The British United Shoe Machinery Company (BU) was Leicester’s greatest manufacturing company. It existed between 1899 and 2000, spanning the twentieth century, and at it’s peak employed over 4000 people at it’s Union Works site in Leicester.

The BU History Group wants to hear from you. Please share your memories and photographs.

Send an email to  info@buhistory.org.uk

Syd Bown


We are sorry to hear of the passing of former BU man Syd Bown. His funeral is taking place at Loughborough Crematorium at 11 am on Friday 26 August if any old friends or colleagues would like to attend.

Date posted: August 9, 2022

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John Ellis shares his memories...



John in his school uniform 1967 aged 15 – just as he would have looked when at BU.


“I have a few memories and tales to tell of my short time at the BUSMC in 1967.

“In May 1967, two weeks after leaving Guthlaxton, that fake “Grammar School” in Wigston, Leicestershire, (I had failed the 11-Plus exam in Leicester) after sitting exams for the short-lived, worthless and therefore pointless CSE exams, which were never recognized by Leicester employers, I began my working life at the British United Shoe Machinery Company in Belgrave Leicester. At a few months short of my 16th birthday I was supposed to become an apprentice engineer at the BUSMC, but that was the choice of the careers officer in Wigston and was not my choice at all as at Bushloe and Guthlaxton schools in Wigston  I had opted out of metalwork in favour of woodwork.

“On the first day at the BUSMC, we new recruits were seated in a classroom in MacDonald Road with a cup of tea and a biscuit and received a welcoming speech by the Personnel Manager. After the chat, we were told to enjoy our tea and biscuit as the firm would not provide another until we retired.  That caused some muted laughter, but I didn’t laugh as I knew it would be true. We were then given some IQ and aptitude tests, some days after which I was categorized as an apprentice “Mechanical Engineering Technician” which was one step higher than the majority of “Craft Apprentices” who were destined to become shop floor machine fodder. My unexpected elevation in status was mainly on the back of my Guthlaxton Grammar School attendance, where I had achieved precisely nothing of note.

“As a not-yet 16-year-old, the BUSMC initially paid me £3/15/0d (£3.75p) for 40 hours of work (9p per hour). On my 16th birthday in the August of 1967, I received a magnificent £1 per week pay rise.  One shilling (20p) per day extra. What could I spend it on? Almost all of my pay disappeared immediately on transport or fuel costs, either by Midland Red and Leicester Corporation buses, or on my ancient motorcycle, plus board and lodging payments to my mother, clothing etc.  Certainly, monetary values were different back then compared with today, but it was all relative. A skilled worker would have been paid more than me, but their financial commitments would be proportionately greater; they being probably married, with children and rent or mortgage to pay. It struck me even at that young age that employers paid their workforce just enough to keep them alive and to get themselves to work to continue their slavery. This was recognized way back in the 1840s by two German gentlemen in London by the names of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Nothing changes, nothing does and never will, because, because (Spike Milligan).

“I began in the Apprentice School on the third floor of the old Law Street building, which had wooden floors. At the end of the day, the apprentices would clock out and run to the paternoster in the newer building in MacDonald Road to escape the BU as soon as possible. We were warned that if any more than two lads were caught riding in the same cubicle of the paternoster at any one time, they would all be sacked. I counted eight on one occasion and more than once saw the chain and sprocket in the sump of the paternoster because we couldn’t all get off on the ground floor in time.

“The head of the apprentice school was an older man named Arnold, whom I was told was a one-time motorcycle racer. Arnold was assisted by a man called Keith, who may have been Keith Cox whom I met again decades later as a workshop technician in the design and manufacture faculty at Leicester DeMontfort University (formerly Leicester Polytechnic). All of the workshop technicians at DeMontfort University had worked at the BU at some point or other. Keith Cox had left the BU years ago to be the head of the apprentice school at Stibbe’s before that too folded.

“In the apprentice school, I remember a blonde-headed kid from New Parks who was named Nurse and another called Mervin. When we went for a medical exam in Ross Walk, we were all asked to strip to the waist for the doctor to examine us, but Merv wasn’t paying attention and stripped naked. He was asked by the nurse to cover up his lower regions.

