Stoneygate has largely evolved over the last 170 years. When Victoria became Queen in 1837, the town’s southernmost landmarks would have been the New Walk Museum (then a newly-opened school) or the racecourse (which became Victoria Park in 1883).
Most of what is now the Stoneygate conservation area would have been fields, orchards or grazing land either side of London Road; the main route for horse-carriages and mail coaches travelling between Leicester, Market Harborough and the capital. There were fewer than half a dozen houses and substantial buildings.
The oldest of these was the Stoney Gate (see photo), a 17th century farmhouse that was remodelled in the 1840s and demolished in 1962 to be replaced by the Dukes Drive flats. Another was Stoneygate’s oldest surviving building, the Grade II listed Italianate villa built around 1826 which is now 223 London Road.
Only ten Stoneygate properties were recorded in White’s Directory of 1846 including Brookfield (now the University of Leicester Business School) and The Shrubbery (see photo) which previously occupied the Stoneygate Court site but the number was beginning to rise.
Over the next two decades a significant number of large houses were built, each situated in its own miniature estate and, in modern terms, best described as mansions. The Lodge (a ‘Substantial Family Residence’ according to a 1915 estate agent) was fairly typical in having nine-bedrooms, a stable block, paddock, greenhouse and aviary, as well as extensive gardens. Stoneygate School (now the centrepiece of Scholars Walk) opened in 1859 to cater for the children of these grand houses.
Development in Stoneygate really intensified from 1870 onwards. The establishment of side roads began in earnest and was encouraged by the sale first of the D’Oyly Estate, then the Clarendon Park estate and later the Stoneygate House estate owned by Sir William Tempest. Speculative builders and investors began to buy up plots in the area and between 1870 and 1910 Stoneygate experienced something of a building boom.
This was its heyday and provided the opportunity for Leicester’s best-known architects to design residential buildings that would showcase their talents and add to their reputations. Isaac Barradale (Knighton Park Road, Stanley Road, Stoneygate Road and 15-17 St John’s Road), Joseph Goddard (Knighton Spinneys in Ratcliffe Road), Ernest Gimson (Inglewood in Ratcliffe Road (see photo) and The White House on North Avenue), Stockdale Harrison (15 Elms Road) and Arthur Wakerley (3 Springfield Road) all built in Stoneygate.
Interestingly, the Borough of Leicester only laid the first water main along London Road in 1889; before that houses obtained water from wells and rainwater storage tanks and town gas (made from burning coal) was supplied through private contracts. Electricity –something that we take for granted- wasn’t available at all until the twentieth century.
The Great War of 1914-18 marked a turning point. By the early 1920s, many of the grander houses were being demolished and their land sold off for building. The newest of the ‘historical’ houses in the conservation area, and particularly in London, Southernhay and Knighton Roads, date from this period. The houses along London Road were finally comprehensively numbered in 1936.
Chronologically speaking, almost all the ‘historical’ buildings in the Stoneygate Conservation Area are Victorian or Edwardian with a relatively small number, mainly at the southern end, being built in the 1920s and 1930s.
Architectural styles range from Victorian Gothic, through English Revival to Arts and Crafts. While most of the Victorian family mansions have disappeared, a few like Knighton Spinneys still survive, albeit minus the huge expanse of garden that previously surrounded them.
As local historian Christine Jordan points out in her book ‘Leicester’s Suburbs’, despite the infiltration of blocks of modern flats in the 1960s and 1970s, the area’s identity is still essentially bound up with the idea of leafy middle-class suburbia.