Sunday, 16 September 2012

A Victorian History Lesson in Leicester

Around 10 years ago I was in Uppingham, a beautiful market town in Rutland, which I'm sure you all know, and I came across a vintage book store that was closing down. I can't  resist this kind of shop, with uneven shelves holding books of all sorts of shapes and sizes, old and new, in no particular order whatsoever. The shop was like an Aladdin's cave and it was there where I stumbled across a book titled "Leicester Town and County - A Reading Book for Schools." It was an old, pocket-sized book dated 1898 and stamped with "Green Lane Mixed Leicester School Board"  on the inside front and back covers.

It is a fantastic little book and a fascinating insight into what Leicestershire children were learning about with regards to the history of the county more than 100 years ago. There were actually two of these books on the shelf, reduced to £1 - so I bought both!

This book is an absolute gem, and I particularly enjoy the preface:

      "The "Story of Leicester, Town and County" has been written to create and foster a local interest in the minds of young readers, for whom it has been specially prepared. The instruction is imparted in narrative as being most likely to engage and sustain this interest. The most striking features in the Geography, Geology, and History of the county are presented in a simple, readable form, suited to children in Standards IV-VII.
       "The book has been adopted by the Leicester School Board as an alternative Reader in their Day Schools, and as the only Reader to be used in their Continuation Evening Schools. The publishers hope that this example will be followed by other school managers in the county who wish to bring the local history and geography of Leicestershire within the reach of the children in the schools in which they are respectively interested."

I have never come across this book before and I doubt there are many in circulation but if, like me, you get the chance to read it, you will be delighted!

The book starts like a story, with Mr. Historicus (Latin for Historical) wanting to teach his "goodly band of nephews and nieces" the story of Leicester. I should say before continuing - what a great name for a history teacher, and you can guess the ages of the children that this book was written for. The book is the story that 'Uncle Historicus' tells to the children who come to his house, which is called Roman Villa, and, as the book explains, was built on what was formerly been known as the "Cherry Orchard Estate," and was situated by the side of King Richard's Road. We learn that his house was built on a Roman Villa and how Mr Historicus spends most of his time in Leicester Museum so that he has become sufficiently learned in all that concerned the history of Leicester.

The book may have been written for Victorian children but I can honestly tell you that I learned a thing or two, and I myself am a local historian. The easy-to-follow story is very factual (if not a little out of date with more than 100 years of historical research since it was published) and is interspersed with some fantastic pictures.

You can see how beautiful the pictures are, but it is the content of the book, the way it is written and how the Victorian's taught, which has really interested me. I'm so impressed! The book is only a couple of hundred pages and through them you learn about the Celts, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Danes, Normans etc etc. You also learn a thing or two about the topical King Richard III.

Would you like to know what was taught in Leicester's Victorian schools about Richard III's burial site? I thought it would be an inaccurate myth about his body being thrown into the River Soar, but I was surprised by the accurate use of contemporary sources:

     "It has been commonly supposed that the king's body was exposed to public view in the old Town Hall, in Blue Boar Lane; but this supposition is incorrect- "King Richard was brought to Leicester that night as naked as he was born, and in the Newark was he laid, that many a man might see."
     "Nere Bosworth upon Redemore the last battail betwixt the familyes of York and Lancaster was fought, whose civill discentions had spent England more blode than twice had done the winning of Fraunce. There Richard the tyrant and usurper by Henry Earle of Richmond was slaine. The corps of ye dead king being tugged and dispitefully torne was layed all naked upon a horse, and trussed like a hogge behind a pursivant of Armes and as homely buryed in ye Graye Fr, within Leicester, which being ruinated, his grave rests obscure, overgrowne with nettles and weeds. This battail was fought the 22 of August anno 1485"

For a child at school in Victorian Leicester, they learned exactly the same as children today now know - that Richard III was buried in Greyfriars. I was surprised that the Victorian textbook didn't hold back on the old language and spelling and how it laid out the facts for the child's mind to absorb. I'm sure little children these days wouldn't learn the same detailed information at such a young age!

I particularly love the chapter in the book about old Leicester bye-laws (this is where I learned a lot)! Here's a couple of crackers:

     "That no cook, or other person, be so bold as to throw dirty water into the High Street [Highcross Street], to the annoyance and dirtying of the good people!"

     "That no man have pigs running loose in the High Street [Highcross Street], if they not be rung."

I did find something though that I'm sure is not taught in Leicester schools today, or any school for that matter. Page 71 talks about the late, great Simon de Montfort but Mr Historicus doesn't paint the positive picture we all know today. Simon de Montfort's statue is on the Clock Tower, there is De Montfort Hall and he even has a university named after him. His picture even adorns the walls of the House of Representatives in America - being as he is known as the grandfather of democracy, but this fantastic little book teaches us that Simon de Montfort was not all that great, and that he was actually an anti-semite, and spitefully so. I quote....

     "Even the liberal Earl of Leicester could not escape from the cruel spirit of the times in which he lived, as may be seen from another charter granted by him to the bigots of Leicester, of a less pleasing character than the preceding. This shows how ill the Jews were treated in Leicester, as indeed they were in England generally, then and for many years after."
     "Simon de Montfort, Lord of Leicester, to all who may see and hear the present page, health in the Lord! Know all of you, that I for the good of my soul, and of my ancestors and successors, have granted, and by this my present charter have confirmed, on behalf of me and my heirs for ever, to my burgesses of Leicester and their heirs, that no Jew or Jewess in my time, or in the time of any of my heirs to the end of the world, shall inhabit or remain, or obtain a residence, in Leicester."

Hard stuff; but at least children in Victorian Leicester were not too molly-coddled.

I am looking to see if I am able to re-publish this book and if anybody can help me out with the legalities - I would love to know whether or not it is possible. It is something of general interest, both for it's historical content and it's social historical significance - being a book used in the Victorian classroom.

The final word on this book though must go to the child who owned it. On the inside back cover he drew a man smoking a pipe. If this isn't a real piece of social history, I don't know what is, and although the child graffitied a school textbook - I'm so glad he/she did!

by Matthew Sibson


  1. What an amazing find. It teaches us so much, not least, as you point out, the way that Victorian children were treated as small adults. Good luck with your republication enquiries.

  2. Victorians new what they were doing brilliant people very clever people not like the morons today it is why we live in the shit we do better a grown up child than a idiot man