Introducing Patrick (Patch) Breen

Research volunteer Patrick Breen remembers his Leicester childhood and discusses his connection to the city and University.

My name is Patrick, (Patch) Breen. When I was a kid playing on the street (as you did in the Fifties) I wore glasses because I had ‘a lazy eye;’ it could have been the result of measles which I suffered from when I was six years old, along with whooping cough and pneumonia, in quick succession. Because of the ‘lazy eye’ I had to wear a patch over the ‘good’ eye- as a potential cure for the condition, and the kids on the street, the ones who didn’t know me, just kept calling me, ‘that kid with the patch on his glasses,’ and later just Patch instead of Patrick. The name stuck.

 I attended two faith schools: Sacred Heart Primary and Corpus Christi Secondary and left at fifteen with no exams taken. I later did a degree in Sociology at Leicester (as a mature student in my late thirties) from 1989 to 1992 and ended up working for Mori Poll as a researcher. My son Damian also did his bachelor and masters degrees at Leicester and went on to Warwick to do is PhD; he’s now in the Criminology department at Birmingham City University. Leicester University is kind of in the family, I guess. I know little about the early history of the University, apart from the fact that the original building, Fielding Johnson was previously the Leicestershire and Rutland County Asylum, then a hospital to treat medical casualties, during the First World War, becoming The Leicestershire and Rutland University College in 1921. I’d like to find out what the music scene was like in the early years of Leicester University, were there gigs, students dancing to local bands playing covers like Fats Wallers “Ain’t Misbehavin,” a big hit at the time, or no music scene at all- which leads me on to the fact that I’m also an amateur musician myself, playing guitar, bass, steel pan and even singing. Now retired, I have two grandchildren and Leicester U3A to keep me busy.

Black and white photograph of the frontage of the Fielding Johnson Building with army ambulances parked outside during the First World War, when the building was used as the 5th Northern Gerneal Hospital.
ULA/FG1/3/77. The building now known as the Fielding Johnson Building, as it appeared during the First World War.

 Although from Irish Heritage, I’m born and bred in Leicester, and love the city, particularly the town centre: the cafe’s, and bars and feeling of vitality in and around these places. There’s a cafe on Granby Street that I often go to or walk into town and just sit and watch the buskers, playing every kind of music you can imagine from Jazz to Gospel. I love early August and Carnival, which really seems to bring the town alive. I’ve played Carnival many times with Steel Revolution, a band I have been a member of for over forty years. In fact, I remember playing on the first Carnival parade, originally created by Elvi Morton and Walton George.

You really know a tune when you’ve been playing it on the back of a lorry for three hours and had a little light refreshment to help you on the journey. Music helps me along my journey of life too. When the nights draw in, I often walk along the Golden Mile and look at the Diwali lights that turn into Christmas lights in December. Fantastic colours, fantastic feeling, with the tall Wolsey Flats- where my parents first met in the Forties, when the original building was a hosiery factory- looking down on the whole atmospheric scene.

Diwali lights along the Leicester Golden Mile. Looking north along the busy Belgrave Road.
Diwali lights along the Leicester Golden Mile. © Copyright Mat Fascione and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

I first volunteered in the 1980’s for Wesley Hall in Highfields, a Methodist Community Project linked to Age Concern at the time. I used to collect an Age Concern van from town and then pick up elderly, members for a lunch club at Wesley Hall. After lunch we would go for a run out around Leicestershire and then I would drop everyone home and take the van back to Clarence House on Humberstone Gate.

I’ve now found myself back at Wesley Hall, but with the Mental Health Service there, singing and playing for members on Friday mornings and helping with the Art Session on Wednesday mornings. Members enjoy themselves at the centre, forget their troubles for a while, and I guess I do as well; there’s a sense of community, a sense of belonging in the centre- the outside world is on hold for a while, a good thing I’d say.

Q&A with Carol Cambers

Research volunteer Carol Cambers tells us about her interest in local history and involvement in previous National Lottery Heritage Fund projects.

Tell us a bit about yourself?

I’m retired so I can choose how I spend my time. My degree was in geography but I did the MA course in English Local History at Leicester a few years ago. I have been a Record Office (and other Archives) user for over 30 years. I am a  volunteer (cataloguing building plans) at the Record Office and hobby archaeologist. I wrote a parish history for the VCH (as a volunteer) which taught me a lot about research and writing.

What do you enjoy most about being at Leicester?

Apart from 5 years in Yorkshire I have always lived in Leicester or Leicestershire. I like the understated nature of Leicester and its county; the rest of the country is hardly aware of it, so there’s no stereotypical Leicester person.

