Wyggeston Hospital

Wyggeston Hospital

The Almshouses. The early home of Wyggeston Hospital, Leicester.

William Wyggeston

The William Wyggeston sculpture on Leicester Clock Tower.

When England was still a Catholic country, William Wyggeston, a Leicester Merchant, set up his Hospital in 1513. This was an Almshouse to provide accommodation for 12 poor men and 12 poor women and was to have two chaplains to say masses for the souls of the dead. He bought considerable properties including the Manor of Swannington as an endowment for the Hospital.

Through the religious vicissitudes of the decades that followed the Hospital survived which says much for the good sense of those involved in its management. Financially it was a different matter for new rules were made in the 1570s which led to recurring crises. The land could be let for a term of three lives and the Master could take a fine or premium on the granting of the lease and keep it for himself, so the Master would have a lump sum and the rent would be fixed at a low level. In 1656 there was much dissatisfaction among the Swannington tenants and there was an enquiry into the management of the Hospital. A reforming Act of Parliament was passed which provided that the Hospital was to be run by Trustees, there were to be no long leases and most important of all no fines were to be taken on the grant of leases. Here was a chance of a fresh start for the Hospital but the Act was swept away at the Restoration.

At the end of the seventeenth century a document was drawn up which listed all the houses fields and closes and the strips in the three common fields. This document survives and will be found fascinating by anyone with ancestors in the village at that time. Manor courts were necessary to regulate the husbandry of the village and other aspects of its life and there are a number of records of these up to 1741.

One of the Hospital's most important assets was Swannington's coal. Even though the Master took substantial premiums on the grant of leases of the mining rights, the Hospital land was valued at £1200 in 1656 and the coal was leased for £400. Mining leases enabled some entrepreneurs like Gabriel Holland to lose fortunes and John Wilkins to make a fortune from coal mining. Wilkins dramatically improved the mining of coal by improvements in drainage, spending £2,000 to drain his mines at Silver Hill. It was he who brought the first Newcomen engines into the village in 1720. There was no Enclosure Act for Swannington but there is a tithe award of 1844 with an excellent map showing the layout of the fields many of which are the same today. This gives the names of all the owners and their tenants and shows how much of the land was still held by the Hospital. The reign of Victoria was a time of overhaul and change for many ancient foundations, the Hospital among them. When the changes were made in the 1850s in the administration of the Hospital, it was found that the Hospital had not been paying attention to the preservation of its mineral rights. The Earls of Huntingdon claimed that the Lordship of Swannington was theirs. No Manorial Court had been held for more than a hundred years but the Hospital in 1860 decided to revive it as a way of advertising its ownership of the Manor and the Court continued until 1925.

That Swannington was owned by a Charity has had a significant effect on it giving to its residents greater independence. The fact that the Lord of the Manor took little interest in the inhabitants may have been one of the factors that enabled first the Quakers and then Methodism to flourish so strongly among its people. The Hospital is still an important though not a large landowner here, for to it belong the allotments and the recreation ground both of which are let to the Parish Council.