27 May 2024

The rise and fall,
and the rise again,
of Leicester’s unique
coffee house culture

The Victoria Coffee House on Granby Street, designed by Edward Burgess, was the most magnificent Victorian coffee house in Leicester (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

During my visits to Leicester over the past two weeks, I have enjoyed the array of cafés throughout the city centre, with enjoyable ‘pit stops’ for coffee during my long walks, visiting churches and faith centres, archaeological sites, museums, buildings of architectural interest, and enjoying the street life and street art.

One independent café that I returned to time and again is the Leicester Coffee House Company a small independent coffee shop and roastery on Granby Street in the city centre.

But Leicester also has a unique legacy of Victorian coffee houses, and those that have survived are an important part of the architectural history of the city.

They can be traced back to Victorian worthies in Leicester such as Thomas Cook, better known for his travel agencies and travellers’ cheques. Cook was a devout Christian and a lifelong supporter of the Temperance Movement. He believed drunkenness was at the root of many social problems that encouraged people to give up drinking alcohol.

As more working men lived on the outskirts of Leicester, there was an increasing need for working men’s restaurants in the town centre. Working men would carry their lunch to work and eat it in a public house, but few other alternatives were available.

Cook was involved in the formation of the Leicester Coffee and Cocoa Company Ltd in 1877. Its aim was to ‘establish houses, rooms, coffee carts and stalls’ to provide general refreshment, and the company went on to set up 14 coffee houses in Leicester.

Outside, the coffee houses were deliberately ornate to attract customers. Inside, the coffee houses offered hot and affordable food such as ‘a large basin of nourishing soup for two pence’ and ‘nutritious, comforting and healthful beverages at the easy price of a penny a pint’.

They were praised for their ‘size, decoration, fittings, cleanliness and order’ surpassing ‘all that was formerly attainable except at high charges.’ To make them even more appealing, the coffee houses were designed as bright, attractive and comfortable social spaces where both men and women could go. Newspapers and amusements were available, some had a ladies’ room and others had a billiards room.

The many buildings in Leicester designed by Edward Burgess include the former Liberal Club, Bishop Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Six of the company’s premises were custom-built and designed by the Leicester architect Edward Burgess (1847-1929), a brother of the company solicitor, Alfred Howard Burgess. Edward Burgess was a Quaker and shared many of Thomas Cook’s values and outlooks. He worked mostly in Leicestershire, and many of his buildings were of considerable distinction. His work includes no less than 12 listed buildings, and many others that make significant contributions to the Victorian townscape of Leicester.

One of his early buildings in Leicester was the Quaker meeting house on Prebend Road, off London Road, built in 1876. Some of his buildings were in the Domestic Revival style, including the former Wyggeston Girls’ School (1877-1878), now the Age UK building on Humberstone Gate, and the coffee houses he designed in the 1880s for the Leicester Cocoa and Coffee Company.

Burgess designed other buildings in Leicester in a Neo-Renaissance style, including the terracotta-faced Alexandra House on Rutland Street (1895-1898), described by the architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner as ‘the finest warehouse in Leicester and one of the finest in the country.’ His other works include the Reference Library, Bishop Street (1904), the Gothic former Leicester Savings Bank, Greyfriars (1873), Nos 8-10 Millstone Lane (1864), the former Liberal Club, Bishop Street (1885-1888), schools such as the Hazel Primary School (1880), Hazel Street, and some houses, including No 6 Ratcliffe Road (1880).

The East Gates Coffee House near the Clock Tower was opened in 1885 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The East Gates Coffee House was built on a prominent corner at Church Gate near the Clock Tower and was opened by the Duchess of Rutland on 15 June 1885.

The East Gates Coffee House was ‘built in the domestic style of the 15th century and both internally and externally much admired.’ Burgess designed the building to replicate elements of George and Peto’s Ossington Coffee Tavern in Newark, Nottinghamshire, built in 1882 and regarded as the high-water mark in Temperance architecture. The two buildings share many architectural details, particularly in the design of the windows and gables with applied, close-stud, timber decoration.

