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Leicester, Leicestershire

Historical Description

Leicester, the chief town of Leicestershire, is a municipal, parliamentary, and county borough situated in the valley of the river Soar. The town is near the centre of the county, 97 miles NW of London, 27 S of Nottingham, and 30 S of Derby, while Birmingham lies 38 miles W. Leicester is an assize and market town, and the head of a large county court and petty sessions district. Two weekly markets have been held for centuries-a large general market, including corn, on Saturday, and one for fruit and garden produce on Wednesday. Both are now held in the market-place. Up to the year 1885 the vegetable market was held in High Cross Street, the main street of ancient Leicester, but for the convenience of both stall-holders and inhabitants it was removed by Act of Parliament Large cattle markets are also held twice a week in the commodious and well-appointed cattle market (25 acres) on the SW side of the town. This was opened in 1872, thus carrying out a much-needed public improvement, as up to that date the market and abattoirs were in the very heart of the town. There are also cattle fairs seven times a year, while the cheese fairs in May and October, and the wool fail-in June, held in the market-place, are of considerable importance, There are excellent means of communication with other parts of the kingdom. The town stands on one of the main northern lines of the M.R., and the L. & N.W. and G.N. railways also run into Leicester. The M.S. & L.R. have obtained powers to extend their system to London. This line, coming from Nottingham, will enter the town on the west side, where a station will be bnilt involving several important street improvements. It will open up a further means of communication with Grimsby, Manchester, and the manufacturing districts of Lancashire and Yorkshire. The mineral districts of Leicestershire are connected with the town by means of the old Leicester and Swannington railway, constructed by Stephenson, and opened for traffic in 1832. This line is now a part of the Leicester and Burton branch of the M.R. The Midland Company have carried out very extensive and costly alterations at their station, which has been entirely reconstructed on a main thoroughfare. The new station is a handsome and convenient building of large dimensions, with a frontage of 200 feet to the London Road, which was widened at this point by 25 feet, thus effecting a vast improvement in the approach to the town. The greater part of the river Soar has been utilized for canal navigation since 1794. There are also seven good roads branching from the town in various directions. Tramways form the internal means of communication (the first section was opened in 1874); these run through all the principal streets leading to the suburbs, and there are omnibuses to other districts.

The town is well built, all the more important buildings, including some churches, being of brick, and the streets in the centre, and also in the newer portions are wide, well-paved, and regular. The streets in the older and more populous parts of the town are narrow, irregular, and indifferently paved. High Street and High Cross Street are good business thoroughfares and centuries old, while London Road and the New Walk (planted in 1785) are fine and pleasant promenades. There are but few statues or memorials in the town, the most important being a richly-decorated clock tower situated in the centre, at the junction of the principal streets, here called "gates," because they cross where the gates of the old town stood. This clock-tower, with effigies, was erected in 1868 as a memorial to four great benefactors - Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester and creator of Parliament; William Wyggeston, merchant, and mayor of Leicester in 1498, founder of the hospital and schools bearing his name; Alderman Gabriel Newton, mayor in 1732, founder of the Green-coat School; and Sir Thomas White, lord mayor of London in 1546, donor of a charity by which young men of Leicester and other towns, of good character and under the age of thirty-five, can receive loans of either £50 or £100 for a period of nine years free of interest. Many of the most prominent and prosperous townsmen owe their success in life to the munificence of Sir Thomas White. There is also a statue to Robert Hall. The town is on the whole well lighted, especially in the busy streets. It was first lit by gas in 1821, the undertaking being ultimately purchased by the corporation in 1877, who during 1894 put down the necessary plant and mains for the supply of the electric light. The water department, founded in 1850-53, was also transferred to the corporation in 1877 The supply is surface water, and though good in quality is inadequate in quantity for the needs of the town, which in seasons of drought is within measurable distance of a water famine. There are two reservoirs in the neighbourhood of Charnwood Forest and the surrounding hills for supply, and three smaller service reservoirs in other districts to which the water is pumped to meet the varying levels. To afford additional supply and wholly remove if possible every cause of anxiety, the corporation constructed a new reservoir, and the added area thus obtained increases the total watershed to nearly 11,000 acres.

