Leicester in 1839
Leicester is on the right bank of the Soar. It was known to the Romans by the name Ratae, and was then a place of importance. Its name Leicester (supposed to have been Caer Leirion in the time of the Britons, and altered by the Saxons to Lege-Cestria and Legeocester) is derived from the river Leire, now Soar. Geoffrey of Monmouth ascribes its name and foundation to the fabulous Leir, the son of Bladud, the Lear of Shakespeare. It was a place of importance under the Saxons, but its history is uncertain. It appears to have been the seat of a bishops see transferred hither from Sidnaceaster. It was taken and many of the inhabitants massacred by Ethelfrith, king of Northumberland. It was also taken by the Danes, and was one of the five Danish burghs, or commonwealths, which filled up with their dependent territories that part of the Danelagh, or Danish portion of the island, which intervened between Northumbria and East Anglia. Being recovered, it was repaired and fortified anew and enlarged by Ethelfleda, daughter of Alfred the Great in the time of Edward I (the elder). After the Conquest, it was added to the royal demesne, and a castle was erected, or rather an older fortress was enlarged and strengthened, to keep the townsmen in check. On the Conquerors death this castle was seized by the Grentemaisnells, and held by them for Duke Robert of Normandie ; it was therefore attacked and reduced to a heap of ruins by William Rufus. In the following reign the castle was repaired ; and in the civil wars of Henry II, was, as well as the town, taken by the kings forces from the adherents of his rebellious sons. Both town and castle were nearly destroyed. The castle, having been granted to the earls of Lancaster, rose from its ruins ; and during the reigns of the Lancasterian princes was frequently a royal residence, and parliaments were held in it. On the overthrow of that dynasty it went to decay. In Charles Is time the materials were sold, and there are now few remains of it, except the mound or earthwork of the keep, in the neighbourhood of which are some old buildings called the Newark, or new works, probably to distinguish them from the castle or old works.
Leicester had a mint, in which were produced a succession of coins from the time of the Saxon Athelstan to Henry II. There were several religious houses or hospitals, among which the most important was the abbey of St. Mary Pre or De Pratis, founded for Black or Augustinian canons, by Robert Bossu, earl of Leicester, A.D. 1143. Its revenue at the dissolution was £1,062, 0 shillings and 4 pence gross, or £951, 14 shillings and 5 pence clear. Of this great and wealthy establishment, to which, from its being the scene of Cardinal Wolseys death, considerable interest attaches, little more than a mass of shapeless ruins remains. During the civil wars of Charles I, Leicester, which was occupied by the Parliamentarians, was taken by storm by the king, May 31, 1645, but was recovered on the 15th June, in the same year, by the Parliamentarians under Fairfax.
The borough of Leicester and its liberties comprehend an area of 3,960 acres, with a population, in 1831, of 38,904. The liberties, in which the borough and county magistrates previously exercised conjoint jurisdiction, have been by the Boundary and Municipal Reform Acts incorporated with the borough both for parliamentary and municipal purposes. The borough, thus enlarged, has been divided into seven wards, and has a corporation of fourteen aldermen and forty-two councillors.
The town is irregularly laid out ; the principal line of street extends from north to south nearly a mile in length. The houses are for the most part of red brick. There are several churches, of which the most ancient is St. Nicholas, which is partly built of the bricks from an adjacent Roman wall, of which a fragment, called the Jewry wall, remains ; and from the resemblance of some arches of the church to those of the wall, it has been supposed that some portions of the same edifice to which the Jewry wall belonged, or of an edifice of about the same date, have been built into the church. The church, which consists of a nave, chancel, and south aisle, has a square western tower between the nave and chancel, and is chiefly of Norman architecture. St. Marys church is a large building, partly of Norman, partly of Early English architecture, with some inserted portions of later date : it has a western tower surmounted with a lofty and elegant spire rebuilt in the last century. The various styles in which this church is built are admirably executed ; some of the arrangements are very singular. There are, close to the church, a gateway in the Perpendicular style, leading into an area called the castle yard ; and a large room, formerly serving as a court-hall and banqueting-room to the earls of Leicester and the dukes of Lancaster, and now used for the assizes and county business. The church of St. Martin is an ancient cross church, partly of Early English and partly of Perpendicular architecture : a tower, the lower part of which is Norman, rises from the centre, surmounted by a crocketted spire, which, as well as the upper part of the tower, is of later date. This church is the largest in Leicester ; it was converted into a barrack by the Parliamentarian soldiers during the civil war, and has since been frequently occupied by public meetings. All Saints is a small church ; the chancel is of modern erection, but the rest is ancient, and chiefly in the Early English style, with some later insertions. St. Margarets is a handsome church, partly Early English, with a chancel and a lofty tower of Perpendicular character. There are some portions of good work in the Decorated style. There is a district church in St. Margarets parish, dedicated to St. George, lately erected in the Perpendicular style.
There are four bridges over the Soar.
The guildhall is a commodious building ; the borough gaol and house of correction are new buildings, erected on or near the site of the former county gaol, but are insufficient for the proper classification of the prisoners. A new county gaol and house of correction have been built on the south side of the town. Wigstons hospital or almshouse is an ancient building, with some good Perpendicular work both in stone and wood. There are a theatre, and a range of assembly rooms, which were originally built for an hotel, and have their ceiling and walls richly painted. The New Walk is a promenade on the south-east side of the town, planted with trees and commanding some pleasant prospects.
The staple manufacture of the town is stockings, which probably employs 3,000 persons. Lace-making is carried on to some extent, and probable employs 500 persons. Wool-combing employs nearly 150 ; dyeing above 200 ; and several hands are employed in the manufacture of the frames or other machinery required by the stocking-weavers. The market is on Saturday, and is well supplied. In the marketplace, which is too small for the business done, is a building called the Exchange, where the town magistrates hold a weekly meeting and transact business.
There are race held yearly ; and of late years a triennial musical festival has been established.
There are in Leicester six parishes, besides some extra-parochial districts : but the parish of St. Leonards is united for ecclesiastical purposes with St. Margarets. The vicarage is held by a sequestrator, and is of the clear yearly value of £40. The other parishes are vicarages, the clear yearly values of which are as follows:- All Saints, £148 : St. Margaret, £440; St. Martin, £140 ; St. Mary, £221; and St. Nicholas, £85. The perpetual curacy of the district church of St. George is of the clear yearly value of £100. Only All Saints and St. Margaret have glebe-houses. The churches have been noticed already. There are several dissenting meeting-houses, and one chapel for Catholics.
There were in the borough and liberties, in 1833, three infant schools with 477 children, six dame schools with 156 children, two Lancasterian schools with 570 children, a national school with 245 children, two parochial or other free schools with 220 children, an endowed grammar-school with 18 or 20 children, two day and Sunday schools with 382 children, nine day-schools with 318 children, a boarding and day school with 30 to 40 children, and twenty-four Sunday-schools with 3,577 children. Besides these institutions there was the Female Asylum, in Newark liberty, where from 10 to 16 girls between the ages of thirteen and sixteen were received for three years, clothed, maintained, and instructed. Two proprietary grammar-schools, or colleges, have been since established. There are several hospitals or almshouses, especially Trinity hospital containing ninety inmates, and Wigstons hospital for twenty-six. There are also an infirmary or county hospital, and a lunatic asylum.
The assizes and quarter-sessions for the county are held here; it is also the place of election and one of the polling-stations for the southern division of the county. Leicester has returned two members to parliament since the time of Edward I. The magistrates of the borough hold quarter-sessions, and have a court of record for the recovery of debts.