Cementing a centenary: a 100 years building the University of Leicester

The University of Leicester is far more than a collection of buildings, students and academics. 

As a living memorial to those who lost their lives in the First World War – “so that they may have life” – the university brings together people, places and purpose to explore the past and shape our collective future.

While the university was granted its official status on 1st May 1957, its rich history stretches back much further. And nothing bears the marks of this more than the university buildings, which show how people and key events have shaped our university today. 

Renovations and retrofits: life before the university campus

The Fielding Johnson Building is the historic heart of the university. But what is now the administrative centre with seminar rooms and lecture theatres began life in 1837 as the Leicestershire and Rutland County Asylum. Approximately 7,000 patients were treated at the asylum until 1908 when it was deemed unfit for purpose and closed.

The Fielding Johnson Building, Engineering Design Lab and College House are all now university buildings that functioned as part of the asylum. 

  • Fielding Johnson Building – the original Asylum building
  • Engineering Design Lab - one of the pair of villa wards (the other is now part of Wyggeston and QE College, as is the Asylum wash house between)
  • College House - the 1872 Medical Superintendent’s house, which has since been used by the Domestic Science College, and was the home of the University College’s Principals 1921-1951 and various departments up to the present day.

The building remained shuttered until 1914 when, with the onset of the First World War, in just six weeks, it was transformed into the 5th Northern General Hospital. Between 1914 and 1919, the military hospital treated some 74,652 patients who were injured in combat, and became a unit of the Royal Army Medical Corps.

After the First World War, local businessman Thomas Fielding Johnson wanted to create a lasting memorial to the community who had sacrificed so much during the war. So he bought the old military hospital building and donated it to the campaign to start a university college in Leicester. Hospital medical equipment was transferred to other facilities and the building was fitted out with offices, a library, classrooms, a dining hall and an assembly room - some 19 rooms in total.

Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland College opened on 4 October 1921 with 11 students and four teaching staff. This was the first provision of higher-level education in the district. From then until around 1951, the building was known as the “Main Building”.

Brass commemorative plate to Thomas Fielding Johnson in the entrance to the Fielding Johnson Building.

Laying down roots: the 1920s

In 1921, the Botanic Garden was established in Leicester’s grounds using seed donations from Kew Gardens in London and the University of Cambridge. Shortly after the Second World War, the gardens were re-established at the Oadby site where the university had bought four houses for its rising student population.

The gardens and greenhouses now stretch across 16 acres and include additions such as pavements designs in the herb garden in the Fibonacci sequence. The site is free for the public and enjoys many uses – from research and teaching to events and activities for local school children.

The 1940s was a period of marked expansion at the Oadby site. The first buildings included Hastings House, Beaumont House and Shirley House.

Before then, female students lived in a hostel on the campus and male students

had to rent rooms in local homes. Digby, Latimer and Herrick Houses soon followed and, by the mid-1950s, an accommodation master plan was in place and more halls were being developed.

The site is remembered fondly. “I lived in Oadby Student Village during my first year,” says student Lavina Dhillon. “The team members were always kind and helpful. They even provided free food on many occasions. Who doesn’t love free food?”

Making the principals feel at home: the 1920s to 40s

Formerly known as “Forest View”, College House was designed by Dain and Smith architects and built in 1872 for the superintendents of the asylum to live in. 

In 1921, when the university opened, College House became the official residence of the university’s leaders. In 1931, Dr Frederick Attenborough took up residence there with his wife, Mary, and their three sons Richard, David and John. To this day, there remains some graffiti by the now-famous Attenborough children.

The family lived at College House until 1947 when they moved to Knighton Hall. Ever since this listed building has served as the official residence of the university’s principals and vice-chancellors.

Queen Elizabeth II arrives in the Percy Gee Entrance accompanied by the Chancellor, H. Percy Gee and Prince Philip.

Communal spaces and booksellers: the 1950s

Students had long campaigned for more space on campus, leisure facilities and, of course, a pub. Following delays, in 1958 it was time for The Students’ Union to have its own home. The Percy Gee Building was opened by Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip amid “a mood of infectious friendliness and gaiety,” the university reported.