The sanitary arrangements are very satisfactory. The low-lying parts near the river were in wet seasons constantly liable to flooding, so much so that the corporation were compelled to undertake a very extensive series of flood prevention works by deepening and widening the Soar within the limits of the borough. The scheme, which involved much engineering skill and great outlay, was commenced in 1875 and successfully accomplished in 1891. Besides this immense undertaking another extensive series of engineering works was carried out for the disposal of storm water and the interception and utilization of the town sewage. These sewerage and sewage disposal works, including a farm of nearly 1400 acres, were commenced in 1884. The total cost of these two great schemes was about three-quarters of a million sterling. Among the other sanitary arrangements are refuse destructors, &c., placed in different parts of the town. During the progress of the flood works the Abbey Meadow, a dank and frequently inundated spot on the east bank of the river, was considerably raised and transformed into what is now a beautifully laid out park or arboretum. It is called the Abbey Park (66 acres in extent), and was opened to the public in 1882. There are also two other parks - the Victoria (70 acres), formerly the racecourse (from 1806 to 1884), on the London Road, and the Spinney Hill (36 acres), opened in 1886, on the eastern side of the town. These two parks are picturesquely situated, well-wooded, and of great natural beauty. The racecourse is now at Oadby, 2½ miles distant. There are several recreation grounds and open spaces provided with cricket fields and gymnasia, also four public baths - two of these are open, on the river. The health of the town is good, the average death-rate being 18 per 1000. What is called the "Leicester System " in the treatment of zymotic diseases is very well known.

Among the principal buildings may be mentioned the castle, which has been used as an assize court since about 1285. Very few remains of the ancient seat of the Earls of Leicester are left, but from the time of its foundation in the 10th century down to the time of the Commonwealth the history of the castle is an epitome of that of the town. The present building is very sombre and unpretentious, but the surroundings are full of interest. The district within the precincts of the castle is called the Newarke. It was originally about 4 acres in extent, and was added to the castle about 1330, and surrounded by a wall. It is now a well-defined and practically built-in area with gateways, and contains, besides many houses, an hospital and militia barracks. Many traces of the wall remain. The Newarke Gateway was purchased by the county in 1682, and is now used as a magazine. The Old Town Hall, or the hall of the Corpus Christi Guild, founded in 1530, was purchased by the corporation in 1562, and here the whole of the town's business was transacted till 1876, when the Municipal Buildings, a fine pile in the Queen Anne style, were erected. These stand on the site of the old cattle market, with an ornamental garden and fountain in front. Other prominent public buildings are the Assembly Rooms, where the county business is done, the Poor Law Offices, the borough Fire Station, the Post Office, a very ugly Corn Exchange, and the Borough and County Asylums, on the confines of the town. Among those of a semi-public character may be mentioned the Constitutional and Liberal Clubs, several banks, the Victoria Coffee House, the Temperance Hall - the principal place of public meeting - and other smaller halls. None of the public buildings are massive or particularly impressive, being built more for utility than effect. The most important churches are St Martin's, founded in early Norman times on the site of a Roman temple, and restored in 1881 at a cost of £20,000; St Mary's, mainly Early English and Norman, originally built in 1107, and restored in 1861, whose history is closely associated with that of the castle, and which has been said to be in itself a summary of the history of English church architecture; St Margaret's, the oldest church in the town, built on the site of the old Saxon cathedral; and St Nicholas, in the Roman quarter of the borough, built of materials from the ruins of Roman buildings, and containing remains of the original Saxon edifice. Another ancient church is All Saints, while the rest are all modern. Adjacent to the Abbey Park formerly stood the Abbey of St Mary de Pratis, built by Bossu, the second Norman Earl of Leicester, in 1137-43, for the St Augustine Canons. Here Cardinal Wolsey was buried in 1530. The abbey was dissolved in 1537 and completely destroyed, leaving hardly any trace of the original building. About 1562 the materials were used for erecting a mansion in the grounds for the Earl of Huntingdon, the ruins of which are very conspicuous.

The charitable foundations include Trinity Hospital, in the Newarke, founded by Henry Plantagenet, Earl of Lancaster, in 1331. In 1614 it became the property of the corporation, who administer the charity. At present there are about ninety alms-people, of whom forty-four reside in the hospital. Wyggeston's Hospital, founded in 1513 for twenty-four aged men and women, stood on the western side of St Martin's Church till 1869, when a handsome building was erected on the outskirts of the town. There are also several minor charities. The Infirmary was opened in 1770, and has been many times enlarged and altered. It has accommodation for 230 patients. The annual income and expenditure amount to about £13,000. The latest addition to the Infirmary buildings is a Children's Hospital with forty-two cots, opened in 1889. There are also an Institution and Workshops for the Blind - a substantial building - several provident dispensaries, and other agencies for the relief of the sick.

