Local History

05. The Great and the Good of Highfields (part two)

Here is the second and final instalment of the enthralling saga that you have all been waiting for, so let’s hear it for Josiah and his family of engineers, secularists and designers………

Josiah Gimson born 1818
Josiah Gimson born 1818

Josiah and Benjamin Gimson (the two brothers of William the timber merchant) started an engineering business in 1842 on Welford Road, Leicester, after serving their apprenticeship at Cort’s foundry. In the early years the principal product of the firm was braid machinery for the elastic web trade; Gimsons also advertised as brassfounders, millwrights and manufacturers of boot and shoe making machinery. In 1878 new works were opened off Humberstone Road, Leicester, adjacent to the Midland Railway. Designed by John Breedon Everard, the building is one of the earliest examples of the integration of iron foundry and engineering; it is the earliest engineering factory built in Leicester. In 1880 about 350 workers were employed making goods ranging from large engines and boilers to small metal components for local industry. In 1887 Gimsons were awarded the contract for the supply and erection of the four beam engines, complete with eight boilers and associated machinery, at the Abbey Park Sewage Works, Leicester, built in 1891. By 1904 the company was advertising engines, boilers shafting and gearing, machinery for use in the brewing trade, builders ironware, boot and shoe and elastic web machinery. Hoists and lifts were also made, a development which has now (1987) become the staple product of the firm. The company operated from the Vulcan Road premises until 1986 when modern facilities were built at Beaumont Leys, Leicester.

Josiah married twice, and produced five children from each marriage, making a total of ten children during a 27 year period (five boys and five girls). When the business became a limited company in 1896 three of Josiah’s children (Josiah Mentor, Arthur James and Sydney Ansell) became directors, as did his nephew Josiah, the son of his now deceased brother Benjamin.

Highfields obviously held a strange attraction for the Gimson family – we have already discovered that two younger Gimsons from the timber merchants lived in Mecklenburg and College Streets, as did their aunt’s mother-in-law.

Now we find that four of the directors from the engineering side of the family also lived in the area. Josiah Mentor lived at 35 Highfield Street, later moving to 61 Sparkenhoe Street in 1889. Arthur James was to be found at 15 Hobart Street in 1883 before he upped sticks and moved across to 54 Highfield Street. The third brother, Sydney Ansell, resided at 19 Upper Tichborne Street but then moved to an eleven-roomed house at 20 Glebe Street in 1909. This is now the oldest surviving building in South Highfields, having being built c.1820. Cousin Josiah, the fourth director, was residing at 14 Highfield Street.

Incidentally, what is now the Belmont Hotel on New Walk was, in 1881, the home of Josiah senior, his wife and five of their children; Sarah, Sydney, Ernest, Percy and Margaret.

The Secular Hall in Humberstone Gate was built at the behest of Josiah Gimson (the largest shareholder) and was opened in 1881, his son Sydney Ansell being President of the Secular Society from 1888 until 1939. Many of the speakers at the Secular Hall stayed with Sydney and his wife at Upper Tichborne Street and then, after they moved, at their house in Glebe Street. Amongst these illustrious speakers were, to name but a few, George Bernard Shaw, William Morris and the Russian exile Prince Kropotkin (who was both a Russian aristocrat and an anarcho-communist). Mary Kingsley, the writer and explorer, was also a visitor after her return from West Africa in 1898.

Such is the fame of Highfields!

Ernest William Gimson, the renowned arts and crafts designer and architect, never lived in Highfields himself but often stayed with his brother Sydney. He did not work for his father’s business but became an articled apprentice to the Leicester architect Isaac Barradale, leaving to work in London after an argument. Amongst other buildings Ernest designed Stonywell Cottage at Ulverscroft for Sydney and the adjacent Lea Cottage for his half-brother Mentor. These were built by Detmar Blow (Detmar’s grandson, also named Detmar Blow, was married to the fashion stylist Isabella Blow). Ernest also designed Rockyfield (in the immediate vicinity of Stoneywell) for his sister Margaret.

