To celebrate our Centenary Years, Special Collections would like to share with you new research, which not only paints a picture of the how we were founded, but also the way of life and the connection of local families at that time. Our volunteer researcher, University Court and Centenary Project Board Member Caroline Wessel takes up the story…
Much of the early support came from the town’s industrialists whose families had created great wealth from the hosiery and boot and shoe industries in the late nineteenth century, but doctors, lawyers and educationalists were also involved, as were those of differing religious beliefs and political alliances. The after-effects and memories of WW1, and the founding of the new College as a War Memorial, were often a motivation for people’s interest. You will read information never available before because we have been very fortunate in making contact with present-day members of seven of the families in question, giving us access to private family archives, letters, anecdotes and photographs. Wealthy or modestly well-off; professional or trade; highly-educated or early school leaver; conventional or eccentric, upper social level or newly rich; book-worm or great-outdoors lover – they are all here, a colourful cross section of early 20th-century society, who, regardless of their differences, were all intent upon supporting their town’s new University College. So here goes …
Three generations of Frears, the bakery family, have strong University connections. We probably all know of the Charles Frears School of Nursing, but perhaps not that Charles fought on the Western Front in WW1, was one of the first people in Leicestershire to gain a private pilot’s licence, served on the University Council for thirty years and gave a set of rare botanical books to the Library. His brother, John Newton, was chosen by Winston Churchill during WW2 to be Head of Bakeries for the Ministry of Food. Their father, John Russell Frears, was Mayor of Leicester and you will have frequently passed his name on the plaque at the entrance of the Fielding Johnson Building. Find out why! And how Stephen Frears, recipient of a University of Leicester Honorary Degree and renowned worldwide as a film director, fits into the family tree
The three Faire brothers were all successful Leicester businessmen and local philanthropists, two of them receiving knighthoods and serving as High Sheriffs of the county. Their charitable interests included The Humane Society, Private Fire Brigades Association, Ragged School Mission, Shipwrecked Fishermen Benevolent Society, Leicester Boy’s Club, Waifs and Strays Society, St John Ambulance and the Temperance Society. They were generous benefactors in the early years of the University College, and served with energy and commitment on its Council and various committees. However, Sir Arthur Faire was particularly involved with Vaughan College, supporting it from 1882, becoming its Treasurer from 1890-1927 and then Chairman of its Governors. Always passionate about education, he was also on the Scheme of the Board of Education and in his will left £1,000 in shares to fund a scholarship for Vaughan College students to progress to the University itself.
Are you aware that the original name of our University was The Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland University College and its coat-of-arms includes a horseshoe, the heraldic emblem for Rutland? So how was Rutland involved in the early period? Well, the Duke of Rutland was its first President and Mr Walter Sargent, Headmaster of Oakham School, was a valued member of Council for many years. But did you know that Dr Astley Clarke (our principal founder) could trace his family roots as far back as 1574 to the village of Lyddington in Rutland where he had a house and lived in retirement. His father-in-law and considerable University benefactor, Mr H. Simpson Gee, was High Sheriff of Rutland in 1921 (because he had a shooting estate there), the year that the University College opened to its first students. In 2019 a Scholarship is being set up by the present Lord Lieutenant of Rutland for aspiring Rutland students who need financial assistance.
Once you have opened the website on our Early Founders you will be hooked! So read on … and discover that Sydney Gimson, a founding member of The Secular Society and brother of the celebrated furniture designer Ernest Gimson, was not only a dedicated supporter of the University College, Wyggeston School, and the Art and Technical Colleges, but also Chairman for over twenty years of Desford Industrial School, an institution for “naughty boys” convicted of petty crime, where they were strictly brought up but received a training in a trade to enable them to earn a respectable living as adults.
Do you associate the name Goddard with silver polish? Well Joseph Wallis Goddard, son of the silver polish inventor, gave a considerable amount to the new University in terms of money and service. His wealth had enabled him to financially assist two burgeoning Leicester firms, Wadkin, manufacturers of woodworking machinery, and the formative Imperial Typewriters. But when the director of Wadkin was drowned on the Titanic, Goddard persuaded his son to take over, who ran the company worldwide for 48 years. Joseph W. Goddard was on the University Court and its Council, was Chairman of its Building Committee at the challenging time of conversion from the WW1 hospital to University College, and he also served diligently on the Hostel Committee and that of the Botanical Garden.