“The apprentices were given small batch jobs on which the skilled workers could not make money on. The 3rd-floor foreman, a portly man with a girlfriend one floor down, gave me 5 off, 2 1/2″ bore shafting collars which had been bored then drilled and tapped for the securing grubscrew. The last operation had created a burr inside the main bore which I was asked to remove. The foreman suggested that I should do so by running it through with a 2 1/2″ hand reamer. This was intended as a “bucket of steam” or “Long Weight” hoax by the foreman, but I went along with it. I went to the tool store on the 3rd floor where the storeman asked me to “wait there” whilst he had a look, returning some minutes later to say that he hadn’t a hand reamer that big in diameter. So, I went down to the second-floor tool stores and came away empty-handed. The last storeman told me “someone’s pulling your leg mate”. Undeterred I went down to the ground floor tool store and do you know what, – he actually had a 2.5″ hand reamer which was about 18″ long and weighed quite a bit (this was actually a machine reamer as it had a Morse Taper and two flats at the tail end). On returning to the 3rd floor the foreman asked me why I had been off the floor for so long. I told him the story, showed him the reamer which I held in a vice and rotated the shafting collars on it to remove the burrs in a jiffy.

“After a short period of manual filing, thread tapping and sheet metal folding I was installed as a permanent appendage of a monstrous pre-War (which war?) Churchill grinding machine with six abrasive stone blocks the size of house bricks clamped to the fast-revolving drum making a noise like a running down air raid siren. The noise of the machine frightened me to death. Every now and then, just to keep me awake, the magnets which held the flat workpieces to the magnetic machine table would fall away and at the next pass of the trough under the grinding blocks, the parts would be sent flying at the end of the enclosed end of the trough, sounding like a machine gun. The to and fro (left to right) passage of the machine trough beneath the grinding head also sprayed me with stinking coolant called “Suds” (water miscible oil) which entered the pores of my skin and my lungs.  There was no PPE. In my free time, even after a hot bath with Lifebuoy less than sexy soap and a hair wash with Vosene less than sexy shampoo, the persistent smell of suds caused friends and others to ask “Can you smell oil?”  Yes! I reeked of it permanently.  So, in a very short time, the BU had transformed me into a social leper.  Girls did not want to know me.

“Most of the work at the BU was repetitious “piece work” and a work rate was fixed by the “time and motion” man.  If a worker didn’t meet the target time to complete the job he could be sacked.  Not that the time was ever reassessed to check that it was fair and achievable. It was always the worker’s fault. If the worker managed to complete the task in less than the allotted time and the time and motion man became aware of it the time for the job would be cut to the faster time for the next batch, making it even more difficult to reach the target and the worker would have to go flat out to stand still.

“I was five minutes late at the gate one morning, arriving on my Royal Enfield Bullet motorcycle and sidecar. The gate in MacDonald Road was locked so I asked the gateman if I could come in. He rang through to my foreman who refused me entry, saying that I was too late and that I should come back for the afternoon shift. I thought sod that. It’s a nice day, I’ll have a ride out on my motorbike, which I did and had a lovely day riding around Charnwood, apart from my sidecar wheel fell off and the lights failed at dusk and I had to leave the outfit on a grass verge in Anstey and get home by bus.

“One apprentice was sacked attempting to oil blacken the handles of the tap-wrench we all had to make. The trick was to heat the steel and then thrust it below the surface of the black oil in a gallon tin which would result in the handles becoming black. This lad had just touched the surface of the oil with the red-hot steel, which heated the oil above its flash point and the tin of oil caught fire.  The lad just stood there looking at it, at a loss what to do about the fire. The foreman smothered the fire and the lad was escorted off the premises and told never to return.

“Another apprentice was sacked after he used the “fast traverse” button to lower the cylindrical abrasive wheel of the circular grinding machine down into the revolving machine table. The grinding cylinder exploded and some of it penetrated the sheet steel guard at the rear of the machine and broke a pane of glass in the window beyond sending shards of glass into the courtyard below. Another was sacked when he managed to stall the centre lathe he was working on but he hadn’t the intelligence to switch it off and the electric motor burnt out. Yet another was sacked for leaving the suds pump running on the Churchill grinder overnight.  Iron filings blocked the drain and the trough filled and overflowed onto and through the wooden floor ruining thousands of pounds worth of electronic equipment on the floor below which was ready for delivery to the customer.

