The ancient borough: All Saints'

Pages 338-343

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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All Saints' parish extends over the northern part of the walled borough of Leicester and for a distance beyond. The boundary runs from High Cross Street, along a line just south of Free School. Lane to a point to the west of Churchgate. From there it goes north through the houses behind Churchgate to Sanvey Gate, along Sanvey Gate and some distance up Northgate Street At a point just south of Pingle Street it goes eastwards to the end of Berkley Street and follows a winding course roughly along the lines of Craven Street and Slater Street to Frog Island. From there it goes south until it reaches the canal and turns west to enclose a very narrow strip of land along the canal on the north side. It then runs through the buildings west of Northgate Street to reach the river at the west end of Soar Lane. It turns east again along the south side of Soar Lane and goes down Great Central Street to Friars Causeway, and then through houses to rejoin High Cross Street. (fn. 1)

The chief thoroughfare is High Cross Street, from Sanvey Gate to Peacock Lane, formerly High Street, which was part of the main road north and south during the Middle Ages. (fn. 2) High Cross Street is probably the magnus vicus which is mentioned in two charters of the 12th century dealing with burgage tenements, one probably early in Henry II's reign. (fn. 3) Its more usual name, alta strata, occurs from the beginning of the 14th century. (fn. 4) In this street were some of the more important public buildings, and in it the Wednesday market was held, at the junction with the present High Street. (fn. 5) In the Middle Ages these public buildings consisted of the two prisons belonging to the borough and the county, and at a later date the Free Grammar School. (fn. 6) St. John's Hospital (fn. 7) and All Saints' Church also stood in the street; many inns were there, and at least one large house was built there in the later Middle Ages. (fn. 8)

Of the two prisons, that built by the borough was probably the earlier, and it seems likely that it existed in 1297. (fn. 9) Formal recognition of the right to have a prison was not given until 1375. (fn. 10) About 1614 a new house of correction was established on the site of the old St. John's Hospital at the corner of High Cross Street and Causeway Lane. (fn. 11) This in turn was rebuilt by John Johnson in 1793. (fn. 12) The old gaol was demolished in 1792, and William Firmadge was the mason in charge of operations. (fn. 13) While this demolition was taking place the remains of the hospital were uncovered. (fn. 14) Johnson's prison in turn was taken down in 1837 and small houses were built on the site. (fn. 15) These still exist (nos. 81–87). Now very much decayed, they are of white stucco with some pleasant moulded decoration. Between 1824 and 1828 the corporation were debating, against violent opposition, the question of building another gaol, and they actually accepted a plan from Firmadge, then an alderman, for a new prison and bought land in Causeway Lane next door to the existing prison. (fn. 16) Finally the problem was solved by the purchase of the county gaol (fn. 17) which stood a little farther up the road, at the corner of High Cross Street and Free School Lane. A county gaol was built between 1300 and 1309, near to the Shire Hall. (fn. 18) It was probably not until the 16th century that a new building was erected on the site occupied by the county gaol until the 19th century. By the 18th century the gaol was in such an appalling state as to be roundly condemned by Howard the prison reformer, and in 1790–2 it was rebuilt. (fn. 19) The architect of the new building was George Moneypenny of Derby. (fn. 20) The surveyor was William Harrison, who received a salary of £500 a year. (fn. 21) In 1803 the gaol was altered by a Leicester architect, William Oldham. (fn. 22) When the new county gaol was built in Welford Road, this building was bought by the borough authorities, who built a bridewell next to it. The cost of purchase and alterations was very largely responsible for the borough debt in 1835, about £17,000 out of the total debt of £27,000. (fn. 23) Between 1858 and 1860 further alterations were made, when a new wing for male prisoners was erected. (fn. 24) In 1867–8 a new female wing was built. (fn. 25) After the prison had been taken over by the Prison Commissioners in 1878, they decided to close it. The building was bought back from them by the borough in 1879 for £10,322 8s., (fn. 26) and subsequently demolished.

