Architecture and history section
Historic Buildings and Monuments, from 1800 to 1901
Part 2 of Historic Buildings looks at the period from 1800 to
New to this page: Leicester's Victorian High Street
1792 to 1800
The City Rooms, Hotel Street, City of Leicester
A fine example of Georgian architecture in the heart of the
city, The City Rooms was designed by local architect John Johnson and
the building was intended to be the city's first hotel.
The building was sold in 1799 with work still to be done,
though it was completed in 1800 and was opened as the Leicester Assembly Rooms
to accommodate visitors to the Leicester Races.
A grade I listed classical building, it comprises two-storeys
in ashlar. The frontage boasts three large sash windows separated
by Greek Ionic columns on the second storey, along with two classical sculptures
of female musicians by John Charles Felix Rossi that are set
in stone niches.
On the first storey are four more sash windows, with a classical
style threshold underneath a stone parapet supported by columns that lies underneath
the central window panel. The entire interior of the first storey comprises of
a magnificent ballroom, decorated with various paintings by English artist Ramsay
Just outside the building stands the Seamstress Statue by James
Walter Butler RA, which was unveiled in 1990 to commemorate Leicester's
association with the hosiery industry.
When the building passed to the County Justices in 1817,
it became known as the County Rooms, then as the City Rooms when under ownership
of the City Council. Now a banqueting venue and boutique hotel owned by Naresh
and Sharon Parmar, The City Rooms adds a touch of class and elegance to the this
area of the city.
Two classical sculptures of female musicians by John Charles
Felix Rossi that are set in stone niches on the frontage of the City Rooms.
Sitting outside of the City Rooms is the statue of The
A plaque on the plinth reads: 'The Leicester Seamstress,
James Butler, R.A., 1990.
This statue was re-installed on a new plinth by Councillor
Patrick Kitterick as part of the City Development Project December 2007. The
statue reflects the female contribution to the local hosiery industry.
employees were women, working in small workshops or at home.
The Wesleyan Chapel in Bishop Street. This is on our Buildings of Worship
New Walk Museum and Art Gallery, New Walk, City of Leicester
Providing the city with a centre of culture and learning
for over 160 years, New Walk Museum was designed by the Roman Catholic architect J.
A. Hansom, in 1836. He also gave his name to the Hamsom cab.
Once serving as a Nonconformist Proprietary School, the building
fell into the hands of the Literary and Philosophical Society in 1849. It was
from here that the museum evolved into the exhibition we know it today, inspiring
such personalities as Richard Attenborough and brother Sir David Attenborough
in their formative years.
The building is a classical Grade II listed and mimics the
likes of an Athenian wonder, with its impressive tetrastyle portico and huge
Tuscan columns. The museum contains a mixture of exhibitions ranging from Ancient
Egypt to Geology and The Natural World, with a gallery of Fine Art that includes
pieces by Francis Bacon.
There is also a permanent ground-floor exhibition displaying
the fossils of a cetiosaur that was discovered in Rutland and a plesiosaur found
in Barrow upon Soar. As admission to the museum is free (with the exception of
special exhibition dates), it is highly recommended for families and students.
about the Leicester Museum and Art Gallery
The Corn Exchange, Market Place, City of Leicester
Standing at the centre of Leicester's famous market (the
largest covered market in Europe), The Corn Exchange is as important to its local
patrons as it is to Leicester's mercantile history.
The first part, the ground floor was built in 1850 by local
architect William Flint, the upper floor, 'Rialto Tower' and
tower beingn added by architect F. W. Ordish in 1855.
An earlier building stood on this spot since the middle ages
and was known as The Gainsborough.
It served a variety of functions including a goal, magistrates
court and assembly rooms. Now owned
by the British public house chain J D Wetherspoon, the lower section of the building
once served as the city's Corn Exchange, hence the name.
The Corn Exchange is a Grade II* listed two-storey classical
building, comprising of stuccoed brick and boasting a curious outer two-flight
staircase that rises to a central entrance. The Victorian clock tower that is
positioned centrally above the doorway forms the main feature of the building,
rising high above the market area.