“In the courtyard was a department which always smelled of adhesive fumes. An old man who worked there came out into the yard to have a cigarette and became a human torch when the fumes still escaping from his overalls ignited.

“Lunchtimes, after a feed in the canteen, many of us new apprentices would retire to the Cossington Street Recreation Ground, or to Bruin Street where there was a high school (now a primary school) then with interesting if not interested young teenage ladies. There I met Christine off St Matthews and a blonde girl from Martin Street whom I was interested in, but neither meeting progressed anywhere.  I arranged to meet Christine one evening on the St Matthews estate, but she didn’t turn up. Then I left the BU.

“The BU had bike racks. Nobody except maybe the bosses turned up in a car. I had a motorcycle which I may have parked on a nearby street. Other times I arrived on the bus or cycled from Wigston. Whilst standing near the clocking-in machine on the 3rd floor of the BU Law Street building I was approached by an older apprentice who sold me a Belstaff Trialsmaster waxed cotton motorcycle jacket with a green ribbed corded velvet stand-up collar for £5 which I withdrew from my Post Office savings account without my mother’s knowledge.

“I was sent to Charles Keene College one day a week.  Charles might have been Keene, but I wasn’t. There was a break for one hour from 5 pm to 6 pm, following which there was a Tech Drawing lesson. The fluorescent lighting in the Tech Drawing room bothered me and all I could see was the glare from the white of the paper.  Pencil lines became invisible and my eyesight was never the best. So, I didn’t go to the Tech Drawing lessons and later not to Charles Keene at all. Also, the stink of the canal basin next to Charles Keene turned my stomach. I remember driving my motorbike and sidecar into the Painter Street car park, smelling the canal, performing a rapid U-turn and buggering off for yet another day off joyride. For which I would lose £1. Was I bothered? Not one bit. The BU Personnel Manager came to learn of my non-attendance and called me to his office.  He gave me two options; either to turn over a new leaf and continue as a Craft Apprentice, but that a black mark would be entered on my career record, or I could leave. Faced with that simple choice, leaving was a more attractive option.

“I left the BUSMC after 6 months to work even more briefly for Constone in South Wigston, but that is another story. In 1967 I began my working career on the bottom rung of the ladder and ended it 47 years and over 50 later in the cellar. My longest job lasted nine years, the shortest 90 minutes. Told the boss that the job wasn’t for me and left.

Mid-career I found that I had a natural aptitude as a “motor vehicle refinisher” (paint sprayer) which I did for nearly a quarter of a century. I loved it. Every job was different to the last. Repetition and piecework are mind-numbingly boring.


All the best John Ellis


Date posted: August 7, 2022

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Joseph Gouldbourn


Hi – Does this name ring a bell with anyone? We’ve been contacted by Veronica Hoyles who is trying to find out more about Joseph Gouldbourn. He was an inventor at BU. It is definitely a name from the past as Veronica is in touch with Joseph’s grandson who is approaching 85 years of age and who never met his grandad. Any old-time BU historians, can you please help?? Thank you – Burt

Click on this link to see one of his inventions from 1918 (there are quite a few if you google the name) –


Date posted: June 21, 2022

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No 6 Harness Machines


Phil Goodchild is a traditional full time working Harness Maker in the UK specialising in heavy horse harnesses for heavy horse breeds.  He owns and uses a B.U.M.C  No 6 treddle harness sewing machine.  “It is an amazing piece of machinery ad it still works today as good as it did when new.  The serial number is 8491 and is still fully original.  I bought it from a saddlery workshop in Darwen, Lancashire.  My friend Bryan still works in the original workshop his Great Grandfather started.  It was this Great Grandfather who bought two brand new No 6 harness machines.   They remained in this shop from sometime before 1920 until 10 years ago,  I now own one of these machines so really, I am the second owner from new of my machine.”
“I have been searching high and low for any info relating to dates and serial numbers of various B.U.M.C machines and I cannot find anything.    I also have a very old B.U.M.C hand pull leather splitting machine I use almost every day in my harness workshop. Again,  a wonderful quality bit of kit is still in superb condition.  I am wondering if there is info etc regarding manufacturing dates and the related serial numbers.   As far as I can ascertain my No 6 harness sewing machine must be at least from around 1915 to 1920 going by what my friend who I bought it from could recall from his family history and handed down info from his Great Grandfathers time.  I have attached a couple of pictures of the machine, also one of my B.U.M.C  splitter for your interest.   The serial number of this is 549.

