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  • Markfield Local History Group

2017 meetings and events

Our 2017 meetings included the Ashby Canal, occupations of Markfield, a visit to Leicester Cathedral, the struggle for women's suffrage, together with a talk about the nearby Stoneywell Cottage and Gardens.

Ashby Canal Geoff Pursglove, Chair of the Ashby Canal Trust, gave an interesting and informative talk to the group at our November meeting. 

The talk, entitled ‘The Ashby Canal, Past, Present and Future, gave an insight into the history of the canal as well as highlighting the restoration that has already taken place and the plans for the future.

The original plans show the Ashby canal going via Hinckley through to Measham and Moira. A branch of the canal going to Swadlincote was never dug, and a canal to Ticknall would have required 14 locks, so a tramline was built instead.  The canal was constructed to move coal from the mines and was completed in 1804. It was 30 miles (48km) long, and ended at coal wharves north of Moira. The sundial adjacent to the restored Measham station building commemorates the life of Joseph Wilkes, a local entrepreneur, who was one of the main promoters of the Ashby canal.  The canal was sold to the Midland Railway in 1846.

In 1918, there was a breach in the canal at Moira, which was repaired since the government of the day did not want to interrupt the flow of coal during the First World War. In 1966 the canal subsided again and the top 8 miles from Moira to Snarestone was closed. Over time this section of the canal fell into disrepair or was filled in and sometimes built on, so that the original line of the canal can be hard to find. At Conkers Waterside it is possible to see the old canal wall near the car park. This gives some indication of the amount of subsidence that occurred as a result of the coal mining underneath and nearby.

The Ashby Canal Trust has been active in the restoration of parts of the canal. The last coal pit, Donisthorpe, closed in 1990 after which it was felt that restoration could start.  In 1990, in response to a survey by the Civic Trust, residents said that they would like to see the canal restored.  

Conkers Waterside buildings now sit on the original line of the canal and so the Bath Yard basin has been built further over next to the car park. This makes a picturesque feature next to the car park and the slipway enables small craft up to 32 feet long to be launched. At present it is not possible to go much further than Moira from Bath Yard on the canal, and the lock between Bath basin and Moira has to be negotiated. Both the lock and the stretch of the canal past Moira Blast Furnace have all been rebuilt by the Trust and its partners, with a swing bridge and lock installed. We were fascinated to see ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures of the canal, and to hear the tales of volunteers digging out the channels and clearing vegetation before it was possible to refill the canal. Nowadays the stretch of canal at Moira is a popular spot and hosts an annual Festival.  In 2018 the Moira Canal festival takes place on 19th and 20th May.  

The Trust and its partners have extended the canal from Snarestone for about a mile towards Measham, and the next stage of work will entail bringing the canal back into Measham.  As the canal was seen as an eyesore, the bridge at Measham was concreted and the arches filled in. Evidence of the canal in Measham is shown by the street names, such as Navigation Street and Canal Street! It is hoped to bring the canal back into Measham along the old railway line ,as the original canal line has been built on. A Transport and Works Act Order was granted in 2005 for the reinstatement of the canal from Snarestone to Measham, and the Trust are busy raising funds to complete the work. This will include installing two aqueducts and an accommodation bridge. 

Should you wish to learn more about the work of the Trust, you can contact them on 01530 273956 or at

See also the Ashby Canal Association website

Until recently, Geoff was the Ashby Canal Project Officer at Leicestershire County Council, having held the post since 1994. He has scooped the Inland Waterways Association's 'Waterways Companion Award' for the second time.This is presented to an authority or person who has provided the most help to a local IWA branch, waterways society or trust, in progressing a waterway restoration scheme. His book, Ashby Canal: Past, Present & Future, is published by Ambion Publishing in softback, priced £9.95. ISBN: 978-0-9935925-0-8

Occupations of Markfield

At our September 2017 meeting, members and guests of Markfield local History Group enjoyed a very interesting talk from Michael Ball entitled ‘Occupations of Markfield; glimpses of Markfield’s past history’.  Michael shared his research on the village population and occupations of Markfield from 1600 to 1900, putting the village in context within the surrounding area. 

