Melton Mowbray

Speaker: Mick Rawle

16 May 2023

Have you ever painted the town red?  At our May meeting, Mick Rawle took us back to the source of the expression, with a potted history of Melton Mowbray.

Though the area was inhabited in prehistoric and Roman times, the origin of the town itself was in the Anglo-Saxon period.  It was centrally located between the “Five Boroughs” of the Danelaw (Leicester, Derby, Nottingham, Lincoln and Stamford) and is first recorded as Middleton, which later became Melton.  The suffix Mowbray comes from Bishop Geoffrey de Montbray, who was granted the manor – among many others – after the Norman conquest.  (Geoffrey was also given the manor of Thurcaston but returned it to the king in exchange for Stanton under Bardon and East Norton.)

Melton was the only place in Leicestershire that the Domesday Book recorded as having a market so its history as a centre of agricultural trade is a long one.  Cheese fairs were held regularly and of course the town became famous for pork pies.  They probably began as a convenient snack that could be taken out hunting but by 1900 the firm of Tebbutt & Co was shipping Melton Mowbray pork pies all around the British Empire.

Melton stands on the River Eye, which becomes the Wreake further downstream.  Though a canal was built along its course during the 1700s and two railways arrived in the 1800s, it was fox hunting that really brought prosperity to the town.  Its location at the junction between the territories of the Quorn, Belvoir and Cottesmore Hunts attracted regular visits from aristocracy and royalty.  Mick has identified at least 17 “hunting boxes” or lodges that they built for use during the hunting season, though not all of them survive today.  In 1890 a famous Midnight Steeplechase was held, with the participants wearing nightclothes, but unfortunately the moon was hidden by clouds and the borrowed railway lamps were barely adequate to light the fences.  Sometimes the revelry got out of hand, as on 6th April 1837, when a group of drunken “gentlemen” amused themselves by painting several doors, the sign of the White Swan pub and the town constables with red paint!  The offenders were later fined the considerable sum of £100 each at the Derby assizes but their exploits entered the English language.

St Mary’s church was described by Pevsner as the stateliest and most impressive in Leicestershire.  Before Sir Malcolm Sargent went on to national fame as the principal conductor of the Proms, his first job was as organist there from 1914 to 1924.  Nearby is Anne of Cleves’ House, which was built as a chantry house for priests but then given to Thomas Cromwell at the Dissolution of the Monasteries.  Cromwell promoted the marriage of Henry VIII to his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, but a divorce soon followed, Cromwell was executed and the house passed to Anne as part of the settlement.  In 1550, some townsfolk purchased land to provide income for supporting a schoolmaster, lighting the streets and other good works, and the Town Estate that they created continues to run the Melton’s market and public parks to this day.