What do you know about the history of University of Leicester?

I know a little about its origins from when I was researching Dr Finch (Medical Officer at the Asylum) who was an early benefactor, also the development of the Centre for English Local History by Frederick Attenborough and W. G. Hoskins.

Have you volunteered before?

An image from TNA illustrating the life of Leopold Wacks, buried at Gilroes. Source: Jewish Gilroes project website.

I led volunteer research on the Lottery-funded Gilroes project ‘Stories Behind the Stones’ and on the current ‘Sharing Jewish Heritage’ project in Leicester, also Lottery-funded.

Highfields Synagogue. © Copyright David Hallam-Jones and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

What are your views about volunteering?

People are keen to volunteer for projects. When funding is limited, volunteers provide an unpaid work force. The quality of the volunteers’ research may be unpredictable and the commitment variable. Monitoring by the team running the project will dictate the usefulness of the volunteers’ contribution. Use of volunteers ticks the current well-being/mental health/wellness boxes and also that of ‘community engagement’. The funding usually requires volunteer participation.

What do you expect to learn?

Something about the first decades of the twentieth century nationally and in Leicester. What material relating to this period is held in the Special Collections. The stories of some individuals in greater detail.

Exploring disability histories by Jenni Hunt

Research volunteer Jenni Hunt explores connections between the University of Leicester and the history of disability.

“Your university used to be a psychiatric hospital,” a friend studying at De Montfort University (previously Leicester School of Art) teased me over coffee. That instantly spiked my interest – I’m currently undertaking a PhD looking at disability representation in museums, and the history of disability and the marks it has left on our landscape is of particular interest to me. My friend was right: the Fielding Johnson Building was initially the Leicestershire and Rutland County Asylum, opening in 1837 and running until 1908, before serving as the Base Hospital of the 5th Northern General during the First World War.

Engraved print of Leicestershire and Rutland Asylum by James Murray, used by the Refuge or Detention project.
University of Leicester Archives. Engraved print of Leicestershire and Rutland Asylum by James Murray, used by the Refuge or Detention project.

As I dug deeper into this, I discovered the story of one of the benefactors and founders of the University of Leicester – Harry Peach, who was affected throughout his life by neuritis. Harry Peach had worked as a bookseller before his sight began to fail, and he in turn set up Dryad Furniture, creating among other things the deck chairs on the Titanic. Engaging with the work of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement, Dryad Furniture was viewed as offering an alternative to machine production and automation.

During the First World War, Harry Peach worked with the Base Hospital of the 5th Northern General, encouraging the use of handicrafts to rehabilitate wounded soldiers, supplying the hospital with off-cuts of cane. This led to the establishment in 1918 of Dryad Handicrafts, which aimed to provide craft materials and instruction for occupational therapy and schools, becoming the largest supplier of handicraft materials in the world by the mid-1930s.

Black and white photograph of therapeutic basketry at the 5th Northern General Hospital, Leicester, during World War I.
Leicester Mercury Archive. Therapeutic basketry at the 5th Northern General Hospital, Leicester, during the First World War.

The occupational therapy taking place at the Base Hospital was echoed by therapy taking place across the country, aiming to get wounded and disabled veterans back into the industries that they had participated in prior to the war. Artificial arms were created which enabled heavy-duty work, as companies around the country were encouraged to hire disabled individuals. Occupational therapy and handicrafts would be the first step on the road to employment for men with life-altering injuries.

In encouraging such therapies, Harry Peach was aiding the rehabilitation of these men, many of whom would have been the primary wage-earner of their household, and helping to challenge society’s expectations of what disabled individuals were capable of. Harry Peach maintained his link with the location as it became a university, donating books and money to the fledgling site, as can be seen in Maria Scuderi’s post.

The discovery of the link between the war hospital, the asylum and the University intrigued me, tying the University of Leicester from its first moments to the history of disability. When I learned about the So That They May Have Life project I wanted to get involved, to trace these hidden stories and understand more about the university that I am currently studying within. I also wanted to uncover more about the town that I have loved living in ever since I visited first on Summer Schools during my MA, and then moved to permanently in 2017.

I have been involved in researching disability history with the National Trust and the Wellcome Collection. In the National Trust I have been involved in uncovering hidden stories of disability, and for the Wellcome Collection I was part of an RCMG team involved in the redesign of the Being Human gallery, working to represent disability in new and positive ways. Both of these experiences will help me as I aim to discover and explore links between Harry Peach and disability.