At the time of the Black Death, Markfield’s population was reduced by 20%, whilst the population of Barlestone dropped by 50%!

We learnt of a deterioration of the climate in the sixteenth century, winters were colder and summers wetter, which had an effect on the harvest. The ecclesiastical survey of Markfield at this time showed that it was a farming community. 

Records of births, marriages and deaths began in 1538, giving much more information about the population. The Markfield Parish Register began in 1571. At this time, 240 individuals lived in Markfield.  Michael explained that wills and inventories are very useful documents in telling the story of the inhabitants and showing family relationships.  The earliest will mentioned belonged to William Pywell who left £12 14s 6d in 1547. Some 45 years later, his grandson left £120, suggesting that he was a wealthy yeoman in sixteenth century Markfield.  Assets mentioned in wills might include oxen, colts, mares, yokes, beds and even manure! 

Land in Markfield was mostly devoted to pasture and meadowland and sheep were the dominant animals.  Weavers became established in Markfield before the coming of the framework knitters. There are still examples of weavers’ cottages in villages such as Newtown Linford, characterised by the large window used to let in the light.

Apprentice weavers were being taken on, for example an apprentice from Desford who was apprenticed to John Leveratt in 1720. The indentures list a number of rules or strictures placed on the apprentice, who ‘will be taught the art and mystery of weaving’. Other jobs identified include tailors to make up the cloth, dyers and woolcombers.  Since long staple wool was used locally, a woolcomb had to be used rather than carding the wool. 

Framework knitting appears as an occupation, possibly as early as 1720. In 1758 Thomas Weston is named as a framework knitter, producing socks and stockings, plain and fancy hose. This was a cottage based industry, the husband knitting, the wife spinning and the children winding yarn and seaming the hose. Around 1820, with the advent of the Spinning Jenny which could spin knot-free thread, John Geary of Anstey reported that women were framework knitting because spinning was now done by the machines.  Other nineteenth century occupations identified include lace makers, making lace runners and tambour lace. Flax was grown in Stanton–under-Bardon and linen wheels are mentioned in inventories. 

The 1841 census shows a range of occupations, for example 78 agricultural labourers, 79 frame knitters and 30 farmers.  Other occupations include 27 male servants, 1 apothecary, 14 cordwainers (leather workers) and shoemakers, 21 servants, 13 lace runners, 7 bricklayers, 4 carriers and 3 higglers – apparently men who moved things around! Carpenters, tailors, wheelwrights, millers, sawyers and woodsmen and 4 blacksmiths are all listed – there is even a vet!

In the 1851 census, Markfield had a population of 1,261, with 208 houses. 53% of the heads of household were not born in Markfield and these newcomers tended to be Non-Conformists. For example, in 1851 the Chaplin family are listed as woolcombers living in Wash Pit Green, Markfield. However, the father of the family was born in Bedworth, then made his way via Bradford and Leicester to Markfield before moving on to Mountsorrel!

By 1871 there were 19 blacksmiths living in the village who worked in the quarries. There was a demand for granite for the turnpikes and roads as well as cobblestones for the towns. Billa Barra quarry opened c.1850, then Hill Hole and Cliffe Hill followed. The 1851 census shows quarrymen living in Markfield and from 1871 ‘granite sett makers’.  In 1891, some 56 miners are shown in the census returns, possibly working in the mines at Bagworth.  Even so, Markfield remained strongly agricultural right up to the beginning of the twentieth century.

Everyone was keen to chat to Michael afterwards over a cup of tea and I and I am sure many others felt that we had learnt a great deal about Markfield‘s past inhabitants and their occupations!

Flower festival at the Methodist Church

Early in September 2017, a talented member of our group created a display for the flower festival, drawing on the quarrying history of the village and the recently dedicated war memorial.

