Local and Community History Month: The University of Leicester’s Wartime Origins

Figure 1 Welford Road Cemetery War Graves – Image taken by Laura May Bailey

May 2021 is Local and Community History Month across the UK. Museums and heritage sites are trying to increase knowledge of local history with some great activities and events. When I came to Leicester in October, I knew very little about the history of the city or University but exploring the University of Leicester Special Collections and other online archives has shown there is such a rich and diverse history here. 

The impressive Arch of Remembrance in Victoria Park is, today, one of the most impactful memorials to the losses Leicester suffered during the First and Second World Wars. On the other side of University Road lies Welford Road Cemetery, the final resting place of 344 victims of both wars. The Screen Wall listing some of the names of those buried in the cemetery is another poignant reminder of local sacrifice. However, perhaps the most important legacy and memorial of the First World War is the University of Leicester itself.

In total, 50,000 men and women from Leicester and the surrounding county served in the First World War, with 9,348 casualties. During the war, the university building we know today as the Fielding Johnson was transformed from former lunatic asylum to the 5th Northern General Hospital. The hospital, which also occupied land in Evington, admitted nearly 100,000 people over the course of the war. Sadly, 514 of these injured individuals died.

After the war’s end, there was movement for a permanent, living memorial to those killed. The Leicester Daily Post argued for a more meaningful, not simply artistic, way of keeping their memory alive. This call was answered by Dr Astley Clarke, with help from people across Leicester including Thomas Fielding Johnson. 

Figure 2 Arch of Remembrance, Victoria Park – Image taken by Laura May Bailey

There had been efforts to create a University College in the city for years before 1914 so that Leicester could compete with nearby cities like Birmingham which had founded a University in 1900. One day after the First World War ended, Clarke set up the ‘Leicester University Fund’ “in celebration of peace” to create the University College as a permanent memorial.

In the first fourteen months of fundraising, £100,000 had been raised. Some of this came from the grieving relatives, partners, and friends of those who would never return to Leicester. Once the hospital had finished using the former-asylum, Fielding Johnson purchased the building and donated it to the council for use as the University College.

It was on the 4th of October 1921 that University College Leicester first opened its doors to eleven new students. From the suffering of the First World War, the University emerged as a way to honour sacrifice and give future generations chances for education and life that previous young men and women of Leicester had not been able to access. 

The first motto of the University College “ut vitem habeant,” or that they may have life, is still included on the University flag which can be seen flying above the Fielding Johnson building on campus.

Laura May Bailey is a masters student of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester. As well as having a passion for museums, she is also interested in traveling, history, and literature. You can find her on Instagram here

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