2019 meetings and events

May 2019 - Leicestershire industrialists; their non- industrial legacy

We were very pleased to welcome Roger Bisgrove from Swannington Heritage Trust, who gave a talk entitled 'Leicestershire industrialists; their non- industrial legacy'. Members and visitors were amazed at the number of Leicestershire people who have influenced the landscape, buildings and institutions in Leicestershire and elsewhere. 

We learnt that William Wyggeston, a wool merchant of the Staple of Calais, was Mayor of Leicester in 1499 and 1510 and a great benefactor. He founded Wyggeston’s Hospital in 1513 and in1520 he bought the manor of Swannington which he gave to Wyggeston’s Hospital in 1521 to provide an income.  Coal mining at Swannington is  known  as far back as the 13th Century-  Swannington  is referred to as ‘where coal is got’ in documents relating to a legal dispute in which King John was involved  at that time.  In 1857, when coal mining was at its peak, Swannington provided 80% of Wyggeston’s Hospital’s income despite being only 5% of the land that the hospital owned.

Joseph Wilkes (1733 – 1805) was involved with collieries at Oakthorpe and Donisthorpe. As well coalmining and textile manufacture, he owned a brickyard in Measham and made both normal and double sized bricks, known as Jumb or Gob bricks, which can still be seen in buildings in Measham today. These were made to reduce the impact of the brick tax, which was levied on every 1,000 bricks used.   He was also interested in experimenting and improving agriculture and he inaugurated the Smithfield Club.

Sir George Howland Beaumont, 7th Baronet (1753 – 1827), rebuilt Coleorton Hall as his main residence. He was an amateur painter and exhibited paintings at the Royal Academy. He is associated with the Lakeland poets – he let out the farm on the estate to Wordsworth and his family in 1806.  Sir Walter Scott began his novel ‘Ivanhoe’ here and John Constable painted in the grounds of the house. Sir George wanted to establish a public gallery of old masters and offered a collection of his paintings to the Nation, as long as the government bought the art collection of John Julius Angerstein and provided a building to house the collections. In this way the National Gallery was founded. It opened to the public in May 1824 in Angerstein's former house on Pall Mall, and Beaumont's paintings entered its collection the following year.

Joseph Aloysius Hansom (1803 – 1882) is perhaps best known for the invention of the Hansom Cab. However, he was also an architect and designed buildings such as Birmingham Town Hall as well as Churches and cathedrals. His connection with Leicestershire is that he designed the New Walk Museum, formerly the New Walk Preparatory School (1836), as well as the Baptist chapel (1845) in Belvoir Street, later used as the town’s central library; and Lutterworth's Town Hall (1836).

John Ellis (1789 – 1862) of Beaumont Leys and Belgrave Hall in Leicester, was a Quaker, liberal reformer and noted businessman, involved in farming, coal mining and weaving enterprises.  He was chairman of the Midland Railway from 1849 to 1858 and a Member of Parliament for Leicester between 1848 and 1852. His son, Edward Shipley Ellis, was responsible for setting up New Walk Museum, the free library, the Art School and the Permanent and Temperance Building Society. 

Others mentioned included the industrialist Josiah Gimson of the Vulcan works, whose younger son, Ernest Gimson, became an architect and designed the cottage, ‘Stoneywell’, for his brother as a summer retreat. Ernest became involved with the Arts and Crafts movement, moving to the Cotswolds and designing and making a range of furniture, some of which can be seen in Leicester's New Walk Museum. 

Finally, mention was made of the generous donation of Bradgate Park to the people of Leicestershire by Charles Bennion. Born in Adderley, Shropshire, he moved to Leicestershire and eventually became  Managing Director of the British United Shoe Company from 1899 until his death in 1929. He became so fond of his adoptive home that he bought Bradgate Park and donated it in 1928, just a year before his death. 

It is clear that many of our present amenities exist as a result of the generosity of the industrialists of the past. This talk helped us to see the range of interests of these men as well as their legacy. We look forward to inviting Roger back to talk to us again!