Leicester Cathedral

In June 2017, members visited Leicester Cathedral, where those who wished to do so were able to climb to the bell tower to see the bells and hear about their history as well as some of the technicalities of bell ringing. The 13 bells were cast by John Taylor and Company of Loughborough in 1937 and are considered to be one of the best ring of bells in the country. The heaviest bell, the tenor, weighs over 25 hundredweight (1.3 tonnes). 

The bells are usually rung on Sundays, with weekday evening practices to help consolidate skills, learn new peals and train new bellringers. The Cathedral bellringers also ring in several other city centre churches on Sundays. The bells are rung on special occasions too, the most recent being the visit of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth to present Maundy money to citizens of Leicester and the county. The bell tower walls are covered with plaques commemorating the ringing of famous peals, which can often take many hours, as well as records of peals for special occasions. 

Those left at ground level enjoyed a guided tour of the Cathedral. The guide was very knowledgeable and the group gained an insight into the reorganisation of the Cathedral during the preparations for the reinterment of Richard III. They visited the tomb and looked at the new windows with the details of the story of Richard III intermingled with events and places in Leicestershire. 

Following this, we all crossed Jubilee Square to visit St. Nicholas’s Church, the oldest place of worship in Leicester, where we learnt about the church’s Saxon foundation, Norman architecture and subsequent alterations over time, culminating in the Victorian brick arch over the pulpit. We learnt that the coffin bearing the remains of Richard III was carried from the hearse in which it had travelled from Bosworth into St. Nicholas’ Church where a short service took place, prior to the coffin being placed on a horse drawn bier and taken through the streets of the city to the Cathedral for reinterment. 

The Burning Question - The Struggle for Women’s Suffrage in Leicestershire, by Jess Jenkins

The group enjoyed an extremely interesting talk at their May 2017 meeting from Jess Jenkins on the subject of the struggle for Women’s Suffrage. This talk told the story of some of the local men and women who took part in the fight for votes for women. From the start, it was emphasised that the popular myths which attribute the success of the campaign for women’s suffrage to Emmeline Pankhurst and her Women’s Social and Political Union [WSPU] alone, are grossly unfair. There were many organisations fighting for women’s rights and many contributed just as much, although they are almost completely forgotten today.

Amongst several important incidents which took place in Leicester, there was a demonstration on 5th September 1909 when Winston Churchill, then President of the Board of Trade, came to address a meeting at the Palace Theatre in Belgrave Gate.  This was at a time when the WSPU, protesting against a Liberal Government who would not give women the vote, was pursuing a policy of disrupting all political meetings addressed by cabinet members. Great precautions had been taken beforehand and extra police and stewards were on hand. Admittance to the meeting was by ticket only, but despite this, several male sympathisers had managed to get in to the meeting. One had even taken the further precaution of padlocking himself to his chair. When he began heckling Churchill, asking when the government would give women the vote, stewards immediately rushed to remove him but found the task more difficult than expected. 

The tussle that ensued disrupted the whole meeting and the Leicester Journal reported that ‘even Mr Churchill looked ashamed’. This man was Frank Rutter, later Director of the Leeds Art Gallery and who was actually on his honeymoon at the time. His new wife, a New Zealander, had meanwhile been riding a horse up and down Granby Street dressed in her national costume and bearing a placard which read: ‘New Zealand women have the vote. Why not British Women?’

A group of women held a protest meeting and then marched to the Theatre to demand admittance. In the melee which followed, the Leicester couple Alice and Alfred Hawkins were arrested along with two women from Nottingham and three from WSPU headquarters. The authorities had anticipated trouble and had magistrates standing by. In the court register held at the Record Office in Wigston, there is a record of a special court held that evening. Alfred, a working man and the father of seven children, agreed to be bound over for £5 to keep the peace, but all the women refused and were sentenced to five days in Leicester Prison.  