The Duke of Rutland Statue stands in the foreground of the
building, as it is has done since its unveiling in 1852. This monument celebrates
the 50th anniversary of John Henry Manners, the 5th Duke of Rutland, as Lord
Lieutenant of the county.
As its spacious interior provides a great space for larger
groups, The Corn Exchange is certainly worth a visit.
information about the Corn Exchange
Haymarket Memorial Clock Tower, City of Leicester
The Clock Tower is probably the most recognisable monument
in the city, standing at the meeting point of Humberstone Gate, Belgrave Gate,
Gallowtree Gate and Eastgates.
Built in 1868 to honour four local benefactors and designed
by local architect Joseph Goddard, the tower has remained a popular meeting point
A Grade II listed building, the monument was built with Ketton
stone and has a base of Mountsorrel granite.
The sculptures are of Portland stone and were crafted by
a local mason Samuel Barfield; the clock itself being compliments of Guillet
and Bland of Croydon.
The site originally housed an Assembly Room building, which
was later divided as shops that were demolished in 1862.
Leicester City Council completed extensive restoration work
on the tower in 2008 and repairs to the mechanisms were carried out in 2010 after
the clock began losing time due to corrosion.
The four benefactors who are depicted on the tower are: Alderman
Gabrial Newton (Mayor of Leicester in 1732, who dedicated much of his
wealth to the construction of educational facilities in the town), Simon
De Monfort (6th Earl of Leicester, who led the Barons' Rebellion against
Henry III in the 13th century), William Wyggeston (a wealthy
wool merchant and founder of Wyggeston's Hospital) and Sir Thomas White (founder
of St. John's College Oxford and The Sir Thomas White Loan Charity).
The Clock Tower stands proudly in the heart of the city today,
hopefully where it will remain for generations to come.
The Old Midland Bank Building, Granby Street, City of
Originally on the site of The Three
Crowns Hotel and Posting
House, (built in 1726) which served as a retreat for those traveling the busy
route between London and Manchester, for almost a century. The last stage coach
left there in 1866.
This landmark building
in Granby Street, is a wonderful example of Victorian Gothic architecture. The
Three Crowns was demolished in 1867 to allow for the building of the new bank.
The building was designed by Joseph Goddard (with
carvings by Samuel Barfield) and built between 1872 and 74, costing a total of £7,439
and opening for business in the year of its completion as The Leicestershire
Banking Company headquarters. The Company was established in 1829 to finance
Leicester's growing industries. Goddard has also worked on the Clock Tower and
played an important role in the introduction of the gothic style to Leicester.
At this period of times there was conflict between classic
and gothic styles of building.
Built in Red Brick with dressings of Portland Stone and rooves
of Welsh Slate, it is a fine example of the French Gothic Revival style.
The building consists of two storeys plus a basement, with
a magnificent double height banking hall complete with enormous hammer roof-beams.
There are a number of cross-mullion windows with a main arched
window in the central porch-tower, along with some impressive French pavilion
roofing. Goddard is also credited with the design of the Uppingham branch, Wellinborough
branch, Ashby-de-la-Zouch branch, Loughborough branch, Nuneaton and Bedworth
branches and the Peterborough branch.
The Granby Street frontage features stained glass windows
and an astonishing level of detail, including the carvings of Leicester sculptor
Samuel Barfield (1830 to 1887).
The Leicestershire Banking Company amalgamated with the Midland
Bank in 1890, with all of its branches including Granby street becoming part
of the bank's network.
A grade II* listed building in the French Gothic Revival
style, comprising of red brick and Portland stone with an unusually positioned
Leicester Town Hall, Town Hall Square, City of Leicester
Overlooking Town Hall Square on the site of the former Cattle
Market, just off Granby Street, stands Leicester's Town Hall.
Built in the Queen Anne Style between 1874-1876 and designed
by local architect Francis Hames, the building is largely characterised by its
magnificent clock tower.
A grade II listed building, it was the first civic building
in the country to be built in the Queen Anne Style. Comprising of red brick with
yellow stone dressings, the facade is adorned with light carvings and white sash
windows set in moulded stone architraves.
Opposite the main building is the Town Hall Square Fountain,
unveiled in 1879 it was also designed by Hames and was constructed with painted
cast iron and granite. The hall still contains the Council Chambers, along with
the city's Register Office, Leicester Bike Park and various other meeting rooms.
