The blog from the heart of Leicester's Clarendon Park

In the beginning: Notable buildings of CP

When you’ve lived somewhere for a while you tend to stop noticing things. Consumed by the day-to-day routines of home and work it’s easy to take our surroundings for granted, only noticing when there is a dramatic change of some sort. In this article I’ll look at the fascinating history behind some of Clarendon Park’s notable buildings. These are places that you may walk past every day without a second thought, but they all have a unique story to tell about the very beginnings of Clarendon Park 150 years ago.

Two books have been extremely useful in my research for this article – A look at Clarendon Park by Philip Thornton and The Illustrated History of Leicester’s Suburbs by Christine Jordan. I recommend them both to anyone interested in the area’s history. In addition, David Oldershaw, Chair of Stoneygate Conservation Area Society (SCAS), has been really helpful in drawing my attention to  some of the most noteworthy listed buildings in Clarendon Park. The SCAS website itself contains a wealth of information about the buildings within the conservation area, which encompasses parts of Clarendon Park, Stoneygate and South Knighton.

I remember when all this was fields…

Imagine that the phone box in the front garden of 38 Clarendon Park Road turned out to be a time machine which could whisk you back to the middle of the 19th century. Anyone using it would find themselves stood in the middle of a massive field known locally as ‘The Breach’. The only nearby roads are those now known as London Road and Welford Road, while Queens Road exists only as a humble footpath between the nearby villages of Evington and Knighton.

Fast-forward to the 1870s and building work is underway on a new estate encompassing 120 acres of land roughly bordered by West Avenue, Avenue Road, Welford Road and Victoria Park Road (Victoria Park itself was at this time Leicester’s racecourse). The wealthy Victorian businessmen who funded the initiative named the area “Clarendon Park”, probably just because it sounded posh, rather than in reference to any actual park.

Rapid expansion

The first houses to be built, and therefore the oldest in Clarendon Park, are likely to have been the first few terraced cottages on what is now Avenue Road Extension. The plaque above number three proudly announces the date of its completion as 1879. This was the year that the first female students were admitted to Oxford University and Thomas Edison applied for a patent for his latest invention – the lightbulb.

Old timer: The plaque on the front of 3 Avenue Road Extension, one of the oldest buildings in Clarendon Park

Old timer: The plaque on the front of 3 Avenue Road Extension, one of the oldest buildings in Clarendon Park

It would be decades before electric lights would illuminate the streets and houses of Clarendon Park, but in the meantime building work on Leicester’s newest and most fashionable suburb continued apace. St John’s School, Clarendon Park Congregational Church and a swathe of houses between East Avenue and St Leonards Road were all built in the 1880s.

By the turn of the century, Clarendon Park Road and the surrounding streets were established residential thoroughfares. It was around this time that world-renowned architect Ernest Gimson designed The White House on the corner of North Avenue and The Avenue, now a Grade II listed building. Leicester-born Gimson is considered to be one of the most influential designers in the English Arts and Crafts movement, and as well as designing The White House he also contributed directly to the internal decoration, including a series of plasterwork friezes. The White House was one of the properties David recommended as one of the highlights of the conservation area. It’s a stunning house, and it’s well worth taking a little detour when you’re out that way just to take a look at one of the earliest works of Leicester’s most renowned architects and designers.

Big and beautiful: The White House on the corner of North Avenue and The Avenue, designed by world-renowned architect and designer Ernest Gimson

Big and beautiful: The White House on the corner of North Avenue and The Avenue, designed by world-renowned architect and designer Ernest Gimson

Changing times

The building on Clarendon Park Road which is currently the Chinese Christian Church has a varied history. This distinctive structure of red brick and intricate stonework opened in 1892 as Knighton Public Hall. Also known as Knighton Liberal Club, it served as the headquarters of the Liberal political party until sometime around the turn of the century, when the popularity of the Liberals declined and the party was forced to vacate its swanky HQ. 

After a brief and unsuccessful stint as a cinema, the premises were taken over by a hosiery company, who used the sizeable building as a warehouse. A company making specialist parts for footwear followed, then for half a decade until the mid 1980s it was occupied by wholesalers J&J Levy. It was following this that ownership passed to the Chinese Christian Church. This interdenominational church conducts services in Mandarin, Cantonese and English and actively supports Leicester’s Chinese Christian community through regular events and a programme of youth work.

