Purchased from the Nipmuc native population in 1686 by a group of businessmen from Roxbury, Massachusetts, Leicester was settled and incorporated in 1713. Originally called Towtaid, it was later known as Strawberry Hill after its profuse wild strawberries, and, finally, Leicester, after the English city of origin of an early selectman.
Leicester's standing militia company and its company of minutemen marched to Lexington and Concord to aid in the defeat of the British regulars. The term "Minuteman" itself originated in Leicester, when Colonel William Henshaw declared at a 1774 meeting of the Committee on Safety that "we must have companies of men ready to march upon a minute's notice."
By the start of the American Revolution, numerous mills had been established to complement local farming. In the mid-1780s, Leicester became a center for the manufacture of hand cards, tools for straightening fibers prior to spinning thread and weaving cloth.
Leicester native Pliny Earle, a good mechanical tinkerer, helped Samuel Slater to get his carding machine to operate when Slater's Mill in Pawtucket began production, signaling the beginning of America's Industrial Revolution.
In the Civil War Era, local Unitarian pastor Samuel May was an active abolitionist: his home was a station on the Underground Railroad. By the 1880s, industry began to decline in Leicester, as many companies moved south to utilize cheaper labor, yet most mill villages remained active until well after World War II. The last local textile factory closed in 1991.
Today the town of Leicester (population 10,500) is a suburb of Worcester that demonstrates an active concern for historic preservation. Approval for listing Leicester Center in the National Register of Historic Places is pending, and a nomination for Rochdale Village, the best-preserved mill village within Leicester, is in preparation. Rochdale still contains its village school, store, fire barn, mills, and mill housing.
Citizens of Leicester actively participate in public education and interpretation by leading walking tours, researching sign texts, and helping develop curriculum-based programs for schools. Leicester has drafted a local historic preservation plan and historic preservation ordinance, going above and beyond State-mandated comprehensive planning and the regional management plan adopted by the Blackstone Valley Heritage Corridor.
Designated a Preserve America Community in June 2004.