For several years I have been running a Twitter account looking at objects linked to disability alongside undertaking my PhD. Working with other volunteers within this project, I hope to discover new links between this site and the stories that have often been overlooked. Although current circumstances have brought unexpected difficulties to this research, I feel they have also offered new opportunities, including the chance to disseminate what is discovered widely and to ensure this work is accessible and clear to all. I look forward to seeing what we uncover in the time left on this project, and I am very excited to be involved.

Jenni Hunt is currently undertaking a PhD at the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester. Her research focuses on the representation of disability within museum collections, and how museums are working with disabled individuals to tell their stories. More broadly, she is interested in the potential of museums to share stories that have been hidden away, and how by doing so they can challenge and address stereotypes. She has previously completed a distance learning Museum Studies MA at the University of Leicester, and a BA in Philosophy, Politics and Economics at the University of Oxford. She runs the Our Objects Twitter account, showcasing objects linked to disability from museum collections.

Contact Jenni at

Researching a living memorial, by Peter Lester

Colour head and shoulders photograph of Dr Peter Lester
Dr Peter Lester

In the first in our new series of volunteer blog posts Peter Lester describes his association with the University of Leicester and involvement with the So that they may have life project.

Did you know that the University of Leicester was founded to honour and remember those who had fought in the First World War? I didn’t. I studied here for four years: I grew up in Leicestershire and, having worked for many years in other parts of the Midlands, came back in 2015 to research for a PhD in Museum Studies. On my way to the university library during my studies I would regularly walk past the War Memorial, Edwin Lutyens’s monumental archway on the edge of Victoria Park, but had never made the connection between the memorial and the university. It was not until my graduation, earlier this year, that I learnt that the university had been established as a living memorial to those who had fallen in the war. I was moved when I read the words of Dr Astley Clarke, a local doctor who wrote to the Leicester Daily Post in November 1917 supporting its proposal to establish a university as a living memorial. He wrote:

To the honour of those who took part in the Great War
To the glory of those gallant fighters who came through, and
To the memory of those devoted heroes who gave their lives in the cause of freedom.
Now, every material asset a person possesses may flee; education alone is an asset of which an individual cannot be robbed. Let us, therefore, offer higher education as our war memorial.

This letter is featured in a newspaper cutting included in Dr Clarke’s scrapbook, ULA/D2/1,

I want to know more about the university’s history and uncover some of the stories around its foundation as a living memorial. As an archivist I am fascinated by stories of the past and how we understand and relate to our heritage. I worked for over ten years as an archivist in a local authority record office, uncovering stories of the past through exhibitions and public talks and helping other people to find out about their own histories. It was this interest and excitement around how we can interpret and share our history that led me to a PhD here at Leicester. I spent four years studying and writing about how archivists are exhibiting and interpreting their collections and telling stories about them in new and innovative ways. Taking part in the project So That They May Have Life is an exciting opportunity to uncover and share new stories about the university.

I am volunteering as a researcher for the project, focusing on the history and design of the university’s logo, which bears the motto Ut vitam habeant – that they may have life. The university’s crest features a griffin, derived from the coat of arms of Thomas Fielding Johnson, a local businessman and philanthropist who donated the site for the university (consisting of 37 acres of land and buildings) in 1919. For me, volunteering is an exciting opportunity to find out more about the institution that I have been a part of these last few years. It is a great way to share my enthusiasm about the past and to learn more from the university’s special collections and from other volunteers about their own knowledge and expertise.

I will also be giving a workshop about archive interpretation, drawing on my PhD research and professional experience around the exhibition and display of archives. In this workshop, we will examine some key ideas around exhibiting archives and visit different and exciting online exhibitions from around the world. The workshop will help inspire participants to think about how they can showcase their research discoveries to worldwide audiences.

For me, So That They May Have Life provides a vital and valuable opportunity to research, to unlock the past and to share ideas about how we can present and display these stories to new audiences. Uncovering new perspectives and narratives about the past helps shape and enrich our knowledge and understanding and sharing this with others helps all of us to learn more about the places in which we live, study and work. I hope to share more about my experiences on the project and the discoveries that I and the other team members make as we research the history of the university and its foundations as a living memorial.

Dr Peter Lester recently completed an AHRC Midlands3Cities funded PhD at the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester. His research examines the exhibition and display of archives and wider reshapings of physical archival spaces. Peter is also a professionally qualified archivist, having received a master’s degree in Archives and Records Management at the University of Liverpool in 2003. He worked at Nottinghamshire Archives until 2015 as Archivist (Public Services) and later Principal Archivist with responsibility for learning and outreach services, records management, electronic services and collections management. His journal article ‘Of Mind and Matter: the archive as object’ can be accessed via Figshare.

Contact Peter at or
Follow Peter on Twitter @pablester