History feature: The Symington Building

Harborough District Council's headquarters in Adam and Eve Street, Harborough.
Harborough District Council's headquarters in Adam and Eve Street, Harborough.

Harborough District Council’s headquarters in Adam and Eve Street are being officially opened tomorrow (Friday) following its £5.75million, year-long refurbishment.

The Victorian building, in Adam and Eve Street, reopned to the public in January but its grand opening has waited until now.

David Johnson

David Johnson

David Johnson, the Mail’s history expert, kindly offered to write a feature on the building’s fascinating history - as the former corset factory home of R & WH Symington.

Mr Johnson, pictured, inset, is the chairman of Market Harborough Historical Society, the choirmaster at Harborough’s St Dionysius Church, is the interim chairman of the Harborough Museum Trust and has recently been campaigning to protect and preserve the war memorial portico at Harborough’s Cottage Hospital in Coventry Road.

One of the remarkable things about Market Harborough is its compact town centre; the church and Old Grammar School have always been an integral part of the townscape, sitting now alongside Harborough Theatre, the council offices, library and museum.

All this in the midst of a thriving commercial mix of independent businesses, former coaching inns, pubs and coffee shops.

What is now called The Symington Building was a relatively late arrival on the scene.

St Dionysius Church dates from 1300 and the Old Grammar School from 1614, but The Symington Building was a new-build in 1889 for R & WH Symington, manufacturers of corsets, foundation garments and swimwear.

Remarkably, even though it is the biggest building in the area it does not dominate the scene but rather complements it surroundings.

But the building was not the company’s first building in town. This was the old carpet factory just opposite the new site on the corner of Factory Lane, which the company occupied in 1865, and enlarged in 1881.

When the new building was erected, an enclosed bridge linked it with the older building at first-floor level. It was a massive complex, and for 100 years Symington’s was the biggest employer in town, with 1,600 employees at its height.

The company looked after its workers, encouraging a wide range of social and sporting activities. It continued to expand through the 20th century, achieving world-wide recognition for its Liberty Bodice introduced in 1908 and made in Harborough until 1974.

The old Factory Lane building was demolished in 1973.

In 1980 the newer building was sold to Harborough District Council for use as the local authority’s headquarters and also as a home for Leicestershire County Council’s Pen Lloyd Library (opened in 1982) and Harborough Museum (1983).

The museum is a partnership between the county council, district council and Market Harborough Historical Society, now overseen by the newly-formed Harborough Museum Trust.

The building has been thoroughly transformed with images and artwork reflecting its former role as a corset factory. The upper floors are housing staff and departments from both councils, while the first floor brings both library and museum together as one entity with a local studies area combining the resources of both.

The museum now displays more items from its collections than ever before, and favourites have made a return, such as the Hallaton Treasure with its Roman helmet, and Falkners book and shoemaking shop, which is now open to visitors.

The result is nothing short of amazing. Its refurbishment was made possible by a generous grant from the Market Harborough and the Bowdens Charity.

Also on the first floor is the Registration Service with new accommodation for civil weddings or partnership ceremonies.

Together with customer services and retail units on the ground floor, the building is very much part of the cultural hub of the town, back where it belongs, cheek by jowl with the church, Old Grammar School and the vibrant community which it serves.

By David Johnson, March 2014