If there is any chance any info or existing records for a No.6 harness treddle machine exists I would be eternally grateful to be pointed towards it. This is for my own personal interest and that includes being n active member of the Facebook group we have for these machines.

Please email me, Phil Goodchild on info@pgharness.co.uk

Date posted: January 14, 2022

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Reg Lewis


Hello Everyone – Ian Lewis has contacted us to see if anyone has any information about his grandfather, Reg Lewis, who worked at BU between 1914-1935. Ian thinks he may have assembled prototype machines for BU, and could have been working at the Rothwell depot as well as Union Works. Delighted if anyone can give us any info. Cheers!

Ian also sent in this page from ‘The Engineer’ magazine from 1922! BU getting a good mention.


Date posted: December 13, 2021

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‘A Pill For Bill’


Ladies and Gentlemen, please take a look at the wonderful photo sent to us by Sue Templeman. It features her grandma, Winnie Sadler (number 28, see the end of this post), and 59 other women doing munitions work at BU during the First World War.

One of the amazing things about the picture is its clarity – you can zoom in and the women’s faces become clear revealing so much about each one. Is there a chance that someone will recognise a relative? At the bottom of this post is the photo again with each person numbered should we get lucky with an identification. How amazing would that be! Please let us know if you spot someone.


The shells at the front of the group are very telling, spelling out; ‘A – PILL – FOR – BILL’, Kaiser Bill, of course. Kaiser Wilhelm II, the German Emperor until 1918 and the end of the war. It would be fascinating to know exactly what jobs these women did inside the factory, their working hours and their conditions, etc.

All the women are also wearing the following badge on their overalls:



Thanks to John Clayson, whose father ran Clayson’s Cycle shop on the corner of Belgrave Road and Roberts Road during the BU’s 1950s and 1960s heyday, we can be pretty sure whereabouts this photograph was taken. John accessed the second shot from the ‘Britain from Above’ website https://www.britainfromabove.org.uk/




Here is Sue’s story about her grandma:

“Both of my parents had their roots in Belgrave and Winnie Till (nee Sadler) was my mum’s mum.
Mabel Winifred Sadler, known as Winnie or Winifred was born on 23rd January 1896 on Halkin Street in Belgrave. She was the third child and third daughter of George and Julia Sadler who both originally came from Ruddington in South Nottinghamshire. George had been a framework knitter, but had presumably moved to Leicester as this trade died out. He worked at BU as a fitter. Winnie’s only brother, Arthur Vernon Sadler, who also later worked for the BU, was born in 1904. By 1911 the family had moved to 7 Stafford Street and Winnie is recorded as a suspender maker. During WW1 Winnie worked on munitions at the BU and in the photograph, she is wearing her triangular ‘On War Work’ badge. After the war, the family moved from Belgrave to a smallholding at Littlethorpe, and on 31st July 1924, Winnie married John Henry Till (known as Jack) in Narborough Parish Church. They rented a small terraced house in Belgrave; 32 Linford Street, next door but one to Claremont Street Methodist Chapel, where they lived for nearly 50 years until it was demolished in the early 1970s. Their only child, Marjorie, was born in 1925. Winnie was a traditional housewife and that took all her time, as at Linford Street there was no fridge, no running hot water, no bathroom, a shared toilet in the yard, coal fires and a roof that often leaked. Some of my most enduring memories of grandma are her uniquely wonderful ‘grandma cakes’, shin and kidney stews, and an off-beat sense of humour! Winnie died in August 1981 at the age of 85.”
From Serving The Shoemaker, the official history of BU by Iain Howie published in 1999:
‘BU suffered a dearth of skilled labour in the early war years because over 800 staff who sought to do their duty to King and country joined the armed forces. The chapter on the First World War doesn’t directly mention that women were taken on to fill these jobs, but in other places, this has been recorded. Of course, BU made shoemaking machinery and there was increased demand for machinery that made heavy military and naval footwear:  ‘ … it was only part of how BU contributed to the war effort … while the engineering works produced large quantities of shells, fuses, aero-engine parts, gun mountings, machine tools, and gauges. It was a significant reflection on the company’s expertise in precision engineering.’
Sue runs the Quorn Village On-line Museum (www.quornmuseum.com) and has done a lot of research in particular about Quorn and the First World War. She has written a book about the 78 young men from Quorn who died in WW1. It is called ‘For Your Tomorrow’. Thank you, Sue, and thank you, John, for this incredible insight into the past of BU and Leicester. This beautiful photograph is a real treasure.
As a postscript, we published a post on the BU history website about Arthur Sadler who was Winnie’s brother in June 2012. http://www.buhistory.org.uk/arthur-sadler-3/

