The Origins of De Montfort University

Yesterday was a special day for De Montfort University – 150 years since the meeting at which it was decided to start the Leicester School of Art. You can see a story about the anniversary here and have a look at our new anniversary website including an events calendar. 

What prompted the people of Leicester to start an art school on that evening in October 1869? See below for DMU’s ‘origin story’ as told by archivist Katharine Short…

In 1869 the national Art Journal was moved to remark on the recent foundation of the Leicester School of Art: “we only wonder such an institution was not founded long ago.” Leicester finally had an art school, one that in time would expand, merge, and develop into the Leicester Colleges of Art and Technology, Leicester Polytechnic, and finally De Montfort University. 

Education for designers was a long-standing national concern. In the 1830s a government select committee investigated the preference of the British public for imported goods and found simply that foreignmade items were more attractive in design and decoration. In 1835 School of Design was founded in London to train teachers in a National Course of Instruction. Provincial towns were encouraged to start schools of art that would teach this syllabus, which comprised 23 stages from basic linear drawing through to the highest arts of figure painting. Every student was to be taught the same thing in the same way, and the programme was centrally organised by the Department of Science and Art based in South Kensington who examined work and distributed grants. Several towns were keen to establish their art schoolsManchester in 1838, Birmingham in 1842, Nottingham, Coventry and Sheffield in 1843. 

There were several attempts to get a school started in Leicester and various shortlived art classes but local conditions were not favourable. Locally there was considerable poverty due to the main industry of hosiery manufacture going through periods of stagnation, so there was little income to spend on classesAt this date the hosiery trade comprised small and competitive workshops and employers did not support art classes as they did not like the idea of their workers sharing trade secrets. There was also a prevalent opinion that hosiery manufacture did not need decorative skill and thus there was no need to train designers. 


 In 1862 a newcomer to Leicester wrote of the “stigma which rests upon Leicestershire as being the only county which contains in it no school of this character” (Nottinghamshire Guardian, 18 March 1862). However, as the 1860s progressed conditions in Leicester significantly changed for the better. Increased prosperity came from the growth of the boot and shoe trade which was more stable than hosiery, as well as the spread of railways. Improved sanitation and water supply had increased the population of the town and given them better health. In this atmosphere the well-off middle classes turned to the foundation of cultural institutions that reflected their new sense of civic pride, including the museum, library and Literary and Philosophical Society. Indeed, when a group of locals came together aa public meeting on October 14 1869 to open the art school debate again, there were few manufacturers among them, and few arguments that such a school would improve local industry. While there were people present who did think that there was “plenty of scope for design” among the trades of the town, this does not appear to be the primary concern of the founders of the School. Mayor John Baines began proceedings by emphasising that there was necessity for a school of design in a town of 90,000 inhabitants, when other, smaller towns already had one. This ‘necessity’ came more from a sense of Leicester’s status among rival towns than the need to train its artisans. 


While some attendees at the meeting were worried about Leicester not ‘keeping up with the Joneses, others had more moralising reasons to support the school. Having access to artistic education would help to show people, “even the poor“, good taste and encourage them to love for things beautiful in art“. Another opinion echoed this: “there is no doubt it would improve their tastes and habits… which would continue to exercise a widespread and beneficial influence on society (Leicester Chronicle, 16 Oct 1869 and 26 Feb 1870). This equation of an appreciation of beauty with a positive moral benefit is a typical attitude of the Victorian middle classes, neglecting to account for lack of basic elementary education, the exhaustion of long days of manual work and the other grinding effects of poverty. Edward Shipley Ellis, chair of Midland Railways, took this view further by lamenting “the money spent in the 500 public-houses in Leicester… what they wanted was to induce the young people to leave these places and spend their time in schools (Leicester Chronicle, 16 Oct 1870). 

The motion to start the School was passed, gentlemen were named to sit on the managing committee and £262 was raised towards the initial work of finding premises and hiring a headmaster. Reflecting the varied reasons behind the formation of the school, the managing committee did not include many representatives from the manufacturing industries who were supposed to benefit from the School’s training of designers. Instead there were a typical mix of Leicester’s moneyed middle-class: artists (including John Fulleylove), solicitors, doctors and bankers. Only two were hosiers and one was in the boot and shoe trade. These gentlemen quickly secured a disused warehouse on Pocklington’s Walk and began the process of fitting it out. They advertised for a master and interviewed 14 men before choosing Wilmot Pilsbury, an artist who had trained in teaching the National Course of Instruction. 


