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Leicester Special Collections

The Very Beginnings of a University


The portrait of Dr. Astley V Clarke

The very beginnings of the University date from the 1880s when Rev. Joseph Wood proposed the idea of a University college at Leicester to the Leicester Literary and Philosophical Society. The idea was revived by Dr. Astley Clarke in 1912 in his Presidential Adress to the Literary and Philosophical Society. However, when the First World War broke out in 1914 the plans for a university were pushed back. In 1917, the idea was revived, suggesting that the university could serve as a living war memorial to the sacrifices of local people during the First World War. 

The Best War Memorial.JPG

The press cutting-'The Best War Memorial' was published by Leicester Daily Post in 1917.

After the First World War ended on 11th November 1918, there was a campaign to help fundraise for a university. During this period ‘The Golden Book' was created by the City School of Arts and Crafts (later became De Montfort University) to commemorate those who had donated to help fund a university. The Golden Book documents those who donated money and other gifts between the years of 1918-1925.

One of the pages in the Golden Book

Commemorative tablet to those who fell in the First World War whose families/friends donated to the University 

Some of the gifts were from families or individuals who donated in memory of someone who had died. Around 75% of the donations came from individuals. Among these around 39% were women and 61% men. These were not just monetary contributions but other various gifts including furniture, books, pianos, microscopes etc. This shows how people gave what they could to help provide higher education in Leicester and how the community helped to build up the university. As Admiral Sir David Beatty in 1919 said ‘Nothing can be conceived for honoring the dead by providing the higher attainments of the living’.

First students and staff.jpg

First students and staff in 1921.

The university first opened in 1921 with 11 students. The university today is still a reminder of what people sacrificed to provide higher education for the people of Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland. Leicester is one of the only two universities in the world founded as a memorial to the First World War. This is reflected in the University Motto, 'Ut Vitam Habeant'- 'So that they may have life'.

Promotion of the University War Memoriak Fundraising scheme, 1919

In 1925 a First World War memorial was unveiled at Victoria Park in Leicester not far from the University college. This exhibition focuses on the stories of some of the individuals who made donations to the university and the sacrifices they made to bring higher education to Leicester. 

Victoria Park War Memorial in Autumn, 2017


Astley Clarke Scrapbook, University of Leicester Archives, ULA/D2/1

Dixon, S & Bridger, K. (2018) 'Let us offer higher education as our war memorial': the philanthropic origins of the University of Leicester. Available at:

Golden Book, University of Leicester Archives, ULA/HIS/FOU/1

Leicester, Leicestershire, and Rutland College Reports and Accounts (1921-22), University of Leicester Archives, ULA/P/AR1, p.4.

Press Cuttings Book 1917-1929, University of Leicester Archives, ULA/PCB1. 

'So that they may have life' Heritage project. Available at:

University of Leicester. Our founders. Available at:

Beginnings of a University