Date posted: November 15, 2021

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Help needed in Leicester!


Helen Martin from Monarch Knitting Machinery in Leicester has an old BU cutting machine (see photos) to cut out samples for customers. Their offices have recently been refurbished and during the refurb, the cutting machine was moved (up until that point it hadn’t been moved in many, many years). They restarted the machine but it seems to be calibrated wrongly and is stamping much more forcefully than it used to. They’re wondering if we (or you!) know anyone that could come out and service the machine? Someone did come out to it about 6 or 7 years ago but contact details were lost. Please contact info@buhistory.org.uk by email if you can help or Monarch Knitting Machinery direct. Thank you.

Date posted: November 4, 2021

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Spare Parts!

A pal from Australia has asked: ‘Does anyone have any information on all the spare parts that must have been left over when the factory closed down……..did it go for scrap or are there dealers or repairmen somewhere in the U.K. with BUSMC spares?
‘I have quite a collection of the small machines now (Not Boot Machines) & I am always looking for spare punches for machines & creasing wheels etc. etc. If you know of any contacts I would really appreciate it.’
Please email info@buhistory.org.uk if you have any ideas. Cheers.



One of our members was wondering how much this leather punch might fetch. It is of course a BU product (can just see the logo on the handle).


Date posted: October 15, 2021


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How a single sentence can alter...


Ian Breward recounts how he joined BU in 1959 and what it was like during those early years.

Ian aged 19.

“I left school at 14, two weeks before my 15th birthday. I left with no qualifications, nothing. I had looked for work as a TV and wireless technician but with no luck. How a word or sentence can alter or make your life . My father worked at The BU, he asked me how are you doing finding a job, I said no luck . So he said ‘Would you like me to ask for you at my place?’ I said yes, not knowing what his place was. And that sentence gave me a good life, and I thank him for that to this day .


“They sent a letter to go in MacDonald’s road to take three tests (mathematics, English and a practical test). The practical I was first up; it was a box of parts that fixed together and I had to put them together. There were about 10 of us. I waited and the letter came and I started at BU with 146 other boys on the same day. We were photographed and given a white boiler suit and a number  – mine was 614 – and a set of checks like coins for the stores to get jigs or tools out. We were then marched to the sound of wolf whistles to where we would start learning. I was taken to AT dept. (Apprentice training). We were given a place at a vice on a bench. There was the trainer and and apprentice helper. We spent the next three weeks learning to file flat. They gave us a square block of metal and put it in the vice, then put two dents in it and we had to file that flat. We were shown how to use a micrometer to check it was flat. My finger was blistered. We were taken and shown the canteen and where we could make our tea. Next we had to make a tool box. Each operation was shown once and then we had to do it. Once we had finished that we were all given a piece work job. I was put on the pop-rivet machine for assembly. It was the best job for the best money. Two others were on the concertina part of it and  I did the nozzle. I felt happy getting paid but the other two boys did not like me being on that part on the job and said to me to tell them you want to swap. I said no. So when I left at night they were waiting for me and held a knife to me and said they would cut the brakes on my bike if I did not ask to move jobs. When I got home I was in a state and my father asked what was wrong. I told him and he told the AT and we were all called in. After that the two boys were sacked I was given a dressing down. I was in that department for three months and now it was time to be given our new department. The foreman called me in and said you are going to B2. Well, I knew that was called the salt mines and a bad place to be. I said to the foreman, ‘why am I going there?’ he said, ‘look son, if you can work there for a year you will be able to work any where in the world’. So off I went into that department. It was underground, no windows the concrete floor was missing in parts leaving just soil. There was always a blue mist in the department. There were ladies there, about six of them. One worked the big grinder wheel; she had an old sack over her head and down her body and her clothes were burnt from the sparks.

