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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Leicester has been a flourishing centre of nonconformity since the 17th century, although the origins of dissent in the borough are hard to trace. Public opinion in the town during the Civil War was very largely parliamentarian and puritan, (fn. 1) and it is clear that when George Fox paid his first visit to Leicester in 1648 he found a very considerable body of supporters. (fn. 2) On that occasion he took part in a theological discussion with the Vicar of St. Martin's and made a number of conversions. In 1631 the corporation had complained that 'papists, nonconformists, and sectaries' were being sheltered in the Newarke liberty. (fn. 3) Three years later a James Bottomley was accused, in Laud's metropolitical visitation, of preaching dissenting views in All Saints' parish. (fn. 4) The year following Fox's visit saw the convictions of Samuel Otes and Ralph London for the public avowal of their opinions against infant baptism. (fn. 5) In 1659 Humphrey Woolrich of Newcastle produced a tract, A further testimony to truth; or some earnest groans for a righteous settlement by some baptized congregations in Leicester. (fn. 6) It is not possible to tell how meetings were organized, if at all, at this date, and no information is available on this point until 1669, when there were three meeting houses in the borough, all in St. Margaret's parish. (fn. 7) About 40 'inferior' persons were stated to belong to two Anabaptist meetings and about the same number to a Quaker meeting. The same teachers and preachers were apparently working for both sects. (fn. 8) William Judge, William Wells the younger, John Mugg, William Christian and a man from Kilby called Farmer were licensed to preach as Baptists, and Mugg, Christian, and Farmer were licensed as Quakers. In 1672 the house of Richard Coleman was licensed as a Baptist meeting place. Coleman had been a member of the Common Hall before the Restoration, and does not appear in the hall lists after 1660, although he was steward of the fair in 1661–2. (fn. 9) In 1671 and 1682 the borough authorities descended upon two conventicles of dissenters and there was considerable discussion by the magistrates whether a supposed conventicle could be condemned when, as on the first occasion, the constable had heard no praying or preaching, but had broken in on suspicion alone. (fn. 10) The visit of John Bunyan to Leicester in 1672 furnishes further information about the Leicester nonconformists. He had a licence to preach in the town as a Congregationalist, presumably to his Baptist friends, although the titles for sects are so loosely used at this date that they can have little real meaning. Tradition has it that he preached at a house or chapel on the site of the present Friar Lane meeting, (fn. 11) although there is no evidence that the Baptists had a place of worship in St. Martin's parish at this date.
The General Baptist chapel in Friar Lane claims to date from 1651, (fn. 12) although a recent history of the chapel points out that the greatest likelihood is that the congregation of Baptists, which undoubtedly existed in the town at this date, met in a different place each Sunday. (fn. 13) That there was no meeting place in St. Martin's parish as late as 1669 is indicated by the episcopal returns of that year. The names of the early leaders of the sect were Conyers Congrave and Thomas Rogers. About 1656 two Baptist missionaries were sent to Leicester from the conventicle at Fenstanton. In 1676 there were twelve dissenters in St. Martin's parish, but their denomination is not mentioned, (fn. 14) and it is not until 1709 that there is a specific reference to Baptists in the parish. (fn. 15) In that year it was reported that Thomas Davye and a man named Stanton (fn. 16) were preaching on Sundays in a house which was probably the Friar Lane meeting. The chapel itself is not mentioned until 1719 when its trust deeds were drawn up, very shortly after a permanent chapel had been built. (fn. 17) A piece of ground which lay between the chapel and two nearby cottages was to be used as a burial ground. This early chapel was behind the main frontage of Friar Lane, down a passage, so that it was completely hidden from the street. The meeting remained small and obscure until about 1780, although there were as many as 43 members in 1750. In 1783, with the appointment of John Deacon as minister, the meeting suddenly revived, and its subsequent history is that of a lively and vigorous chapel. Deacon was a member of the Baptist New Connexion at Barton in the Beans, and under his leadership membership increased so strikingly that a new and enlarged chapel had to be built. In 1805 the houses which hid the building from the street were pulled down, and the chapel itself was again enlarged in 1818, to provide a total accommodation for 1,000 persons. Three years later John Deacon's long ministry of nearly 40 years ended with his death. His epitaph, by Robert Hall, is on the north wall of the chapel. He was succeeded by no less eminent and successful a minister. Under Samuel Wigg, the work of conversion went on steadily in Leicester itself and in neighbouring villages, and the first marriage was celebrated in the chapel in 1837. Further restoration and extension was undertaken in 1841, and the chapel site was further opened up with the purchase and demolition in 1856 of the 'Queen's Head', an adjoining public house. Samuel Wigg died in 1861. Under his successor, James Pike, the chapel was completely rebuilt in brick, to the design of Thomas Carter, in 1865. The Sunday school had been opened in 1796.
