Leicestershire is a county where much evidence exists of Roman occupation over nearly four centuries with Leicester itself as the important site of the Roman city of Ratae Conftanorum, the centre of the Coritani tribal territory. Roman Leicester as a tribal capital or civitas had its origins as a military fort, certainly before 80 A.D. and eventually grew to a walled city of just over one hundred acres with all the typical public buildings such as a town hall (basilica) and market place (forum). Roads linked the city with other important centres. Today the Fosse Way, which ran through Leicester and went north to Lincoln (Lindum) and south west towards Cirencester (Corinium) and Bath (Aquae Sulis) is still recognised and indeed signposted. Another route linked Leicester with the small military outpost at Mancetter (Manduessedum). Near Hinckley and passing down the western margin of the county was the Watling Street linking London (Londinium) with Chester (Deva). Yet all these routes significantly by-pass Hinckley and strong evidence of Roman settlements in the town appears to have done likewise.
Archaeological evidence of the Roman presence in the Hinckley area has been considerable but no actual buildings have, to my knowledge, been discovered in Hinckley itself, although this certainly does not mean that they did not exist. Nichols and others make reference to sites including a Roman bath, but no evidence exists of this today. Many sherds of pottery dating from the Roman Period have come to light and some more substantial pieces of pottery also, of which more will be said later. Numerous coins have also been discovered, most notably a hoard of silver coins at Manor Farm in 1871 during the building of the railway line between Hinckley and Stoke Golding. These coins were probably buried during a time of civil unrest and the owner was never able to retrieve them. None of the coins dated from before 180 A. D. and few are available for inspection today as the hoard was quickly dispersed to collectors through the country.
Francis, in his history of Hinckley, lists various items of Roman origin found in the town, including a Romano-British hand corn mill found off the Coventry Road in 1926. Dating of this item, the top grindstone, is virtually impossible however.
Other objects mentioned by Francis include a bronze pin of Roman origin and the famous Hinckley bust, the most significant of all Roman finds in the town. This carved head of a young man, fifteen and a half inches high, now holds a prominent place in. the collection at the Jewry Wall Museum in Leicester. The discovery was made in January 1930 by Allen Mawby, a student at Hinckley Grammar School, who had been involved in some studies with A. J. Pickering to whom we owe most of our knowledge of Roman Hinckley. There is little doubt that the bust was moved to the site where it was found, the corner of the Grammar School field (now Mount Grace High School) thirty feet from the Leicester Road, from elsewhere in the town. It is fairly certain that the bust dates from the first century A.D. In his book on the Roman sites of South-West Leicestershire A. J. Pickering states that his further investigation of the rubbish heap unearthed fragments of a Roman jar and wall plaster. Pickering adds that the site had been used as a tip during the demolition of some old cottages near the Parish Church, known as Hunters' Row.
A.J. Pickering conducted various excavations in the Hinckley area in the 1930's and pursued an active interest in archaeology long before. In his book on Roman Sites in the area he state. 'Although no particular locality in this parish has been definitely identified with Roman occupation, there is much scattered evidence pointing to the probability that Hinckley was an occupied, site in Romano-British times.’ Further strength is given to this statement by other writers, but the firm evidence of a Romano-British building remains to be found. The Hinckley Times and Guardian on April 20th, 1928, printed the memories of an old Hinckleyan who claimed that under the old Grammar School there existed the complete remains of a Roman Villa. Presumably this was the site in Grims Lane off New Buildings.
Other discoveries dating from the Roman period are listed and illustrated in detail in Pickering's book. In 1933 three small Roman jars were found at the south corner of the Sapcote and Burbage roads, One of these, a five, and one quarter inch jar of grey ware, has a bulge near the base and a large thumb and finger depression. Nearly two thousand years later an anonymous trademark still exists along with evidence of faulty workmanship! Another smaller beaker is of castor ware and has scroll type decoration in white on the brown of the jar. These two items date from the third century A. D. and are in the collection which A.J. Pickering gave to the Grammar School, now John Cleveland College.
In a sense these discoveries and others, including a well once existing in Castle Street and thought to be of Roman origin, all add to a sense of frustration regarding Roman Hinckley. Roman Sites exist at Sapcote and in Harwell. Each was probably a Romano-British farm providing supplies for Leicester, including the tanning industry. Hartshill near Nuneaton was the centre of a large pottery industry and other kilns of the Romano-British period have been found near Leicester.
The inevitable question arises concerning the lack of firm evidence in Hinckley. The name of Hinckley itself, Hynca's clearing, dates from Saxon times and indicates that the site was well wooded, perhaps to an extent which made settlement rather difficult. All the main Roman routes pass close by. The Britannia Centre, ironically a Roman name, provided no evidence of a Roman site during its recent construction, but evidence may yet come to light and should certainly be watched for in further rebuilding and construction in the town.
Probably more finds will be made indicating that travellers passed by rather than settled. Much must still be buried close to the Watling Street, objects like the lead pigs found near Tamworth which were taken from Wales to London and were later smelted to provide silver. Certainly the passers-by, legions, packhorses, posts and legates must have left much behind. During the fifth century the Roman departure had taken place and by 600 the Kingdom of Mercia had been established, Saxons had replaced Romans and a new phase in the development of Hinckley had begun.
Author: Hugh Beavin
Written for: Hinckley Historian Magazine