“We were on piece work. I had no time to go and wash my hands to eat my food, like the others I just wrapped paper round it. I worked next to a blind man who did the same job each day. He sold cigarettes from his draw for three pence each. Everyone smoked, you could not smoke as they would have call you out. I was put on the tapping, a small machine with a chuck at one end and a tap wrench the other. I tapped all day hundreds of parts for three months. One week I did not make my pay and the foreman came he said ‘You have not made your pay, just short, I am going to let you stay but if you do not make your pay next week you will be out’. I was late one day and the gate was shut. They would shut the gate where I worked at three mins past 7,30am. I knocked and the bobbie hole opened and the gatekeeper said ‘Yes?’ ‘Would you tell my foreman I am here’. He came and said ‘Why are you late?’ ‘I overslept’. ‘OK, go home and get some sleep and come back tomorrow. But if you are late again do not bother to come in at all.’ I went home with no pay and was never late again.

“My school friends had followed me to the BU and one was working in the same dept as me, B2. He had been given a job that had 5000 parts, he had to counter sink each side. He had done about 2000 over two or three days when the foreman came to look at them. He picked up five and said that’s no good and tipped all the 2000 back into the others to do them again and walked off. My friend said, ‘That’s it, I am leaving.’ He left and went on to be a plumber.We were both waiting for the foreman to finish talking to the inspector so he could give us a new job – he would give a bad one and then a good one. He said to the inspector ‘I am sweating like a pig’, I turned to my mate and whispered ‘He is a pig.’ He said, ‘What did you say?’ I said ‘I am hot too.’ But I got bad jobs for a week.

“They said that in the first year 50% would leave or get the sack – I think more. Next they put me on the tapping machines for three months. Then they put me on the tumbling machines; I had to load them up first thing in the morning and empty them at lunch and then refill them. I had to put chemicals in with the parts, sulphur was one, no masks or gloves, the other guys would have laughed at me. I wore the soles off my shoes in three weeks. I only had two pairs but they gave me some clogs to wear. I could now walk around as I had nothing to do after I had filled the machines up. I walked and thought how dirty the place was – the toilets bowls with wood screwed on them, and the toilet wall were black you could write on them with your finger.


“I was sent to Alderman Newton school on courses to get me up to standard. It was hard but I passed. I was now 16 and they said you are moving to L dept up on the third floor. It was Shangri-La, bright and roomy. I made friends the first day there. We were all taken to the dentist and looked after by a great guy, Mr Fisher, who said he was earning 6 and 4 pence each examination. I stayed with him after I left the BU. We would play snooker on Saturdays in the institute. I liked L dept and the people were great. I was called in to the apprentice guy in the offices, I did not know why. He sat me down and said ‘Mr Fellsted has given you seven out of ten, that is the highest any apprentice as ever been given, well done.’ I thought, Why?? I was now doing three nights a week at Charles Keene college, 6pm to 9pm. 44 hours at work plus over time, working on piece work non stop to make my money. I was in L dept for about one year and then I was told I would be going over to HA (Heavy Assembly). It was off Ross Walk. I had by now been signed up as an apprentice, but told I could still be dismissed. I was given the Number 7 clicker press, five at a time. No one had ever made there money on them. So I was worried. I worked as hard as I could with tools IE reamers that had had there day I was shown how to knock them up so they worked . No one would ever ask the foreman for a reason for a new tool. I had a crane to lift the clutch up about 18 inches off the floor, but there was no time for that. I would do it like all the other guys, lift them. We had to wire our machines up, 440 volts. I was one day wiring one up when I put my other hand on the screwdriver, I went 10 feet across the room and the box blew off the wall. I thought some one had hit me with a sledge hammer in the middle of my back. I was 18. As I was not making the money I put in extra for finishing of some parts. That kept me ok. But after some time they came to me, the foreman and the time and motion guy, they said to help you we are going to pay you 75% of what you earn. I said ‘how is that going to help me?’ ‘Let me finish’, he said. At that moment my father arrived. They said to him tell Ian to do as we say. He said at home I am in-charge but here you are and off he went. I said to the Time and Motion guy, ‘You take off your coat and whatever time you do it in I will except 50% as my time because I know I am faster than you.’ Well what they did was to give me and other five machines that were good for time but they had to take them off another guy and he did not like that. He had to show me how to do the operations . He only showed me once and said that’s it, but it was better now. While in that dept one day a group of men came in and every one started looking busy. When they had gone I said, ‘Who was that?’ They said the old foreman, he had left five years ago and they were still scared of him. The one we have now reads his bible every day at his desk. 18 inches off the floor so he could see every one in the room. I broke a drill and said to the guys I am doing to get a requisition for an other one, they said, no do as we do, buy our own from a shop in Church Gate. I said no way, and walked to his desk, they were all watching me. I asked and he gave me one. They said I was the first to do that.