A popular destination for kicking back on a warm day, the
parkland around the square also makes a great place to relax and admire the surrounding
about Leicester's Town Hall from Wikipedia | The
predecessor of the Town Hall in 1251
Tyler's Shoe Warehouse, 29 Rutland Street
Still standing in Rutland Street on the corner of Colton
Street, Tyler's Shoe Warehouse boasts Italianate designs.
It now stands empty
but remains a testament to the height of the shoe industry in Leicester. This
Grade II listed building is clad with buff coloured brick and stone dressings.
Before the end of the 18th century Leicester had only as
many boot and shoemakers as served to supply the needs of the town. From about
1793 their numbers increased, owing to the demand for standardized boots for
the army, but for the next 50 years the trade remained a small one.
During the mid nineteenth century there were important developments
in shoe manufacturing machinery, including
The Blake sewer which was not sold, but leased to the manufacturer, a distinctive
feature of the industry. It is said that the machine
was first introduced into Leicester by Stead & Simpson about 1858.
height, the Leicester boot and shoe industry manufactured more goods than were
produced anywhere else in Britain.
By 1871 the total number of workers employed in the industry at Leicester was
about 11,000, exceeding the number at Northampton by about 1,000.
Shoemaking was introduced as a means of broadening industrial employment in
Leicester after the Napoleonic wars and to overcome serious unemployment in the
The rapid development of shoemaking and distribution in Leicester attracted
a variety of associated trades, so that Leicester became the main source of production
of shoe machinery and materials. Dr.
One course refers to it as "Dick's shoe factory".
Tyler's firm was founded about 1861; by 1891 he had some 100 branches. We think
that the Tyler building in Rutland Street was taken over by Freeman, Hardy and
The size of the boots and shoe industry lead to the emergence
of trade unions, as we note in our entry on The
Trades Hall in St. James Street. There were several
disputes between the
unions and the employers.
In 1872 the Co-operative Wholesale Society began the production of boots and
shoes in Leicester. They became major players in the industry along with Freeman
Hardy & Willis (1876) and Stead & Simpson. In 1956, the British shoe
corporation was formed and this has a massive factory in the Belgrave area of
Find out more about the she industry in Leicester from The
British United Shoe Machinery Company |
Wyggeston Hospital Boys' School
Wyggestons' Hospital was founded in 1513.
In some histories of Leicester it is referred to as the 'new' Hospital because
Trinity Hospital, also in Leicester, was founded in 1331.
It was funded by the
income from the Swannington estate, by wool merchant William Wyggeston (1472
- 1536) purchased in 1520. He was three times mayor of Leicester and is commemorated
in stone on Leicester's Clock Tower (see above). On the Clock Tower he is referred
to as "Wigston", suggesting he gave his name to the area south of the
city centre, though some would believe that it was the area who gave him his
name. A very early form of the name of the village was Wyginston.
His brother, Thomas Wyggeston,
established a Grammar
In letters patent in 1572 it was stated that the hospital should be for ever
called 'Wyggeston's Hospital', and that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster
should appoint the Master and be a Visitor. By 1836 the Free Grammar School had
ceased to function. A new school was founded but was dedicated to the Anglican
persuasion, causing the non-conformists to set up a new institution in New Walk.
A new hospital with a chapel dedicated to St. Ursula was erected in 1868.
Our photos shows the present building of the Wyggestons Hospital
Boys' School, which opened in 1877 being then called The Wyggeston Hospital School.
In more modern time this became the Wyggeston Collegiate Sixth Form and since
1996 has been known as Regent College. The present building became part of St.
Martin's House, part of the Diocese of Leicester.
Hospital today | William
Wyggeston | Wyggestons
Hospital, The Duchy of Lancaster |
Conway Buildings, 1878, Grey Friars
A good example of late nineteenth century Gothic style building.
Fine brickwork and elaborate terracotta details give a clue to the people who
financed its construction, Brick and Tile Merchants Clarkson & Co.
