The Cholerton Chairs, 1923

Volunteer Caroline Wessel describes the gift of arts and crafts furniture to the University College in the 1920s.
The Cholerton President’s Chair by Peter Waals (ULA/FG1/3/82)

In the University College’s annual report and accounts for 1923 it is stated that ‘in the Spring of the present year Mr and Mrs A.F. Cholerton generously presented three handsome ceremonial chairs, the President’s chair being of ebony inlaid with ivory’ that was carved with the University’s motto Ut Vitam Habeant.

These three beautiful chairs were designed and made by the Dutch cabinet maker, Peter Waals, who had joined the celebrated Leicester-born Arts and Crafts furniture designer, Ernest Gimson, at his Cotswold studio in Sapperton, and become Gimson’s foreman and chief cabinet maker. Specialists regard the furniture and craft work produced by the workshop under Waals’ day-to-day supervision as a supreme achievement of the Arts and Crafts movement of its period.

Who were the Cholertons and what was the background to this most generous gift? According to his obituary, Alfred Foster Cholerton (1859-1936), the only son of a vicar, was a Leicester chemist born in Lincolnshire and educated at Ashby Grammar School and Derby School. ‘Leaving school at 15 years of age, he was apprenticed to Messrs John Richardson and Co., Wholesale Druggists, of Leicester and subsequently obtained a practical knowledge of retail pharmacy as an assistant in Liverpool, where for a time he was in sole charge of a branch business. Finding only a limited scope for his ambition there, he came to the Metropolis in his twenty-first year and was engaged by Messrs Burgoyne, Burbidges and Co., as a commercial traveller. In 1891 Cholerton entered into partnership with Messrs A. and W. de St Dalmas, an old-established firm of manufacturing chemists in Leicester’ and in 1901 he was living with his wife, Eleanor, and their three children in Narborough Road, Leicester.

‘All through his career it was Cholerton’s aim to create and foster happy relations with his employees and the esteem in which he was held by all those associated with him is ample evidence of the success of his efforts’. As well as his business activities, he ‘was an enthusiastic social worker … a leader of the Leicester Adult School Union of which he became President’ and he served with distinction when President of Leicester Rotary Club.

So how did this gift of the three Waals chairs come about? The Cholertons would  doubtless have mixed with some of the University College’s founding families, as Alfred’s daughter, Gladys (1989-1961), known as Annie, was married in 1917 to Sydney Tyler. He was one of the three brothers who in 1922 gave £20,00 to the University College to finance a Faculty of Business in memory of their father, William Tyler. And to further cement the links between these founding families, in due course Rachael, one of Sydney and Annie Tyler’s daughters, married John, the son of University early benefactor, Percy Gee.

The furniture designer, Ernest Gimson, had died in 1919 and by 1923 the talented Peter Waals had set up his own workshop in Chalford which, with its nearby railway line and better roads, was a more suitable location for his growing business. Waals was apparently now canvassing potential clients under his own name, and would probably have sometimes used his connections with Ernest Gimson’s well-to-do brothers, J. Mentor and Sydney Ansell. As well as running their flourishing engineering business and championing the Leicester Secular Society, J. Mentor and Sydney also supported the new University College, giving it both generous donations and serving on its Court of Governors.

Black and white photograph of the Fielding Johnson Building Council chamber/committee room, with furniture by Ernest Gimson.
Black and white photograph of the Fielding Johnson Building Council chamber/committee room, with furniture by Ernest Gimson, 1932 (ULA/FG1/3/46A)

Involved with a number of Leicester charities, the two Gimson gentlemen would have doubtless known Alfred Cholerton through their work with Leicester Charity Organisation Society (est. 1876), a charity also supported by over 120 of the University’s early founders. In 1921 J. Mentor Gimson was the LCOS’s Treasurer, his younger sister, Margaret, was its long-serving Hon. Secretary, and Alfred Cholerton gave a subscription and was a regular and dedicated Volunteer Worker, who (according to the Annual Report 1921) were ‘all of them earnest, kindly and devoted’. The Hon. Secretary, Miss Margaret Gimson, ‘attended daily and took a general oversight of the voluntary workers’, so was no doubt well acquainted with Mr Cholerton. In 1922 the relatives of the late Ernest Gimson donated some of his furniture for use in the College’s committee room and clearly Alfred Cholerton wished to add to this with his special gift the following year of furniture created in the former Gimson workshop.

An interesting postscript to this account is that in 1935 Waals was invited to act as Design Consultant at Loughborough College, the main centre for the training of handicraft teachers in England. There, Waals instructed students in the approach and high standards of craftsmanship required in the making of furniture that had been established by Ernest Gimson He also designed some of the fittings throughout the college that were built by his students and some of his drawings are currently housed in the Loughborough University archives. So Alfred and Eleanor Cholerton’s gift of three handsome chairs created strong links between Peter Waals, the Leicester Gimson family, a highly respected Leicester charity, and the newly-founded University College of Leicester.

Key Sources

A.F. Cholerton obituary 1936

1901 census return

University College Annual Reports 1921, 1922

Leicester Charity Organisation Annual Reports 1921-25

Privately held Tyler/Cholerton/Gee family archives

Photographs, University of Leicester Archives