Tanky Smith

tanky smith 3

On Sunday I decided to go for a short walk through Leicester with my camera. There were a couple of things I’d been wanting to shoot, but I so rarely feel like heading in to town.

One building I walk by twice a day on my route in and out of work is ‘Top Hat Terrace’, near the corner of London Road and University Road. The building is remarkable for the 16 carved heads that look down upon passers by.

This short terrace of houses was built by Francis ‘Tanky’ Smith, Leicester’s first private detective, although I suspect not quite on the level of Sherlock Holmes!

The story goes that he received a reward of £1000 for solving the mystery of the missing High Sheriff of Leicester, James Winstanley in 1862. Tanky Smith travelled to the continent and located the drowned corpse of the unfortunate Mr Winstanley in Germany. Upon returning and claiming his reward he decided to spend it on building the houses on London Road. His son was an architect, which I’m sure helped a bit!

There are two theories regarding the 16 carved heads on the building. One is that they represent 16 of the most notorious criminals that Tanky apprehended. The other theory, and taking into account the similarity of all the faces behind the beards and mustaches, I think the most likely : the 16 heads represent Tanky himself in a variety of disguises.

I’d like to know a bit more about this colourful character from Leicester’s history. I keep envisaging a series of short stories, with Tanky based in his London Road apartments (numbers 113 to 117 alas, not 22b). However I would imagine that any such series would have draw more deeply on fantasy than history to make them a compelling read.

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