Founding families reunite

Posted by ap507 at Mar 21, 2018 12:13 PM |
Descendants of the University of Leicester’s founders gather for special reception

Issued by University of Leicester on 21 March 2018

Images from the event available here:

Nearly 100 years ago, Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland College – now the University of Leicester – first opened its doors, following a generous fundraising campaign within the city and county.

On Saturday 17 March, the University welcomed back descendants of seven key benefactors whose generosity contributed to establishing a world-class institution for the region.

The benefactors celebrated were:

  • Dr Astley Clarke
  • Thomas Fielding Johnson
  • Thomas Hatton
  • Sir Jonathan North
  • Harry Hardy Peach
  • The Gee family
  • The Tyler family

Nearly 150 people attended the event, where they discovered more about their ancestors and their associations with the University and region.

Caroline Wessel, who completed a BA Humanities in 1999 and an MA in Victorian Studies in 2003 at the University, was one of the guests. Caroline is the great-niece of both Dr Astley Clarke and Percy Gee, who both played a vital roles in the formation of the University.

Caroline said: “I’m proud to be a member of one of the early founding families of the University, and it was great to have the opportunity to meet up with cousins and descendants of the other old Leicester families.”

The idea of creating a university for Leicester and the local area had been discussed within Leicester’s Literary and Philosophical Society as early as 1880. When Dr Astley Clarke, a prominent local physician, became President of the Society in 1912, he championed the idea once more, along with a large number of notable members of the community.

In 1917, there was already discussion across the county about war memorials to commemorate the young men and women who lost their lives, and those who served but survived. In November 1917, there was a stirring article in The Leicester Daily Post. A call to action for the region’s worn down residents, the piece declared that the community “should consider something more than a mere artistic war memorial”, and that the memorial “should be a University College”.

On November 11 1918 – Armistice Day – Dr Clarke deposited the first £100 in philanthropic gifts for the endowment of a University College for Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland, which was to become a living memorial to those who served. This is reflected in the University’s motto, Ut Vitam Habeant, meaning ‘so that they may have life’, which is still in use today.

The University College opened in October 1921 with fewer than 20 students. They took classes in English, Latin, French, geography and botany. Today, the University has more than 20,000 students, almost 4,000 staff and provides nearly 300 courses.

Bill Friar, Group Director of Philanthropy, Alumni and Community Engagement said: “The University is incredibly proud of its unique history as a living war memorial, set up by the local community. For anybody or any institution, to know where you’re going, you have to know where you came from, so this has been a great opportunity for us to connect with the University’s roots. Without the generosity of our founding benefactors, we would not be here today, and so this was a fantastic occasion to show a token of our appreciation to these families. 

“It was great not only for us to celebrate our founders, but also to connect with their descendants and even introduce them to relatives they had never met before.”

As the University looks toward its centenary commemorations, it remains committed to international excellence, life-saving research and inspirational teaching.


Notes to Editors:

The following founding benefactors were celebrated at the event:

  • Dr Astley Clarke (1870 – 1945)

In a speech delivered in 1912 as President of the Leicester Literary and Philosophical Society, Dr Astley Vavasour Clarke made note of the fact that there were young people in the area who had more than enough potential to succeed in higher education but did not have the opportunity to do so due to the lack of a local institution.

It was Dr Clarke who made the first donation to the cause in 1918, and he led the fundraising campaign from that point on. When the College opened in 1921, Dr Clarke was appointed Vice-President. In 1956, the first new building to be constructed on campus since its original purchase was named the Astley Clarke Building, now part of the School of Business.

  • Thomas Fielding Johnson (1828 – 1921) 

The largest single gift given to the University College was from Thomas Fielding Johnson, who, in 1919, purchased the land upon which the University still stands today.

A successful businessman who made his fortune providing yarn for hosiery manufacturers, Mr Fielding Johnson had a long record of philanthropy and public service. The idea of a University College was something of great interest to him, and so he purchased the land in secret, with the intention of using it as a site for the University College and two Wyggeston Grammar Schools (Boys and Girls). In 1964, the former asylum building – now the University’s central administration building – was named the Fielding Johnson Building in his honour.

  • Thomas Hatton (1876 – 1943)

It was boot manufacturer Thomas Hatton’s interest in collecting rare books which led to him becoming a key benefactor for the University College. In 1920, he donated a collection of approximately 2,000 volumes of topographical literature to the College Library, specialising in local history.

The College Council voted unanimously to name the collection ‘The Hatton Topographical Library’ in honour of its donors, and to this day, the volumes are still contained in the archives.

  • Sir Jonathan North (1855 – 1939)

A prominent businessman and Mayor of Leicester during World War One, Sir Jonathan North was an ardent supporter of the University College. He was Chairman of the University College Council for 20 years, from 1919 to 1939, and he also made significant personal donations.

One of the most substantial early gifts to the University College fund came from Sir Jonathan’s company, Freeman Hardy and Willis which gave £10,000 in 1920 (equivalent to around £420,000 today). Sir Jonathan’s wife, Lady Kate Eliza North, was President of the Bazaar committee in 1922, which raised more than £15,000 (equivalent to £800,000 today) for the University fund.

  • Harry Hardy Peach (1874 – 1936)

Bookseller and furniture businessman Harry Peach supported the University College in a number of ways, including giving more than 1,600 books and various items of furniture and art. The largest single gift from Mr Peach came in 1921, when he provided 594 art books for the College Library.

He also served on the College Council, where he was particularly passionate about promoting the arts. Today, the University’s Law Library is named in his honour. Following his death in 1936, the Leicester Literary and Philosophical Society established the Harry Hardy Peach Memorial Fund, which continues to support a biennial lecture held in his name, in conjunction with the University.

  • The Gee family

A local businessman and former Chairman of Stead & Simpson, Harry Simpson Gee played a vital role in the formation of the University. He made significant financial contributions both individually and through Stead & Simpson. His largest single gift was a £20,000 bequest in his will (equivalent to more than £1 million today).

Mr Simpson Gee’s children also played important roles in developing the University College. His daughter Ethel, married to Dr Astley Clarke, organised the Bazaar of 1922 and all four of his sons were prominent benefactors and served on the College Council. Today, the Students’ Union is named in honour of Mr Simpson Gee’s son Henry Percy Gee, who held numerous positions at the University, including Chairman of Council and Treasurer. In death, he bequeathed the family home to the University – now the Mary Gee halls of residence.

  • The Tyler family

In 1920, as momentum for the University campaign continued to gather pace, a hugely generous gift of £20,000 (equivalent to £850,000 today) was made by the sons of William Tyler, who passed away in 1906.

William’s sons – Alec, William Edgar and Horace Charles Sydney – donated the money to endow a Faculty of Commerce for the College, which is now part of the University’s School of Business. William Edgar’s wife, Jeannie Beattie served as a member of Council for many years and sat on several committees including the Academic Advisory Committee.

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