Shepshed  Domesday to Today


Shepshed - the early history

Taken from Shepshed Conservation Area Character Appraisal September 2007

The origins of Shepshed are not clear. It is possible that it first developed as a Saxon settlement. By the time of the Domesday Survey in 1085-86 it was recorded as a settled manor covering two and a half hides and four plough lands. A small mill and some woodland were also recorded. The Domesday Book provides the earliest known spelling of Shepshed as ‘Scepeshefde’, which went through various alterations (1539: Sheppishede, 1633: Sheapshead, 1664: Sheapshead) before arriving at its present version in 1888.

It is generally believed that the name translates as a ‘hill where sheep graze’ and the early prosperity of Shepshed was principally based on the wool industry and its role as a market place. Even as late as 1811 Nichols notes that a great number of sheep were raised on Charnwood Forest chiefly for their wool. White’s Directory of 1846 refers to the Forest as chiefly stocked with Forest sheep, a small breed now nearly extinct.

The early medieval development of the town appears to have been based upon agriculture, most likely pastoral farming associated with the rearing of sheep for their wool linked to the Cistercian Abbey at Garendon, since according to Fussell (1948) the ground is generally  hard and barren and difficult to produce crops from, so arable farming is unlikely to have been a mainstay of the economy.

In 1133 a Cistercian monastery was founded by Robert de Bossu, Earl of Leicester at Garendon Abbey, who gifted land at Garendon, Dishley an  Shepshed, along with rights to use his woods in Charnwood. Over time the Abbey was gifted or acquired other land so that by 1536 it had over 300 acres in Charnwood (Wallace, 1982). From the last quarter of the 12th century Garendon Abbey appears to have begun large scale sheep farming using an agricultural system based on the establishment of granges (essentially large farm  omplexes). By 1535 Garendon had 16 such granges staffed by lay brothers and by local labour. It is therefore likely that this pastoral farming would have been an important source  of employment for many local people, lasting until the dissolution of the Abbey in 1536 when it passed to Thomas Manners, Earl of Rutland.

Wool was an important commodity; fleeces were sold to Bradford wool merchants and the Abbey had permission to export wool to Flanders. The presence of Grange Farm on Forest Street suggests a direct link to the Cistercians. In addition to the wool trade, Shepshed appears to have been a local market centre, selling produce from the local villages and possibly from the Abbey granges. Many inns grew up around Market Place to offer refreshment and accommodation to travellers and visitors to the market.

Throughout the 15th and 16th centuries several acts of enclosure were enforced, although the largest act was not passed until 1777 when a total of 2,000 acres were enclosed. These acts of enclosures had a profound effect on the local landscape as the open field system was replaced by smaller closed fields. The people’s traditional dependency on the land was removed and the associated loss of the monastery forced many to seek alternative employment.

Despite the early importance of agriculture, Shepshed had become an important centre for domestic framework knitting by the mid-17th century, the early knitters being traditionally employed as out-workers by larger factories principally based in Leicester. They worked within their main home or in purpose built workshops to the rear of their properties. White’s Directory of 1846 noted that Shepshed was one of the oldest seats of hosiery manufacture giving employment to most of its inhabitants, and church records from as early as 1664 show that a large number of frames were in use. Widdowson (1973) attributes this growth in framework knitting to the absence of any other major employment alternatives, suggesting that local agriculture was not sufficient to sustain the population.

The development and economic importance of domestic framework knitting continued into the 18th and 19th centuries. By 1753 there were 1,000 frames in operation at Shepshed and the 1801 Return to Parliament records that 1,493 people out of a population of 1,628, were involved in either the hosiery trade or woollen manufacture. By 1812 there were 11,183 frames present in the town. The Topographical Dictionary of England (1848) comments that the manufacture of hosiery affords employment to more than 500 families.

After 1845 the cottage industries that had previously dominated Shepshed went into decline as the business became concentrated in factories, principally in nearby Leicester.

However, framework knitting was not the only industry carried out in Shepshed. In particular Nichols (1811) refers to a considerable number of people employed in a cotton mill, that was in operation from about 1780 to 1845, which may have been the Smith Churchill mill on Sullington Road outside the Conservation Area. There was also a modest boot and shoe industry, although perhaps because of the lack of available labour supply, due to the employment in the hosiery trade and Shepshed’s relative remoteness from Leicester, a large-scale boot and shoe industry was never established as it was at other villages in the Soar and Wreake valleys.

Shepshed was also known for the manufacture of glove fabrics and its lace production which was traditionally centred in Nottingham during the 17th and 18th centuries.

The growth of Shepshed during the 19th and 20th centuries is reflected in the improvement to local services and new community facilities such as the opening of a National School on Loughborough Road in 1836. A post office was set up in 1863 in Britannia Street and a co-operative shop followed three years later. A number of chapels were built, including the General Baptist Church (from 1822), St Winefrede’s Chapel by A W N Pugin (1842) (now grade II listed) on Belton Street and Bethesda Chapel (1823) (now grade II listed) just off Forest Road.


For more detail check out Wikipedea and for photographs and information about Shepshed's historic buildings, click here

For information about and a transcription of Shepshed War Memorial - click here

The MIss Cooke's at Hallcroft School - click here