Leicester Borough boundaries

Map of Leicester showing the principal streets referred to in the text, and the sites of important buildings.

The map does not represent the town as it existed at any one date.

At the beginning of the 19th century High Cross Street preserved a largely medieval appearance. In Flower's print of about 1830, (fn. 27) Moneypenny's gaol stands out in contrast against the other rather dilapidated timber-framed buildings, which predominated on that side of the road. One house, dated 1717, still stands. On the opposite side, Flower's print shows 18th- or 19th-century fronts, with bow-fronted shop windows. One notable house of this type still survives (no. 18). The front dates from about 1760 and is of red brick with stucco bands. The 'Tower of the Winds'-type pilasters are superimposed over the bands. The central window on the first floor has a pediment and a panel of balusters below. There is a good wooden doorcase with an open pediment and traceried fanlight. Down a side passage it is possible to obtain a view of the rear elevation, which is of two stories, as opposed to three at the front, and probably dates from the very early years of the 16th century. It is timber-framed and the upper story oversails the lower. The ground floor windows, extending the whole way along the building, have timber mullions. (fn. 28) No. 59 is a late18th-century brick house with a very large semicircular fanlight. No. 90 dates from the early 19th century and is a stucco house with a rusticated lower story, moulded cornice, and small parapet.

Free School Lane leads off High Cross Street to the east. It is probably to be identified with the medieval Dead Lane (mortua venella), which was a blind alley. The name occurs first at the beginning of the 14th century, (fn. 29) and was replaced by that of Free School Lane when the school was built in 1573. (fn. 30) St. Peter's Lane runs roughly parallel with it, farther north. It also appears for the first time at the beginning of the 14th century. (fn. 31) Miss Watts stated that it was known at the beginning of the last century as Womans Lane, but she is the only authority for this. (fn. 32) Farther south ran Causeway Lane, known in the Middle Ages as St. John's Lane or Gaol Lane. (fn. 33) St. John's Hospital stood on its north side, at the corner with High Cross Street. The present St. John's Hospital (fn. 34) only occupies part of the original site, as the old borough gaol was built on the corner, and there are now also houses on the site. A little farther down the main street is Cumberland Street, which was the beginning of the lane described in 1303 as 'venella qui se extendit ab alta strata versus ecclesiam sancti Petri et versus Torchmere', and of which East Bond Street forms a part. (fn. 35) Torchmere is impossible to place on a modern map. It was probably an open piece of ground with a pond in the north-eastern part of the walled town, most of which was up to the 19th century open ground with orchards and gardens. (fn. 36) In the last century the area between High Cross Street and Churchgate was filled with a tangle of lanes and streets. At the end of the 18th century a bowling green and gardens were opened near what is now Vauxhall Street, and was a popular resort for some years. It was known as the New Vauxhall and was designed to take the place of the old Vauxhall Gardens near the West Bridge which were put up for sale in 1797. (fn. 37) Dr. Arnold's asylum also stood in this area. (fn. 38)

The road called Northgate Street originally included the whole of the road to the North Bridge, but during the last century the part between the canal and the bridge became known as Frog Island, from the strip of land of that name. (fn. 39) During the Middle Ages it was chiefly inhabited by dyers and fullers. Outside the North Gate to the west ran Soar Lane, which was known as Walkers or Fullers Lane (vicus fullonum). (fn. 40) The name Soar Lane appears in the 15th century, but the road was still sometimes known as Walkers Lane at the end of the 16th century. (fn. 41) North of Soar Lane was a close called the Pingle. The name survives in Pingle Street, and the land was laid out for streets at the very beginning of the 19th century, as a result of the building of the canal. (fn. 42) The same kind of development took place on the other side of Northgate Street. There were a tannery and a bleach yard by the canal by 1828. (fn. 43) One of the first factories to be built in Leicester was one for spinning cotton in Northgate Street, probably built in 1792. (fn. 44)