Doors opened for lessons on 1 March 1870. Classes were held in the daytime for ladies and students from private schools. These lessons cost twice as much as the evening classes for male and female artizans which included elementary and advanced art as well as focus on mechanical and architectural drawing. The first annual report summarizes the early success enjoyed by the School. 269 students attended classes, above the national average. Of these 92 were put forward for national exams and 42 passed, including 14 marked excellent. The prizes awarded to excellent students included books, watercolour sets and mathematical instruments. 


Initially the School of Art did not assist the artizan class in Leicester as much as had been hoped. This was due to the restrictive nature of the National Course of Instruction, which focused on drawing skills and would not allow those skills to be modelled in 3D, something that would be more useful to a designer needing to see how their pattern looked when applied to an object. Rather it was science and technical subjects that were in demand due to rapid advancements in industrial technology. Workers often knew nothing of the theories and principles that underpinned the machinery they were expected to use, and this put them at a disadvantage. After 1870, when compulsory elementary education was established for children between 5 and 12 years old, science evening classes became popular in Leicester although provision was voluntary or charitable.  


In 1873 the Reverend James Went added science classes to the traditional classical curriculum at the Wyggeston Boy’s School, where he was headmaster, and provided scholarships for 10 working class boys to attend. These classes developed into a separate department focusing on technical and commercial subjects such as engineering, building and mechanical drawingThe Leicester Chamber of Commerce appealed for local industry to offer support, stating: “the importance of this instruction, as tending to obtain both superior workmanship, and also economy of time and labour, must be obvious to everyone”.  


In November 1884 a new wing of the Boy’s School was opened specifically to house the science classes. Named the Ellis Memorial Technical School, after Edward Shipley Ellis who had donated a large sum to the work but had passed away before completion, it included a spacious chemical laboratory, a lecture room for 70 students equipped with a screen for projection of photographic diagrams, and a physics laboratory holding electrical machines and batteries to demonstrate the sciences of mechanics, optics, heat and magnetism. During the day the labs were used by boys at the school, but in the evening affordable classes were held for those wishing to improve their understanding of the theory behind their practical training at the workshop or factory. In time commercial subjects were added, as expanding industries required a steady supply of clerks and accountants. 

The School of Art was proving successful with a focus on fine art subjects and some expansion into applied design, women’s crafts and building construction subjects. It usually placed in the top 5 schools in the country at the national exams. Yet it struggled to maintain itself financially and relied on handouts from the Council. The Pocklington’s Walk premises had swiftly proved inadequate and the School moved to an annexe of the New Walk Museum, but this too was crowded and unsuitable. Meanwhile the Technical School was also experiencing financial difficulty and was oversubscribed, with 1,186 evening students in attendance. There was much local debate over how to proceed, with some arguing that the two schools should be merged only to find they could not agree on where they should be based or who should be in charge, as neither institution wished to give up its independence or be subsumed into the other. 


Finally, the Council stepped in and purchased a plot of land on the Newarke, in fact, the house and gardens formerly belonging to Edward Shipley Ellis. With the Art School already using the Ellis house for lessons, work began on constructing a building for both Schools – now the Hawthorn Building of DMU. Opened in 1897, the Leicester Municipal Technical and Art School was now managed by the Town Council’s Education Committee. The Art School headmaster, Augustus Spencer, acted as joint head for a few years, with James Went providing guidance and advice. When Spencer left in 1900 two separate headmasters were appointed: Benjamin Fletcher for the Art School and John Hawthorn for the Technical School (the building is now named after him). The institution continued to run with shared administration and buildings but two principals managing separate technical and art sections until they were united under one Director in 1969 as the City of Leicester Polytechnic. But that is an article for another post! 


About Katharine Short

When I was 13 every careers questionnaire I did at school suggested I become an archivist. In rebellion I studied History of Art at Cambridge and the Courtauld Institute before giving in to the inevitable and undertaking a qualification in Archives Administration at Aberystwyth University. I worked at King’s College London Archives and the London Metropolitan Archives before becoming the Archivist here at DMU in January 2013. My role is hugely varied: answering enquiries and assisting researchers, sorting, cataloguing, cleaning and packaging archival material, managing our environmentally controlled storage areas, giving seminars, talks and tours, researching aspects of University history, liaising with potential donors and advocating for the importance of archives within the organisation. I am one of those incredibly fortunate people who can say ‘I love my job’ and really mean it.
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