Wednesday 19 August 2015 - The making of Victorian Nottingham

Welcome to ‘The Problem of the Poor?’ blog page. This blog aims to keep you, the reader informed on what we, the wonderful volunteers have discovered in our unique heritage project and how we have been getting along.

This blog was written by Liz, one of our Heritage Volunteers.

A mixed gathering of independent and group researchers met this afternoon & were rewarded by an illustrated talk by Chris Weir, once the Senior Archivist at Nottinghamshire Archives -  ‘Lace, Slums and the Occasional Riot: The Making of Victorian Nottingham'.  This was followed by a very generous Victorian high tea.

Chris explained that the population of Nottingham trebled between the mid 1700s and mid 1800s and the city (then a pleasant, large town) became very overcrowded. The poorest people lived in back to back houses – 8,000 were recorded in 1844, around courtyards and alleyways, with no drainage or toilets and water from a well shared by many people, which was often a source of illness and disease. Many worked in the textile industry, Nottingham lace was sold abroad as well as seen in grand homes closer to home; as curtains, shawls and antimacassars (put on the backs of armchairs to protect them from the hair ‘wax’ that men used!)  The lace factory owners built impressive offices and warehouses like the New College Adams building on Stoney Street.  A Catherine Gregory sold her land for the building of the houses in Forest Fields, to one Birkin of Broadway, another wealthy lace factory owner. This was on condition the road was named after her family and certain leather tanning and butchery processes were forbidden because of the unpleasant smells.   But all was not well for working people who made the lace; many girls had accidents, fingers lost, eyes and lungs suffered from the heat and dust. And when there was war with France, less lace was sold and many workers were unemployed. There were demonstrations, sometimes violent.

When they weren’t working, there were grim public hangings to watch, or walks in the green space of the Arboretum, created in 1852; although until a mass of people broke down the fences and forced their way in, people had to pay. Bands played, the air was fresher.  The Royal Theatre was built in 1865, The Empire, next door, in the 1890s. Those who wanted to improve themselves might go to the  Mechanics Institute to hear a famous speaker, like Charles Dickens.  Shopping was necessary, perhaps at the market in Market Square. The Goose Fair was also held in the Market place then.  From 1901 tram transport was possible for local trips but for a day’s excursion to Skegness they would catch a train from Victoria Station. Just the clock tower remains, near the House of Fraser.  However 1,300 houses and many pubs were demolished to make way for the station and noisy work continued day and night for years. Some individuals made good – Bendigo the boxer started as a butcher’s boy, getting involved in punch – ups, but went on become a professional.  Jessops (now John Lewis) and Boots were established at this time. Zebedee Jessop had his drapers (fabric) store built overlooking the market by one of the best architects and Jesse Boot started off from his father’s shop in Hockley selling herbal remedies. He had an eye for a bargain and knew how to attract custom – he once sold over 1,300 tins of salmon in one day; the price was right. But customers came back the next day; they needed to buy tin openers! Raleigh cycles was another successful business that put Nottingham on the world map at this time.  Wealth and poverty existed side by side in this expanding city and there are still many reminders of that time.

The gathered assembly was then invited to tea in an adjoining room.  A solicitor J. R, Kentish Wright Esquire, a committee member of the Nottingham Society for Organising Charity had taken pity on us and was keen to do his ‘bit’ for the poor! We were served tea in china cups and saucers, by two of his housemaids, in long skirts, shawls and white caps.  We ate cucumber and potted beef sandwiches, made following Victorian recipes, and consumed large quantities of delicious scones, rock cakes and slices of Victoria sponge; it was a ‘right royal do’, for which we were most appreciative.

Last updated: 18 September 2015