At the end of the last century a large body of the congregation, with eight out of the ten deacons, seceded to form a separate church at the Memorial Hall in New Walk, because of the unpopularity of the then minister. After a break of six years, the two branches were reunited in 1891, soon after the sudden resignation of the minister in question. The ministry of James Bishop, between 1912 and 1922, ensured the continued vigour of the Friar Lane chapel, at a time when it was'threatened with the loss of many members, as more and more people went to live away from the centre of the town.
Two permanent secessions from Friar Lane led to the formation in 1794 of the meeting in Archdeacon Lane, (fn. 18) and in 1823 of that in Dover Street. (fn. 19) These splits were both occasioned by disagreements with the minister over some point of organization, and there was little or no friction between the chapels once they had separated. Archdeacon Lane chapel was built in 1836 and closed shortly after 1936. (fn. 20) The Dover Street chapel was purchased in 1922 by the Independent Order of Rechabites, having been closed by the Baptists in 1919. (fn. 21) In 1955 it was being used as a theatre. Carley Street chapel was built in 1823 or 1824, and closed in 1864, but was reopened in 1876 by the combined efforts of the three other chapels. It was enlarged in 1882. (fn. 22)
The chapel in Harvey Lane, belonging to the Particular Baptists, is especially associated with the names of William Carey (1761–1834), the founder of the Baptist Missionary Society and its first missionary, and of Robert Hall (1764–1831), the noted preacher. The date of the foundation of Harvey Lane chapel is unknown, but it was probably in existence from about 1750, when a sect of Particular Baptists retired from the Friar Lane chapel. (fn. 23) After the erection of the chapel in Belvoir Street, this chapel, never a very large one, was used as a school and a mission chapel, and in 1863 it was rented from the Baptists by a congregation of Independents. It was reopened by the Baptists in the following year. The chapel was destroyed by fire in 1921, having again recently been made into a mission chapel, this time for the Victoria Baptist church. The work there was abandoned in 1932. The chapel had been rebuilt as a Memorial Hall in 1924, (fn. 24) but was sold and in 1955 was being used as offices. William Carey's cottage stands opposite the former chapel. (fn. 25)
Both General and Particular Baptists founded many other chapels in Leicester and from the 17th to the 19th centuries they formed the largest body of dissenters in the borough. In St. Leonard's parish, the chapel in Abbey Gate was opened as a mission in 1882. (fn. 26) There were once four chapels in All Saints' parish: Burgess Street (before 1843, probably closed by 1848), Vine Street (before 1843, sold to the Primitive Methodists in 1861), Soar Lane, a branch of Archdeacon Lane (before 1843, being used by the Quakers in 1848), and the Strict Baptist chapel in St. Peter's Lane, known as the Ebenezer chapel and built in 1803. (fn. 27) In St. Mary's parish the former 'Christian' chapel in Newarke Street, built in 1835, was taken over by the Baptists and was destroyed in an air raid in November 1940. (fn. 28) The large Victoria Baptist church at the corner of London and University Roads was built in 1867 at a time when the suburban development was proceeding apace. (fn. 29) The Robert Hall Memorial chapel was built by the architect Walter Brand in 1901. (fn. 30) The chapel in Thorpe Street was founded in 1868, as a branch of the Charles Street chapel, but was never regularly served, and by 1877 had become a Sunday school. (fn. 31) The chapel itself had been built for another purpose in 1854. In St. Margaret's parish the oldest chapel is that in Upper Charles Street, built in 1830 and united with the Belvoir Street chapel to form the United Baptist chapel in 1938. (fn. 32) Belvoir Street chapel was built in 1845, by the architect Joseph Hansom, and was named the 'Pork Pie' chapel from its shape. (fn. 33) It was scheduled for preservation in 1950, purchased by the corporation, (fn. 34) and became an Adult Education centre. Other chapels are those in Melton Street (from about 1860 to about 1870), Navigation Street (also in existence about 1864–70), Trinity chapel in Alfred Street (built by a Mr. Harrison in 1840 and closed about 1890), Erskine Street (built for a congregation from Alfred Street in 1873), (fn. 35) the Tabernacle in Belgrave Gate (1869, closed 1921), and Carey Hall in Catherine Street (1897, designed by A. E. Sawday). (fn. 36) The Archdeacon Lane Memorial church was opened in Buckminster Road in 1939. (fn. 37) A new Baptist church was being built in 1955 for the Stocking Farm Estate.
