Recently the local BBC radio station ran a feature asking listeners to call in with their ideas for street names based on boots and shoes. The piece was entertaining and there were no shortage of suggestions. The feature was prompted by a new housing development in the Ross Walk area of Leicester covering the old factory site of the British United Shoe Machine Corporation. As with so many old manufacturing sites in the city, or nationally, this once productive site has been transformed from a place of work to a place of residence. This once very public space is now a collection of private homes. A powerful symbol of the transformation of urban spaces following large-scale deindustrialisation. The factory site had, for many years, been occupied by various employers following BUSM’s collapse in 2000 becoming a self-styled ‘business park’. Gradually the site became increasingly derelict and unusable. However, in the years preceding demolition I had visited the factory site many times with my camera (as I had done with other many old factory sites) with the aim of capturing something of the buildings, not necessary to record them for posterity but perhaps to serve as an aide memoir in the various research projects I was involved in.
Of all the images I captured of the site, the one I kept returning to time and time again was a black and white photograph of a steel inspection cover. This cover, covering a small utility vault, was not inside the actual factory site but in the middle of the pavement of Ross Walk. When the photograph was taken the steel cover has been partially covered with concrete but what can clearly be discerned are the company initials BUSM arranged in the style of the recognisable BUSM logo (there were other examples around the factory site). What fascinated me about the image is that is speaks to the ‘size’ of the organisation i.e. BUSM was such a large organisation they could afford, at their peak, to have their own ‘branded’ inspection covers. A clear signifier of the scale of the operation. Yet the scale of BUSM, and the thousands of skilled workers, made its demise all the more tragic for Leicester and for those who had worked there. This is reflected in our own research where it is clear that the 1960s cohort of Leicester young workers could not have known (or expected) the economic turmoil that they would face throughout their working lives. They entered a labour market at fifteen with expectations of a job for life in one of Leicester’s dominant industries. They could never have predicted that some forty-five years later very little of these industries would remain or that their factory site would become a new housing estate. As with the factory the inspection cover is long gone.
Well let us say that [with] any apprenticeship you’ve got a future. You’ve got 5 years for a start and then after that you can rely on a decent wage every week afterwards for the rest of your life. (Apprentice Engineer, British United Shoe Machinery Company, 1964)
For more on BUSM there is a UK heritage lottery funded history project which contains some good visual materials as well as oral histories: http://www.buhistory.org.uk/
Goodwin, J. and O’Connor, H. – Back to Different Futures: Individual Experiences of Work in a Changing Industrial Landscape, forthcoming.