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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.