A Princely Gift
An ideal location for the new College was identified as the old county asylum building and grounds adjacent to Victoria Park, occupied during the war by the 5th Northern General Hospital. The first steps towards raising the estimated £55-60,000 needed to acquire the site were taken the day after the armistice in 1918 when Dr Astley Clarke announced the creation of a trust fund, established with donations from himself and Dr Frederick Bennett as ‘thank-offerings’ for peace. However, the vision only started to become reality when Thomas Fielding Johnson, a 91 year old businessman and philanthropist, acquired the site with the intention of donating it to the Borough of Leicester to accommodate not only the proposed College but also Wyggeston boys’ and girls’ grammar schools.
Dr Astley Vavasour Clarke (1870-1945) was born in Leicester and educated at Wyggeston and Oakham Schools. He went on to study natural sciences at Cambridge before completing his medical training at Guy’s Hospital. He served as the first Administrator of the 5th Northern General Hospital after it was established as part of the Leicestershire and Rutland Territorial Force and was later Assistant Director of Medical Services, North Midlands Division. He worked tirelessly to raise funds and win support for the College scheme. In March 1919, he was preparing to make a speech urging the purchase of the site and visited Thomas Fielding Johnson, wishing to confirm ‘some historical facts about the site’. Much to Clarke’s astonishment Fielding Johnson informed him that, ‘you can’t buy it, for I bought it yesterday!’.
Thomas Fielding Johnson (1828-1921) was a worsted manufacturer whose company, Fielding & Johnson, had sold yarn to the Government during the war. After his death in 1921 his son, Thomas Fielding Johnson junior, became a Vice President of the College. This plan of the former asylum site shows the areas to be used for the new University College and for the Boys’ and Girls’ Wyggeston Grammar Schools. The largest part of the site was reserved for the boys' school. The University College was allocated a much smaller parcel of land abutting Victoria Road (now University Road) and Victoria Park, including the old asylum building itself. Also shown is a printed letter from Fielding Johnson to W. J. Lovell, Mayor of Leicester, announcing his acquisition of the site. Johnson resided at Brookfield, in Stoneygate, a property now owned by the University of Leicester.