Number 64: This stunning building on Clarendon Park Road has been a Liberal club, cinema and hosiery warehouse

Number 64: This stunning building on Clarendon Park Road has been a Liberal club, cinema and hosiery warehouse

From headquarters of the Liberal party, to a centre for entertainment, to a hub of hosiery, footwear and manufacturing activity, until finally becoming the central meeting point for one of the city’s many religious communities. The chequered history of 64 Clarendon Park Road reads like a condensed history of Leicester itself. 

Just around the corner on Queens Road is a somewhat more unassuming building with an equally interesting back story. Number 139 is currently occupied by LLC estate agents, but it started life as a police station and fire brigade sub-station. If you look at the building front-on you can see the narrow archway through the middle of the property which the fire engines would have passed through. Ignore the gaudy LLC signage and the building is largely unchanged – it’s not too difficult to picture it as the bustling workplace of nearly a dozen police officers and two fire officers.

The Old Police Station: 139 Queens Road, which used to be a police station and fire brigade sub-station

The Old Police Station: 139 Queens Road, which used to be a police station and fire brigade sub-station

A more modern addition

“Most of the buildings that are of interest in the conservation area are Victorian and Edwardian,” says David. Indeed, the vast majority of Clarendon Park’s houses and public buildings were built in one of these two eras. There are some notable exceptions though, one being 22 Avenue Road. This art deco style bungalow was built in the 1950s and according to David is “one of comparatively few post-war built Grade II listed houses in the country.”

The building looks utterly ordinary from the road, and I walked past it twice before working out which one it was. Looking at its mundane exterior it’s difficult to believe that this property is set in a quarter of an acre of gardens and has been praised by English Heritage as being “extraordinarily light” and demonstrating “understated elegance”. Pop the address into Google and you can catch a glimpse of the wonderfully contemporary 1950s interior, complete with Westmorland slate hearth and mantelpiece, Welsh slate window sills and a giddying range of hardwood finishings.

Nothing to see here: The unassuming facade of 22 Avenue Road hides an architecturally important building set in a quarter of an acre of gardens

Nothing to see here: The unassuming facade of 22 Avenue Road hides an architecturally important building set in a quarter of an acre of gardens

It’s difficult to imagine when looking at the very ordinary frontage of this bungalow that it hides so many treasures within, not to mention the fact that it sold last year for nearly £500,000.

Building on the past

Stoneygate Conservation Area Society was founded around 36 years ago, at the same time as the conservation area itself was established. David explains the origins of SCAS and its purpose:

“In 1978 the Conservation Area was founded by the council in conjunction with the department for the environment and the Society was started at the same time,”says David, “It was a started as a body for local residents to work with the council to protect the area.” As well as making recommendations to the council on planning proposals made within the area, SCAS works to raise the awareness of local residents about all matters relating to the history and culture behind its buildings.

Unlocking the potential of local buildings is another of SCAS’s aims, and David is keen that the organisation isn’t considered fusty or stuck in the past, saying, “It’s not about keeping things the same, it’s about building on the quality that’s there. We recognise that houses need to change to fit with changing lifestyles. We encourage people to think about the impact of the house on the rest of the street, and the general atmosphere of their surroundings.”

Membership of SCAS costs £6 per year and the society has nearly 200 members, some of whom live in the Conservation Area itself, and many others from neighbouring areas. As well as a regular newsletter and day trips to museums and galleries further afield, membership includes the opportunity to take part in guided walks around the conservation area a couple of times a year, led by an architecture expert. As a recently signed-up member of SCAS I’m looking forward to the first of these walks and passing on some nuggets of info to you.

Which of Clarendon Park’s buildings do you think has the most interesting history? Do you live in the Conservation Area, perhaps even in one of its listed buildings? Is there an unusual building nearby you’d like to learn more about? Use the comment box below to add your voice to the conversation.

