The University's origins in the Great War

On 11 November 1918 - Armistice Day - Dr Astley Vavasour Clarke strode through the cheering crowds to his bank where he deposited twenty large, white five pound notes, opening a fund for the endowment of a University College for Leicestershire and setting in motion a story of teaching, research and social improvement which continues to this day.

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Dr Astley Vavasour Clarke (1870-1945)

A University College in Leicester was an idea which had been brewing among the city's leading figures for a generation, first proposed in 1880 by the Reverend Joseph Wood in his Presidential Address to the Leicester Literary and Philosophical Society. Since then, members - doctors, lawyers, teachers, ministers, businessmen, many of them with Oxbridge degrees - had often discussed the idea but it was only when Dr Astley Clarke (Cantab, 1892) took over the Presidency in 1912 that serious work began on developing the idea. Nottingham had had a University College since 1881, Birmingham since 1900 - why should Leicester not also provide facility for talented local youth to achieve excellence without having to decamp to Cambridge or Oxford? 

I look forward to the time when Leicester will not be content without some University or University College in its midst, where the various branches of knowledge will have a fitting home, and the Institution be part of Leicester’s daily life.
Dr Astley V Clarke, Presidential Address, 1912

Born and educated in Leicester, the son of a prominent local surgeon, Dr Astley Clarke was Honorary Consulting Physician and Consulting Radiologist at Leicester Royal Infirmary. He worked hard throughout his year in office at the Lit and Phil to generate interest and promises of support. All was looking very promising - until war broke out.

A part-time soldier since 1910, Astley Clarke was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Royal Army Medical Corps and was swiftly appointed Administrator of the 5th Northern General Hospital, an RAMC unit which took up residence in the former Leicestershire and Rutland Lunatic Asylum next to Victoria Park. The worthies of the Lit and Phil dispersed to military, naval, governmental or medical duties, or else devoted their fund-raising work to the war effort.

Three years later, despite there still being no end in site to the 'war to end wars', the idea of a Leicester University College was raised once again. On 14 November 1917 - a few days after the Battle of Passchendaele, a few days before the Battle of Cambrai - the Leicester Daily Post told its readers that the city should have “more than a mere artistic war memorial.” A better memorial to lives lost and ruined, argued the paper, would be the establishment of a University College so that the next generation might achieve better things than their forefathers. Furthermore, a ready made site presented itself.

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Military ambulances outside what is now the Fielding Johnson Building.

The Lunatic Asylum buildings, empty prior to August 1914, would once again be vacant when victory was finally secured - and could provide a home for the College. William Brockington, Leicester Council's Director of Education, wrote a letter to the paper wholeheartedly supporting this proposal. War was still raging on the Western Front when the Lord Mayor, Alderman Jonathan North, called a meeting of interested parties. Four Lit and Phil Presidents were present. Astley Clarke and Dr FW Bennett are both remembered in the names of buildings on the University campus; Harry Hardy Peach gave his name to the University's Law Library; Rev. James Went was commemorated with a building at Leicester Polytechnic; while a local FE College is named after North himself. It was at this meeting that Astley Clarke pledged the first £100 towards the College's endowment, to which Bennett added a further £500.

Astley V Clarke MD - £100. A thanksgiving that he and his 2 brothers and sister, all of whom had done service in France, have lived to see the Victory of Right over Might.
First entry in Astley Clarke's pocket-book of contributions to the University Fund

After the Armistice, the fund-raising campaign took off in earnest, spurred on by a determination to create a 'living memorial' to those who had given their lives. By January 1920, just 14 months after Astley Clarke's first bundle of five pound notes, the total stood at £100,000, including numerous donations by grieving parents and wives in memory of husbands and fathers who would never return to Leicester. The 5th Northern General had finally vacated the old Lunatic Asylum buildings which were promptly bought by local businessman Thomas Fielding Johnson, and just as promptly donated to the Council as a site for the University College.

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Click on this hand-written note from Dr Astley Clarke to see a letter from the Mayor of Leicester inviting interested parties to a meeting to discuss the proposed University College.
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Click on Thomas Fielding Johnson's signature to see his letter to the Mayor of Leicester offering the hospital site as a location for the new University College.

On 4 October 1921, less than three years after Astley Clarke's initial donation, University College Leicester opened its doors with eleven students, three lecturers and the principal, Dr RF Rattray (remembered in the name of a lecture theatre in the centre of campus). A magnificent arch by Edwin Lutyens was unveiled three years later next to the campus as the city's principal war memorial, serving to commemorate the men of Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland in addition to the College, whose motto Ut vitem habeant - 'that they may have life' - is still emblazoned on the flag which flies atop what is now the Fielding Johnson Building.

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"Peace will only be the end of the first stage of the great struggle. We shall then find ourselves faced by a big problem. Only the best services of which we are capable can then enable us to meet the huge financial expenditures which we shall have to face. It will be necessary for us to make the best use of the best brains of our nation, and I cannot imagine anything which would give a greater feeling of satisfaction to those who have risked everything for our safety, than the knowledge that we have resolved to follow up their heroism on the battlefield by a determined resolve to train our powers for the strenuous battle to follow."

FW Bennett, letter to Leicester Daily Post, 7 December 1917