The Evangelical Free Church, Melbourne Hall, was built in 1881 for the ministry of the Revd. F. B. Meyer, formerly the minister of Victoria Baptist church, from which he resigned in 1878. (fn. 38) He began preaching independently after his resignation, holding large meetings in the museum and other lecture halls. A large sum was raised by his very considerable body of followers for the building of a permanent church. Melbourne Hall was designed by Joseph Goddard; the Sunday schools were added in 1884 (fn. 39) Although independent the church is affiliated to the Baptist Union. (fn. 40)
The earliest Methodist church was that in Millstone Lane, founded in 1753 and closed about 1865, (fn. 41) when its place had largely been taken by the newer chapel in Bishop Street, built in 1815. (fn. 42) The foundation of the Millstone Lane chapel was probably the direct outcome of John Wesley's visit to Leicester in 1753, when he preached to a 'serious and attentive' audience in Butt Close, near St. Margaret's church, on 8 June. (fn. 43) When he next visited Leicester in 1757, (fn. 44) the Millstone Lane meeting had been established under the care and guidance of John Brandon and the protection of William Lewis, a Presbyterian hosier, who owned the barn in Millstone Lane which was used for services. (fn. 45) By 1768 a chapel had replaced the barn, and this was rebuilt and enlarged in 1878, when the movement was well established and Leicester had been placed at the head of a circuit of ministers in the Midlands. (fn. 46) A house in Southgate Street was appropriated for the use of the ministers in 1793. (fn. 47) Wesley last preached in Leicester in 1793, but he paid another visit to the town in 1794.
Many other Wesleyan chapels were built in the 19th century: King Richard's Road (1880, by A. E. Sawday), (fn. 48) Aylestone Road (1874, sold to be a furniture repository in 1953), Northgate Street (1885, (fn. 49) closed about 1935), Humberstone Road (1863, by F. W. Ordish), (fn. 50) Saxby Street (1873, by A. E. Sawday, purchased by Leicester Corporation in 1953 for use as an infant school), (fn. 51) Wesley Hall in Mere Road (1901), Newarke Street (about 1864, closed about 1870), Metcalfe Street (about 1860, closed by 1870, when an infant school was being held in the building), and a chapel in Alexander Street, which was in existence before 1837 when it was sold to the Primitive Methodists.