8 Responses to “In the beginning: Notable buildings of CP”

  1. Michael bradbury

    As interesting as it was to read the above history of Clarendon park, I cannot understand why no mention whatever was made to orson wright, the entrepreneur builder who carried out such extensive work in the area. There is no mention of the wheatsheaf shoe factory, built by orson wright for the co-operative society as englands largest factory in it’s day. Ernest gimson seems to be portrayed as the ‘ star’ in this era of Clarendon park’s history but I would strongly recommend that interested readers buy a copy of ‘ the people’s champion ‘ by local historian Peter cousins.

    Reply
    • Ruth

      Thank you so much for getting in touch Michael – this is really interesting extra info. Although I’d heard about Orson Wright’s prolific work in Leicester, I was unaware that he was active in Clarendon Park itself. The Wheatsheaf Shoe Factory you refer to is in Knighton Fields I think, which is a little outside my ‘patch’. Anyway, this post was certainly never intended to be comprehensive, but rather a quick snapshot of half a dozen notable buildings, so there is ample scope for a follow-up post focusing on the contributions of other architects. I’m looking forward to reading up about Wright’s work – thank you for the recommendation!

      Ernie G’s still my favourite though. I love that guy.

      Reply
      • Michael bradbury

        Thanks for your reply Ruth, sorry about the geography re shoe factory . Please do read up on orson wright (he was my great great uncle on my maternal side); from very humble beginnings in dunton basset he achieved so much in his relatively short life.
        Regards
        Michael.

        Reply
  2. Emma Scotchbrook

    Hi,

    I live at 101 Montague Road, Clarendon Park. The building has an old ghost sign which has faded but can be read as cash and grocer provision dealer. I would like to find out the history of it & try & get some images in the thought of possibly restoring the sign but cannot find anything on the internet for my particular property. One of the main problems is that, although the address is now Montague road I think the original entrance was on the corner of Montague & at leonards road so it could be either. I have also noted that there is no number 106 st leonards road.

    Any information or advice on how I could find out would be gratefully received

    Kind regards

    Emma Scotchbrook

    Reply
    • Ruth

      Hi Emma, thank you so much for getting in touch.

      I’m fascinated by ghost signs. We’ve got quite a few in CP and I’d love to devote a blog post to them but I too have found it difficult to find out much about the history behind all but a couple of them. Can you work out the wording right at the top of your sign? I can make out “GROCER AND PROVISION DEALER” but not the word above it, which is a shame because it’s probably the name of the owner which would be a great clue!

      Interesting that there is no 106 St Leonards Road. It does look to me as if the corner of your building directly under the sign used to house a doorway and that this has since been bricked up. So I agree with you that it’s quite likely that number 106 St Leonards was the grocers, with the entrance on the corner and the big sign above advertising its wares (cigars and medicine as well as groceries if I’ve deciphered it correctly – a real one-stop-shop!)

      I know that the library keeps copies of old business directories and censuses and that sort of thing so maybe that would be a good way to proceed? That sort of ‘proper research’ with old papers and microfiche film is something I’d love to do a bit of myself but I’ve not yet got round to it.

      Sorry I can’t be more help but I hope you persevere and do let me know how you get on. It would be lovely to see this echo of Clarendon Park’s past restored to its former glory!

      Ruth 🙂

      Reply
      • Emma Scotchbrook

        Hi Ruth,

        Thank you so much for your response. We deduced the same as you regarding the shop door & missing number on st leonards road. The sign actually reads cash grocer & provision dealer. It took quite a few iPad photos & zooms & also a look on google earth to work it out though! We hoped that the top word would be the shop owners name but eventually worked it out to read ‘cash’ which was disappointing as we hoped it may lead to a name to help our research. I shall endeavour to go the library & do more research when I have time.

        Thank you again

        Kind Regards

        Emma

        Reply
  3. Inglenookery

    About 22 Avenue Road: I don’t know if it’s an apochryphal story or not, but I remember being told that this house was built for Mr and Mrs Goddard of Goddard’s Silver Polish fame.

    Reply
    • Ruth

      Ooh – this is interesting. I can find a couple of references online saying that it was indeed commissioned by a Mr and Mrs Goddard, but no clues as to if it was the silver polish couple. I’ll investigate!

      Reply

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