Since they were not granted political status, but treated as common criminals, the women declared that they would refuse to wear prison garments and go on hunger strike. The governor of the prison wisely decided to overlook this and the fact that one of the women had smashed her windows. Elsewhere in the country, things were not resolved so easily. It was in September 1909 that women hunger striking in Winson Green Prison in Birmingham were forcibly fed for the first time.

Local people were in the forefront of national events. Other characters with a story to tell included Nellie Taylor of Smeeton Westerby, twice imprisoned in Holloway and her sister Dr Elizabeth Wilks who was responsible for one of the most powerful examples of tax resistance. Refusing to pay income tax whilst women received no say in the way the money was spent, she caused a fiscal crisis debated at the highest levels, when she pointed out that under the Married Women’s Property Act her property could not be distrained. Legally, it was the responsibility of her husband to pay income tax. When her husband was duly sent to Brixton Prison for non- payment, the WSPU held a torchlight procession in his support. 

Whilst Leicester born suffragette Lilian Lenton grabbed the headlines with her career of arson and evading the police, there were many local women (and some very supportive husbands!) who were working just as hard for women’s suffrage but are now almost forgotten. It is important today that we remember all the women and men who made so many sacrifices so that women would eventually obtain the vote on equal terms with men in 1928. We owe them a great debt.

A book on this subject, by the same name, is available from the Record Office in Long Street, Wigston Magna, at the price of £8.

Stoneywell Cottage and Gardens

We welcomed Roy Mitchell from the National Trust to the March 2017 meeting, when he entertained us with a fascinating talk about the gardens of nearby Stoneywell Cottage. Roy is one of a number of National Trust speakers who can give an insight into the work of the National Trust and is a volunteer at Stoneywell. He told us that there are 200 volunteers at Stoneywell, doing a variety of jobs, including drivers, room guides, gardeners and conservationists, as well as tea room assistants! During the winter the conservation volunteers are busy cleaning and preparing for the new season, completing jobs such as cleaning the linoleum with nailbrushes as it has a very uneven surface which larger brushes won’t touch! 

Roy then gave us a brief history of the building of the cottage. It was designed and built on a rocky, sloping site by Ernest Gimson, in collaboration with Detmar Blow, in 1899. The date stone pictured left is above the front door.  Ernest Gimson was an English furniture designer and architect, whose reputation today is securely established as one of the most influential designers of the English arts and crafts. Detmar Blow was a British architect who designed principally in the arts and crafts style.  The cottage was built for Ernest’s brother Sidney. Sidney ran the Vulcan Works in Leicester which, amongst other things, supplied the steam engines for the Abbey Pumping Station in Leicester. Sidney and his family used the cottage as a summer country retreat from the hot, industrial environment in Leicester. It was not seen as a permanent residence and so the family did not spend a great deal of money on the garden. Initially there were some footpaths and a small amount of planting around the cottage.  In the 1920s a tennis court was built after levelling part of the garden and a little formal planting was put in place around it.  The family employed a gardener to develop a vegetable plot and became self sufficient in vegetables, even collecting the vegetables in winter. Later developments included a bridge built by Basil Gimson into the woods.

The major work to give the planting which we see today was carried out by Donald and Ann Gimson, who were very keen gardeners. They discovered that the soil was ideal for growing rhododendrons, azaleas and associated Himalayan species. More than 150 different species were planted, and Ann kept very detailed notebooks which, along with photos, gave the Trust invaluable information on the beds and the plants within them when they came to restore the garden. The Trust employs a part time professional gardener who is helped by 18 or more volunteers. Over the past two years the garden beds have been cleared of couch grass and shrubs identified and pruned or replaced if damaged. Some plants, such as foxgloves, occur naturally and bluebells grow in the adjoining woodland, which has been coppiced. The vegetable garden produces crops which are both used in the cafe and sold to the public. Roy showed pictures of the shrubs and plants which flower through the year and it was clear that there is something to see whichever season you visit.   Roy pointed out that it is worth taking a garden tour as the guides are very knowledgeable about the plants and will probably point out something which we might miss!  For more information about Stoneywell Cottage, go to the National Trust website.

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