Leicester in 1987 

Leicester in 1897
Leicester in 1897

It was a calendar year bursting at its seams. In a century that saw Leicester grow from diminutive country market town to Midlands industrial powerhouse, 1897 laid down the blue print for the successful and modern city we know today.

While all and sundry were celebrating Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee, Leicester was experiencing a year of unprecedented expansion. At the close of 1897, the town could count 76 new streets, 2,062 new houses, 198 new shops – among them Walter Sturgess’s bicycle shop in Shaftesbury Road – and 63 new factories.

It grew in stature much in the same way as Daniel Lambert’s straining waistline had grown a century earlier.

In respect of Leicester Corporation’s intensive building programme, The Leicester Chronicle and Leicestershire Mercury of Saturday, January 1, 1898, had this to say.

“It should convince the ratepayers that the town is making rapid and solid progress, and that the chairman and members of the various committees, as well as the officials, have not had very many idle moments during the year 1897.”

Among the new buildings blooming on the landscape at this time was The Grand Hotel in Granby Street, Leicester Synagogue in Highfield Street, and also the Bow String Bridge in Braunstone Gate, a work of artistic engineering for the Great Central Railway, which, at that time, was making “good progress” with its line through Leicester.

While the GCR promised the town quicker access to London and the North, Leicester Corporation, with its customary foresight, was recognising that a town being steered rapidly into the 20 th century couldn’t be all work and no play. And so, that year, it cut the ribbon on Fosse Road Recreation Ground and acquired 178 acres in the West End, setting in motion the planting of the well loved Western Park.

If business and recreation was on the mind of the aldermen, then sport was on the minds of most ordinary Leicestrians...so no change there then. In a town already established in cricket, football and rugby, there was a new ‘kid’ on the block.

Albert ‘The Kid’ Harris was England’s first professional cyclist - and he was a bookie’s son from Leicester. His fame and celebrity had given cycling widespread credibility and his popularity was so enormous that 1896 had been dubbed Harris Year.

It’s really no wonder Walter Sturgess thought 1897 was a ripe time to sell bicycles.

It was also a good time, it turns out, to be the proprietor of Kendalls, which had umbrella shops at 26 Granby Street and 16 The Haymarket.

Weather-wise 1897 had been a washout. The summer months of June and July had shone on and on, but when August arrived, it came with heavy downpours. The town, with its wonderfully engineered flood defences faired well. The county less so.

In contrast, while Leicestershire was getting soaked, 4,000 miles away in India they were in the grip of a fatal famine. Their plight had deeply moved the borough and fundraising began in earnest. In the end, £3,000 was raised; about £400,000 in today’s money.

As always, the locals also rallied around to support the hospital, and in 1897 did so in the name of Queen Victoria, as reported in the Chronicle and Mercury.

“Leicester right royally celebrated the Queen’s record reign, the permanent memorial of this is a handsome endowment fund for the Infirmary, raised chiefly through the characteristic energy of the ex-Mayor (Councillor Joseph Herbert Marshall) and enlarged by means of the bazaar presided over by Mrs E de Lisle.

“Goodly sums were also raised for the Police-Aided Association for the clothing of other destitute children and other deserving objects.”

And while some things were done differently in the late 19th century - purified petroleum was common medicine for stubborn coughs – much was done the same. Like good tea and coffee. If you were in Leicester in 1897 and you had a thirst, you went to J.S. Winn and Co’s The Oriental Cafe at 18 Market Place. While in the Market Place, and if you did indeed have a bad cough, you could pop into Sturgess and Cooper, the town’s premier chemist.

If that didn’t put a smile back on your face, you had a chance in 1897 to see the great entertainer Charlie Chaplin performing at the Temperance Hall. Or, you could have opted for the two biggest musical events of the year; Leicester Musical Society’s Israel in Egypt and the Leicester Philarmonic’s rendition of the opera King Arthur.

Leicester’s Victorians were very much into self improvement and they believed education was the elucidating key. In 1897, the Hawthorn Building within the Newarke opened to house the Leicester School of Art and the Leicester School of Technology. Also that year Leicester established The International School of Footwear and libraries at Belgrave, Woodgate and Evington.

Nationally, science was coming into its own. In 1897 J.J. Thomson discovered the electron and Guglielmo Marconi sent the first ‘open sea’ wireless communication 3.7 miles across the Bristol Channel.

Technology was also making its presence known in Leicester, with streets getting electricity for the first time. And while horse drawn trams were common transport, the town was only seven years from the electric tram.

On a local level it was make or break time for Leicester Fosse. At the Temperance Hall in Granby Street serious talks were taking place to stop Leicester Fosse, AKA Leicester City FC, from extinction.

After just three years in the football league, the club was on the verge of financial collapse. The billfor players’ wages had increased while gate receipts had dropped.

The AGM at the hall produced a rescue package and the club became a limited company. The committee was replaced by a board of directors, a president, and a new secretary-manager William Clark, who, it’s worth noting, would soon be suspended for contravening FA rules.

And while Fosse escaped a premature demise, the old adage ‘The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long’ became true for poor Bert Harris.

The Kid passed into history in spring 1897 when he came off his bike at almost 30mph, fatally striking his head upon a racetrack in Aston. He was 24.

The town, then 180,000 strong, was plunged into mourning.

“The streets through which the cortege passed...were simply thronged with vast crowds of people, who turned out to demonstrate their sympathy with one who represented all that was highest in the world of athletics, and who was typical of the best in English sport. Such a scene at a funeral has never been equalled in Leicester.”

And finally, in a year strewn from one length to the other with Union Jack bunting, there was a huge event in the town marking Victoria’s 60 years as sovereign. Tens of thousands came out to witness the ceremonial planting of an oak tree at Victoria Park.

The crowd was so large, noted a local reporter, that the procession from the Market Place - launched after a red cheeked rendition of God Save The Queen - had reached its destination when the back section had not yet begun to move.

“The ceremony proved an exceedingly interesting one, and was admirably performed by his Worship (Mayor Marshall),” said the scribe for the Chronicle and Mercury.

“The handsome silver spade presented to him by Councillor Flint, after a graceful speech, on behalf of the Parks Committee, was handled by the Mayor in workmanlike fashion, the vigorous manner in which he shovelled in the soil eliciting a running fire of humorous comment, the most telling of which, perhaps, was Councillor Wakerley’s anxious inquiry as to whether his Worship was working at ‘union rate’.”

The remarkable Arthur Wakerley, who became mayor in November 1897, was a social reformer and responsible for giving Leicester many fine buildings, schools and libraries.

At Victoria Park, once the mayor had secured the oak, he got to his feet and addressed the crowd.

“May it grow and flourish as a type and an emblem of the strength and prosperity of this great empire,” he smiled.

“As the huge crowds gradually dispersed – many to seek the further enjoyment afforded by the Abbey Park festivities – there was not wanting in the faces of most evidences that the scenes witnessed had left impressions to be remembered throughout the lifetime of almost the youngest of those taking part.”