Josiah Gimson (born 1818) married (firstly) Elizabeth Orton Farmer in 1843, their children being:

Sarah Ann Gimson 1844-1914

Mary Orton Gimson 1846-1866

Caroline Gimson 1849-1872

Josiah Mentor Gimson 1852-1925 father of Josiah Russell Gimson

Arthur James Gimson 1853-1911

Josiah then married (secondly) Sarah Ansell in 1858, their children being:

Sydney Ansell Gimson 1860-1938

Mabel Gimson 1863-1863

Ernest William Gimson 1864-1919

Percy Gimson 1869-1935

Margaret Gimson 1871-1967

A chair designed by Ernest Gimson and exhibited at the 1890 Arts & Crafts Exhibition in London can be seen at the Secular Hall in Humberstone Gate.

05. The Great and the Good of Highfields (part one)

This is a tale of engineers, timber merchants, secularists, the arts and crafts movement and the oldest surviving building in South Highfields. There are also drapers and department store owners involved in this local story.

Where shall we begin? At the beginning, naturally………….

Once upon a time in the not so distant past there were three brothers living in Leicester – William, Benjamin and Josiah – all were born between August 1815 and November 1818 and were the children of Josiah Gimson (a builder) and Mary Bark who at that time were living in Welford Road.

William became a timber merchant in 1834. By the beginning of the twentieth century the booming hosiery industry’s demand for wooden shapes was keeping Gimson’s busy. The business also made cigar boxes at the time when Leicester was home to 13 cigar companies and produced ammunition boxes and wheel components during the First World War. His son, also named William (born in 1845) bought Swithland Woods to provide a ready supply of timber for the company. This William (chairman of the company in 1929) had a son named Henry Hay Gimson who, during the period of the First World War, was living at 11 College Street.

Gimson timber merchantsAnother of William’s (the founder) children was Joseph Yeomans Gimson (born in 1847) whose own son, also named Joseph Yeomans Gimson (just to confuse us all) lived at 10 Mecklenburg Street (now Severn Street) at the same time as his cousin, Henry Hay Gimson was living in College Street. Both of these grandchildren of William the timber merchant later became directors of the company. Joseph enlisted in November 1915 and served in the 16th Bn Tank Corps during the First World War.

One of his daughters, Annie Maria Starkey Gimson (born 1858) married Samuel Squire, the eldest son of William Squire draper and founder of Morgan Squire & Co, of Hotel Street, Leicester. Between 1889 and 1909 they were living in Salisbury Road, off New Walk. Jane Squire, the widow of William Squire and mother of Samuel, was living at 24 Mecklenburg Street when she passed away in 1908. One of Samuel Squire’s sons was Alfred Morgan Squire whose own son, Peter Squire, served as an intelligence officer in the British Military Mission to the Soviet Union during the Second World War.

As an aside, both Samuel Squire and William Gimson (the son) were members of the management committee of the Leicestershire Trade Protection Society in 1914. You might also have guessed, quite correctly, that members of both families were well represented on the various committees of Leicester Borough Council (we hadn’t yet achieved city status).

If you are following the story so far, you will have realised that the occupant of 24 Mecklenburg Street in 1908 was the widow of the founder of Morgan Squire & Company and the mother-in-law of the aunt (Annie Maria Starkey Gimson) of both Joseph Yeomans Gimson and Henry Hay Gimson who were living at 10 Mecklenburg Street and 11 College Street respectively in 1914.

Keep a look out for part two of this enthralling story which will follow shortly………..


04. The Musical Man of Medicine

If you ever go across the sea to Ireland,
Then maybe at the closin’ of your day
You will sit and watch the moon rise over Claddagh
And see the sun go down on Galway Bay’

You will be surprised to learn that this famous song was composed in a residential street in Leicester in 1947 by a local prison doctor.

Colahan, Arthur blue plaque in Prebend Street

On the wall of a Leicester house a blue plaque has been erected to the memory of the composer of the song ‘Galway Bay’.

