuper Marl) running roughly north to south through the area of Leicester city (see also Horwood, 1913). The western half of this band is largely covered by the River Soar and its alluvial floodplain, where quarries would be impractical owing to flooding. But to the east the red mudstones underlie the higher parts of the city where they could be quarried in the hillsides. Just inside the city boundary there were the extensive New Star brick pits and kilns north of Thurmaston Lane (= Humberstone brick works?), later levelled and an industrial estate built on top. There were brick-pits in nearby Gipsy Lane, of which little remains, though I remember visiting them in the 1950s. Spinney Hill Park was developed on the site of large brick-pits filled with rubbish. According to Harrison (1877) there was a brick pit “near the cemetery”, presumably that at Welford Road. Other brick-pits were adjacent to the nearby cattle market and on the site of Wyggeston Girls School (now Regent College). To the south there was a large quarry and brick kilns at Knighton Fields (also known as Knighton Junction works), long since filled in and now the site of the University of Leicester student flats (Nixon Court) behind the Homebase store. I have vague memories of seeing derelict brick kilns there in the 1950s. West of the railway junction there was another brick works on Saffron Lane and the site later had the sports stadium built on it. Outside the city boundary near the Wigston railway junction there was a brick-pit at Glen Parva; later this was filled in and the Young Offenders Institution built on top. Again, just outside the city boundary there were extensive brick-pits and kilns at Blaby, west of the County Arms pub.
All the above worked the upper part of the Mercia Mudstones in the 19th century when there was a high demand for bricks to build the terrace housing for factory workers. The import of mass-produced bricks from the Oxford Clay brickworks of Bedfordshire saw the gradual demise of Leicester’s brick industry.
Sandstone was quarried from the Upper Keuper Sandstone (= Hollybush Sandstone, Carney et al. 2009) in Dane Hills, now within Western Park, though much was too crumby for building and the sand was used in mortar.
From LLPS Transactions 1901
Sand and gravel were also excavated from glacial outwash deposits at various locations along the Soar Valley, particularly at Thurmaston (now with an ASDA store on top), near Humberstone and at Aylestone, and most villages outside the city had their own sandpits. I recall visiting a house built in one at Thurnby in the 1960s, just north of the A46.
From LLPS Transactions 1901
At the base of the upper Mercia Mudstones gypsum was worked on a large scale in Nottinghamshire and along the Trent Valley. A reduced thickness of the gypsum bed extended through north Leicestershire (it was recently mined near Barrow-on-Soar) into Leicester (Carney et al., 2009), where several borings recorded gypsum beds (Fox-Strangways, 1903); Fox-Strangways quoted Jukes (1838) as saying that there was a gypsum pit at Regent Road, Leicester, possibly now part of Wyggeston Girls School playing fields. Gypsum was also found in the footings for Knighton railway tunnel. There was a local demand for gypsum to make plaster for the burgeoning terrace housing. Small quantities were raised at Gipsy Lane and gypsum was also excavated from beneath the brick clay at Spinney Hill with mine workings apparently extending beneath Mere Road – an old shaft collapsed in a backyard there in the 1970s.
The Hydraulic Limestones at the base of the Lower Lias were quarried around Barrow-on-Soar and there were small quarries at Crown Hills, near the Leicester General Hospital (see sketch map in Fox-Strangways, 1903). One limestone quarry was close to Ethel Road and the site was later redeveloped for a Waitrose store (Boynton, 2004). To the south of the city boundary, there were limestone quarries near Kilby Bridge. The limestone was used fro the manufacture of lime, much of which was used in mortar for building terrace housing. There were tramways to convey the limestone to kilns in the Willow Brook valley but nothing remains of them. The quarries were long ago filled with rubbish and a housing estate built on top.
The above survey is by no means exhaustive, and I suggest that some member might like to take up the subject as a research project. A start could be made by examining the 19th century editions of large scale Ordnance Survey maps and then scanning the various commercial directories: early Geological Survey publications add some detail (e.g. Fox-Strangways, 1903). Most of these are held at the Leicestershire Record Office in Wigston. Who worked which pits and when? How many bricks were produced? Who were the builders? Who used the bricks? Were there any other gypsum mines? And were there any other quarries in the Hydraulic Limestones? Some details of the brickworks can be found in Boynton (2003).
The manufacture of bricks, plaster and mortar required coal for kilns; this was brought in from northwest Leicestershire by rail, but a local source would have been better, so in the 19th century the Evington Coal and Lime Company drilled deep boreholes at Crown Hills in search of a hypothetical concealed coalfield: they did not find any coal and the boreholes terminated in Lower Palaeozoic rocks directly below the Trias (Fox-Strangways, 1903; Carney et al., 2009).
Finally we might note that most sites of these extractive industries have been obliterated by later development but they should not be forgotten as old quarries filled in with rubbish may not form the best of foundations for new buildings.
Boynton, H.E. 2003. Knighton and Clarendon Park. Published by the author, Oadby. 75pp.
Boynton, H.E. 2004. South East of Leicester. Published by the author, Oadby. 100pp.
Carney, J.C., Ambrose, K., Cheney, C.S. and Hobbs, P.R.N. 2009. Geology of the Leicester District. British Geological Survey Sheet 156 description. Keyworth. 110pp.
Fox-Strangways, C. 1903. The Geology of the Country near Leicester. Memoir of the Geological Survey. 122 pp.
Harrison, W.J. 1877. The Geology of Leicester and Rutland. White, Sheffield. 70pp.
Horwood, A.R. 1913. The Upper Trias of Leicestershire. Geological Magazine, Decade IV, vol.7, pp. 21-32, 73-86, 109-121 and 205-215.
Jukes, A.J. 1838. The Analyst. Vol 8, p. 7.
Trevor D. Ford