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 whole of the ancient parish of St. Leonard lies close to the banks of the River Soar. In 1891 it was estimated to cover 36 acres. (fn. 1) The greater part lies on the river's west bank, but St. Leonard's also includes a small part of the district known as Frog Island on the east bank. The soil is alluvium. The area became part of the new Leicester civil parish in 1896, but remained a separate parish for ecclesiastical purposes. In 1931 its population was 2,692. (fn. 2)
St. Leonard's lies well outside the old walled area of Leicester, the eastern boundary of the parish being some 300 yards from the site of the town's North Gate. Within the parish boundaries the Soar is crossed by the North Bridge, which is known to have been in existence by 1305, and may well have been built by the middle of the 13th century. (fn. 3) Northgate Street, linking the east end of the bridge with the North Gate, Abbey Gate, running north-east from the west end of the bridge to St. Mary's Abbey, and Wood Gate, running from the bridge northwestwards into Leicester Forest, have always been the principal streets of the parish. It was probably the existence of a crossing over the Soar that first led to the growth of a detached suburb in what became St. Leonard's parish. It is not known when first a distinct settlement arose, but the parish of St. Leonard was already established by 1220. (fn. 4) During the Middle Ages the parish must have been largely dominated by St. Mary's Abbey, which appropriated the church, (fn. 5) and which in the 12th century and later obtained considerable grants of land in St. Leonard's, including a carucate which had once belonged to the moneyers of Leicester. (fn. 6) After the Dissolution these lands were granted away by the Crown in 1545 to three speculators, Richard, Roger, and Robert Taverner, (fn. 7) who probably disposed of them piecemeal.
By the end of the 16th century houses had been built along both sides of Northgate Street from the North Gate to the North Bridge, so that St. Leonard's was connected with the town by a continuous strip of buildings. (fn. 8) The parish, however, remained poor and scantily populated. From the end of the 16th century until about 1860 the dwellings in the parish consisted only of houses along both sides of Abbey Gate, a few more in Wood Gate, and those houses at the north end of Northgate Street (known as Frog Island) which fell within St. Leonard's. (fn. 9) In 1611 it was said that the parishioners were in general so poor that only four of them were sufficiently prosperous to contribute towards the repair of the church. (fn. 10) In 1801 the parish's population was only 390, and in 1861 it was still only 441. (fn. 11) Subsequently, however, owing to the building of a number of small residential streets leading off Abbey Gate and Wood Gate, the population rapidly increased, and in 1881 it was 3,046. (fn. 12) By the end of the 19th century the parish had been almost entirely built up. (fn. 13)
During the Middle Ages, St. Leonard's parish, or at least that part of it which lay to the west of the Soar, seems to have been regarded as lying outside the borough of Leicester. A list of the town's wards with their boundaries, made in 1484, includes the part of St. Leonard's on Frog Island, but does not mention the remainder of the parish, lying to the west of the river. (fn. 14) Further evidence that the Frog Island portion of the parish was considered in the Middle Ages to lie within the borough is to be found in the fact that the town paid for the repair of the North Bridge in 1365–6, (fn. 15) for if the Frog Island portion had been outside the borough boundaries, the North Bridge would have been wholly outside, and is unlikely then to have been maintained by the borough. By the reign of Elizabeth I, St. Leonard's was definitely outside the borough, (fn. 16) but was brought within the borough by the royal charter of 1599, saving the rights which might have been granted previously to others. (fn. 17) In spite of this grant, the county justices exercised jurisdiction in the parish in the 18th century and perhaps earlier, and it was finally decided that they and the borough justices should have concurrent jurisdiction there as in the other liberties. (fn. 18) Frog Island remained under the control of the borough. (fn. 19) Under the Municipal Corporations Act (fn. 20) the whole of the parish was brought within the borough. (fn. 21) Although the church ceased to exist in the 17th century, the parish continued to be administered by its own officers. The administration of the poor laws in the parish has been dealt with elsewhere. (fn. 22)
Before 1220 St. Leonard's Church was appropriated by Leicester Abbey. (fn. 23) It is not known when the abbey obtained the advowson, but if St. Leonard's already existed in 1143, when the abbey was founded and endowed by Robert, Earl of Leicester with all the churches of Leicester, (fn. 24) it would have been acquired by the abbey. St. Leonard's remained appropriated to Leicester Abbey until the Dissolution. (fn. 25) In 1238–9 it was said that the Vicar of St. Leonard's received yearly the corrody of a canon of the abbey and a salary of £1. (fn. 26) In 1254 the stipend of the vicar was held to be insufficient. (fn. 27) In 1437 it was decided that the living was too poor to support a vicar, and that the church should in future be served by a stipendiary chaplain, and after this the parish seems to have been without a vicar for some considerable time. (fn. 28) In 1509 John Birmingham, who was described as the Vicar of St. Leonard's, was accused of having allowed a parishioner to die unconfessed and without the eucharist, and with having been negligent of his duties in other ways. (fn. 29) Presumably the appointment of vicars had been resumed, though Birmingham's position is not precisely defined. In 1517 it was said that the chancel of St. Leonard's was in disrepair, and that the lights were not kept burning in the church. (fn. 30) In 1526, when John Barton was vicar, it was reported that the church furnishings were deficient, and that quarrelsome and gossiping persons attended the services. (fn. 31) After the Dissolution the advowson was in the hands of the Crown until it was given to the Bishop of Peterborough in 1867. (fn. 32) After the creation of the see of Leicester in 1926 the patronage was transferred to the new bishop. (fn. 33) The living was valued at £6 in 1535 (fn. 34) and augmented in 1737 by a gift from Queen Anne's Bounty. It was worth £40 in 1831. (fn. 35)