The industrialization of the northern part of the parish increased the population, and new streets were built wherever it was possible, on the Pingle and between High Cross Street and Churchgate, for instance. In 1563 there were only 66 families living in the parish. (fn. 45) At the beginning of the 18th century the population was 1,020. (fn. 46) The first census gives 2,838, and the population rose steadily throughout the last century until its highest figure was reached, 6,867 in 1891. (fn. 47) During this century it has declined and was 4,306 in 1931. (fn. 48)


The guild attached to the hospital of St. John the Evangelist and St. John the Baptist seems to have started with a gift in 1355 when the feoffees of Peter of Grendon the saddler assigned property to the hospital for the souls of Peter and his family and all the benefactors of the hospital. The chaplain was to be chosen from among the brethren of the hospital but he took his oath in the borough court. (fn. 49) The date of the establishment of the guild itself is not known. The will of a chaplain of the guild was proved in 1442. (fn. 50) In 1477 the chaplain's duties were set out in an agreement between the hospital and Richard Wigston, steward of the guild, in which Peter of Grendon and his wife are specifically mentioned. Richard Wigston and his successors with the advice of the master of the hospital were to choose the guild priests, whose duties were to include the saying of mass in the guild chapel and also twice weekly in the chapel of St. John in Belgrave Gate. The priest would be supported between them, the master finding meat and drink or 40s. yearly, the steward paying the balance of his salary and finding him a chamber in the hospital. (fn. 51) Nothing further is known of this guild, which probably decayed with the hospital after 1548.

The guild of the Assumption which was attached to All Saints' Church was founded in the 14th century by twenty brethren. (fn. 52) Apparently before this there were no chaplains except the vicar. A chaplain was employed to say mass for the guild and as its popularity increased a second chaplain was appointed in 1389. (fn. 53) The guild was still in existence in 1528, but nothing further is known of it. (fn. 54)


The church of All Saints was probably one of those which formed the endowment of the college of St. Mary de Castro, and which were granted to Leicester Abbey in 1143. (fn. 55) By 1220 it was appropriated to the abbey. (fn. 56) At the Dissolution it passed to the Crown, which transferred it in 1867 to the Bishop of Peterborough, (fn. 57) from whom it passed to the Bishop of Leicester who now holds it. (fn. 58) The priest's stipend in 1222 was 20s. with the equivalent of a canon's daily corrody, (fn. 59) and the living was said to be worth 10 marks in 1217 and 6 marks in 1254. (fn. 60) It was valued at £8 3s. 8d. in 1535. (fn. 61) In 1591 the parish of the decayed church of St. Peter was absorbed by All Saints', although only after protests by St. Martin's. (fn. 62) The assizes were held in the church in 1593 owing to the plague in the centre of the town. (fn. 63) With the additional £5 which he received from St. Peter's, the vicar's stipend was unchanged until the living was augmented in 1762 and 1802 by grants from Queen Anne's Bounty. The living was worth £148 yearly in 1831. (fn. 64) After the death of the vicar in 1947 no successor was appointed and the church was served by the Archdeacon of Leicester as priest in charge. (fn. 65) He was appointed vicar in 1954. (fn. 66)

Nothing definite is known of the structure of the church until the end of the 16th century, when a complaint was made that the roof needed attention, and it seems to have been repaired. (fn. 67) The tall pews were cut down in 1637 after the archdeacon's visitation. (fn. 68) For the next hundred years the church seems to have been kept in good condition, but in 1797 the archdeacon discovered weeds growing out of the walls, a leaking roof, and a dangerously decayed chancel. (fn. 69) In 1829 the chancel was rebuilt. (fn. 70) The roofs were renewed throughout by Henry Goddard in 1855. (fn. 71) The nave was restored by Goddard and Paget in 1875, (fn. 72) and the tower in 1894 by W. Bassett Smith of London. (fn. 73) Part of the roof collapsed into the chancel in 1940. (fn. 74)

The church of ALL SAINTS stands in High Cross Street, with its west end immediately on the street, and the churchyard to the south and east. It seems possible that an earlier building was cruciform, of 12th-century date, and that in the 14th century or late in the 13th the church was rebuilt on a different plan. Of the original church the only remains are the west door and the base of the tower, which, it is suggested, may originally have been centrally placed, although this is by no means certain. The 14th-century rebuilding evidently took place gradually, as the various parts of the work differ in detail. In the 15th century the clerestory was added and the church reroofed.

