Leicester's Statue of Liberty

Leicester's Own Lady Liberty

In a recent edition of LCFCQ, Club Historian John Hutchinson reflected on the links between the iconic Statue of Liberty replica in Leicester, the fans that walked past it and the Foxes' home grounds at both Filbert Street and Filbert Way.
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Over the years, an aggregate figure of nearly 50M fans have passed through the turnstiles to watch Leicester City’s home matches at both Filbert Street and King Power Stadium.

This year, we are approaching the centenary of a landmark which, for many years, was a familiar and notable part of the matchday experience for millions of fans as they made their way, in all weathers, to watch Leicester City’s home fixtures.

The landmark in question is the locally-famous replica of the Statue of Liberty, which for many years stood proudly on the roof of the Liberty Shoe building, which used to occupy a site alongside the canal on the opposite side of Walnut Street from Western Boulevard, at the point where Upperton Road becomes Walnut Street.

The city's own Statue of Liberty did not become part of Leicester City’s folklore until after the First World War.

When Leicester Fosse first moved to its home for 111 years at Filbert Street in 1891, having spent seven years playing in friendly matches at venues such as Victoria Park, Belgrave Road, Mill Lane and Grace Road, the area surrounding the ground looked very different from today.

Although Leicester’s Victorian urban sprawl was beginning to encroach onto this part of Leicester, the area adjacent to the new ground was largely undeveloped.

The future factory and statue site was at the end of a rough track called Cow Lane at its junction with a small bridge over the canal called Cow Lane Bridge.

By the time the First World War broke out, Leicester Fosse was in deep financial trouble.

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Filbert Street
Filbert Street

Construction of Filbert Street's Main Stand in 1921.

When league football was suspended for the duration of the war in April 1915, the Fossils had to seek re-election to stay in the league. Only Glossop, who unlike the Fosse were not re-elected, finished below them.

By the summer of 1919, with little income forthcoming from the regional wartime games which replaced the Football League, Leicester Fosse Football Club was financially insolvent.

At an extraordinary general meeting, a proposal that the old club be wound up and then taken over by a new company, with fresh investors and directors, was passed unanimously.

The reconstructed club was renamed Leicester City. On the day that league football was resumed after the four-year break occasioned by the First World War, the Club’s first game under its new name was a home game against Wolverhampton Wanderers on 30 August, 1919.

When Leicester’s football fans resumed their trek to Filbert Street for this game, those approaching the ground from Eastern Boulevard and Upperton Road would have noticed that an impressive and elegant art deco shoe factory, designed by Howard Henry Thompson, was being built on the corner opposite Eastern Boulevard, alongside the canal which ran behind Filbert Street.

Its art deco style made it very different in appearance from the multitude of shoe factories in Leicester and beyond.

It was the new factory of Lennard Brothers Ltd, who were significant shoe manufacturers in Leicester.

In keeping with Leicester’s boot and shoe manufacturing tradition, the purpose of the factory was to produce a new range of high-quality women’s shoes.

In the years leading up to the First World War, the predominant industry in Leicester was the boot and shoe industry, which employed over 25,000 workers.

Indeed it was money from some of Leicester’s wealthy boot and shoe manufacturers, such as William Jennings and Arthur Needham, that did much to establish and sustain the Football Club throughout the 20th century.

While the new factory was taking shape, Disney Barlow, the managing director of Lennard’s Shoes, visited New York to assess boot and shoe manufacturing techniques.

He was impressed by the Statue of Liberty, and on his return to Leicester commissioned a local sculptor named Joseph Morcom, aided by a group of stone masons and sculptors to produce a replica with a view to placing it on the roof of the new factory. It was the factory’s crowning glory and quickly became a fondly remembered landmark by fans flocking to Filbert Street.

The replica statue was 17 feet (5.8 metres) high and was a lightweight structure of plaster on a wire frame with a hollow centre.

As it was the centre piece of the factory, the Lennards rebranded their company in 1921 as the Liberty Shoe Company, exploiting the fact that the statue had quickly become a well-known landmark.

For the next 80 years, Leicester City fans passed underneath the statue on their way to the ground.

During that time, these fans would witness some great occasions on the pitch while at the same time the Club underwent many changes.

