A History of the County of Leicester: Volume 4, the City of Leicester. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1958.
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The liberty of the Newarke was a small rectangular district lying on the east bank of the Soar, to the south of the old walled area of the borough and at the edge of the gravel terrace on which Leicester is built. The western part of the Newarke is sited on the alluvium of the river's immediate valley; the central and eastern portions on the gravel. Two ancient entrances to the area survive: the turret gateway, from the castle, (fn. 1) and the 14th-century Magazine Gate, standing at the eastern limit of the liberty. The Magazine Gate, originally the entrance to the walled precinct of the Newarke College, is a stone building of two stories, without trace of a portcullis or other fortifications. A wide moulded arch forms the road entrance into the Newarke and there were domestic rooms above. The high parapet has been restored in modern times, and the gate is joined up at the back with the part-facsimile structure of the Drill Hall and the other buildings forming the headquarters of the Territorial units of the Royal Leicestershire Regiment.
The site of the hospital and college of the Newarke lay within an area formed by an enclosure wall, which ran eastwards from the river along the line of Mill Lane and Bonners Lane, behind Oxford Street to the Magazine Gate and behind the present Newarke Houses and the Chantry House to the river. (fn. 2) The hospital still survives in the form of the Trinity Hospital, but no trace of the college remains, beyond a few arches still preserved in the basement of the College of Art and Technology which stands on the site. The church and collegiate buildings were destroyed shortly after the dissolution of the college in 1547. (fn. 3) The College of Art and Technology was built in 1897 by S. Perkins Pick, and considerably extended before the Second World War. (fn. 4)
Of the other historic buildings within the Newarke the Chantry House is perhaps the most notable. This is a three-storied building of Charnwood stone, begun in 1511–12 for the chantry priests who were supported by William Wigston to say services in the collegiate church. Various additions were made to it between the 16th and 19th centuries. (fn. 5) This was acquired by a private trust in 1912 at the same time as it obtained possession of Skeffington House next door, and subsequently both buildings were taken over by Leicester corporation. (fn. 6) The Chantry House was restored in 1953–6, for use as the medieval section of the museum of Leicester and Leicestershire social history at present in Skeffington House. The latter dates from c. 1590–1600. It is of three stories, with a fine stucco front, and an eastern side wing added in the last century. The house has a crenellated parapet and the windows are plain and modern. The side extension continues the crenellation and is composed of a series of chamfered bays. The two front doors have plain shallow cases with segmental arches and plain cornices. The central door is topped with a stone ball and there are similar balls on the gables. The fine central staircase was probably added during alterations in 1761 by William Wright. (fn. 7)
The so-called 'Rupert's Tower', which stood in Bonners Lane until its demolition about 1933, so far from being a fortification was a purely domestic building dating from the 14th century. (fn. 8) In the west of the area are some streets of red brick houses, built about 1860. The area of the liberty was 18 acres in 1891. (fn. 9)
In 1330 the district which was to become the liberty of the Newarke was possessed by Henry, Earl of Lancaster. At that date it does not seem to have existed as a distinct unit, and it is not possible to state definitely who may have owned the land in earlier periods; it may, however, be reasonably conjectured that the land had been owned by Henry's predecessors, the earls of Leicester and Lancaster, who had possessed the nearby castle since the 12th century. In 1330 Earl Henry founded a hospital at Leicester, and gave it a site immediately to the south of the castle, and just outside the borough walls. The earl's foundation was much enlarged by his son, Henry, Duke of Lancaster, who increased the size of the hospital and added to it a large and richly endowed chantry college. (fn. 10) The dean and canons of the college claimed exemption from the borough jurisdiction, and in 1360 the king confirmed that the college and its precincts were so exempt. (fn. 11) For the future the precincts formed a small liberty. The college was known as St. Mary's of the New Work, or Newarke, to distinguish it from the older college of St. Mary de Castro inside the borough.
