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An Epic Place

BackgroundPosted by Stephen Butt Sun, October 02, 2016 08:23:14

Epic House is a typical, if architecturally unimaginative, concrete and steel construction of the mid-1960s, standing at the northern end of Charles Street near to the centre of Leicester. It is a familiar landmark recognised by most Leicester inhabitants. The ten floor tower block stands about 120 feet above a two-storey retail store. It was built in 1965 and the local celebrity and national radio personality, the late Lady Isabel Barnett of the White House in Cossington, performed the opening ceremony. A plaque in the reception foyer above the lift entrances, now covered over by a later refurbishment, records that event.

The ground floor was originally occupied by a Safeway supermarket. Later the premises were used by a discount furniture retailer. The Wilkinson Stores group took over the shop premises in the 1990s and constructed a large extension on the former car park behind the tower on land bordering Clarence Street and Lower Lee Street.

The area where Epic House stands, between Belgrave Gate and Clarence Street, has been an ever-changing townscape since early Victorian times. Epic House was built on the site of the former Leicester (or Leicestershire) horse repository which was near to the old route into Leicester from Newark and Lincoln, Loughborough and Nottingham. Charles Street was constructed in 1932 as a bypass to remove traffic from the clock tower area of the city. Originally, traffic to and from the north would have passed this location en route to the Haymarket and the East Gate of the town near to where the Victorian clock tower now stands.

The original Repository - a building in the Victorian Gothic style - stood on a nearby site in Belgrave Gate close to the present junction of Charles Street, Belgrave Gate, Charles Street and Bedford Street. At one time, the junction where Belgrave Gate and Bedford Street meet, just a short distance from Lee Street and Hill Street, was the gateway into the Wharf Street area of the town. This was a network of small streets and courts where, in the Victorian era, thousands of people lived in poor conditions, in back-to-backs and in even more squalid tenements which could be reached only through dark alleys.

As a business, the history of the repository dates back to 1875. For twenty years before that, a paddock adjoining the ancient Bell Hotel on Humberstone Gate had been used for the same purpose, the buying, selling and stabling of horses. The building in Charles Street replaced this earlier repository when the new route avoiding the clock tower and Gallowtree Gate was created. It was completed in 1930 and opened formally on the first day of the famous Leicester Pageant. The newer repository was designed by the Leicester architect Clement Copeland Ogden, whose practice was located in Friar Lane. Its purpose may have broadened over the years, and one can imagine that at some time, the incoming stage and mail coaches would have changed their horses here. In a similar way to a modern services area, various ancillary businesses would have clustered around the repository including a public house which also offered overnight accommodation. This hostelry was originally called The Horse Breaker's Arms but later become The Repository Hotel.

In earlier times, Joseph Merrick, the 'Elephant Man' worked here as a boy of about twelve, hand-rolling cigars for a tobacconist in Hill Street, until his affliction meant he could no longer undertake the task with the required degree of accuracy and neatness. Merrick was born in the next street, Lee Street. The tobacconist's shop faced Hill Street which is now the pedestrianised Lower Hill Street and was located approximately where the reception entrance for Epic House now stands. Although the repository at that date was in Belgrave Gate, no doubt the tobacconist drew much of his trade from the men who stabled their horses there. The final owners and operators of the repository were Warner, Shepherd and Wade who were well-known auctioneers in Leicester until recent times, the original site having been purchased by George Tempest Wade in 1875. The later repository was finally demolished in March 1962.

In the summer and autumn of 2001 before the extension to the ground floor retail store was built, a detailed archaeological survey of the car park next to Clarence Street and behind the tower was carried out. The site lies to the east of the Roman town defences in an area previously identified with Roman cemeteries. The excavations revealed the most easterly remains of a Roman cemetery. Sixty two inhumations were discovered. A number of earlier Roman features were also excavated which included some substantial domestic and industrial pits. A later monitoring and recording exercise revealed a further 33 Roman inhumations and one earlier pit. All the burials were on a west-east orientation and the bodies had been laid in their resting place on their backs. They were lacking grave goods and a number were in nailed timber coffins.

Since BBC Radio Leicester's move to 9 St Nicholas Place in June 2005, most floors of Epic House have been unoccupied. Planning permission was granted for the conversion of part of the building to apartments, but the work has been somewhat sporadic.

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