This Grade II listed building was designed by architect Stockdale
Harrison (1846 - 1914) in 1878. His son James Stockdale Harrison (1874 - 1952)
studied at the Leicester Art School. Stockdale Harrison was also involved in
the design for the De Monfort Hall and the Peck Building at West Bridge.
Conway Buildings is fronted in red brick and dressed with
stone and has a roof of Welsh slate. It housed the Leicester Disability Information
and Communication Network. In 1880, Mr Robert Peach, an estate agent, had his
The Fenwicks Building, Market Street, Leicester
Built in 1880 and designed by Isaac Barradale
(1845 - 1892)
, one of Leicester's
most successful architects, an exponent of the Arts and Crafts movement.
an important influence on Leicester, particularly in the area of Stoneygate,
where he designed many private houses.
He was regarded by Pevsner as arguably the finest architect
of the Arts and Crafts movement in the country.
The building now familiar to us as the Fenwicks Department
store, stands on the corner of Market Street and Belvoir Street, adjacent to
which is another of Barradale's structures, originally built as a hotel.
The building was originally
Joseph Johnson and Company Limited, a drapery store. It was taken over by the
Fenwick Group in the early 1960s. The Group was founded by John James Fenwick
in Leicester | DMU's
study of Barradale | Barradale
on the Chronicler site | Ned
Newitt's photo of this building |
The Secular Hall, Humberstone Gate
Standing in Humberstone Gate, the Secular Hall opened in
1881 to provide a home for Leicester rationalists in the Secular Society, led
by Josiah Gimson.
Many influential thinkers spoke here including William Morris,
Charles Bradlaugh, Annie Bessant and George Bernard Shaw.
Now a Grade II listed building, two busts adorn the front
of the building on either side of the arched entrance. One is a bust of Voltaire
and the other is of Jesus. A interesting juxtaposition.
Altogether five busts are on the frontage of the building,
the others being Socrates, Thomas Paine and Robert Owen (see
more details.) They were sculpted by
Ambrose Louis Vago.
the Society's website states: 'the home of Leicester Secular Society, the oldest
secular society in the world, the Hall rises to national heritage significance:
a place where the battle for human rights and equality has been fought, where
William Morris, Charles Bradlaugh, Annie Besant, George Bernard Shaw, Bertrand
Russell and Tony Benn and many other campaigners have spoken.' It is the only
Hall still in use today as a venue for secularism.
In the 1840s and 50s, Secularists were denied access to public
buildings and meeting rooms and this led them to build their own Hall.
The building was designed by W. Larner Sugden of Leek in
Staffordshire, who was a friend of William Morris.
The building is still used today for a wide variety of meetings
Secular Society, founded in 1951 and the first
in the world. | More
details on the history of the Hall.
The Poor Law Offices, Pocklingtons Walk
Constructed in 1883, The Poor Law Offices, a Grade II listed building, was
originally the administrative centre of the Poor Law.
The building later became
the Registry Office for Leicester and many couples were married there, until
the Registry was moved to the Town Hall.
A memorial stone on the front of the building states that
it was laid by Stephen Skillington Esq. (1875 - 1951) Chairman
of the Board of Guardians, on the 30th day of November, 1882.
Constructed in an Italinate design, in orange brick with
ashlar dressings and slate roofs, the two storey building comprises a main east
facade. There is a central slightly projecting bay has double panel doors with
fanlight in round headed opening with Ionic pilaster ashlar surround topped with
pediment bearing the date 1883.
Above a Venetian window with unusual glazing with an ashlar
surround flanked by tall Corinthian pilasters to a moulded entablature. Above
again a square cupola with single round headed sash window with flanking scroll
piers topped with obelisks, the whole surmounted by an entablature and dome.
A very fine example of a rare building type.
The front of the building also bears a Blue Plaque reading:
City of Leicester. Fanny Fullagar, 1847 to 1918. Leicester's first woman Poor
Law Guardian. Elected to serve Newton Ward from 1889 to 1904.
The Boards of Guardians
were created in 1834. Fanny Fullagar was a suffragette who was elected, in 1889,
as a Guardian for the All Saints Parish (later to become Newton Ward.) She founded
the local branch of the NSPCC and was active in many charities.
