Fielding Johnson Building
Erected on a piece of land in the South Field (an area of parkland and pastures overlooking the city), the asylum was constructed in 1837 of white Mountsorrel bricks and Bangor slates. It was designed in a late Georgian provincial style by the well-known local architect William Parsons and it is acknowledged that local ratepayers paid for the building costs (£17,948.19s). It is also believed that Queen Victoria donated £50 towards the construction of the asylum on one of her official visits to Leicester. The main block has four protruding three-storey pavilions and a three-storey central façade crowned with an accentuated limestone cornice and a triangular brick pediment. The entrance to the building was preceded by a fountain, gardens and footpaths that made the façade stand out. The symmetrically placed Georgian sash windows with cambered arches across the building’s ivied walls have become very characteristic of the site.
The Leicestershire and Rutland County Lunatic Asylum, as it was originally named, became one of the first asylums to be built under the Counties Asylums Act (1808). “Lunatic” was the term used in the nineteenth century and before to refer to people with mental illness, whose behaviour was believed to be influenced by the moon. The building of county asylums was encouraged under the new Act in order to improve, and control, the generally appalling conditions endured by inmates in various workhouses and private madhouses.
The county asylum finally opened in May 1837 with 104 inmates. The paupers dependent on public welfare (subscribers and benefactors provided for the care of the inmates) lived separated from the privately funded inmates and were separated by gender. Visitors were allowed into the publicly financed pauper areas. Staff included the resident medical superintendent (who acted as general director), a matron/housekeeper, a treasurer as well as servants and housemaids. The inmates carried out works that were considered therapeutic for them such as farming, shoemaking workshops for men and needlework for women, with the asylum becoming almost self-sufficient.
The county asylum became a large complex thanks to the many other exterior buildings added over the century. The medical superintendent´s house, for instance, was built in 1872 with a covered way that linked the house to the main asylum. Redbrick wings were built by Parsons & Dain behind each side of the main block in 1842 and 1848-49, as more accommodation was needed for the increasing number of inmates.
By the end of the nineteenth century the asylum lost several acres of its own cultivated land to neighbouring developments. This, together with the relentless increase in the number of inmates, led to a significant deterioration the living and health conditions of the asylum’s occupants. The last inmates left in September 1908, transferred to the Carlton Hayes, a newly constructed county asylum in Narborough.
During the First World War (1914-1919) the asylum was rented without charge to the local council and converted into the 5th Northern General Military Hospital. The building was restored and redbrick wings, designed by Samuel Perkins Pick, were constructed as the nurses’ living quarters. Two years before the hospital was vacated, the local press suggested the vacant county asylum would make appropriate accommodation for the university college. Dr. Astley V. Clarke, president of the Literary and Philosophical Society, had already stressed the importance of establishing a university college for the city in 1912. The establishment of a higher education institution was envisaged as a form of war memorial once the war came to an end and an advocacy campaign was set up to raise funds and move the plans forward. The University motto “Ut Vitam Habeant” (so that they have life) reflects the fact that the University was always intended to become a living memorial to those who had lost their lives in the Great War.
The project of converting the old hospital into a university college became a reality when the wealthy worsted manufacturer Thomas Fielding Johnson (1828-1921) secretly purchased the county asylum from the County Council for £40.000. Thirty-seven acres in total were bought, from which six were destined to be the foundation of the university college and the rest the Wyggeston boys and girls grammar school, now the Wyggeston & Queen Elizabeth I college. It finally opened in October 1921 as the Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland University College with 9 students (8 women and 1 man). The former asylum building was equipped with classrooms, a library and administrative offices. Student numbers increased fast and the University continued to develop until a campus master plan was devised in the 1950s, designed to accommodate this rapid expansion.
The iconic Fielding Johnson building was only named after its benefactor in 1964. A major addition was the construction of the University library in 1974, replaced by the modern David Wilson Library in 2008. Currently the building houses the University of Leicester’s main administrative offices.
We would like to thank Victoria Milvaques for this article written specifically for the Story of Leicester website (August 2013)
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