It is named after Percy Gee, one of the founding members of the Leicester University College, and was designed by T Shirley Worthington. It was described as “one of the most magnificent buildings” in the city by the Leicester Evening Mail. Alongside an oak-panelled Great Hall, the newspaper reported there to be other facilities including a games room, squash court, common rooms and dining halls.

The building has undergone two major renovations – in 2011 and 2021. The latest project, unveiled last December, includes a four-storey expansion, a new informatics lab, media centre and performance studio, as well as a food court and communal space for students and academics to enjoy.

 “I love meeting people in the SU square,” she adds. “All of the food outlets are right there (including Starbucks!) and it’s just the centre of campus so it’s always busy with people,” says Georgia Henton, Sports Officer for 2021 to 2022 at the Students’ Union.

And having had plenty of time away during pandemic lockdowns, the students’ union is more treasured than ever. “Being a student during the pandemic is different to anything else I had ever experienced,” says Georgia. “... Since campus has reopened, it has been great to see everyone again. You don’t quite realise how much you rely on those free hours together in the SU square or library until you can’t have them!”

Securing space in the skyline: the 1960s

The Bennet campus extension in the late 1950s was the first time the university stretched into Victoria Park. The buildings of the extension were all designed to be relatively low lying out of respect for the Arch of Remembrance. However as the university grew at a pace so did the needs of its students and staff and the skyline began to change. 

In 1960, College Hall – situated about a mile from campus and fit with balconies, a library, darkroom, laundry, and common room – was opened for female students. 

The building was originally designed by Sir Leslie Martin and Trevor Dannatt. But in 2013, after a period of being empty, it was refurbished by Associated Architects to become the award-winning conference centre College Court.

College Hall is a fine example of the architecture of the period,” says alumnus Colin Hyde, who now works here. “Its design seemed to be a cut above most of the other halls. With the Attenborough Arboretum behind it, this forms a lovely part of Leicester.”

But there were another three buildings that would come to dominate campus. By 1961, the university was keen to be seen and commissioned modernist architect Denys Lasdun to design a building that would make an impact on Leicester’s skyline. The result, the Charles Wilson Building – named after the university’s first vice-chancellor – is reminiscent of the National Theatre in London. While its completion in 1967 brought brutalist architecture to campus, its purpose was much friendlier, serving as a leisure space for staff and students. 

Another of the architectural triumvirate of the period – the Engineering Building – was finished in 1963. Designed by architects James Gowan and Sir James Stirling, alongside engineer Frank Newby, it is one of the world’s most famous works of postwar architecture.

The building – inspired by aircraft carriers – houses workshops, laboratories, offices and lecture halls for engineers. It is about both form and function: for example, both its rippling glass roofs point north to avoid direct sunlight, which could affect the delicate instruments it houses.

Nor did the university stop there. Building works to the 18-storey Attenborough Tower started in 1966. Named after principal Frederick Attenborough, it played home to the arts and social sciences faculties – as well as the infamous paternoster lift. 

A huge source of fun – and some trepidation – the elevator moved constantly and had open cars, with no barriers, so people simply hopped on and off to travel up and down the tower. It ran for nearly 40 years before needing to be replaced in 2017.

Concrete and collapses: the 1970s

The Bennett Building was constructed in the 1960s, but it was events of the 1970s that mark its history.

Designed by Leslie Martin, then chair of architecture at Cambridge University, it was home to the mathematics, geology and geography departments. But in 1973 disaster struck as the concrete roof crashed to the floor of the Reading Room.

Luckily no one was injured: a scheduled meeting had fortuitously been moved and a student, who had left just moments before the disaster, confirmed that no one was trapped in the debris.

But the disruption was huge as staff were moved to temporary spaces around the university and access to books and papers in the building was restricted. It was not until January 1975 that staff and students could return to the rebuilt – and strengthened – space.