“Most of them had a bike or a motorbike and side car. I had passed my test and was the only one with a car. I was told that my time there was finished and I was go to AT and show the new apprentices how to use the small tools. I did that for about six month. I was happy and all was going well. They then sent me to CD (Cutter Dept.). The dept was smaller, I was shown by an older engineer, it was intricate. We had a special cutter that could be only used once then they had to be sharpened the sharpening was not paid for so we lost time doing that. Another guy had the same cutter but would come over and take ours as we had to  sharpen them. The guy I worked with did not like him and was glad to move, and for me to take over. In that dept there was unskilled and semi skilled, they had the same jobs each day, whereas I had different ones each day. I saw fights over one guy taking another guys jobs. The foreman did nothing, just let them finish. I left from that dept because an unskilled guy showed me that he was getting three time more than what I was getting and I had spent six years putting up with bad conditions and verbal abuse and physical abuse, going to the tech and getting poor money. My mate, when I was on 3.50 they were on 5 plus doing other jobs out in the world.

“I did not know how good the apprenticeship was until I worked in other factories .The indentured apprenticeship carried me around the world without it I would never have had such a good life. But It was hard, long hours non stop work and studying, working with guys that were still fighting the Second World War – now it’s called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The ones that went to war did not like the ones that did not, saying we put our life on the line and these guys were getting paid good pay and getting all the best girls. In the factory there was a guy who had plates in his head and one whose arms were missing. I enjoyed my time mostly as you do not have much time to talk or make friends on piece work.”

Date posted: June 7, 2021

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Clayson’s Cycles


Belgrave Road, Leicester, looking north from the top floor window of 116 Belgrave Road.
February 1966.

John Clayson was born in Leicester and grew up on the Belgrave Road where his father had a bike shop on the corner of Roberts Road close to Union Works, and many of his customers worked for the BU. “Often people would bring their bike for repair before they ‘clocked on’. If they arrived before the shop’s opening time they would leave the bike outside with a note tied on. Dad would try to have their bike ready to ride home that evening.” Below, John gives a commentary on the above superb photo and also recollections of growing up in the area and working at BU as a student labourer in ‘BR710 Department’. Take it away, John!

Attached Photo

I’m attaching a photo I took from my bedroom window in February 1966 (note the snow on the roof at bottom left!), which shows the stretch of road which ran up past the main BU frontage, though of course it’s not visible from this angle.  What you can see (just) is a spotlight fixed near the top of the lamppost on the extreme left edge.  It was there for the winter months to illuminate the policeman who, at finishing time (always signalled by the BU’s hooter), stopped the traffic on Belgrave Road at Macdonald Road so the hundreds of workers leaving on their bikes and on foot could cross over safely.  In those days there were no traffic lights on Belgrave Road between the Abbey Park Road junction and Melton Turn.  I remember that ‘Melton Turn’ was actually a roundabout (probably put in after the trams finished) until the early 1960s when traffic lights were installed there too.

Ross’s Walk and the ‘BU’

Going north from Roberts Road, Ross’s Walk was (and, of course, still is) a normal side street.  There were several corner shops, notably a greengrocer’s on the corner of Hunter Road run by Fred Coulson and his wife, and Evans the butcher opposite, on the corner of Buller Road.  Both of these shops were regular ports of call when Mum took my sister Julie and me shopping as toddlers.  One of my earliest memories is getting a serious telling off after Mum noticed that I’d picked up a small piece of raw mince from Mr Evans’ counter and I was beginning to chew it!  There was an off-licence on the corner of Hildyard Road where Mum used to go to get her annual bottle of beer for the Christmas pudding mix.