Of the other branches of Methodism the Primitive Methodists had the largest number of chapels in the borough. The first Primitive Methodist sermon heard in Leicester was preached by John Benton in 1818, (fn. 52) and in the same year the chapel in York Street, off Welford Road, was built. This was closed about 1875, but in the interval other chapels had been built: these included George Street (1819, closed about 1883), and the chapel in Alexander Street which was purchased from the Wesleyans in 1837 (closed 1873). Other chapels were opened in Belgrave Gate (1882, built to replace George Street, sold to Leicester Co-operative Society in 1937), (fn. 53) Catherine Street (1888), (fn. 54) St. Nicholas Street (built to replace Alexander Street, (fn. 55) closed 1898), Hinckley Road (1898), Crown Street (1883), Curzon Street (1859), Gladstone Street (about 1864, closed about 1885), Humberstone Road (1881), (fn. 56) Chandos Street (about 1879, closed about 1887), Fosse Road North (1898, the former St. Nicholas Street chapel re-erected on this new site), (fn. 57) Melbourne Road (Highfields chapel, 1884), (fn. 58) Peel Street (purchased from the Congregationalists about 1873, closed about 1879), and Vine Street (purchased 1861, closed about 1900). A new chapel is to be built (1955) in Edgehill Road, partly with money raised by the sale of the former Belgrave Gate chapel.
The Methodists of the New Connexion had a chapel (St. Paul's) near the railway station in London Road, built in 1861 and closed in 1890. The building was then taken down and re-erected for other purposes in Rolleston Street, where in 1955 it formed part of a thread mill. A new St. Paul's chapel was built in Melbourne Road to replace that in London Road. The New Connexion also had chapels in Belgrave Gate (1864, (fn. 59) closed by 1870) and Granby Street (in existence before 1801, when it was sold to the Congregationalists). The Methodists of the Wesley Association had a chapel in Lower Hill Street (built 1833, demolished 1930). (fn. 60) After 1907 the New Connexion and Association Methodists became part of the United Methodist Church and in Leicester used the Melbourne Road chapel. There was formerly an Independent Methodist chapel in Denman Street (opened before 1843, closed about 1864).
In 1672 Gabriel Major and Timothy Wood were licensed to preach as Presbyterians in their houses in Leicester, and two further houses were licensed as meeting places for the sect, one belonging to William Billers and the other to George Long. (fn. 61) In the same year Nicholas Kestyn or Kestian, a minister who had been ejected from Gumley under the Act of Uniformity, received a licence to preach as a Congregationalist, and it is his name which is most closely associated with the foundation of the Presbyterian (later Unitarian) meeting in Leicester. (fn. 62) In 1680 the Presbyterians occupied a barn near the present Infirmary Square. (fn. 63) Two years later the Congregationalists (or Independents) were reported to be holding services in a barn in Millstone Lane. (fn. 64) There was a close connexion between the two sects by 1692, for in that year Edmund Spencer was the preacher to both congregations. (fn. 65) He had married in 1667 Elizabeth, daughter of Nicholas Kestyn, and was then already living in St. Martin's parish, although there was no meeting place in the parish as early as that. In 1692 it was stated that he received a salary of £30 a year, probably contributed by the congregation. By the year 1704 the two sects had become one, based at the chapel near Infirmary Square. This rapidly became too small to house the growing congregation, and in 1708 the foundation stone of the chapel in Butt Close was laid. This chapel, known as the Great Meeting, is a brick and stucco building of two stories, with four front windows in moulded stone frames. The ceiling of moulded plaster was added in 1786 and the chapel was altered inside several times, the last occasion being in 1866, when the galleries were rebuilt and the whole chapel refurnished. Much of the original simplicity of design has been lost. The organ was erected in 1800. The front has not been changed except for the addition of a modern vestibule. In 1866 a chancel was added at the rear. There are a number of beautifully carved grave stones of Swithland slate in the neighbouring burial ground. (fn. 66)
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries the Great Meeting was one of the main centres of the demand for parliamentary reform. The first seven mayors of the reformed borough after 1835 were members of this congregation, as was one of the members for the borough, Thomas Pares. (fn. 67)
It has been said that the Great Meeting school was opened on 15 July 1726 but the first recorded reference to a school-teacher is in 1736. (fn. 68) The permanent school building dates from 1813, and was enlarged in 1859, but the school itself was closed shortly after the Education Act was passed in 1870. In 1955 the school building, next to the chapel, was being used only for the Sunday school, established in 1783. (fn. 69) In 1738 a house for the minister was built in High Cross Street opposite All Saints' church, but it was sold in 1868. (fn. 70) John Burgess, a member of the congregation who died in 1799, gave a house in Churchgate to be used by the ministers, but this was usually leased, and it too was sold in 1874. (fn. 71)
Although the Great Meeting is now Unitarian, it only became so at the beginning of the last century, the trust deeds of the chapel not placing any con dition on the religious views of the congregation. (fn. 72) Another Unitarian chapel was built in Wellington Street about 1876, but it was closed in 1901, when a chapel in Narborough Road was opened.