Among the educational institutions the most important are the Wyggeston Schools, which were established under a very comprehensive scheme made in 1857 for the administration of the Wyggeston charities. The Boys' School is a very good building in the Domestic Gothic style, and was erected near the site of the old hospital in 1876. The Girls' School, in another part of the town, was built in 1878. Queen Elizabeth's Free Grammar School was merged into the Wyggeston foundation in 1877. The old school-house, erected in 1573, still stands. Alderman Newton's School, founded in 1761 as a Green-coat School for thirty-five boys, has been converted into a higher grade school of over 300 scholars, with a commodious and modern school-house. These foundations have trustees and boards of governors, and scholarships are attached to both. There are also art and technical schools. The Museum, opened in 1849, is specially rich in Roman relics; the Art Gallery, in the same building, is a more recent addition. The Free Library was opened in 1871; there are now three branches-one the gift of Mr Alderman Hart, and a second built by public subscription as a Jubilee memorial. The Permanent Library, established in 1790, and General Newsroom, established 1835, are in one building. The Town Library, one of the oldest municipal libraries of England, is located in the Guildhall, and was first opened to the public in 1632.

There are several substantial bridges over the river and canal, including two of historic interest - the West Bridge, first rebuilt in the 12th century, and the Bow Bridge, which dates from mediaeval times.

The staple trades of the town are plain and fancy hosiery, elastic webs (introduced in 1843), boots and shoes (1851), and sewing cotton. There are also wool and yarn dyeworks, spinning mills for yarns and worsteds, hat and cigar manufactories, and iron foundries. The trade and industry of Leicester has enormously increased and developed since the introduction of hosiery (the first stocking-frame was set up in 1670), and many splendid and well-appointed factories are occupied by different branches of trade. Of the hosiery and boot and shoe trades the town is one of the chief seats, and it is an increasingly important commercial and manufacturing centre, a fact due to its central position and transit facilities. The co-operative movement is very strong in the town and district.

By the Municipal Reform Act of 1836, the corporation consisted of 14 aldermen and 42 councillors, the town being divided into seven wards. This council ceased to exist in 1891, when the Borough Extension Act came into operation. This brought into the municipal borough a large urban population lying on all sides of the town, and increased its area from 3000 to 8534 acres, and the electorate to over 32,000. The town is now divided into sixteen wards, and is governed by 16 aldermen and 48 councillors. The powers of the local authority have been considerably increased by successive Acts of Parliament, by which great public improvements have been effected. The population, which in 1801 was 17,005, had increased in 1881 to 122,351, and in 1891 to 142,045, while that of Greater Leicester is 174,624. The borough debt is about, £2,500,000, but the gas and water works, and other assets, are fully equal to that sum. No religious census of Leicester has been taken of late years. There are, however, in the town eighty-one places of worship besides mission halls, divided as follows:- Church of England, twenty-four; the Wesleyan bodies, twenty-one; Congregational, eight; Baptist, nineteen; Unitarian, two; Roman Catholic, three; Friends, one; Presbyterian, one; other denominations, twelve. The Secularists also have a hall. Of elementary schools the School Board has twenty-three, and the several denominations have twenty-two, accommodating about 36,000 children. There are two theatres, several music halls, and other places of amusement.

Leicester has long been deemed the metropolis of dissent, and is distinguished for its advanced views on political and other questions. In the anti-vaccination contest it has taken a prominent lead. Since the Reform Act of 1832 it has given its almost continuous support to the Liberal party. Nine newspapers are published in the town, the principal being The Daily Post, established in 1872 (Liberal), with a weekly edition; The Daily Mercury (Liberal) and The Daily Express (Conservative), both halfpenny evening papers; The Journal, established in 1753, and The Advertiser, in 1842 (Conservative weeklies); The Chronicle and Mercury, in 1810 (Liberal weekly); and The Free Press, in 1855 (Radical weekly), &c. The Literary and Philosophical Society was established in 1835 and holds its meetings in the Art Gallery, which makes an admirable lecture hall.

The freemen of the borough have an extensive common, in which every resident freeman or freeman's widow has the right of pasturage. In 1845, 124 acres were laid out in garden plots. The freemen have a vote both in the parliamentary borough and in the southern division of the county.

The external aspect of the town is very pleasing-open streets, good buildings, fine warehouses, and trees planted on the sidewalks, give an appearance of material prosperity, cleanliness, and progress; while the absence of smoke, due to local regulations for its consumption, renders the atmospheric conditions favourable for a large manufacturing town. The country round Leicester is picturesque, and presents many places of historic interest. Bradgate Park, inseparably connected with the history of Lady Jane Grey and Elizabeth Woodville, the queen of Edward IV., lies about 5 miles to the N of the town, and beyond it stretches the beautiful hilly country of Charnwood Forest. The high ground in the NE of the county ends with a wooded ridge on which stands Belvoir Castle.

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

Administration

The following is a list of the administrative units in which this place was either wholly or partly included.

Ancient CountyLeicestershire 
Poor Law unionLeicester 

Any dates in this table should be used as a guide only.


