Historical description of Leicestershire, England

Map of Leicestershire and Rutlandshire

Leicestershire or Leicester, an inland county, nearly in the centre of England, but a little to the E. It is bounded on the N by Derbyshire and Notts, on the E by Lincolnshire and Rutlandshire, on the S by Northamptonshire and Warwickshire, on the W by Warwickshire, Staffordshire, and Derbyshire. Its outline is irregularly pentagonal, and has been said to resemble the outline of a heart, recessed in the middle of the N, and contracting to an angle at the middle of the S. Its boundary in various parts is traced by short reaches of the rivers Trent, Soar, Anker, Welland, and Avon, and along 18 3/4 miles of the contact with Warwickshire is formed by Watling Street. Its greatest length, from NE by N to SW by S, is 45 miles; its greatest breadth is about 40 miles, its circuit is about 165 miles, and its area is 527,124 acres. Its surface is hilly, consists chiefly of spurs or offshoots of the backbone of England, with intervening basins or vales, and may, in a general sense, be denominated table-land. Bardon Hill, in Charnwood Forest, is the highest elevation, and has an altitude of 853 feet above sea-level. Beacon and other hills in Charnwood Forest— Belvoir Castle, Blackberry Hill, and Stathern Hill, to the NE—Breedon Hill, Cloud Hill, and Castle Donington, toward the NW—Burrow Hill, Whadborough Hill, Billesdon Coplow, and Quenby Hill, to the E—Saddington and Gumbly, to the S—and Croft Hill, Hinckley, Higham, and Orton-on-the-Hill, toward the W—are other chief eminences, and some of the hills, particularly Bardon Hill, command very extensive and beautiful views. The valley of the Wreak, the valley of the Soar, and the vale of Belvoir abound in charming scenery. The chief rivers are the Trent, the Soar, the Swift, the Welland, the Avon, the Wreak, and the Anker; and minor streams are the Devon, the Eye, the South Eye, the Mease, the Sence, and the Smite. Igneous rocks form dispersed intrusions throughout a considerable part of the NW; greywacke or Cambrian rocks, much beset by the eruptive intrusions, form a tract in the E of Charnwood Forest; rocks of the coal measures form an important tract around Ashby-de-la-Zouch; rocks of new red or Bunter sandstone form one small tract near the middle of the coal-field, and another to the NW of it; rocks of a higher part of the same class, chiefly kemper marl and sandstone, form nearly all the W half of the county; rocks of the lias formation, comprising sand, upper lias clay, marlstone, and lower lias clay and lime, form most of the E half of the county, separated from the new red. sandstone nearly by a line drawn up the course of the Soar to a point 4 miles above Leicester, and thence south-south-westward to the S boundary; and rocks of lower oolite, including corn-brash, forest marble, Bradford clay, Bath oolite, fullers' earth, and inferior oolite, form a tract in the extreme NE, from Stathern and Saxby to the boundary. Hard stone, greywacke slate, and building stone are quarried; limestone and lias are worked, the latter partly for cement; coal is mined, and gypsum, potters' clay, ironstone, and lead ore are found. The chief mineral products of the county, with the average annual output, were as follows:—Coal, 1,500,000 tons; iron ore, 690,000 tons; and fire clay, 39,000 tons. Mineral springs occur in various parts, and those of the Moira and Ivanhoe baths at Ashby-de-la-Zouch are the most esteemed.

The soils are principally of three kinds—clay-loam, sandy or gravelly loam, and peat-earth or alluvium, and those of the clay-loam kind, mostly strong and stiff, are the most extensive. The peat bogs were long ago drained, and have become peaty or meadowy soil, and there are no chalk soils, and none which can be properly called clay or sand. The estates generally are large, and the farms vary from 50 to 500 acres. The chief crops are wheat, barley, oats, beans, roots, artificial grasses, cabbage, and rape. Barley has, in a considerable degree, superseded wheat, and beans were formerly raised in much greater abundance than now. Much of the land is disposed in grazing; and cheese, of two good kinds, the one in flattish cheeses of from 30 to 60 Ibs., the other of the kind known as Stilton, is largely made. One cow commonly yields from 3 1/2 to 4 1/2 cwt. of the flattish cheeses in a season. Sheep of the Old Leicester, the Forest, and the New Leicester or Dishley breeds abound, and much wool is shorn, which is worked up into hosiery. The long-horned breed of cattle, as improved by Bakewell, has passed considerably into disfavour, and the old short-horned breed is now preferred. Good horses for hunting are reared, and mules and asses for farm labour are much used. Hogs of a superior breed are extensively fed. Fox-hunting is keenly pursued, and draws many visitors to the county. Melton Mowbray and Market Harborough are the headquarters of the sportsmen, and the Quorn and Billesdon hunts are the greatest, and have large establishments. Wool-combing, woollen yarn spinning, hose-making, and framework knitting, are largely carried on. Elastic web weaving, silk manufacture, lace-making, shoe-making, and agricultural implement making also are prominent. Manufactures of other kinds, likewise, have recently been introduced. There are also large potteries, and immense quantities of fire bricks are made.