University of Leicester architects

  • Worthington Architects: Astley Clarke Building, Ken Edwards Building, Percy Gee Building (Students’ Union)
  • James Stirling and James Gowan: Engineering Building
  • Denys Lasdun and partners: Charles Wilson Building. Ladsun is famous for designing Royal National Theatre on the South Bank. He also designed buildings for the University of London, SOAS, University of East Anglia and another for UCL Institute of Education.
  • Sir Leslie Martin: The Physics and Astronomy Building
  • Courtald Technical Services (became W.F Johnson and Partners): The Adrian Building
  • Joseph Goddard: Brookfield House
  • William Parsons (architect of Leicester Prison): Fielding Johnson Building
  • Castle Park Dean and Hook architects: The 1974-75 library was designed by Castle Park Dean and Hook architects
  • Associated Architects of Birmingham: 2008 library building
  • T Shirley Worthington: Passageway between the Library and the 1952/3 library extension.

Bringing buildings into the 21st century: the 2000s

In 2008, Queen Elizabeth II returned to the university to open the newly renovated David Wilson Library, following a £25m refurbishment project. With its 38km of shelving, 1,500 reader spots, lecture theatre, cafe and much more, it is a far-cry from the first university library, which was made up of donated books placed on makeshift shelves built from cubbyholes from the military hospital.

Indeed it is student Georgia Henson’s favourite building on campus. “It was always the place that I managed to catch my friends between lectures and work together on projects,” she says.

More renovations were afoot after the turn of the century as the university saved Brookfield House, the 1869 home of university founder Thomas Fielding Johnson and his wife Agnes.

It was originally designed by architect Joseph Goddard and decorated by interior designer Joseph Armitage, but by 2011 the building was at risk of demolition. It was purchased by the university in 2013 and given a new lease of life as the School of Business. The house will develop further too as part of the university’s latest campus plans, including an exclusive university trading room with 16 dual-screen Bloomberg terminals.

The same decade witnessed the opening of the George Davies Centre, a state-of-the-art hub for medical education and research. It stretches over 12,836 square metres and includes teaching facilities, offices, laboratories and two lecture theatres. With space for more than 2,350 staff and students, it is home to the medical school as well as the psychology and population health sciences departments.

The building is also a record-breaker as the largest non-residential Passivhaus building in the UK. Passivhaus is a set of standards relating to energy efficiency, air quality and other environmental factors for new buildings. As part of its sustainability credentials, the building includes a “living wall” and green roof that not only acts as insulation and rainwater run-off, but is also a handy habitat for local wildlife.

Sustainable constructions at Leicester

Sustainable construction is an integral part of the University Strategic Plan. 

Passivhaus 

The George Davies Centre adheres to the Passivhaus standard and focuses on airtightness to reduce the permitted space heating demand and primary energy consumption.

BREEAM

A number of the University's buildings are certified through BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method). This is a comprehensive environmental assessment method and rating system for buildings.

Awards for sustainability

Percy Gee 

  • 3R (Refurb Rethink Retrofit) - Best Public Sector Higher Education Building Award (awarded)
  • Zerofootprint Re-Skinning Awards (Toronto) (finalist)

David Wilson Library

  • BCO: The Midlands and East Anglia Regional Winner 'Refurbished/Recycled Workplace' Award (awarded)
  • Regional Winner Refurbished/Recycled Workplace Award (awarded)

Centre for Medicine

  • East Midlands Property Awards: Sustainable Project of the Year 2016 (winner)
  • Procon Leicestershire Awards: Sustainable Development of the Year Award 2016 (winner)
  • ENDS Environmental Impact Awards: Project of the Year 2016 in the Built Environment (winner)
  • S-Lab Awards: Sustainable Science Building Award 2017 (winner)
  • Global Goods Awards: Building Sustainability Project of the Year 2017 (winner)

The future of the campus: a look ahead

The university campus continues to evolve and develop with the needs of students, society and the local community. To this end, a new campus development master plan is well underway.

In autumn 2022, we opened the new Freemen's Student Village, which provides a vibrant hub for students, staff and local residents. Alongside accommodation, the site houses a brand new teaching and learning building, two expansive public spaces and wildflower planting and gardens.

There is now more room for our leading extra-terrestrial research as Space Park was officially declared open by British astronaut Tim Peake on 14 March 2022. It was developed in collaboration with local, national and international partners and plays home to high-tech facilities for research, development and manufacturing.

Explore Freemens Common Student Village.

Find out more about the impact of Space Park.

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