The church now consists of nave and chancel, north-east tower, and north and south aisles. The length of the north side is about 5 feet greater than that of the south, as the west front slopes along the line of High Cross Street outside. The west doorway is Norman, with detached shafts and two rows of chevron ornament. (fn. 75) The door itself is a good example of 15th-century woodwork. Just to the right of the door is an aperture through the wall, which gives a view of the altar. Its purpose is doubtful. (fn. 76) The north aisle has two lead rainwater heads, dated 1709 and 1855 respectively. The chancel is brick.

The distinctive feature of All Saints' is the tower which rises from the north-east end of the church. The base is probably Norman, with very thick walls and pairs of half-round pilasters at the corners, visible both inside and out. It rises in three stages, finishing in a battlemented parapet. There are beam-holes for a first-floor chamber with a small round-backed fireplace in the west wall. The slender tower arch and lancet cut across the floor level of this chamber.

The chancel is partly paved with 14th-century tiles. (fn. 77) In it are monuments to Matthew Simons, High Sheriff (d. 1714), to Alderman Gabriel Newton (d. 1762), the founder of the Greencoat School, and to several members of the Forrester family, of the early 19th century. (fn. 78) The pulpit dates from the 15th century, and fragments of a screen of the same date have been re-erected near the font. The mayor's seat, dated 1680, is in the north aisle, and is the only one of its kind to survive in Leicester. The font at the west end of the nave dates from the 13th century and has a round bowl, decorated with trefoils and foliage, very similar indeed to the one in St. Mary de Castro. The base is modern. Above the south door is a clock surmounted by two compartments, each containing a small figure which strikes a bell at the hour. Below the figures is a painting of Father Time placed there when the clock was restored in 1899; the clock probably dates from about 1620, (fn. 79) and was formerly fixed above the west door. There are six bells: (1) 1595; (2) undated, pre-Reformation; (3) 1611, cast by Edward Newcombe; (4) 1586, cast by Robert Newcombe; (5) undated, cast by John de Stafford towards the end of the 14th century, recast by John Taylor of Loughborough 1894; (6) 1945, cast by Taylor of Loughborough. The whole ring was rehung in 1946. (fn. 80)

The registers date from 1575. There is no ancient plate. The churchyard contains some fine Swithland slate headstones of the 18th and 19th centuries. (fn. 81)


In 1612 William Norrice granted a yearly sum of 15s. from a garden in Soar Lane to be distributed to 41 poor people on St. Bartholomew's day after evensong. (fn. 82) The donor's conditions were so troublesome, 'impracticable and absurd', (fn. 83) that in 1837 the charity had been in abeyance for some years.

Before 1785 Joseph Wright left 25s. a year for the purchase of 10 pairs of women's shoes. The money was charged on land called 'Coltmans' and a garden in Elbow Lane. In 1837 the money was paid (the ground now having been built over) partly to the poor widows of St. John's Hospital and partly to the parish. (fn. 84)

John Saunders left at an unknown date two annuities for the parish. The first, of 6s. 8d., was to be given in bread yearly on Good Friday and was payable out of land in the parish. The second, of 3s. 4d. yearly, was to be paid towards the repair of the church. (fn. 85) It is mentioned in 1832 as the church's only endowment. (fn. 86)

Payments are made to the parish by Leicester Corporation under the Ive and Courteen charities, and by the Trustees of Leicester General Charities for the Heyrick bread charity. (fn. 87)


