Leicester Museum (where I spent many student hours) - formerly the Proprietory School built by architect Joseph Hansom of Hansom Cab fame in 1837, the year of Queen Victoria's Coronation.
Excerpt from A HOUSE NOT MADE WITH HANDS.
This is the story of one community's struggle to bring New Jerusalem out of the clouds during a quarter of a millennium of radical change. The spiritual dynamism inspired by John Wesley in these parishes was multiplied throughout the British Isles and steadily contributed to the welfare and stability of the nation when Europe was in ferment and the beast of anarchy was baying at the door. King George III himself fully recognised the part played by Methodism. He even donated ships' timber for the building of Wesley's Chapel in the City of London and presented them in person.
The man in the wide-awake hat and darned coat paused in the taproom doorway of the Midland Counties Arms Hotel to stamp the snow from his boots. His sharp black eyes were full of whimsy as he took in the scene.
Flames as long as posthorns raced up the chimney and the bottle-glass windows were blind with steam. The babbling din faltered. A dozen pairs of questioning eyes settled upon the stranger, but no one hailed him. He strode confidently towards the bar, making a swathe through the atmosphere thick with smoke from pine and pipe, and demanded pigeon pie, boiled potatoes and a jar of the local bitter.
Farmer Bennett, having done his apple turnover full justice, shrugged and picked a clove-stalk from between his teeth. It was a staggering turnout for Messrs Holland, Warner & Sheppard's auction sale. He trusted the Good Lord knew his oats and that the attention of speculators would be diverted from Lot No. 3 in which he himself had so fervent an interest. He was there on behalf of the chapel trustees to bid for the house now in alien hands. At five minutes to two, just as the proceedings were about to begin, he was heartened to see George Angrave step into the saloon, brushing snow from his greatcoat.
"Keen as mustard, this crowd," grunted Bennett.
"Have faith, man! I daresay half of them are taking refuge from the snowstorm."
"I don't see the Squire."
"He's holding forth in the Snug. Caught a glimpse of him on my way in."
As if on cue, Needham sauntered into the room, replete on the best fare of the house, and indulged in some jocular repartee with old Cabby Hubbard who had defied the snow on crutches rather than miss the goings-on. The hosier stationed himself in a corner, well back from the auctioneer's desk, exuding an air of complacency. Lots 1 and 2 were summarily disposed of and Bennett braced himself to do battle.
The desired lot was introduced and amply described. His throat felt parched and his tongue swollen. A panting engine towing coal-wagons screamed and clattered through the nearby station. Silence fell so that the audience had to be cajoled into an appreciation of its fortune. After such a panegyric, only the dark newcomer was bold enough to offer a startling fifty guineas to a chorus of whistles. Then, cautiously, the bidding began to jump to and fro, catching like sparks among the throng, until only three contenders remained. They were Bennett, Simeon Applebee, a Leicester schoolmaster, and the mysterious figure in the felt hat who appeared to be acquainted with no one.
In leaps of five pounds, the bidding spiralled. Bennett mopped the moisture from his brow. He was beginning to lose his nerve for he was reluctant to commit the chapel to a debt the pledges would never cover and the extent of essential repairs had yet to be fully assessed. In great anxiety, he turned to his companion. "Best quit," he hissed.
Just then, Angrave caught the sly satisfaction on Needham's countenance. One hundred and sixty. And five. One hundred and seventy. And five. One hundred and eighty pounds, gentlemen...."
"Nay, that's enough! Best let it be. If Him Above had meant us to have it, he'd a gi'n us a few extra bob!"
"An awful pity," muttered Angrave, "for tis my belief that foreign-looking fellow is an agent of Needham's, planted to up the bidding. See how their eyes communicate!"
"You mean he's not a bona fide customer?"
"I'd stake my life on it. Unless I'm mistaken, he'll gauge exactly when to withdraw."
And so he did. Whattoffe's House was finally knocked down to Mr Applebee for the sum of two hundred and ten pounds which many agreed was excessive. By all accounts it was to become a boarding school for the sons of gentlefolk who sought a scientific and classical education.
Bennett looked crestfallen as the tension drained away. A wave of bitter disappointment overtook him. He shuffled the peak of the cloth cap he always wore for going to market back and forth through his fingers. Divine plan or otherwise, he realised how desperately bent he had been on winning the prize. "Hell and tarnation! Beggin' your pardon, Mr Angrave, sir. That knave was lining his pockets all along. He done it to put our nose out of joint, I swear!"
"He did it to obtain maximum profit."
"Them high and mighty Anglicans think they can ride roughshod over sinners like us. Twere an ill day when that vulture got his talons on Will Cooper's bequest."
"Bill, give over fretting. It was not meant to be."
"But we'd have put it to good use and looked after the poor. Instead of that, it's to be a place where young toffs will learn the trick of trampling them down."
"You were all for quitting a little earlier. All for giving God a hand in the affair."
"Nay, but I nivver guessed we were being double-crossed, Mr Angrave,"
"Should that make a difference, I wonder?"
The farmer ground his teeth sullenly, his usual bright goodwill gone. "You may go to the cattlemarket and judge a beast by his head, his rump, his shanks, but man is a pig in a poke." He unhooked a weathered mantle from the cloakstand, catching his own distorted reflection in the badly silvered mirror. "There's no telling what manner of breed lives under his hide!"
"The pathways of the human heart are rarely straight and true. I fancy there is much to be learned from this day's affairs."
The fate of Whattoffe's House had plunged them all into dejection, none more so than Angrave himself who was the Coopers' kith and kin. They had intended to use their founder's house for charitable purposes and had been confident they could count on the Lord to strengthen their arm. Although, as Pryor, the cattle dealer, pointed out: worse destinies might have befallen the Cooper heritage.
"That's as may be," argued Radford, the butcher, "but an Anglican school for privileged brats is no help to the starving."
"Even well-heeled Nonconformists would hesitate to send their sons to such an institution," maintained Ardron, the farmer.
"That is why in Leicester," said Boyer, the gentleman of means, "chapel-goers strive to acquire their own academies, but it is not easy to make them pay. You'll recall the Proprietory School in New Walk lasted only a decade."
At this, Angrave lost his temper. "The everlasting rivalry between Church and Dissent is a grievous scourge!" he stormed. "These are supposedly enlightened times. How can we be brothers in Christ and evangelise society if we are constantly at war? Though it condemned him, Wesley did not teach us to despise the established church."
"Fine talk," grumbled the down-to-earth Bennett, still sore at the outcome of the auction, "but your head's full of fleece if you fancy things can be changed overnight. Blatherin' Pharisees with their incense and images have allus looked askance at chapel flock. Why, the Church is nobbut English popery!"
Angrave's steel-grey eyes blazed. "Fustian, Billy! You'd do well to remember that the early Methodists were taken for Papists!"
"Papists or not," shouted Tookey, the coal merchant, picking furiously at the grime under his fingernails, "I'm damned if I'll render my hard-earnt brass unto Caesar with a cheerful heart!"
A prickly silence ensued until Boyer retrieved the situation. "Come, come, gentlemen, it will be said that not for nothing are we called Dissenters!"
"There is too much readiness to cast stones all round," Angrave agreed. "Why, I myself must confess that I cannot be absolutely certain Needham tinkered with the bidding last week. Either way, it makes no odds for God did not see fit to return Whattoffe's House to us."
"Perhaps," Boyer was bold to suggest, "we ought to set about putting our present house in order before we can expect to gain another."
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World Vision, International Prison Outreach, Salvation Army, Emmaus Project, Poor Clares, DogsTrust, BUAV (against animal testing) WWT (Wildfowl &...