Sydney Ansell Gimson (1860-1938)

Biographical article on Sydney Ansell Gimson, researched and written by Caroline Wessel

Black and white photograph of Sydney & Mrs Gimson, courtesy of Leicester Secular Society
Sydney & Mrs Gimson, courtesy of Leicester Secular Society

Sydney Gimson was a man of many parts, often holding beliefs that differed from the conventional middle class ones of his day, for example supporting the Personal Rights Association and ‘individualism’, and rejecting established religion. His father, Josiah, had founded a successful Leicester engineering business and iron foundry, which in 1891 produced the four beam engines with eight boilers for the Abbey Park Sewage Works (now Abbey Pumping Station Museum). In 1896 Sydney, together with two brothers and a cousin, became directors and by 1904 Gimson & Co. at its Vulcan Works, was producing engines, boilers, builders’ ironware, and machinery for the boot and shoe, elastic web and brewing industries. Sydney’s younger brother, Ernest, was the renowned Arts and Crafts architect and furniture designer, whose handsome table and chairs for the University College Committee Room were donated by his family.

Sydney had a passionate love of nature and the Leicestershire countryside, especially the rocky landscape of Charnwood Forest. He was a supporter of charities; played a major part in the development of the Leicester Secular Society; and gave much time and effort to four areas of education in Leicestershire. In 1910 he was elected a Liberal Town Councillor and as Chairman of the Museum and Art Gallery Committee was responsible for acquiring the buildings that are now Newarke Houses Museum. During WW1 Mr Gimson was appointed Chairman of the Council’s Belgian Refugee Committee and the Secular Society raised enough money to house a Belgian family for the duration of the War. Sydney was also the wartime Chairman of the Munitions Committee of the local Armaments Group of Engineering Employers.

Mr Gimson’s interest in education was widespread. From 1916 he was on the Committee of Leicester’s Wyggeston Grammar School; from 1910 until his death he served on the Municipal Technical and Art Schools Committee and the Colleges of Art and Technology Committee and was its Vice Chairman from 1915-1930; and he was greatly interested in the proposed University College of Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland. As early as December 1917 in his letter to the Leicester Daily Post he stated that “A Leicester University should have the principal schools in the county for hosiery, boot and shoe, engineering, architecture and printing. We have the beginning at the Technical and Art Schools but great expansion is needed. A University College for those branches of education not directly connected with industry seems essential and a worthy building would form the visible sign of the War Memorial. I think it is important that we and our descendants see a fine memorial which will always be a reminder of the great work and the great sacrifices of men and women in this long and terrible fight for freedom which has been forced upon us”.

In April 1919 Sydney, along with about sixty others, attended the first public meeting for the proposed University College. From 1920 he was on the College committee and its Court of Governors and in 1922 he and his wife gave a joint donation of £500 (in 2017=£14,528) to the University College fund. At the large-scale fundraising Bazaar of 1922, the Edinburgh Stall was unique in being staffed entirely by one family – the Gimsons – thirty-six of them in all. One of their items on sale was a garden seat – which over-tired visitors gratefully made use of!

However, Sydney Gimson believed that all children, however disadvantaged, should have the opportunity for education, so for twenty-one years he was also Chairman of Leicestershire’s innovative Desford Industrial School (est. 1881), an establishment for ‘naughty boys’ who had become involved in urban petty crime – in order to survive. The School had a strict regime and severe discipline, but all the boys were taught a trade or craft, such as tailor, shoemaker, or baker, and worked on the school farm, which would fit them to earn a decent living in adult life. A new headmaster, Cecil Lane, appointed in 1921, introduced softer, more tolerant attitudes, set up housemasters as ‘fathers’ and raised the School’s sports and athletics to a high standard. Later Mr Lane was widowed and in 1937 he married Sydney Gimson’s cousin, Norah – but Cecil died on their honeymoon, leaving Norah to care for his daughter by his first marriage. Apparently Sydney Gimson supported the Lanes throughout these troubled times.

Mr Gimson’s concern for others saw him in 1920 as President of The Leicester and County Saturday Hospital Society, and he gave regular donations to Leicester Charity Organisation Society, whose Secretary was his sister, Margaret, and its Treasurer his brother, J. Mentor Gimson. In fact in 1921, fifteen members of the Gimson family gave subscriptions to this charity assisting the sick and disadvantaged of the county. From 1913-1915 Sydney was President of the Leicester Kyrle Society, whose concern was “to bring the influence of natural and artistic beauty within the reach of the poor”, which was done in particular by the planting of public gardens and trees.

But perhaps the Gimson family is best remembered as the principal founders of the Leicester Secular Society – the first one in the world – that promoted free thought with no prejudice on all subjects. The five busts displayed on its facade of Socrates, Voltaire, Thomas Paine, Robert Owen and Jesus, demonstrate its broad and unconventional thinking. Sydney’s father, Josiah, provided most of the finance to build the Secular Hall (erected 1881); his brother, J. Mentor, was its Manager; and Sydney was involved with the Society for fifty years, as Secretary, Treasurer and from 1883-1938 its President. Visiting speakers to the Secular Society included such famous people as Charles Dickens, Annie Besant, Charles Bradlaugh and William Morris, and Sydney’s manuscript, ‘Random Recollections of the Leicester Secular Society 1932’, describe these events and the profound effect that Morris had on him and his brother, designer Ernest.

Sydney’s love of the countryside had started in boyhood, when in the 1870s he and his friends would ramble in Charnwood Forest, with its wild, dramatic scenery and Pre-Cambrian rocks, spending weekends camping in a loft over a stable. Twenty years later Sydney bought a plot of land in the forest, together with one for J. Mentor, and in 1898 instructed their architect brother, Ernest, to design and build a rough-hewn, rustic cottage there. It was to be in the Arts and Crafts style and furnished with practical and simple wooden pieces, many carved with emblems from nature. The Gimsons’ new home was named Stoneywell Cottage, a rural haven where the family spent idyllic summers and Christmases. The building stones were gathered from what is now its garden and slate was brought from the nearby abandoned Swithland slate quarry. It has an extraordinarily beautiful wild garden and 11 acres of woodland and is now a popular and much visited National Trust property.

Sydney Gimson was by all accounts a warm father and grandfather, but his concern for the education of the next generation benefitted hundreds of other young people, be they at the Wyggeston School, Technical and Art Colleges, University College or – not least – the ‘naughty boys’ at Desford, who gained self-respect and a means of adult employment through the twenty-one years of dedication given by Mr Gimson.

Key Sources

Warmest thanks to Mrs Janet Charles (granddaughter of Mr Lane, headmaster of Desford Industrial School) for sharing her family archives; and to Mrs Clair Tandy, a member of the Gimson family.

ULA Press Cuttings Book

Lane private family archives

Burch, Brian (undated) ‘The Making of a University in Leicester’ ULA/D12/1

Gimson, S.A. (1932) Random Recollections of the Secular Society (ROLLR)

Hawtin, Gillian (1972) A Century of Progressive Thought: the story of Leicester Secular Soc.

National Trust Souvenir Guide (undated) Stoneywell Cottage

Newitt, Ned Who’s Who of Radical Leicester online

Wessel, Caroline ‘Desford Industrial School’ in Leicestershire Historian (2010)

LAHS Photograph of School of Art staff and governors, DMU archives GB3071 D/035

Leicester Charity Organisation Society Annual Reports 1921-1930

Leicester Secular Society website