Beyond MacDonald Road the character of Ross’s Walk changed yet again as it bisected the mighty ‘BU’ factory.  With austere factory buildings on either side this stretch could be said to have had a dismal appearance, but it was actually quite a lively place.  Small internal transport trucks constantly crossed the road, towing crates of machine parts between the two sections of the works.  Workers walked regularly from one side to the other across the street, and also overhead on an enclosed bridge at second floor level.  Then there was the noise of the machine tools, the smell of hot cutting oil and, behind some mysterious frosted glass windows on the west side, strange, coloured flames could be seen – was this where welding, or brazing, was done?  Further on, towards Holden Street, Ross’s Walk was bordered on the left by a tall fence surrounding the BU site.  The buildings behind it were outbuildings of various sizes rather than tall factory blocks.  Near the far end of the site was a shed where the building maintenance squad was based and, beyond that, a sawmill with its noisy dust extraction equipment constantly on the go during working hours.  Here were made the packing crates for the shipment of shoe making machinery all over the world.

A Summer Job at the BU

In the summers of 1973 and 1974 as a student summer holiday job I became a labourer with the BU’s building maintenance squad.

I got the labouring job the first year (summer 1973) after doing a short work experience course for undergraduate engineers at the BU.  One week of this was spent on the shop floor, where I worked on a horizontal milling machine ‘helping’ to make cast iron parts for one of the company’s many products.  The skilled and experienced tradesman to whom I was assigned was very patient, although I suspect his production bonus suffered that week as he kept an eye on me!  I don’t remember any of my parts ending up in the scrap bin, so I must have been reasonably competent.

With such a vast estate the company had a maintenance team all year round, the BR 710 Department, and they took a few students on in the summer to help with the outside repairs.  The squad tackled just about every job going, from roof repairs, through broken windows, to unblocking drains.  The latter was the speciality of one Norman Heap, who was also the driver and operator of their lorry-mounted Simon hydraulic platform which facilitated access to places high up on the outside of the buildings.  As jobs demanded you got to go to every part of the site, from the plush, well-furnished Directors’ offices on the Belgrave Road frontage to dingy air raid shelters below the buildings on Ross’s Walk.  In fact, the job was a passport to go almost anywhere in the factory and see what was going on there while, ostensibly, checking for leaks, blockages etc.

Job cards came in from all over the factory and the manager of the department decided on priorities, then despatched his staff accordingly.  One morning I might be sent with Ernie the joiner to help him to repair a door, then in the afternoon I could be lifting gully (drain) covers and scooping many years’ accumulation of smelly slime into a wheelbarrow!  One of my regular weekly jobs was cutting the lawn just inside the Macdonald Road entrance.  Still, it was an excellent introduction to the whole range of building maintenance tasks, knowledge and skills I’ve used any number of times around the house, thanks to the BU!

A particular job I recall with amusement was helping to dig a hole inside the factory for the concrete foundation of a new machine tool.  This was done with pick and spade, once we’d broken through the concrete floor with a pneumatic drill (powered by the factory’s compressed air supply, which could be hooked into almost everywhere).  My mate Frank and I completed the digging in a couple of days and then we carefully positioned the shuttering for the holding down bolts for the new machine.  A lorry full of ready-mixed concrete arrived outside to fill our hole and complete the job.  To save barrowing the concrete in through the door we rigged up an inclined system of troughs leading from the back of the lorry, through a window and into the hole.  Then the driver began to deliver the concrete while we levelled it off in the hole with our shovels.  As it reached the correct height Frank shouted to the lorry driver to stop, but Frank’s increasingly frantic yelling and gesticulation were ignored.  The concrete continued to flow until the lorry was empty.  By then we had wet concrete spreading around our feet and across the inside of the building.  The driver had decided that we’d ordered a full load and we were jolly well going to get it!  I spent the next couple of hours barrowing the excess concrete away before it set.

All in all a great experience as a young man.  The family feel of the BU certainly came across.  Living nearby I knew several men who had worked there for years, and many of them found time to search me out for a word if they learned I was around their area of the works.



Date posted: May 26, 2021

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