The Liberal Club, Bishop Street
The architect for this impressive Grade II building was Edward
With its red brick and ashlar frontage, including six bay
windows, it served as the Leicester and County Liberal Club.
Nikolaus Pevsner said it was in the "Loire style, but gabled." Burgess
also designed the nearby Central Library, further down Bishop Street and Several
other Leicester buildings.
this photo of the original building taken in 1889.
Exchange Building, Rutland Street/Halford Street, City
very own Flat Iron Building (reference
to a similar building in New York City), the conjoined shop fronts that form
the ground floor of The Exchange Building were designed by Stockdale & Harrison of
Leicester in 1888.
The Exchange Building is a curious three-storey grade II
listed, comprising of red brick with blue brick and ashlar dressings. It has
thirteen windows that are arranged unsymmetrically, original wooden shop fronts
with recessed doorways and comes complete with the addition of two fourth-storey
The buildings position on the axis of the two streets and
its rectangular (from above) appearance, almost compliments the curved shape
of the adjacent Curve Theatre and makes it a fascinating addition to the Cultural
Victoria Coffee House, Granby Street, City of Leicester
The Victoria Coffee House was built in 1888 and designed
by architect Edward Burgess in the style of the French Renaissance.
Now occupied by the authentic Parisian restaurant Bistro
de Paris, the building appears as European on the inside as it does on the outside.
A grade II listed five-storey building in ashlar masonry,
the building boasts a magnificent facade that would look more at home in the
centre of Paris.
The building includes many multi-sized windows with larger
square fittings, smaller rectangular inlets and a set of arched bays towards
the attic floor. The third, fourth and attic floors are set back beneath a slated
conical roof, flanking two octagonal turrets with bell-canted copper and lead
Temperance as a mass movement originated in the United Kingdom
in the 19th century, promoted the reduced consumption of alcohol and anti-alcoholic
legislation. The Leicester Coffee and Cocoa House company was founded in July
1877, to provide various houses and rooms where non-alcoholic beverages could
be enjoyed. Some of these buildings still survive and include The High Cross
on High Street (rather ironically, now a public house), The East Gates on Church
Street and of course, the Victoria on Granby Street.
The Hawthorn Building
The Hawthorn Building was constructed, becoming the School
of Art and stands now in the centre of the campus of De Monfort University. See
our page on the History of Art Education
See our page on the buildings
of De Montfort University.
Thomas Cook Building, Gallowtree Gate, City of Leicester
Built in 1894 as a memorial to Thomas Cook, the building
was designed by Joseph Goddard and provides a fine example of a Victorian facade.
Standing close to the Clock Tower (also designed by Goddard), its lower section
is now occupied by the retailer Foot Locker.
The building is a Grade II listed, three-storey structure,
with a row of carved archways that are separated by small stone balconies, arched
windows and four ionic half-columns. There is a set of four stone friezes depicting
Cook's very first trip from Leicester to Loughborough by train in 1841, Leicester
to London in 1851, a trip to Sudan in 1884 and a crossing of the Forth Bridge
There are four three-light windows to the attic, with four
Flemish Gables rising above these beyond the roof space. Thomas Cook founded
the travel agency now known as the Thomas Cook Group. He is credited for the
introduction of 'circular notes', which would later become known as 'traveler's
Although he was born in Melbourne, Derbyshire, he became
something of an iconic figure in Leicestershire where he died in in 1892.
Alexandra House, Rutland Street, City of Leicester
Alexandra House is a fantastic example of an architectural
masterpiece hidden in the city of Leicester.
Designed by Edward Burgess for Sir Samuel
Faire and built between 1895-1898, the building originally served as the Faire
Brothers bootlace warehouse and has been described as one of the finest in the
A grade II listed building which boasts a wonderful facade
adorned with elaborate carvings, the structure is steel-framed with a granite
There is an ornate bolstered balcony that runs across the
main arched window and stretches along both wings of the third-storey, with two
corbelled octagonal turrets which flank a central dome.
The building was damaged slightly by bombing in the 1940s
though fortunately survived, becoming the subject of a cleaning project in the
Today Alexandra House stands resilient in the heart of Leicester's
cultural quarter, offering a high standard of rented accommodation and office
The building was occupied by Faire
Brothers Ltd, a company that survives to this day from its headquarters in
Thurmaston. In 1929 the company was listed as a manufacturer of haberdashery,
suspenders, braces, garters and laces. In 1941 the company donated a Spitfire
to Air Force.