  • 1. The boundary is marked on T. and G. Ellis's Plan of Leic. (1828).
  • 2. For Highcross Street see C. J. Billson, Medieval Leic. 4–5.
  • 3. Doc. Illustrative of Soc. and Econ. Hist. of Danelaw, ed. F. M. Stenton, 246, 259.
  • 4. e.g. Leic. Boro. Rec. 1103–1327, 309.
  • 5. For the market and the High Cross see p. 361.
  • 6. See p. 332. For a photograph of the old grammar school, see plate facing p. 393.
  • 7. V.C.H. Leics. ii. 40–41 and see p. 408.
  • 8. See below.
  • 9. Billson, Medieval Leic. 45.
  • 10. Ibid.
  • 11. Leic. Boro. Rec. 1603–88, 150–1; J. Thompson, Hist. of Leic. i. 344.
  • 12. T.L.A.S. xxv. 153; H. M. Colvin, Biog. Dict. of Eng. Architects, 324. The building is illustrated in Nichols, Leics. i, plate xxviii.
  • 13. J. Throsby, Hist. of Leic. 385. Firmadge also apparently took charge of the new building: cf. R. Gunnis, Dict. of Brit. Sculptors, 144. This probably accounts for Miss Watts's statement that he was the architect: [Watts], Walk through Leic. 34.
  • 14. Throsby, op. cit. 385–8.
  • 15. A. Fielding Johnson, Glimpses of Anc. Leic. (2nd ed. 1906), 302. It was abandoned in 1828 when the borough purchased the old county gaol: see below.
  • 16. A. T. Patterson, Radical Leic. 157–8. Ellis's map of 1828 marks the site of the proposed new gaol. The council had great difficulty in selling this land, which is surprising in view of the demand for building land.
  • 17. White, Dir. Leics. (1846), 76.
  • 18. Billson, Medieval Leic. 42–43. The Shire Hall stood near St. John's Hospital, but very little is known about it (see V.C.H. Leics. ii. 92 but for Northgate Street read High Cross Street). Leics. had a county gaol under Hen. II: Trans. R.H.S. 5th ser. v. 2.
  • 19. Billson, op. cit. 44.
  • 20. Colvin, Biog. Dict. Eng. Architects, 392; [Watts], Walk through Leic. 29–30; Nichols, Leics. i, plate xxviii.
  • 21. L.R.O., Orders relating to co. gaol, 1790–2. The Harrison family continued to work as architects in Leic. until the present century.
  • 22. L.R.O., Orders relating to co. gaol, 1790–2. The acct. for the alteration of 1803 is at the end of the vol.
  • 23. Patterson, Radical Leic. 210; and see above, p. 254.
  • 24. J. Storey, Hist. Sketch of Boro. of Leic. 45.
  • 25. Ibid.
  • 26. On these transactions see ibid. 45–47; and see above, pp. 286–7.
  • 27. Print in J. Flower, Views of Anc. Buildings of Leics.
  • 28. This house is traditionally supposed to be that of Roger Wigston, brother of the founder of Wyggeston's Hosp. It had some fine painted glass which is now in Leic. Museum, in Skeffington House: Billson, Medieval Leic. 208.
  • 29. Leic. Boro. Rec. 1103–1327, 256; Billson, op. cit. 6.
  • 30. See above, p. 332.
  • 31. Leic. Boro. Rec. 1103–1327, 367; Billson, op. cit. 6.
  • 32. [Watts], Walk through Leic. 25.
  • 33. Billson, Medieval Leic. 5.
  • 34. See below, p. 408.