The three-storey Victorian house, at 9 Prebend Street, was the home and surgery of Arthur Nicholas Whistler Colahan who was both prison doctor working within the high walls and steel bars of Leicester’s Welford Road jail and a specialist in neurology.

He was born in Enniskillen, Ireland in 1885 and graduated from University College, Galway in 1913. Arthur Colahan moved to Leicester after having served in the Royal Army Medical Corps in India during the First World War, and lived here until his death in 1952.

He lies buried in an unmarked grave in the Ireland of his birth – it is only here in Leicester that he is remembered.

Colahan, Arthur in Prebend Street, Leicester

Dr. Colahan outside his home and surgery in Prebend Street, Leicester.

03. The Consanguinitarium

This building, to be found in Highfields, may surprise you. Who or what is a consanguinitarium?

1473 Leicester_v3

The Leicester Consanguinitarium was a charitable foundation established by the architect John Johnson who came from a Leicester family (his father was a carpenter), and who died in 1814 at the grand old age of 82 years. It was originally built in Southgates Street in 1792 and was occupied by his less fortunate relatives (hence the magnificent name, reflecting “consanguinity”).

The trustees (also his relatives) were to impose draconian regulations about the morals, behaviour and daily lives of those who lived there. John Johnson is probably better known to the good citizens of Leicester as being the architect of the City Rooms (opened as the Leicester Assembly Rooms in 1800) in Hotel Street.

In 1878 a replacement Consanguinitarium, designed by his great-great-nephew Robert Johnson Goodacre (1826-1904) was built in Earl Howe Street. The building occupied numbers 11 to 19 Earl Howe Street and in 1883 was occupied by a Mrs Frearson, Miss O’Leary, Miss Caitlin, Mrs Gibson and Mr Turner, all of whom were related to the Johnson family. Six years later Lavinia Freason had been replaced (she became deceased in 1887) by the Misses Goodacre, but the other inmates were still living there.

1477 Leicester_v3

By 1970 there was only one relative of Johnson living in the Consanguinitarium and that was Mitzi Arnold, a variety stage artiste from London, who had lived there for twenty years. In order to keep the properties tenanted it was agreed to allow tenants other than blood relatives of the founder to occupy the cottages.

Mitzi & Dickie Arnold 1938

Mitzi and Dickie Arnold in 1938

The building still exists, so take a walk along Earl Howe Street and see it for yourself.

Not all of Johnson’s relatives were poor, he had three sons, an architect, a clergyman and a physician. In 1868 John Johnson’s great-grandson Charles succeeded his maternal uncle James Brooke as Rajah of Sarawak and took the surname of Brooke – thus in five generations the descendant of a Leicester carpenter became sovereign ruler of a Far Eastern state. Unfortunately Charles Johnson Brooke cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be said to have born in Highfields!

There is a memorial to John Johnson and his parents in Leicester Cathedral.

M.I. Johnson family Leicester Cathedral 097

02. Our very own Poor Law Guardian and Suffragette

Living at 20 Mecklenburg (now Severn) Street in 1914 were Fanny Fullagar and her sister Kate, daughters of an eye surgeon who also served as medical officer for Leicester No. 5 district for a period of 33 years. Prior to this date the sisters were living in St Peter’s Road.

Fullagar, Fanny

Fanny was born in 1847 and probably as a result of her family background, she became a dogged campaigner on behalf of the training of midwives and worked hard for the creation of the Bond Street Maternity Hospital.

A member of the Womens Liberal Federation, she topped the poll in the local Newton Ward in the 1889 elections and became Leicester’s first female Poor Law Guardian, a position she held for 15 years, before being defeated in 1904 by just one vote.

