A history of De Montfort University

The founding of De Montfort University 

At a public meeting in October 1869 a ‘considerable number of ladies and gentlemen’ decided to organise a school which ‘would be able to afford authoritative instruction in art to the people of Leicester’. From there, premises were secured in an old warehouse and in March 1870 the first classes of the Leicester School of Art were held.

In the same year, the Reverend James Went began teaching a series of technical classes at the nearby Wyggeston Grammar School for Boys. The demand for lessons was so high that the Leicester Technical School was created in 1882.

The Leicester Municipal Technical and Art School was then formed in 1897, when the Leicester School of Art was merged with the Leicester Technical School, under the control of the town council. Construction began in the Newarke on what we now call the Hawthorn Building. Initially, only the wing facing the Hugh Aston Building was completed. The other parts were added later, with the Richmond Street wing built in 1909, the Gateway Street wing in 1928, and the wing facing Trinity House in 1937.

During the final build, two arches from the 14th century Church of the Annunciation were found embedded into the walls of a cellar. They were preserved and later incorporated into DMU’s Heritage Centre.

The war years

On the outbreak of the World War I in 1914, the school was eager to play its part in assisting the war effort. A munitions workshop was started by engineering staff and a programme of classes was created for servicemen who had been impaired by their injuries, allowing them to retrain in a more suitable trade. Many brave staff and students volunteered to serve in the armed forces, and sadly at least 20 lost their lives.

In 1929, the school was rebranded as the Leicester College of Arts and Crafts and the Leicester College of Technology. The Leicester College of Arts and Crafts taught architecture, building crafts, furniture making, printing, book production, metalworking, dress design, weaving, drawing and painting. Meanwhile, the Leicester College of Technology offered education in boot and shoe manufacture, hosiery and textiles, chemistry, dyeing, pharmacy, physics, mathematics, engineering, office management, and trades such as grocery, butchery, bakery and confectionery. The emphasis in both colleges was on vocation, practical skills and employability.

During World War II, life at the colleges was disrupted. Sandbags piled up around the ground floor and gas masks were carried at all times. Short courses in key skills were offered for members of the forces and for women entering munitions factories. Students made furnishings and equipment for hospitals, painted murals in restaurants and air raid shelters, and made posters and signs for the local civil defence committee. After the war it was revealed that the college had been a top-secret radar training station.

The polytechnic years

The campus changed considerably in the 1960s and 70s. The now bygone Fletcher Building – which has since been redeveloped to create the Vijay Patel Building – was opened by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother in 1966. This was the first custom-built extension to the colleges and was essential due to the lack of available space in the Hawthorn Building. A few years later, the James Went Building was added, known informally as the barcode building because of its unusual windows. The building was demolished in 2004 to make way for the Hugh Aston Building and the landscaping of The Magazine.

The Leicester Colleges of Art and Technology were formally designated as the City of Leicester Polytechnic in April 1969, and expanded greatly during the period following. A new building was added on campus when a former hosiery factory was converted into the Clephan Building, while a merger with the City of Leicester College of Education brought new subjects to the curriculum, including teacher training, speech therapy, performing arts and social studies. There was also the creation of a new Leicester campus based at the 18th century manor house Scraptoft Hall.

Becoming De Montfort University

Leicester Polytechnic officially became De Montfort University Leicester (DMU) on 26 June 1992. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II launched a new campus for the university at Milton Keynes in March 1992, and in 1994 two further campuses were opened in Lincoln and Bedford. The aim of this was to create a ‘distributed campus’ – a university made up of a network of campuses, each with its own identity and specialisms, but managed as a single corporation sharing technology, systems and skills. By the end of the 1990s, DMU boasted more than 30,000 students across the four sites.

In December 1993, the Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II opened a new building on the Leicester campus named in her honour. Housing the School of Engineering and Manufacture, the Queen’s Building was considered innovative in its approach to environmental issues and was awarded the first ever Energy Design Award by the Department of Energy.

The Charles Frears campus was formed in 1995, following a merger with Charles Frears College of Nursing and Midwifery. With the Scraptoft campus, this saw DMU extended across three Leicester sites as well as the three national campuses. 

A new century

Many changes have taken place at DMU since the turn of the century, including consolidation of all teaching onto the original central Leicester campus. Courses and facilities at Lincoln, Bedford and Milton Keynes were transferred to local institutions, while the Scraptoft and Charles Frears campuses were sold.

Recent years have seen the opening of significant new buildings that enhance DMU’s modern, state-of-the-art facilities, including the Campus Centre, the PACE building and the Hugh Aston Building. A total of £185.2 million has been invested in developing DMU’s campus of the future, the centrepiece of which is the towering Vijay Patel Building, which houses the art and design subjects.

DMU, now in its 150th year, has grown into the inclusive, diverse, and global institution seen today - with 26,000 students, 2,600 staff, and friends, partners and positive influence across the world.

DMU archives

Archived material relating to the history of the university is held in the DMU Special Collections. The collection includes student registers, annual reports, prospectuses, committee minutes, staff records, press cuttings, orders of proceedings from graduation ceremonies, visitors’ books, and photographs of the campus and classes. More information about the collection can be found DMU Archives Collections catalogue. Contact archives@dmu.ac.uk with enquiries or to book an appointment.

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