The College of the Newarke was dissolved under Edward VI, (fn. 12) and in 1548 its site and buildings were granted to John Beaumont, of Grace Dieu, and William Gies. (fn. 13) In 1552 Beaumont was obliged to surrender all his lands to the Crown, which presumably then regained the Newarke. (fn. 14) In 1600 the Newarke (except presumably the ground occupied by the hospital buildings) was being leased from the queen by Henry Beaumont. (fn. 15) Subsequently the property became divided amongst various owners, though the Beaumont family long retained a footing there, and Sir Thomas Beaumont possessed a mansion in the Newarke in 1670. (fn. 16) By 1642 the Newarke gatehouse was in the possession of the county, which used it as a magazine for storing arms for the trained bands. (fn. 17) In 1813, 1859, and 1862 further purchases of land in the Newarke were made by the county, to provide buildings for the militia, and later for the volunteer and Territorial forces of Leicestershire. (fn. 18)
For ecclesiastical purposes the Newwarke was for long extra-parochial. So long as the college existed its clergy no doubt performed all the necessary religious functions for those dwelling in the precincts. In 1652 attempts were made to place the Newarke ecclesiastically within the parish of St. Mary de Castro, which enclosed the liberty on three sides, but the inhabitants repulsed these efforts, saying that they were not sure 'how farr wee may like or effect any particuler minister of any one church or parishe', and protesting that they were not in law liable to contribute to the maintenance of any minister. (fn. 19) The Newarke became part of St. Mary's parish for ecclesiastical purposes in 1871. (fn. 20)
While the liberty was still in the hands of the college the liberty was wholly occupied by the college precincts. Under Edward VI the dean and each of the twelve canons had a house, and the clergy who served the various chantries in the college church occupied three further houses. The college church was described by Leland as fair, though not large; a cloister adjoined it. The precincts also contained the hospital, a treasury, and a library. The whole area was surrounded by a wall, with the main entrance through the gatehouse which still exists. (fn. 21) The church and many of the other buildings fell into decay soon after the college's suppression. (fn. 22)
From the 17th century until well into the 19th, the Newarke was the residence of some of Leicester's wealthiest inhabitants. Possibly it was the existence of the substantial houses built for the dean and canons that first attracted the richer townsmen to the liberty, but the place also had the advantage of being extra-parochial, with in consequence few poor rates, and of being at once close to, and rather secluded from, the town itself. It was probably in the Newarke that the earliest dwelling houses to be built in Leicester entirely of brick were erected. (fn. 23) According to the Hearth Tax returns of 1670 there were then in the Newarke and the adjacent liberty of Castle View 16 houses (excluding Trinity Hospital), with a total of 89 hearths, an average of more than 5 hearths to each house. None of the inhabitants was excused payment of tax on account of poverty, and only two of them had only one hearth. (fn. 24) Celia Fiennes, visiting Leicester in 1698, remarked on the fine brick and stone houses in the Newarke, (fn. 25) and Nichols described the liberty as the handsomest part of Leicester. (fn. 26) Until well into the 19th century the Newarke continued to house some of the town's most prominent inhabitants, (fn. 27) but as Leicester expanded the liberty ceased to be on the edge of the town, and about 1860 its south-west portion was built up with streets of terrace houses. (fn. 28) The character of the Newarke was largely destroyed when in 1898 a new bridge was built across a branch of the Soar to link the Newarke with the west bank of the river. (fn. 29) The construction of this bridge turned the passage through the oldest and most attractive portion of the liberty into an important through road. The drastic demolitions necessary to create a highway of adequate width led to the destruction of many of the old houses (fn. 30) and the formation of a large open space, some of which has subsequently been utilized as a bus station.
The origin of the Newarke as a separate liberty has already been described. (fn. 31) After the dissolution of Newarke College the area remained outside the jurisdiction of the borough until 1599, when a royal charter placed it under the borough authorities. (fn. 32) This grant to the town was not without ambiguities, and in 1600 Henry Beaumont, the lessee of the Newarke, refused to allow the borough to collect a subsidy in the liberty. (fn. 33) The dispute continued for several years, but the borough was unable either to make good its claim that the charter of 1599 gave it control of the Newarke, or to obtain a new charter which would place its rights beyond dispute. (fn. 34) Further attempts made in the 18th century by the borough to acquire exclusive jurisdiction in the Newarke also failed. (fn. 35) The Newarke in consequence remained an independent liberty until the 19th century. The administration of the poor law in the district has been dealt with elsewhere. (fn. 36) Under the Municipal Corporations Reform Act of 1835 the Newarke was brought within the borough. (fn. 37) It survived for some years with a similar status to the old borough parishes as a unit for the collection of poor rates. (fn. 38)
The history of Trinity Hospital, which although situated in the Newarke was an institution which served a much wider region, has been discussed elsewhere. (fn. 39) The liberty has no other charities. In 1800 an asylum was set up in the Newarke, for the maintenance of poor girls and for training them in domestic service. It accommodated twelve girls at a time. (fn. 40) The asylum was demolished in 1927, when extensions to the College of Technology were made. (fn. 41)