Faire Brothers was a major textile manufacturer in Leicester,
along with Corah and T.W. Kempton
Frosted glass window at Alexandra House, from the period
when it housed Faire Brothers.
The General News Room building, corner of Belvoir Street
and Granby Street
Designed by Joseph Goddard and now a Grade II listed building,
the frontage is covered with ornate terracotta and stonework, combining baroque
with classical elements, including statues and friezes representing the Fates
and Muses, the work of Mr. Pitts of London.
The original general news rooms of 1838 was designed by William
Flint, photographs of which still survive. The building was decorated
with Greek style columns and included a library and readings rooms. Leicester's
first free library was opened in 1839. The old News Room was demolished in 1839,
allowing for the widening of Granby Street and made way for the building that
we see today.
Originally, there was
a portico, fronting Granby street, with
two entrances, one to the News Rooms, and the other to the Library
which ran round the room, was supported by twelve Corinthian columns,
in imitation of Scagliola marble, and contained the Library, which comprised
about 6,000 volumes of modern standard authors, deposited in
nine large cases placed in compartments. Access to the collections and rooms
was by way of a subscription.
The Grand Hotel of 1898 can be seen
in our halls and hotels page.
Pares Bank, Greyfriars Street, City of Leicester
Quite possibly one of Leicester's most interesting pieces
of architecture, it is extremely unfortunate that the old Pare's Bank stands
in disuse today.
Built between 1900 and 1902, the building was designed by
Samuel Perkinz Pick who was one of the principal architects of Everard & Pick of Leicester
A Grade II listed building in the Neo-classical style, the
old bank is somewhat hidden away on the corner of Grey Friars Street.
consists of a large arched doorway below a set of six ionic columns that are
separated by bay windows. The majority of the windows are accompanied by interesting
stone carvings and friezes, with two larger friezes each side of the main entrance.
There are two large circular neo-classical bell towers each
side of the roof, with two smaller circular towers to the rear of the building.
An extension to the rear that dated from around 1950 also existed, although this
was demolished in 2007.
Pares's Leicestershire Banking Co. Ltd. was a private bank
established in Leicester in 1800 as Pares, Heygate & Co. by Thomas Pares, Thomas
Paget, John Pares and James Heygate.
The bank was converted into a joint stock
company in 1836 as Pare's Leicestershire Banking Co. and was acquired by Parr's
Bank Ltd. of Warrington and London in 1902.
It was for some time occupied by the Nat West Bank until
it's being vacated in 2000.
It is possible that the building could see a new lease of
life in the near future, as it is currently up for sale as a restaurant/retail
Leicester's Victorian High Street - part 1
May 3rd 2013
We took a walk down Leicester's High Street. Buildings there are mainly late Victorian with some from the early part of the 20th century.
Photos © Arts in Leicester
We hope to bring you further photos of the High Street in Part 2.
the latest news about the Richard III excavations
By Trevor Locke
Leicester is a place that has seen human habitation
since before the Romans arrived and has always been a major point on cross country
In medieval times, Leicester was a compartively small town.
It was with the industrial revolution that it began to grow and develop.
It was, during the nineteenth century, that the Grand Union
Canal, constructed in 1790s and the coming of the railways, in 1832, brought
the industrial revolution to Leicester. In this era, Leicester saw the rise of
engineering, shoe manufacture and hosiery production.
Leicester became connected, even more than before, to London,
Birmingham and Manchester.
Just as the ancient Fosse Way placed Leicester on the map,
so now the new methods of transport had a huge impact on its economy.
With the migration of nineteenth century people into
the urban areas, the city began to grow outwards into the surrounding countryside.
The growing wealth of the city is demonstrated by
the construction of the the building now known as The City Rooms.
The building was started in 1792 and completed
in 1800, when it was known as The Assembly Rooms and accommodated visitors to
the races, held on Victoria Park. It's ground floor provided a coffee house,
the upper floors being used for wedding receptions and other auspicious events.
