Over the past five centuries, Leicester has gradually become more and more built-up, just like every other city. By tracing the cartographical history of Greyfriars through maps published in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, it is possible to show that most of the open space has in fact never been built on.
Although there are earlier maps of Leicester, the first one to show any detail of the Greyfriars area was drawn by Thomas Roberts in 1741. This shows buildings at the eastern and western ends of the block but relatively few along the north and south sides, although some ambiguous markings towards the eastern end of ‘Fryer Lane’ are thought to possibly represent Robert Herrick’s mansion (two paths behind this cross at a circular feature which would make a great location for a commemorative stone pillar).
The area actually labelled ‘Gray Fryers’, directly across from St Martin’s church, is mostly given over to orchards. This where New Street now bisects the original block and the fact that this was added in 1740 had led to the suggestion that the date on Roberts’ map is a typographical error and it was actually published in 1714!
New Street first appears in an 1804 pamphlet called A Walk Through Leicester, written by Susannah Watts. This has a clear map but with no internal detail beyond suggesting buildings all around what is now a double block. High Street to the west has now become South Gate Street and the street to the north is identified as Peacock Lane. An 1828 map shows more details of buildings and gardens, including a chapel on Friar Lane and the first naming of the street to the east as Hotel Street.
The first Ordnance Survey map of Leicester was published in 1888 and naturally includes a lot more detail, as well as a notation of the site of ‘Alderman Newton’s School (disused)’. Subsequent editions published in 1904 and 1915 clearly show the school playground and the open spaces which would become the car parks. The Southgate Bus Depot, opened in 1927, appears on the 1930 OS map and by the time of the 1955 edition the modern layout was all but complete, with what were formerly shown as gardens marked ‘Car Park’. (The only major change has been the demolition of the bus depot in 2009.) A small feature in the New Street car park, abutting the side of the bus depot, is labelled ‘ruin’ on the 1955 map but no record survives of what that was.
Between the 1880s and the 1950s, the company founded by Charles E Goad produced very detailed maps of British cities for the purposes of fire insurance. Goad maps of Leicester were produced in 1892, 1895, 1923, 1938 and 1944, complementing the OS maps. A number of subsidiary buildings which appear on these maps came and went, such as a small library at the back of the school which must have been built after 1923 but demolished by 1944. The foundations of these may still remain. The Goad maps also show that curious ‘ruin’ in the New Street car park. Was that a fragment of the old friary?