  • 35. Billson, op. cit. 5–6. Elbow Lane was the name given to the road from Cumberland St. to New Bond St., now called East Bond St. The present Elbow Lane is further west: cf. Ellis, Plan of Leic. (1828), and Spencer, Map of Leic. (1867).
  • 36. Ellis, Plan of Leic. (1828).
  • 37. [Watts], Walk through Leic. 25–26; Fielding Johnson, Glimpses of Anc. Leic. 307.
  • 38. Watts, op. cit. 26; Fielding Johnson, op. cit. 305.
  • 39. Cf. Ellis, Plan of Leic. (1828), and Spencer, Map of Leic. (1867).
  • 40. Leic. Boro. Rec. 1103–1327, 381 n.
  • 41. Billson, Medieval Leic. 17.
  • 42. Patterson, Radical Leic. 40.
  • 43. Ellis, Plan of Leic. (1828).
  • 44. Patterson, op. cit. 88.
  • 45. B.M., Harl. MS. 618.
  • 46. Assoc. Archit. Soc., Rep. & Papers, xxii. 296.
  • 47. V.C.H. Leics. iii. 179.
  • 48. Census, 1931: Ecclesiastical Areas.
  • 49. Leic. Boro. Rec. 1327–1509, pp. lxii, 100–2. For the hosp. see V.C.H. Leics. ii. 40–41.
  • 50. A. Gibbons, Early Linc. Wills, 172.
  • 51. Leic. Boro. Rec. 1327–1509, 282–3.
  • 52. T.L.A.S. xxvi. 100–1.
  • 53. Ibid. xiv. 167–9.
  • 54. Ibid. xxvi. 100.
  • 55. V.C.H. Leics. ii. 13, 45.
  • 56. Rot. Hugonis de Welles, ed. W. P. W. Phillimore, i. 238. For a list of vicars presented by the abbey see A. Hamilton Thompson, Leic. Abbey, 157–60.
  • 57. Nichols, Leics. i. 552; Lond. Gaz. 1867, p. 2911.
  • 58. Leic. Dioc. Cal. (1954), 89.
  • 59. Rot. Hugonis de Welles, ii. 286.
  • 60. Val. of Norw. ed. W. E. Lunt, 530.
  • 61. Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.), iv. 148.
  • 62. Leic. Boro. Rec. 1509–1603, 271. For St. Peter's parish see p. 388.
  • 63. P. Hepworth, 'All Saints', Leic.' T.L.A.S. xxvi. 101.
  • 64. White, Dir. Leics. (1846), 85–86.
  • 65. T.L.A.S. xxvi. 113.
  • 66. Ex inf. the Ven. C. L. Matthews, Vicar of All Saints'.
  • 67. Leic. Boro. Rec. 1509–1603, 303; T.L.A.S. xxvi. 97.
  • 68. Leic. City Mun. Room, 1D41/18/9.
  • 69. Ibid. 1D41/18/22.
  • 70. Spencer, New Guide to Leic. (1888), 64, where the chancel is unjustifiably described as an 'eyesore . . . of bald brickwork'. The architect of the chancel is unknown. In the church safe is a tracing of what is probably the architect's sketch; the original is lost.
  • 71. Spencer, op. cit. 64.
  • 72. T.L.A.S. v. 14.
  • 73. Ibid. viii. 131; plans in ch. safe.
  • 74. T.L.A.S. xxvi. 113.
  • 75. For the church see below, plate facing p. 346.
  • 76. M. P. Dare, 'On a perforation recently discovered in All Saints' Ch. Leic.' Assoc. Archit. Soc. Rep. & Papers, xxxvii. 138–43.
  • 77. N. R. Whitcomb, Medieval Floor-tiles of Leicester, passim.
  • 78. Gunnis, Dict. of Brit. Sculptors, 196, 207, 431.
  • 79. T.L.A.S. xxvi. 121; 'Restoration of Anc. Clock of All Saints' Ch. Leic.' Peterborough Dioc. Mag. (1900); T.L.A.S. xxvii. 31.
  • 80. T.L.A.S. xxvi. 115–18.
  • 81. On these, see ibid. 125–6.
  • 82. 32nd Rep. Com. Char. Pt. 5 [163], pp. 103–4, H.C. (1839), xv.
  • 83. White, Dir. Leics. (1877), 330.
  • 84. 32nd Rep. Com. Char. Pt. 5, 104.
  • 85. Ibid.
  • 86. Leic. City Mun. Room, 245'50/1.
  • 87. See below, pp. 411–13.