Last Saturday I attended a really useful synopsis-writing surgery in Leicester lead by literary agent Ollie Munson and staged by Writing East Midlands. Ollie is a director at A M Heath & Co Ltd, a company with a very interesting history and the oldest independent literary agency in the UK.
Saturday was a beautiful, sunny spring day, the kind that buoys you with the hope of good things to come, and with a draft synopsis in my bag and the knowledge that my children’s book is almost ready to be sent out after so many years of wrestling with it, I arrived in Leicester in a similarly hopeful frame of mind.
To find that the building hosting the workshop – the Secular Hall in Humberstone Gate – is absolutely lovely. I’d never seen it before but know quite a bit about it from its connection to the Gimson family and, most specifically, Ernest Gimson, Leicester’s celebrated Arts and Crafts architect.
A few years back I was commissioned to gather information on Ernest for a local history leaflet to publicise the National Trust’s opening of Stoneywell Cottage, the holiday home he designed and built in the Charnwood Hills for his older brother Sydney.
As the youngest son of industrialist Josiah Gimson, Ernest was the ‘spare son from the second marriage’ as a historian friend terms it and not needed for running the family business. He was therefore free to follow more creative pursuits and began training as an architect under Isaac Barradale, the designer of the now empty Fenwicks building. And there he might well have stayed if it hadn’t been for a meeting he attended as a teenager in the Secular Hall.
The building of the Secular Hall was funded by public subscription, with Josiah Gimson the main benefactor and, for many years, the leader of the Leicester Secular Society. Many high-profile radical thinkers gave talks at the hall and Josiah would often give them a bed for the night afterwards in the family home in New Walks.
One of those speakers was William Morris, a writer and textile designer who was a major driver behind the newly-formed Arts and Crafts movement. In his talk, Morris spoke passionately about the need to return to traditional handmade methods of production which, he believed, gave a fairer wage and better quality of life for the working man.
The story goes that Morris continued to share his views over dinner with the Gimsons, going on to chat with young Ernest late into the night and ultimately winning the young apprentice to the cause. Morris later recommended Ernest to an architect friend in London and soon afterwards, Gimson moved there to continue his studies and begin what would become a productive career.
For those in the know the Secular Hall is full of clues to its connection with the Gimsons, not least in the naming of the meeting room we were working in and the photo of Josiah Gimson on the wall. I expect Ollie Munson had no idea of its history, however, or that he was following in such illustrious footsteps in delivering his talk to us on Saturday.
Even so, I listened with as much interest as Ernest Gimson must have shown in listening to William Morris. I may not down tools and make my way to London just yet, but fingers crossed that what I learned will have as equal an effect on my own creative journey!