According to the census returns issued in 1893, the chief occupations of the people of the county were:—Professional, 4654 males and 3599 females; domestic, 1285 males and 17,131 females; commercial, 11,862 males and 397 females; agricultural, 18,068 males and 481 females; fishing, 1 male; industrial, 81,100 males and 41,241 females; and "unoccupied," including retired business men, pensioners, those living on their own means, and others not specified, 19,732 males and 86,046 females; or a total in the county of 136,702 males and 148,895 females. The number of men employed in the leading industries was as follows:—Boot and shoe makers, 21,769; agricultural labourers, 10,301; hosiery manufacturers, 9259; coal miners, 5014; general labourers, 4393; and farmers, 3248. The chief occupations of women were:—Hosiery manufacturers, with a total of 15,917; domestic service, 13,821; millinery and dressmaking, 13,821; boot and shoe makers, 8744. There were also in the county 281 blind persons, 181 deaf, 156 deaf and dumb, and 1327 mentally deranged.

The Trent Navigation, the Union Canal, the Grand Union Canal, and the Ashby-de-la-Zouch Canal, together with the junctions which they form with other navigations, give water conveyance to most parts of England. As will be seen from the map of the county published with this work, Leicestershire, with the exception perhaps of the south-eastern portion, is well supplied with railway communication. The M.R. passes through the centre of the county from S to N, forming an important knot of junctions immediately before reaching the S boundary, and another immediately beyond the boundary on the N. From the Midland at Syston a line passes in an easterly direction through Melton Mowbray towards Oakham and Peterborough, and another from Syston Junction through Melton Mowbray to Nottingham. From Leicester a branch passes through the coalfields in the direction of Coalville, Ashby, and Burton-on-Trent, and from Wigston, on the main line, there is a branch passing in a slightly curved line to Birmingham. There is also a branch line from Leicester to Rugby. The L. & N.W.R. has a branch which runs from Leicester to Nuneaton, a line from Rugby through Market Harborough to Peterborough, a joint line with the G.N.R., which enters the county in the extreme N, and passes through to Melton Mowbray and Market Harborough, and a line which enters the county on the SW and passes through Market Bosworth and Coalville E to Loughborough, sending out a branch at Shackerstone Junction towards Burton. The latter line joins on the way a branch from Ashby-de-la-Zouch, which is the joint property of the L. & N.W.R. and M.R. A branch line deflects from the M.R. in the southern vicinity of Leicester, and goes west-north-westward to the vicinity of Desford.

The county is governed by a lord lieutenant and custos rotulorum, and a county council of 18 aldermen and 54 councillors. It is in the Midland judicial circuit, and constitutes an archdeaconry in the diocese of Peterborough. The assizes and the quarter sessions are held at Leicester. Two members are sent to Parliament by Leicester borough; and under the provisions of the Redistribution of Seats Act, 1885, the county returns four members in four divisions, viz. —the Eastern or Melton, the Mid or Loughborough, the Western or Bosworth, and the Southern or Harborough. Population of the county (1801) 130,082, (1821) 174,571, (1841) 215,867, (1861) 237,412, (1881) 321,258, (1891) 373,584 in the ancient county, and 375,092 in the administrative county.