In the 1920s, the new Main Stand and the Double Decker were built, the Second Division title was achieved and, by 1929, with a side containing four England internationals and one Scotland international, the team reached the heights of finishing runners-up in the league; its highest position until the Premier League title-winning season of 2015/16.

In the 1930s, the fans passing the statue would continue to see Arthur Chandler’s amazing goalscoring feats on his way to a Club record 273 goals, watch the superb skills of England’s international Sep Smith, saw their team suffer two relegations from the top flight and one promotion back again.

In May 1935, the pain of City’s relegation from the old First Division after a stay of 10 years might have been lifted by the sight of the statue festooned with garlands to mark King George V’s Silver Jubilee.

The majority of fans in the inter-war years walked to the ground. They would often walk alongside the players, many of whom lived in Club houses in the Narborough Road area as an elderly fan called Bill Warner recalled in an interview about 25 years ago.

“A day that sticks in my mind is the first time I saw them play,” he said. “I was aged seven or eight. As we walked behind the Main Stand, my father pointed out a man in front with a gabardine mac on and a pair of football boots dangling from his fingers and said: ‘That’s Sep Smith’. He heard us and turned round and spoke to us and he walked with us to the players’ entrance chatting. He then signed my autograph book. It was the proudest day of my life.”

During the Second World War, with the Football League again suspended, the flow of fans passing the statue diminished during the poorly-attended wartime leagues. The Liberty factory itself was used as a bomb shelter and the Luftwaffe bombed the Main Stand at Filbert Street, narrowly missing the Liberty Shoe factory.

One unexpected side-effect of the suspension of league football in 1939 for the duration of the Second World War was that several big stars, such as the England hero Tommy Lawton who would never have played for Leicester City in peacetime, found themselves playing for the Club in various wartime time football competitions as guest players.

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Filbert Street
Filbert Street

Filbert Street was damaged by bombing in 1940.

The matchday experiences of fans watching these star guest players in the wartime regional leagues and cups at Filbert Street during the war would have very different from those of today.

By the end of 1941, Food Control Office regulations meant that there could be no refreshments provided at the ground during the season.

Even the directors suffered. The only hospitality allowed for visiting directors to Filbert Street was for a bottle of whisky to be held in the secretary’s office.

Paper control regulations banned the sale of programmes and the issue of notices advertising matches for a while.

Instead clubs were advised to write the names of the players for the match on a blackboard which would then be carried round the pitch before kick-off.

The same blackboard would then be sent around at half-time indicating the next home fixture.

After 1942, with the reintroduction of some wartime match programmes, spectators were asked to place their programmes and ticket stubs in the receptacles near the exits because ‘paper is a sinew of war’.

Away fans were a rarity. Travel to away matches was restricted to journeys that could be completed on the day of the game.

If an air raid was heard during a game, the match had to stop until the ‘all clear’ was sounded.

In the austere post-war era, fans passing underneath the statue on their way to Filbert Street cheered Leicester City all the way to their first FA Cup Final in 1949.

In the 1950s they witnessed the phenomenal goalscoring feats of Arthur Rowley, when he scored 265 goals in 321 games, including 44 in 42 games in 1957, as Leicester City stormed to the Second Division title for the second time in three years.

The following season, fans experienced the novelty of floodlights. The first floodlit game at Filbert Street was a match between Leicester City and Borussia Dortmund in October 1957, followed less than a month later by City’s top-flight game against Preston North End, which was floodlit throughout to combat poor visibility, despite a kick-off at 3pm.

As floodlit evening matches became more frequent, a common sight at Filbert Street would be clouds of cigarette smoke slowly drifting across the ground, illuminated by the floodlights.

The smoke emanated from the constant flickers of lights in the darkened stands created by fans lighting their cigarettes.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the majority of fans still walked to the ground. Many cycled, leaving their bikes, for a small fee, in the back yards of the terrace houses surrounding the ground.

They also had to form long queues to purchase tickets for big cup matches.

Programme sellers were positioned at various approaches to the ground, including selling points near the Statue of Liberty.

These programmes were modest affairs compared to the matchday magazines of today but they were important because not only did they provide details of the teams in action that day, they also contained grids with letters of the alphabet. Each letter corresponded to one of the fixtures of that day. They also matched up to the same letters of the alphabet displayed pitchside inside the stadium.

At half-time, two boards, each bearing numbers, were hung alongside each letter to indicate the half-time scores in each of the matches.