East Gates is built on a smaller scale, but it was more elaborately embellished by Burgess with finely executed, carved and moulded decoration that is visually assertive and places great emphasis on display. It is an ambitious building with elaborate and well executed decorative detail to both main external elevations.

The survival of the carefully moulded and carved decoration is uncommon, particularly in a commercial building. Despite alteration to the shop windows on the ground floor, this decoration helps to retain the overall ambience of the building as Burgess first intended.

Edward Burgess made full use of the prominent corner site near the Clock Tower (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Burgess made full use of the prominent corner location at the heart of the arterial roads leading to and from central Leicester. The nearby Clock Tower, designed by Joseph Goddard in 1868, was intended to provide a traffic-flow improvement to this busy junction.

The East Gates Coffee House remained a popular and profitable service for more than 40 years until it closed soon after World War I. By the late 20th century, the building was deteriorating badly, and the fascia on the top of the building looked so precarious that many people feared it was past repair.

Leicester Victorian Society drew attention to the plight of the former East Gates coffee house, English Heritage commissioned the survey that made it a listed building, and JD Sports carried out extensive restoration and repair to the exterior. Today, the premises are occupied by Tim Hortons, a Canadian coffee and fast food chain … so, I suppose to some degree, it has returned to its original purpose.

The Victoria Coffee House, with its turrets and French Renaissance style, was the most magnificent of all the Victorian and Edwardian coffee houses in Leicester (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

JD Sports had previously occupied another coffee house designed by Edward Burgess, the Victoria Coffee House at 38-40 Granby Street.

The Victoria Coffee House was built in 1887 and was named in honour of Queen Golden Victoria’s Jubilee. It was the most magnificent of all the coffee houses in Leicester. A five-storey turreted building in the French Renaissance style, it was considered ‘the best in the Kingdom.’

When the Duchess of Rutland was opening the Victoria Coffee House in 1888, she praised the directors for combining commercial profit with the benefit of the townspeople. She said she ‘was constantly receiving letters from various parts of the country asking how it was the coffee houses in Leicester achieved such an extraordinary amount of success.’

In recent years, the Victoria Coffee House was a Greek restaurant, and today it is San Carlo, an Italian restaurant.

The High Cross Coffee House on High Street … now part of the Wetherspoons chain (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The East Gate Coffee House and the Victoria Coffee House were the most imposing of the dozen establishments of the Leicester Coffee and Cocoa House Company and attracted a more wealthy clientele. But most of the other coffee houses catered for working men and women who wanted a simple meal without being obliged to drink alcohol.

Burgess also designed the High Cross Coffee House on High Street (1895). The High Cross name comes from the High Cross, a monument at the junction of Highcross Street and High Street in an area that was the centre of mediaeval Leicester.

This Grade II building has Doric columns flanking its canted corner entrance and square projecting double height bay windows with small paned sashes and pargetted panels beneath. A lead and timber cupola sits above the corner in a central position on the red clay tiled roof.

It too was one of the temperance coffee houses run by the Leicester Coffee and Cocoa House Company. Today, it could not be further from the temperance movement, and is part of the Wetherspoons chain of pubs.

The former Albert Coffee House at Belgrave Gate was built for the Leicester Coffee and Cocoa House Company in the 1880s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Burgess also designed the Albert coffee house at Belgrave Gate and the Great Northern Coffee House on Belgrave Road, later the Abbey Café, both built for the Leicester Coffee and Cocoa House Company in the 1880s. The buildings have survived despite not being listed.

The Victorian coffee houses in Leicester failed to thrive after World War I. An account in the Illustrated Leicester Chronicle noted how ‘many regulars used to come in at midday, bringing their own food, ordering a cup of tea, which I believe was ½d, and asking for a plate for their sandwiches.’

Another account bemoaned how customers ‘brought their own food, used the pepper and salt, and never spent a penny – and had a good warm against the stove in winter.’ In these circumstances, it was inevitable that the company folded in 1921.