Leicestershire contains 316 entire civil parishes and part of one other, and the county borough of Leicester contains seventeen entire civil parishes. The ancient county contains 239 entire ecclesiastical parishes and districts and parts of thirteen others, and is divided into the borough of Leicester, and the hundreds of East Goscote, West Goscote, Framland, Gartrees, Guthlaxton, Knightlow, Repton, Gresley, and Sparkenhoe. The county town is Leicester, with 174,204 inhabitants, and other towns with upwards of 2000 inhabitants are—Loughborough, 18,196; Hinckley, 9638; Ashby-de-la-Zouch,7710; Melton Mowbray, 6449; Market Harborough, 5876; and Castle Donington, 2591; and there are about 560 smaller towns, villages, and hamlets. The chief seats are—Belvoir Castle, Donington Park, Stapleford Hall, Staunton Harold Hall, Gopsall Park, Buckminster Hall, Burton Hall, Egerton Lodge, Keythorpe Hall, Kirkby Frith Hall, Hallaton Manor House, Swithland Hall, Wheeler Lodge, Bosworth Park, The Elms, Lowesby Hall, Noseley Hall, Roecliffe Hall, Wanlip Hall, Wistow Hall, Asfordby House, Ayleston Hall, Baggrave Hall, Barkby Hall, Beau Manor Park, Birstall Hall, Bitteswell Hall, Blaby Hall, Bosworth Hall, Braunstone House, Burbage House, Carlton Curlieu Hall, Catthorpe Hall, Catthorpe Tower, Charley Hall, Claybrooke Hall, Cliffe House, Cold Overton Hall, The Coplow, Cottesmore Hall, Craven Lodge, Croft House, Dalby Hall, Edmondthorpe Hall, Enderby Hall, Frith House, Gaddesby Hall, Garendon Park, Grace Dieu Manor, Grangewood House, Great Stretton Hall, Hallaton Hall, Heather Hall, Highcroft House, Holt Hall, Kibworth Harcourt Hall, Knossington, Langley Priory, Launde Abbey, Leesthorpe Hall, Lindley Hall, Little Peatling Hall, Lockington Hall, Loddington Hall, Newton Harcourt Manor House, Glen House, Maplewell, Melton Mowbray Lodge, Misterton Hall, Nether Seal Hall, Nether Seal Old Hall, Normanton Hall, Norris Hill Hall, North Kilworth House, Orton Hall, Osbaston Hall, Quorn Hall, Quorn House, Ragdale Hall, Ratcliffe Hall, Ravenstone Hall,Ravenstone House, Rolleston Hall, Rother-by-Manor House, Rothley Temple, Scraptoft Hall, Sheepy Hall, Shenton Hall, Skeffington Hall, Somerby House, Somerby Hall, Southfield House, Stanford Hall, Stockerston Hall, Stoughton Grange, Swannington House, Sysonby Lodge, Wartnaby Hall, West Langton Hall, Whatton House, Wigston Hall, and Withcote Hall.

The territory now forming Leicestershire was inhabited by the ancient British tribe Coritani, was included by the Romans in their province of Flavia Cæsariensis, formed part of the Saxon kingdom of Mercia, was held by the Danes within the Danelagh or Dane-laga from 874 till 942, was distributed by William the Conqueror among his Norman followers, bore the name of Ledecestrescire at Domesday, and suffered much disaster by the rebellion of its barons in the times of Henry II., John, and Henry III. It was the scene of the first promulgation of the doctrines of Wickliffe, also of the meeting of the Parliament which enacted death against the Wickliffites, and was the scene of the battle of Bosworthfield, and of various conflicts between the Royalists and the Parliamentarians in the time of Charles I. The Romans had towns at Leicester, Vernometum, and Mancetter; they had settlements or strengths also at Narborough, Loughborough, Market Harborough, Broughton Astley, Queeniborough, Overcester, Whatborough, Wellesborough, Bramborough, Burrough, Nether Broughton, Shamford, Blackfordby, Acresford, Thornborough, Desford, Scalford, Swinford, Linford, Burbage, Burton Overy, Burton Lazars, Burton-on-the-Wolds, and Staunton Harold; and they connected the most important of these places with one another, or with their stations in other counties, by the Fosse Way, the Via Devana, the Salt Way, and Watling Street. Tumuli or barrows are at Shipley, Gilmarton, Syston, Medbourn, and some places on the hills. Roman camps are at Barrow, Ratby, Kibworth, Knaptoft, Hallaton, Lubbenham, and Dowbridge. Many castles were built by the Normans, but most of the earlier ones were destroyed in the times of Henry II., John, and Henry III., and few have left any considerable vestiges. Abbeys were at Leicester, Croxton, Garendon, and Owston, and there were many priories. Ancient churches of interesting character are at Leicester, Lutterworth, Horninghold, Bottesford, and Melton Mowbray.

Transcribed from The Comprehensive Gazetteer of England and Wales, 1894-5