George Fox, as has been noted, found Quakers in Leicester when he visited the town in 1684, and there has been a meeting there ever since, although never a very large one. Among the borough records are two letters of about 1655 from Quaker prisoners in the town gaol, one apparently having been sent there for refusing to take off his hat in the presence of a magistrate. (fn. 73) In or about 1669, Samuel Brown's petition to be licensed as an apothecary was refused because he was a Quaker, (fn. 74) although in 1699 another Quaker, Joseph Smith, was admitted to the freedom of the borough. (fn. 75) There were said to be thirteen Quakers living in St. Martin's parish in 1709. (fn. 76) A meeting house was built in 1680–1 and was still in existence in 1770, for it was enlarged or rebuilt in that year. (fn. 77) In 1877 a new meeting house was built in Prebend Street (closed in 1956). By 1848 the former Baptist Chapel in Soar Lane had been taken over by the Quakers as an adult school and mission chapel, but this was abandoned about 1895. In 1791 it was said that the Quakers of Leicester maintained 'more of the original simplicity of dress and manners characteristic of their body, than was to be seen in other towns'. (fn. 78) When the Quakers of St. Martin's parish refused to pay church rates it was agreed that they should pay twice as much poor rate as the members of the church. (fn. 79)
The Congregational chapel in Bond Street was founded in 1800, partly by a secession of those members of the Great Meeting who did not welcome the advance towards Unitarianism being made by the meeting at that time. (fn. 80) Their first chapel was in Granby Street, on the site of the subsequent Charles Street Baptist school. This chapel was purchased in 1801 from the Kilhamites or New Connexion Methodists. The Bond Street chapel was built in 1803 and enlarged in 1821 and 1864. (fn. 81) A second chapel in Gallowtree Gate was built in 1823 and underwent considerable alterations during the last century before it was closed in 1921, together with the attached Sunday school. The building was demolished in 1927. (fn. 82) Chapel Yard, on the West side of the street, is the only surviving indication of its existence. A Congregational chapel in London Road was built in 1858; (fn. 83) one in Oxford Street, replacing an earlier building of about 1815, was built in 1863; (fn. 84) one in Willow Street was opened about 1873 and closed about 1936; and the Union church in Humberstone Road at the corner of Newby Street was built in 1880. (fn. 85) The Wycliffe church in College Street was acquired from the Collegiate School in 1866: the original Gothic building, erected in 1835, was designed by a Sheffield architect named Weightman or Whiteman. The church was bought by the Leicester Education Committee in 1954, but in 1955 was still used for services on Sundays. (fn. 86)
Presbyterian Church Of England
The Presbyterian church of St. Stephen used to stand on the site of the former Wyvern Hotel near London Road railway station and was built in 1869. In 1893 the church was sold and demolished and a new building was erected at the corner of New Walk and De Montfort Street. The architect was A. R. G. Fenning. (fn. 87)
The 22nd opening of the Christian Mission (later the Salvation Army) took place in February 1877. The first hall was in Foundry Lane, but the headquarters were afterwards moved first to Watling Street and then to Bread Street. The present hall in Kildare Street was opened in 1935. There were five corps of the Salvation Army in Leicester in 1956. The divisional headquarters was in Halford Street. (fn. 88)
The First Church of Christ, Scientist, at Leicester was established in 1911, when the first services were held in a private house in the town. The church has been variously housed in Welford Road, Avenue Road, and Dover Street. In 1935 a building in Granville Road was purchased, but owing to the outbreak of war the rebuilding which was necessary to make the new auditorium was postponed until after the war. It was completed in 1952 and dedicated in 1956. (fn. 89)