Church Records

Findmypast, in association with the Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester & Rutland, have the following parish records online for Leicester:

ParishBaptismsBannsMarriagesBurials
Church of the Martyrs 1890-19381897-1910 
Holy Apostles1904-19161924-19341925-1931 
John the Divine1855-1916 1855-1931 
St Aidan's   1955-1985
St Anne's1914-19161922-1940  
St Augustine's1894-1916 1904-19311956-1987
St Barnabas1882-1916 1887-1931 
St Chad's  1923-1931 
St Christopher's  1930-1931 
St Gabriel's1916-1916   
St Hilda's1891-1916   
St Philip's1905-19161913-19331913-1931 

Churches

There were over 80 places of worship in Leicester. We have created distinct pages for some, but a list of all (with links) can be found on the Places of Worship page


Directories & Gazetteers

We have transcribed the entry for Leicester from the following:


History

Tradition assigns the origin of Leicester to the British King Lear, who founded it by the Leire, as the river was called of old, but authentic history commences with the advent of the Romans in A.D. 50. There are, however, several very interesting traces of the ancient British encampment, which was called in the native Celtic tongue Caer-Lerion. The Romans subdued the primitive inhabitants and established their government on the banks of the river in a town which bore the name of Ratce, and which in course-of time became an important city with walls and gates, and remained so till Britain was evacuated in 450. There are many very important remains of the Roman occupation, the most conspicuous and interesting being the Jewry Wall, a strange and much discussed piece of masonry, and a perfect example of tessellated pavement. In Saxon times the town was named Legre-ceastre, or "the fortress by the Leire," became the chief city of the central kingdom of Mercia, and was the seat of an Anglo-Saxon bishopric, the first bishop being appointed in 731. The first Saxon Earl was Leofric, husband of Lady Godiva. The See of Leicester was ultimately united with that of Lincoln in 1078, at which date the dignity of being a city was lost, and in more recent times (1837) was transferred to the diocese of Peterborough. In 874 the town fell into the hands of the Danes, and became one of the Danish "five boroughs." The Normans in turn took it in 1068, and the Norman earldom was created in 1107 by Henry I. in the person of Robert de Beaumont, who rebuilt the castle; the sixth and last earl of this line was the great Simon de Montfort (1218-65). On his death Henry III. conferred the title and estates upon Edmund Crouchback, first Earl of Lancaster. The two last Plantagenet earls were John of Gaunt and Henry of Bolingbroke, afterwards. Henry IV. Long before the Norman Conquest the burgesses of the town seem to have decided their disputes in a court elected by themselves, and this gradually grew into the town authority. There was also a guild merchant, to which Earl Robert granted a charter about 1118. This was confirmed by King John, Simon de Montfort, Edward III. (who gave the charter for holding a fair), and Henry VII., successive and enlarged privileges being given to the burgesses. The governing body was known as the "twenty-four" (aldermen) and the "forty-eight" (burgesses) to whom Elizabeth granted a charter of incorporation in 1588, and this corporation remained practically unchanged till 1836. The mayoralty dates from 1251. Leicester has returned two members to Parliament since the time of Edward I., and during the Plantagenet era Parliament met in the town on several occasions - first in 1350, again in 1414, when the suppression of the Lollards was agreed upon; in 1426, when the Parliament of Rats was held; and lastly in 1450, when the sitting was adjourned from Westminster. The town was besieged by Henry II. in 1173, and by the Royalists under Prince Rupert in 1645. At this time it was a stronghold of the Puritans, and after the defeat of Charles at Naseby it was regained by the Parliamentarians under Fairfax. Richard III. slept at the Blue Boar Inn on his way to Bosworth Field in 1485, and was brought back a dishonoured corpse, and buried within the precincts of one of the monastic buildings in the town. The history of Leicester is full of interest, as the town and its castle played an important part in the chequered periods of English history, and no fewer than twenty of our reigning sovereigns between 941 and 1843 have visited it, some on several occasions. It is rich in antiquarian and archaeological lore, and its charters, muniments, and archives are of exceptional interest and value.- See Thompson's History of Leicester to end of the 18th Century, Mrs Johnson's Glimpses of Ancient Leicester, Kelly's Royal Progresses, and Nichols' monumental History of Leicestershire.


Land and Property

A full transcript of the Return of Owners of Land in 1873 for Leicestershire is online.


Maps

Online maps of Leicester are available from a number of sites:


Newspapers and Periodicals

The British Newspaper Archive have fully searchable digitised copies of the following Leicestershire newspapers online:

CountyCity of Leicester
RegionEast Midlands
CountryEngland
Postal districtLE1
Post TownLeicester