A programme with the key was an essential to keep in touch with these half-time scores elsewhere.

In the 1960s, there was a change of ownership of the factory when the Liberty Shoe building was taken over by Lowe and Carr, a printing firm.

With the Liberty connection broken, the fate of the statue might have been called into question, but the new owners planned to emphasise the statue by putting in a planning application to externally illuminate the premises.

In 1966, to celebrate England winning the World Cup, the Liberty Statue was draped with a Union Jack and a circular placard bearing the words ‘England 1966’, prompting a spokesman for the printing firm to say: “We don’t really approve of this sort of thing, but I think it is appreciation of Gordon Banks.”

Meanwhile, during the 1960s, fans walking past the statue experienced three more runs to the FA Cup Final, winning the League Cup and competing in Europe with a side that contained the likes of internationals Banks, Davie Gibson, Frank McLintock, Peter Shilton, Derek Dougan and Peter Rodrigues.

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Filbert Street
Filbert Street

Floodlights were installed at Leicester's home venue in 1957.

During the 1970s, the statue overlooked fans who enjoyed watching Jimmy Bloomfield’s entertaining side.

Despite the goalscoring feats of Gary Lineker, Alan Smith and Steve Lynex in the 1980s, this decade was not a good time for both the football and the statue.

The game became tainted by hooliganism and the associated erection of steel fences at the ground.

This was a factor in the number of fans passing the statue decreasing, as top-flight crowds dropped to around 11,000.

Meanwhile, the building was beginning to deteriorate. The premises were taken over by LCV International, who unsuccessfully applied to turn the factory into a casino, with snooker and squash facilities, a restaurant and a betting shop.

They later applied to change the use of the factory to office space and later still to change it to student flats.

All the time, the statue was becoming increasingly less relevant to the building it adorned and, never robust, it was continuing to deteriorate badly.

Unlike those of the statue, the Club’s fortunes improved in the 1990s.

There were big improvements on and off the pitch, with fans enjoying Premier League and European football, multiple trips to Wembley and the building of Filbert Street’s new Carling Stand.

However, in 1993, there was a certain poignancy in the fact that at the same time the Main Stand at Filbert Street was demolished, there was a planning application to knock down the Liberty Building.

For a time, it looked as though the Main Stand and the statue, which both dated from the early 1920s, would both disappear at the same time too.

However, the statue was given a reprieve because the council regarded the old Liberty Shoe factory as a building worthy of special status and the statue survived.

Nevertheless, the era of fans walking past the familiar statue on their way to Filbert Street was brought to an end 10 years later.

Filbert Street, Leicester City’s home for 111 years, was demolished in 2002 and a few months later the Liberty building was also brought down, despite it being a Grade II-listed building.

However, a planning condition insisted that the statue should be preserved, restored, maintained and re-sited on the new building, which was a block of student flats to be known, appropriately, as Liberty Park.

This did not happen and, for the next five years, fans who approached the new Walkers Stadium along the same route they had taken for decades to the nearby Filbert Street, no longer passed by the statue on their way to the match.

Fortunately, the statue wasn’t destroyed. It was stored in a nearby car park. In 2008, the lightweight wire and plaster figure was rescued just in time. Restorers filled the hollow interior with concrete, transforming it into a robust structure weighing four tonnes.

It was then raised onto a purpose-built stone plinth in the centre of the Swan Gyratory traffic island next to Upperton Road Bridge, just across the road from its original site on top of the Liberty Building.

The idea was to provide an attractive gateway to the city coming in from Narborough Road. More significantly, for many Leicester City fans, every time they pass it on the way to the match at King Power Stadium, it evokes for some a host of memories relating to the roller-coaster years at Filbert Street.

With echoes of previous notable occasions when it had been garlanded and festooned on significant occasions in the past, this tradition was continued at the end of the magical and memorable 2015/16 season.

To celebrate Leicester City becoming Premier League champions, the statue’s upraised arm was adorned with a Leicester City scarf.

The relocated statue was also on the route to the stadium taken by the two unforgettable fans’ memorial marches in 2018 and 2019, to honour the Club’s beloved late Chairman, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha.

The iconic status of the statue as a landmark and important part of Leicester City fans’ matchday experience has not only been restored, but remains as strong as it was many years ago when it was first introduced to the city.

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