March 2019 - Buried between road and river: new insights into the people of Roman Leicester

We were once again delighted to welcome Mathew Morris of the University of Leicester Archaeological Services who gave  another very interesting talk entitled ‘ Buried between road and river: new insights into the people of Roman Leicester’. 

New information - Mathew explained how excavations within the Roman town had revealed new information about life in Roman Leicester.  In terms of buildings, the remains of a possible Roman theatre have been identified, and a courtyard house.  Amongst the finds were two scratched curse tablets giving details of the sort of crimes that were committed and how ordinary people tried to deal with them! The Servandus curse tablet explains that the writer has had his cloak stolen and names all the people he thinks might have taken it! These are probably all slaves from one household and the list of names indicates different nationalities - Latin, British, Germanic and Greek.  These tablets are very important as written records don’t usually survive, since they are on wax tablets or wood. 

More evidence comes from the inhabitants’ physical remains – that is, their skeletons. Excavations of Leicester’s Roman cemeteries, which by law had to lie outside the boundary of the Roman city, has revealed some fascinating information about the citizens who lived in and around Leicester from the First to the Fourth century AD. A great deal of this information has been added over the last ten years.

Cemeteries - The cemetery to the East of Leicester lies in Clarence Street and was excavated in the 1990s. The Southern cemetery lies on Newarke Street, near the Magazine Gateway. Burials were found here in neat rows with the head and feet aligned West to East indicating that these are Fourth Century Christian burials.  In AD 380 Christianity became the State religion of the Roman Empire.   

The Western cemetery lies on the site of the old Equity shoe factory. When the Victorians were building there they found Roman and Saxon remains and so named the streets Roman Street, Saxon Street etc.  This area had been countryside up until the late nineteenth century and there had only been one factory on the site. Roman remains were located in one part just below the surface.  Burials were found in clay, soil and rock cut holes. Because of the wet conditions, preservation of the skeletons was not as good as the other cemeteries.  However, burials span the entire Roman period. The burials had a range of alignments and spacings, and nearly 15% were buried prone (face down). This has not been found in Leicester previously but does happen elsewhere in Roman Britain.   

Half those in this cemetery were buried in wooden coffins of different shapes and sizes, custom made for each individual, whilst others were buried in shrouds. Evidence of clothing from the graves includes hobnails from shoes, brooches and even a buckle. About one third of the burials contained grave goods buried with the body such as ceramic vessels and jewellery, flasks, glass beads, hair pins and so on. Some grave goods were placed outside the coffin.  

Lifestyle and health - Mathew explained that the skeletal remains give some indication of the lifestyle and health of the population. Stable isotope analysis of the bones suggests a diet low in protein with not a lot of seafood, although the presence of fish and shells shows that these were eaten. Evidence for diseases such as rickets and scurvy was seen, but in adults who had these conditions in childhood showing they survived these.  Some skeletons showed evidence of sinusitis, caused by living in a smoky atmosphere, as well as TB and other lung diseases. 

Sometimes it is possible for archaeologists to use information from the skeleton and the grave goods to suggest the person’s occupation in life. One skeleton, of a man aged between 36 to 45 years, shows fractures and muscle injuries. In addition, his grave goods comprised of a belt set in the Germanic Roman art style. This may well be a Roman soldier who had broken his shield arm and sustained muscle injuries through over rotating his sword arm.  

Importance of Roman Leicester - All this information suggests that Roman Leicester was more important in the Province of Britain than was at first thought. The town lay in an important strategic position with roads leading to other parts of the province going straight through the town. No town in Roman Britain has as many legionary seals, which are usually found in forts and other military sites. Two objects from the courtyard house – a Roman/ Egyptian box fragment and lead seal - indicate trade or travel from long distances to Leicester. The seal is inscribed ‘ Legio III Cyrenaica ‘ which only served in Africa and the Middle East.

Lots of questions and discussion followed before and during tea, and we look forward to another stimulating talk from Mathew in the future.