In 1817 the building became the lodgings of Judges and its
name changed to the County Rooms. It was the meeting place of the County Council
until the opening of the current premises in Glenfield. Both inside and out,
it is one of the most eloquent examples of the classical style in Leicester.
At this time buildings were adorned with statements about
wealth, culture and refinement.
Look at the photo of the Clock Tower. It is a statement in
stone. You can imagine Joseph Goddard drawing a free hand sketch of the monument.
Then look at the background, the rectangular geometric lines of the Haymarket
Shopping Centre. It speaks of architects with rulers and pencils, creating functional,
rectilinear concepts in some anonymous 1970s office.
What does the Clock Tower tell us about the people of Leicester
and their history? It seems a bit like the totem poles of the North American
Indians. It can be read like a book because it is a statement of values and
belief. It portrays the view of history held by its designers and benefactors.
As we look through the buildings that stand as milestones
in the history of Leicester/shire, we can see them telling us about the history
of England. From the Roman invasion, through to the Wars of the Roses, the Dissolution
of the Monasteries, The Reformation, the Industrial Revolution, the rise of Modernism,
these epochs reflect changing attitudes to art and culture as well as being a
testament to the political and social currents of their times.
One thing that had struck me in editing this series is that
it's very easy to look only for the big, the grand and the historic. History,
in my view, is not just about the wealthy and powerful. If we really want to
understand the relationship between people and their buildings, we have to look
at the bigger picture.
I have to pay tribute to Ned Newitt's work on the 'Slums
of Leicester'. We are at pains to list and preserve great edifices,
the totems of our heritage. I would also want to list the very few remaining
back to back slum houses of the poor. I have always had a fascination
with the ordinary, everyday life of the past.
One of the most exiting museums I have ever been to is The
Black Country Museum in Dudley. On this site they have preserved a wide range
of buildings, from the urban public house through to the tiny homes of local
workers. It has given me a sense of the past as working people lived it.
If we could go back in time and stand outside the Guildhall,
what kind of people would we see walking along the street? What kind of houses
did they live in? How did their homes affect their well-being, their health,
their families, their ability to make a living?
In our zeal to clear away slums, we say something about our
values. Did it occur to anyone in the Council to keep just one or two of them
to remind people in later generations what life used to be like? The homes of
the poor have no architectural or artistic value and so can be swept away.
Do we ever think about preserving examples of buildings that
represent the lives of the poor? For many centuries, the majority of the population
lived in houses that simply decayed into the mud on which they stood. Only archaeologists
can dig into that mud and discover the tell tale signs of what buildings used
to be like and of the lives that people used to lead.
We can tell a lot from the rubbish tips and cess pits of
our ancestors. One wonders if future archaeologists will be digging in the land-fill
sites of today's world for clues to the life of everyday people.
We can learn as much from what lies beneath our streets as
we can from the more obvious structures that line them. The introduction of sewers
and drains had as much impact on the well being of Leicester people, as did the
buildings in which they lived and worked. Ned Newitt documents this vividly in
his book The Slums of Leicester, when he talks about the efforts of
the council to introduce flushing toilets to replace the pail
Putting in a supply of clean water throughout the city had
a huge impact on health and mortality. The introduction of regular waste disposal
curbed the infestation of vermin and the disease that they spread.
Leicester has been described as a 'largely Victorian City',
with a great number of public buildings being constructed between 1837 and 1901.
Thousands of houses were built during this period, mostly in rows of terraces,
especially in the parishes of Highfields and Belgrave.
Many things reflect the Victorian age. 'According to police
historian, Clifford Stanley, Victorian Leicester was a lawless, crime-ridden
place, and "burglars, robberies and street
brawls were frequent". In 1836, the Leicester Corporation decided to create the
city's first police force to address the situation. ' Architectural
Heritage of Leicester, BBC.
During this period a new railway station was constructed
on London Road.
Joseph Carey Merrick
(5 August 1862 - 11 April 1890) lived during this period. Known to the
world as 'The Elephant Man', he is famed for his severe deformities. He lived
with his parents in the Wharf Street area of Leicester. He was sent to work in
a nearby cigar shop, rolling tobacco leaves to make cigars.
