Nestled within the campus of Leicester’s De Montfort University sits Newarke Houses Museum and Gardens. Composed of two Tudor buildings, the museum takes you on a journey through the social history of Leicester. The history of the museum’s building began in the 16th Century. The smaller of the two houses was initially owned by William Wigston, a wealthy wool merchant who converted the building into a Chantry House around 1511. Chantry Houses were usually built in close proximity to a parish church in order to be used for the performance of ‘chantry duties’ by priests. These duties usually reflected the wishes of the Chantry House’s benefactor. The Chantry House, owned by Wigston, was situated opposite St. Mary’s church which sadly does not stand anymore. It housed two chaplains employed to say prayers for the souls of the royal family (Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon at the time) and for William Wigston himself. When the Chantry House was abolished in 1547, it became a place of residence.
The bigger of the two houses was built during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I by Thomas Skeffington who was Sheriff of Leicestershire during the invasion of the Spanish Armada in 1588. The house has hosted a series of interesting figures such as John Whatton, a member of Charles I’s royal household who was present at the siege of Leicester during the English Civil War. The houses were damaged during the siege but went through a series of repairs and modifications over the next few centuries. One of the most striking modifications is the wooden panelling installed in one of the ground floor rooms of Skeffington house in the 17th century. Not long after this, both Wigston house and Skeffington house were joined. Following this, a grand staircase was added by William Wright, a successful lawyer of the time. Moving into the 20th century, the Skeffington house became a school until 1939. After this the buildings were converted into a cultural space. Whilst progress was halted during World War Two, the houses were finally opened as a museum in 1953 to celebrate the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.
Newarke Houses have welcomed many generations through its doors. Walking through the gates is somewhat nostalgic for me since I visited many times as a child. Being newly reopened after Leicester’s local lockdown, I was excited to be the museum's first visitor! Upon entry I was given a warm welcome by staff, who explained the safety procedures they had put in place.
The first stop on our journey through the museum is the panelled room, a beautiful example of 17th century decoration. In its centre stands a small exhibition of the surviving stained-glass windows from Wigston’s house. Made at the turn of the 15th century, the windows show several detailed religious images in striking blue and yellow tones. Following on from this is a small but vibrant room looking at the Asian community in Leicester and its influences on the city’s culture.
Most of the upstairs rooms are taken up with Leicester’s military history, starting with the World Wars. The exhibition covers a range of experiences from looking at what it was like to be a part of the home front, to commemorating some of the local men and women who gave their lives in service. A replica World War One trench leads on into the next set of rooms. My favourite part of the trip was exploring the Royal Leicestershire Regiment who’s history spans from 1688 to 1964. The permanent exhibition details it’s involvement in the Boer War, both World Wars, and the Korean War.
The only way back down to the remaining rooms on the ground floor is by taking a spiral staircase which leads into the former chantry house. Whilst it is now host to a permanent exhibition on toys throughout the ages, signs of its former owner can be found everywhere. One of the most remarkable features is Wigston’s brightly coloured coat of arms in the corner of the room. Following on from this area are a few spaces dedicated to Leicester’s industrial history where it was host to hosiery, shoe, and tobacco factories up until the mid-20th century.
Finally, you get to the centre of the building, finding yourself standing on the cobbles of a 1950’s street scene where you can visit the pub, grocers, or local chemist. Leading on from this is the Cobblers complete with realistic noises. When reaching the end of the house, you can relax by taking a stroll in the small but beautiful gardens.
Whether you’re a local or are simply visiting, Newarke Houses Museum and Gardens is a must see. The unique fusion of past and present really helps to cement the houses long history, giving a fascinating insight into one of Leicester’s oldest buildings. The staff were friendly and helpful, putting me at ease as I wandered through the house.
Location: 20 The Newarke, Leicester LE2 7BY
Admission: Free, but sometimes there are charges for activities or talks.
Opening times: Weekdays and Saturdays: 10am-4pm, Sundays: 11am-4pm
Accessibility: The interior of the museum is fully accessible to those with limited mobility or using wheelchairs. There is a lift and a toilet facility available.
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Paige Worrall is a History graduate currently working as a library assistant. She is starting her MA in Museum Studies at the University of Leicester this year. Her passion for the history of art has led her to set up her own blog https://themuseuminspector.wordpress.com/ where writing on her various interests can be found. When she isn’t visiting museums, Paige can probably be found in a bookshop or curling up with a novel or two!