There are a number of people you could credit with building the modern Derby, but few have as much influence as a 19th century industrialist.
Sir Francis Ley and his company Leys Malleable Castings have employed generations of Derby workers – sometimes literally parent to child.
Even though you have worked away from the industrial sector for the past 50 years, you knew someone who knew someone who had worked there.
Leys Malleable Castings Company at Pear Tree was once the largest such foundry in Europe, but remained in the hands of the Ley family for most of its life.
Francis Ley was a 19th century industrialist who learned his trade doing sketches and technical drawings at another Derby firm – Andrew Handyside & Co.
But when he set out on his own at 28 to start his own foundry, he couldn’t know what lasting legacy he would leave behind.
Even now, with the business relegated to history, buildings demolished, and the city and country having grown from a heavy industrial past, its markers are still visible today.
How fat was he?
The area around Colombo and Shaftesbury Street, where the Sir Francis Ley industrial estate is located, offers clues to people who never lived through this era.
Named in honor of the founder, this estate is built on the bulldozed ruins of the former site of Vulcan Works.
The site even backed up against the nearby railroad tracks, where dedicated trains would haul tons and tons of completed work into the large open world at one point.
The sprawling site was once home to almost every type of machine tool operator and profession you can think of – die-cast founders, millwrights, lathe operators, grinders and more.
Not to mention the legion of foremen, buyers, sellers, and maintenance crews needed to make everything work in tandem. The company even ran its own volunteer fire brigade.
Although traditionally a ‘men’s job’, Leys Castings employed a small army of women – not just administrators, but also elbow grease workers.
Before the machines took over, a huge hall was dedicated to women making sand cores, mixing sand, oils and other materials to make molds for parts with internal cavities.
It was an operation on the bridge for people with all kinds of skills, which brought together a close community of workers from all walks of life.
The baseball field
Back in the days when big companies were almost like industrial villages, some bosses built equipment to keep their workers happy and healthy – Francis Ley was no exception.
During a visit to America, he became so enamored with baseball and the idea of work teams that he built Derby’s famous Baseball Ground – home to the Ley amateur baseball team, which never hosted then none other than Derby County.
Young Derby County fans may only be familiar with Pride Park, but the football team plied their trade at Baseball Ground for over a hundred years until dwindling capacity forced a move before the new millennium .
Other sports were played in what was then the Leys Recreation Center, including cricket.
Like the business, the baseball field and recreation center are long gone – but the place is marked by a sculpture.
Although the once thriving business ended in the late 1980s, the friendships, relationships and love that were forged in the searing depths of the site remain.
It was as much a social as an industrial power. Some have worked there most of their lives, and many Derby families will have some sort of heritage earned through years of service, like a watch or a clock.
Parties, work teams and other outings allow workers from different departments to mingle and strengthen these friendships. It is striking how often conversations about Leys turn into “oh my dad / mom worked with him …”.
With thousands and thousands of workers at all times, and contractors beyond, it’s no surprise that there are so many shared connections – and these conversations will go on for a very long time from now on in Derby. .
Has anyone you know worked on the castings for Leys? What do you remember or know about living and working in Sir Francis Ley’s “industrial village”? Comment below or speak to us on social media.