Poppy Clarke, wife of Dr Astley Clarke, was the daughter of H. Simpson Gee. Because he was Chairman of the Leicester Tramways Co., on the young couple’s wedding day every driver and conductor on the Leicester trams wore a white Rose buttonhole in their honour.
Our website also has fascinating accounts of Early Students, and a newly posted one is of Miss Mabel Towle, related to our recently retired and much-respected Chairman of Council, Dr Bridget Towle. Until this was researched, Bridget did not even know that her “Auntie Mabel” was a University of Leicester past student! But she has been able to give us some fascinating personal details to add to our account.
We are also exploring some of the early gifts to the college. We hope you will enjoy reading about the extreme rivalry between two Leicester piano and music dealers, the one founding the Leicester Philharmonic Choir and the other – in competition – setting up the Leicester Symphony Orchestra and snapping up the services of Dr Malcolm Sargent. The music shop owners each donated a fine grand piano to the new University College, aiming of course to outdo the other one’s gift in quality and elegance, and to enhance their reputation.
Coming soon to this section we wil ltell the story of the three spectacular ceremonial chairs created especially for our Council Chamber. The Cholerton Chairs made by Peter Waals, chief cabinet maker to Leicester furniture designer Ernest Gimson, were given in 1923 by Mr and Mrs A.F. Cholerton (whose granddaughter later married the son of Percy Gee). The President’s Chair is of ebony, inlaid with ivory and carved with the University’s motto Ut Vitam Habeant, a WW1 reference meaning ‘that they may have life’, and can be seen today in the Council Suite in the Fielding Johnson Building.
And then there are the ‘insider stories’ those little human anecdotes that have never reached the ‘official’ biographies, but which we share with you here:
Simpson Gee, benefactor and first Treasurer, sent his four sons to Oakham School. A strict Victorian father, in the holidays he made the boys walk the full 16 miles home to Leicester – although he did send a carriage for their school trunks!
As early as 1867, when H. S. Gee was only twenty-five years old, he served on a committee to select an architectural design for Leicester’s Clock Tower. After ten years of Town Council deliberation, 105 designs were considered and that of Joseph Goddard selected, complete with its four statues of Leicester worthies.
Dr Astley Clarke’s father was a senior physician at Leicester Infirmary and sometimes treated mental health patients. However he was shot by a patient he had committed to the County Asylum and died a little later – but in the 1980s the ill man’s descendants contacted some Clarke descendants, with tearful apologies.
During the preparation period before the University opened, Dr Clarke could sometimes be found with screwdriver in hand, putting up some Library shelves. No wonder – his Oakham School records show that he was Captain of Carpentry!
Brookfield, formerly Charles Frears School of Nursing but now the University’s new Business School, is the former home of Thomas Fielding Johnson, who purchased the WW1 hospital to create the new University. And – yes – there really was a brook on its land, and fields and a farm complete with horse-drawn farm machinery. We have evocative and nostalgic photos of these, and of the young family in Victorian times, in a family photo album we have been privileged to view.
Whilst on the topic of Thomas Fielding Johnson, did you know that his granddaughter, Rosalind, married Leonard Huxley, father by a first marriage of the writer and philospher Aldous Huxley and evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley? Leonard and Rosalind’s son, Sir Andrew Huxley, was a physiologist, biophysicist, mathematician, mechanical wizard, and Nobel Prize winner.
120 supporters of the new University College also gave regular subscriptions and practical aid to Leicester Charity Organisation Society (founded in 1876), a charity to help those in poverty, hardship and crisis, that continues its valuable work in Leicester today, under the name of Charity Link. In the 1920s the generosity of the same twenty or so families, made wealthy through nineteenth-century local industry, was spread bountifully to charities and education alike, and was often given anonymously and without fuss.
A beautiful stained glass window in the Stoneygate church of St James the Greater depicting the Nativity is in memory of Augusta (known as Gussie), the first wife of Percy GEE.
Edward Barlow, whose father ran a respected law firm in Leicester, was an early Law student at the University. Because of present-day local friendship contacts, we find that Edward was the grandfather of acclaimed Leicester-born author, Nina Stibbe, who received an Honorary Doctorate here at the University in 2018.
We hope all this has whet your appetite for more. You will be amazed by some of the stories you can now find on our website, with lots of new and fascinating accounts of the generosity and support of Leicester people in the 1920s – and a unique insight into their personal lives. And you will feel even more proud of the present-day University, once you know so much more about its early history.
For more stories of the early history of the University visit the Our History pages on the Library website.