At 17 he entered the Leicester Union workhouse. In 1884 he
went to London to be an exhibit in a freak show. During his time at the London
Hospital he was visited by society ladies and gentlemen, including the Princess
Looking at accounts of the life of Merrick, we get an impression
of the state of Victorian Leicester. Little remains of the area where he lived
apart from a few tell-tale signs. Being born into a poor family meant
that his early life would have been one of harshness and hardship. Even so he
did attend the Syston Street Board School.
The Merrick family's Lee Street home was flooded with raw
sewage from the nearby river Soar.
Joseph Carey Merrick
The history of Leicester is a microcosm of English History.
The changes, events, trends and tides of English history have always impacted
on this town and in some cases started here.
The excavation of the past is often about buildings and artefacts
- the things that people have left behind them in the earth.
If we want to understand art, we have to understand the social
context in which artists and artisans worked and in which people consumed and
used their products and creations.
If, for example, we want to understand something about rock
bands, we might look at the development of the guitar, from early stringed instruments
through to the emergence of the electric instrument that so many of today's young
people have strapped to their back as they walk throught the city centre.
Music is one of those things that is not dug up from the
ground. I often wonder what songs the Romans were listening to or what the monks
of Greyfriars were singing in the Middle ages.
Not much remains of the entertainment once enjoyed in the
city. The Theatre Royal of 1836 was a grand building with a portico of Doric
columns but it was demolished in 1957. The Opera House, The Empire Theatre, the
Termperance Hall, the Palace Theatre and the Floral Hall have all disappeared.
Along with the music that was played in them.
Even today we see the comings and goings of once popular
places of live music entertainment. The renown Charlotte in Oxford Road, for
example, is now a block of student flats. The Auditorium in Market Place, once
a cinema and then a bingo hall, served as music venue for a while but has now
gone back to being empty. The building in Orton Square that was once a large
popular Odeon cinema is now the Athena, a place that regularly hold parties,
shows and wedding receptions. That much-loved live music venue, The Attik, has
now become a bar.
Leicester's Victorian High Street
A walk down the High Street, in the centre of Leicester, will reveal a range of architectural styles and designs, much of it dating from the late Victorian to early Edwardian periods. You do, of course, have to look up to see this because at eye level all you see is contemporary shop fronts.
The High Street is a conversation area. In a report to the City Council, experts wrote:
'Columns and pilasters create strong vertical rhythms
with triangular and half-round gables punctuating the skyline, while
continuous lines of windows at first and second floor levels form
subtle horizontal patterns.
Decorative stonework, terracotta and
other materials are used with confidence and there are balustrades,
finials, domes and spires to add further visual interest.
creates a strong sense of place and the effect is enhanced by the intense contrasts of light and shade that arise because of High Street’s east-west orientation.'
[Supplementary Guidance to the City of Leicester Local Plan, 2006]
By 1880 Leicester town had achieved a level of economic prosperity which was reflected in its elegant buildings, especially along the High Street, which was, at that time, the main shopping thoroughfare.
By 1881 the town's population was around 122,000 compared to around 68,000 in 1861. It was a town experiencing growth in its population and commerce.
Nearby, The Silver Arcade opened in 1899, designed by Amos Hall, with its decorative cast iron galleries. This has been substantially refurbished.
The local industries were largely based on boots and shoes and these produced very little of the smoke that would have blighted the buildings of other towns and cities that had heavier forms of industry.
The first telephone exchange opened in Leicester in 1881 and electric street lights were introduced in 1984.
At the entrance to the High Street stands the building that was formerly the High Cross Coffee House, now a public house, built around 1895 and designed by Edward Burgess. It once housed The Liverpool Victoria Insurance offices and is a Grade II listed Building.
The Singer Building was built in 1902 to 1904 and designed by Arthur Wakerley.
Most of the building was occupied as the Midland headquarters and main showroom of the Singer Sewing Machine Company between 1904 to around 1965. It has Art Nouveau designs with carved icons referring to places in the empire such as Australia, Egypt, Canada, Indian Burma and Africa, each place showing a characteristic animal. In the centre of the building is a glass barrel vault dome with a huge fan-shaped glass frontage.
To be continued
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