Early in the 17th century the church fabric was evidently dilapidated, for in 1611 the mayor and bailiffs of Leicester appealed to the Bishop of Lincoln to permit a ruined portion of the church to be pulled down; the aisle roof had apparently collapsed and was in danger of pulling the rest of the structure down with it. The mayor stated that the part of the church which was sound was sufficiently large to accommodate the parishioners, and asked the bishop to permit the materials from the ruined portion to be used to repair the rest. (fn. 36) In 1639 a brief was issued for the repairing of the steeple, (fn. 37) and some repair work was carried out in 1642. (fn. 38) The church was destroyed soon afterwards; it is said to have been demolished during Fairfax's siege of Leicester in 1645 because the church tower commanded the North Bridge. (fn. 39)
For some 200 years St. Leonard's parish was without a church. A separate register was kept, and the graveyard remained open until 1856. (fn. 40) In 1650 the cure was being served by the Vicar of All Saints'. (fn. 41) The Vicar of All Saints' continued to officiate in St. Leonard's until the early 19th century, when it seems to have become usual for the Vicar of St. Margaret's to be in charge. (fn. 42) St. Leonard's remained a distinct parish, and was never merged with St. Margaret's or All Saints'. (fn. 43) Later in the 19th century the vicarage of St. Leonard's was usually held by the Vicar of All Saints' or St. Martin's. (fn. 44) In 1831 the value of the living was £40. (fn. 45)
Plans for rebuilding the church of St. Leonard were discussed as early as 1815, (fn. 46) but nothing was achieved until the great increase in the parish's population in the late 19th century made a new church in the northern part of Leicester essential. In 1874 a separate vicar for St. Leonard's was inducted, and from that time onwards services were held in the parish school, (fn. 47) which had been built in the churchyard in 1846. (fn. 48) The foundation stone of a new church, designed by F. W. Ordish, was laid in 1876, (fn. 49) and the new building was consecrated in 1877. (fn. 50) The incumbent of St. Leonard's is now (1956) largely responsible for the adjacent extra-parochial areas of Gilroes, Leicester Abbey, and Beaumont Leys.
Until the Dissolution the tithes belonged to Leicester Abbey; in 1535 they were valued at £2 3s. 4d. (fn. 51) At the Dissolution the tithes fell to the Crown and were granted away before 1646, when they were in the possession of a lay impropriator, William Rudyard. The parishioners were then refusing to pay tithes, possibly because they had no church. (fn. 52) The tithes were commuted in 1850 for annual payments of £3 to the vicar for the small tithes and £1 2s. for the great tithes to the impropriator, who was then a barrister, Nicholas Simons of Lincoln's Inn. (fn. 53)
The church of ST. LEONARD is built of Mountsorrel granite with stone dressings. It consists of nave, chancel, and south aisle. The original design also included a north aisle, tower, and spire, but these were never built, as difficulty was found in paying even for the work which was done. The building is an austere example of the 13th-century style. Two pieces of stone from the old church are preserved, together with the font. In 1896 the foundations showed signs of collapse and the fabric was strengthened. (fn. 54)
The registers date from 1682 and are incomplete. There are no records of marriages until 1813, baptisms and burials are missing for 1714–30, and burials for 1790–3. The plate, consisting of a silver cup, paten, and flagon, was given in 1877. There are no bells.
Robert Auceter, by will proved 1633, left property in Abbey Gate which was to be subject, among other payments, to a charge of 20s. yearly for the poor of St. Leonard's parish. Up to 1828 the payment was regularly made. Arrangements were made to revive it in 1837. (fn. 55) The charity is now managed by the corporation and 20s. for bread is paid from nos. 1–7 Littleton Street. (fn. 56)
William Springthorpe, who held various parish offices in the mid-17th century and who died in 1689, left the profits of the herbage of St. Leonard's churchyard and 6s. charged on a house in the parish to the poor of the parish. (fn. 57) This charity was paid throughout the 18th century, but may have been in abeyance when the Charity Commissioners made their report, as there is no mention of it. There was no church by the time that Springthorpe died and it may have been felt that the profits of the churchyard were suitable for a charity, although how he came to be in a position to give such profits to the poor remains unexplained. The income from the herbage probably ceased to be paid when the churchyard was built over. (fn. 58) The 6s. rent-charge is now paid from the Old Robin Hood Inn in Woodgate, formerly the Fleece. In 1931 the charity came under the management of trustees appointed by the corporation and a yearly sum of 6s. 8d. is now paid by them in two parts, one of which goes to St. Leonard's and one to the Abbey Gate Baptist Mission, the only free church in the parish. The money is used to buy shoes for two poor widows. (fn. 59)
St. Leonard's parish used to receive £2 yearly from Gilroes and from Sherman's Ground. (fn. 60) The former was paid up to about 1750 from at least the end of the 17th century, but in 1750 the occupier of the land refused further payment. The payment from Sherman's Ground was also refused in 1750, when the parish levied a distress on the occupier, and the payments continued until at least 1783. By 1837 the charity had been lost and the commissioners make no mention of it. A similar sum was paid from Freak's Ground from about 1719 by its owners, the corporation, which owed considerable arrears in 1837. (fn. 61) The payment had then been reduced to £1 1s. It seems never to have been revived. The origin of all these payments is unknown.
The parish also receives one-third of the Countess of Devonshire's Charity, and a payment under Heyrick's Charity for bread from the Trustees of the Leicester General Charities. (fn. 62)
At the end of the 17th century a charity left by a Mr. Smart for eight 2d. loaves to be given to the poor at Christmas is mentioned. (fn. 63) There are no records of this charity ever having been dispensed.