Clarence House on Humberstone Gate, now the headquarters of Age Concern, was designed by Edward Burgess as the Wyggeston Hospital Girls’ School (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Burgess also designed many other interesting buildings in Leicester. Clarence House on Humberstone Gate is now the headquarters of Age Concern in Leicester. It was designed by Burgess as the Wyggeston Hospital Girls’ School and was built in 1877.

Its design has been compared with the appearance of Oxbridge colleges. It later became the City of Leicester Boys' Grammar School, and was then used by Charles Keene College, before becoming the Leicester headquarters of Age Concern. It Clarence House on Humberstone Gate is now the headquarters of Age Concern in Leicester. It was designed by Burgess as the Wyggeston Hospital Girls’ Schoolwas listed in 1975.

The former Liberal Club at 6 Bishop Street, now known as Alliance House, was designed by Burgess in 1885. Burgess also designed the Reference Library on Bishop Street in the Baroque style in 1904.

Arthur Wakerley designed the distinctive Turkey Café at 24 Granby Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Burgess was not the only architect to design distinctive coffee houses in Leicester. For example, Arthur Wakerley (1862-1931), the Leicester architect who designed the synagogue on Highfield Street, also designed the distinctive Turkey Café at 24 Granby Street. Wakerley was also a local politician and was the Liberal Mayor of Leicester in 1897.

Much of Wakerley’s work was inspired by his love of ‘the Orient’, an influence reflected in the Byzantine-style dome on top of the synagogue tower as well as the decorative details of the Turkey Café on Granby Street.

The Turkey Café was built in 1900 and Wakerley’s design included coloured Doulton tiles and art nouveau lettering. It was really an architectural pun, illustrating the theme ‘Turkey’ both in style and in the actual birds, of which there were originally three.

The café was run from 1901 by John Shepard Winn, Winn had opened the Oriental Café in Market Place in 1892. The Turkey café was extended in 1911 to provide a smoke room for men and extra tearooms. The café hosted social events and meetings, and a ladies’ orchestra gave performances twice daily.

Winn’s family continued to run the café until the mid-1960s, when it was bought by Brucciani Ltd. The exterior was remodelled by Rayners Opticians in the 1980s, using the architect’s original drawings. Since then it has been a café bar called ‘1901’ and a coffee shop and soda fountain.

Wakerley also designed the Café Royal at 44 London Road, which opened about 1911 in part of a block thar included the Wyvern Hotel of 1895. Like the Turkey Café, it too was acquired by Brucciani Ltd, but it was demolished in 1974.

The Kenya Café opened at 21 Market Street in the mid-1930s, followed soon after by the Sunset Cafe at 7 Haymarket. The Kenya had a fairly short life, and had closed by 1947. But the Sunset survived until it was demolished in 1964 for the Haymarket redevelopment.

Winn’s cafés once had a high reputation for their cakes, made in their bakery in Bath Lane. Unfortunately, standards declined during World War II and they never really recovered.

Another new-style café was the Mikado at 67 Market Place. It was owned by a London firm, Nelson & Co, and dated from the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. Despite its name, the decor, with its murals of coloured tiles, was Turkish rather than Japanese. A common sight was a man in a chef’s hat roasting coffee beans in the window, the aroma wafting across the Market Place

In its later years an attempt was made to modernise the downstairs part, but the upstairs dining room remained the same. The Mikado Café was closed and the premises sold in 1966.

The name of the Turkey Café was an architectural pun, illustrating the theme ‘Turkey’ both in style and in the actual birds (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Leicester’s traditional coffee shops developed rapidly in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, and then declined in two phases, first in the immediate aftermath of World War I in the early 1920s, and then from the 1960s, when they were squeezed between a demand for finer dining at one end of the market and, at the other end of the market, the phenomenal growth of multinational fast food chains.

Today, new forms of coffee shops are firmly part of commercial and social life in every town and city, ranging from the well-known branded chains to the confident and welcoming independents such as the Leicester Coffee House Company, only a few steps away from the original Victoria Coffee House and Turkey Café on Granby Street.

Time for coffee at the Leicester Coffee House Company … a few steps away from the original Victoria Coffee House and Turkey Café on Granby Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

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