Fanny became a member of the local branch (formed in 1907) of the Women’s Social and Political Union which was the leading militant suffragette organisation in the United Kingdom. Amongst other acts of violence, pillar boxes in Eastgates, Humberstone Road, Rutland Street and Newark Street were attacked, together with Leicester Golf Course on Stoughton Drive, where ‘No Votes, No Golf’ was carved into the turf. Telephone lines in this affluent part of the city were cut too. The railway station at Blaby was burnt to the ground by three militant ladies in July 1914 (Fanny was not one them!), causing over £500 worth of damage. Soon after the outbreak of war in 1914 the WSPU abandoned its militant campaigns in order to support the British Government.

Fanny Fullagar never married, although she was reputedly engaged to a local vicar for seven years. She died 13th January 1918, being buried in Welford Road Cemetery, in the same year that women over 30 attained the right to vote in the general election that followed the end of the Great War.

Outside the former registry office in Pocklingtons Walk (which had previously been the office of the Poor Law Guardians) is a Blue Plaque commemorating this remarkable woman. Most unusually, this is an example of a woman elected to public office almost thirty years before the first women became entitled to be elected in parliamentary elections.Fanny Fullagar blue plaque

01. The story of Prebend Gardens

Prebend Gardens was opened in 1987 by the Lord Mayor of Leicester, Gordhan Devraj Parmar, on land which was previously occupied by a motor vehicle repair workshop and garage which traded under the name of Service Garage. There were also a number of lock-up garages on the site.

Service Garage, the proprietor of which was also Worshipful Master of the Leicester Freemasons (Granite Lodge) in 1976/7, operated in Prebend Street from 1970 until 1978, at which time it moved to premises in Anstey. For many years prior to 1970 the garage operated from premises in Fox Street, adjacent to the former stables used by the railway, before that area was redeveloped.

The postal address of the garage was 4b Prebend Street, and it occupied the majority of the area which later became Prebend Gardens. At one time petrol was sold there, the pumps being situated where the railings are now between the gates fronting Prebend Street. The underground petrol tank was filled-in before the garage vacated the area in 1978. There was a workshop at the rear of the garage with a Nissan hut to one side and a ramp to hoist vehicles. The area containing the lock-up garages was a favourite spot for prostitutes to entertain their clients at night (plus ça change…..!)

Opening of Prebend gardens 13710636_1212139475497709_3218932761258968245_o

This photo shows the opening of Prebend Gardens by Lord Mayor Gordhan Devraj Parmar in 1987. Local residents pose with the Lord Mayor around the newly installed sun dial wearing some particularly fetching outfits that were very fashionable at the time (and are probably making a comeback this year)!

The council minutes of the Planning Committee held in November 1983 included a report by the Chief Executive that at a meeting of the City Council held during the previous week, Councillor Sharman had presented a petition with 262 signatures requesting the creation of the Prebend Neighbourhood Park in Prebend Street. The petition had been referred to the Housing and Planning Committees for consideration.

The following month the Planning Committee reported that the site in question was at present occupied by car repair businesses and was allocated for open space and off-street parking/lock-up garaging in the East Leicester Local Plan which had recently been placed on deposit. The council had made a Compulsory Purchase Order on the site in October 1983 but it was anticipated that the owners of the properties would lodge an objection to the Order, in which case a Public Local Inquiry would be held.

The Officers recommended that the petitioners be informed that the City Council were actively supporting the creation of an area of public open space on land at Prebend Street and/or Glebe Street, but (in the interests of retaining employment) were mindful of the need to first find an alternative location for the car repair businesses currently occupying part of the site.

In March of the following year it was resolved that a further report be submitted about the feasibility of closing Prebend Street to through traffic, following a decision by the Housing Committee about the future use of the Prebend Street garage site.

Decisions on the matter eventually being taken by the various council committees, Prebend Gardens were designed and opened in 1987 in conjunction with the City Wildlife Project. In 2005 the gardens underwent a regeneration project in partnership with Leicester Council Parks Services and a local group, the Friends of Prebend Gardens.

The South Highfields Conservation Area assessment of February 2015 reported that

Prebend Gardens had fallen victim to abuse from vandals and other anti-social users and was being considered for redesign to open-up views and to remove awkward corners. As of April 2018 this redesign is still under discussion (these decisions take time, as we all know!)