The ancient borough: Black Friars

Pages 343-344

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 extra-parochial liberty of Black Friars lay in the north-west of the old walled borough of Leicester. It became a civil parish under the Act of 1857 (fn. 1) and was amalgamated with Leicester in 1896 when the borough became a single civil parish. (fn. 2) In 1896 it covered 16 acres. (fn. 3) It was bounded by the River Soar, Soar Lane, the former Back Lane, and Bath Lane. The eastern part of the area is now occupied by the Central railway station, and the remainder is mostly covered by streets of 19th-century terrace houses.

In the Middle Ages Black Friars was occupied by a Dominican friary, founded in the 13th century. (fn. 4) The friary was perhaps founded in this spot because in the second half of the 13th century the north-west district of Leicester was less densely populated than other parts of the town; this has been attributed, though without any proof, to devastation caused in the siege of 1173. (fn. 5) The friary must have been of some size, as three provincial chapters of the Dominican order were held there in the 14th century, and at the same period the house contained thirty or more friars, (fn. 6) but very little is known about its buildings. It has been suggested that the friars acquired St. Clement's parish church, which stood in the northwest part of the town, but that is unlikely. (fn. 7) The friary was surrendered to the king in 1538, (fn. 8) and its site and buildings were granted in 1546 to Henry Grey, Marquess of Dorset and later Duke of Suffolk. (fn. 9)

It has not been possible to trace the descent of the property after that time, but for much of the 18th century the Rudings family, of Westcotes, were important landowners in Black Friars. (fn. 10)

From the Dissolution until the early 19th century Black Friars was almost uninhabited. (fn. 11) The canalization of the Soar, which ran down one side of the Black Friars, led to the building up of the area. From c. 1805 onwards many new houses were built in the area, (fn. 12) and by 1837 it was very largely covered with buildings, though a little open ground still remained in the north-west corner. (fn. 13) In 1821 the population was 597, and ten years later it had risen to 1,152. (fn. 14) The line of the Great Central Railway from London to the north, built under an Act of 1893 and opened in 1899, (fn. 15) ran through Black Friars, and the large station built to serve the new line occupied a considerable space in the liberty.

There seems to be no doubt that Black Friars was always considered to be within the borough. During the 18th-century disputes between the borough and the county magistrates the county never claimed to have any rights of jurisdiction in Black Friars. (fn. 16) The district does not seem to have maintained its poor separately in the 18th century. (fn. 17) In 1803 it is listed as an area maintaining its own poor. (fn. 18) When the Leicester Poor Law Union was formed in 1836 Black Friars was not included in it. (fn. 19) For the next 26 years Black Friars was not included in any union, and seems to have had no arrangements for the poor relief of its inhabitants, a situation all the more serious because by 1837 it had become a poor and densely populated district. (fn. 20) In 1849 it was reported that the liberty's inhabitants had no power to appoint a surveyor of the highways, or to levy rates for road maintenance. (fn. 21) The sewerage arrangements, as described at the same date, were deplorable. (fn. 22) This state of affairs was remedied by the establishment of a Local Board of Health, which assumed responsibility for the highways and for the public health of the whole borough, (fn. 23) and by the inclusion of Black Friars in the Leicester Union as a separate civil parish in 1862. (fn. 24)

For ecclesiastical purposes Black Friars was extraparochial until it was included in St. Nicholas's parish in 1880. (fn. 25)


  • 1. 20 Vic. c. 19; Census, 1861.
  • 2. V.C.H. Leics. iii. 179.
  • 3. Census, 1891.
  • 4. V.C.H. Leics. ii. 34. It already existed in 1284.
  • 5. On this view, and for the population of the area, see C. J. Billson, Medieval Leic. 2–3. On the siege, see V.C.H. Leics. ii. 81. And see above, pp. 3, 53.
  • 6. V.C.H. Leics. ii. 34.
  • 7. Ibid. 34, and below, pp. 388–9.
  • 8. V.C.H. Leics. ii. 35.
  • 9. L. &. P. Hen. VIII, xxi(1), pp. 760–71. Dugd. Mon. vi (3), 1846, places the Leic. Dominicans on an island in the Soar, which was in fact the site of the Augustinian Friars' house. Dugdale's statement is based on Leland, Itin. ed. Toulmin Smith, i. 16, who refers to the friary on the island as the Black Friars, a name usually given to the Dominicans, but which might be applied to Augustinian friars. There can be no doubt about where each friary stood: see Cal. Pat. 1301–7, 268; 1334–8, 278; L. & P. Hen. VIII, xx(1), 656; Leic. Boro. Rec. 1103–1327, 371; 1327–1509, 284, 307, 355.
  • 10. Nichols, Leics. i. 296.
  • 11. John Speed, Map of Leics. (1610); J. Throsby, Hist. of Leic. frontispiece map; [Susannah Watts], Walk Through Leic. (1804), frontispiece map; Nichols, Leics. i, maps facing pp. 6, 9; and see above, pp. 53, 154.
  • 12. A. T. Patterson, Radical Leic. 40.
  • 13. Rep. Com. on Boundaries and Wards of Certain Boros., Pt. 2, H.C. 238 (1837), xxvii.
  • 14. V.C.H. Leics. iii. 179.
  • 15. V.C.H. Leics. iii. 124–5.
  • 16. In 1832 Black Friars was reckoned as part of the ancient borough of Leicester: Rep. Com. on Proposed Division of Cos. and Boundaries of Boros., Pt. 3, H.C. 141, p. 87 (1831–2), xxix.
  • 17. It is not listed in Rep. Sel. Cttee. Appointed to Consider Returns Made by Overseers of Poor, Rep. of H.C. (1st Ser.), ix, pp. 385, 619.
  • 18. Abstract of Returns Relative to the Expense and Maintenance of the Poor, H.C. 175, p. 262 (1803–4), xiii.
  • 19. See above, p. 257.
  • 20. Rep. Com. on Boundaries and Wards (1837).
  • 21. Wm. Ranger, Rep. to the Gen. Bd. of Health on a Public Inquiry into the Sewerage of Leic. 12 (Leic. City Ref. Libr. Pamphlets O 2, vol. vii). Leic. Jnl. 1 Jan. 1849, p. 2.
  • 22. Ranger, op. cit. 15.
  • 23. See above, p. 267.
  • 24. See above, p. 257.
  • 25. Lond. Gaz. 1880, 4303.