"Travellers' Tales, The Changing Face
of Nottingham 1550 - 1750"

February 2009 Meeting Report

Speaker - Adrian Henstock

The February 2009 meeting of the Keyworth & District History Society was held in The Centenary Lounge, Keyworth on Friday, 6th February. The number of members attending the presentation was much lower than normal, due in all probability to the atrocious weather conditions. The roads and pavements in and around Keyworth being treacherous under foot, due to the heavy snowfalls that had occurred earlier in the week. The night itself was bitterly cold and a hard frost was settling well before the meeting commenced at 7.30pm.

The guest speaker for the evening was Adrian Henstock, a name very familiar to Society members. His subject for the evening was ‘Travellers Tales, The Changing face of Nottingham 1550 – 1750’. Adrian began by explaining the significance of the dates in question. It was during these two centuries that Nottingham was transformed from a small medieval town into a thriving Georgian town. The presentation was in the form of a talk accompanied by a slide show.

Adrian began by informing his audience that the population of Nottingham in 1550 was approximately a mere 2,500 persons. This is an amazing figure when you consider that the present population of Keyworth is around 9,500. By the year 1750 the population had increased to around 12,000, which is still very small by modern standards. It seems that the English Civil War marked a watershed in the development of Nottingham. Before that time Nottingham was a small medieval town, after the war the rate of change increased and it was not long before Nottingham developed into a fashionable Georgian town.

The population of Nottingham, like many medieval towns was enclosed within a protective wall, entry into the town was through gates or ‘bars’ in this wall. Hence, in Nottingham, we still have names such as Bridlesmith Gate and Chapel Bar (which was the main entry into the town from Derby). The wall stretched from the Castle along what is now Maid Marian Way to Chapel Bar, then along what is now Parliament Street round to St Mary’s Church and then back to the Castle. The current inner-ring road more or less traces the exact location of the wall.

Little is known of the medieval town but it is surmised that the buildings were in the main timber-framed, small, numerous and tightly packed together. The market place then was situated in the same place as it is now and was amongst the largest in the kingdom. The reason why it should have been so large has never been fully explained. Certainly Nottingham held a large market there every week where produce and livestock from Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, Lincolnshire and Leicestershire were bought and sold but it stills seems extraordinarily large for the purpose. A long wall divided the open space into two and it is thought that this was to separate various forms of livestock. Evidence of this wall was discovered recently when the Old Market Square was dug up and was replaced by the new, marble square. From the evidence unearthed it seems that this wall was of a large and solid construction. Parts of it still remained into the Georgian era.

There are few contemporary paintings or representations of what this medieval town looked like. For the most part an idea of what the town looked like has to be derived from descriptions of travellers and visitors. During the period in question people such as John Leland, Celia Fiennes, and Daniel Defoe all visited the town and wrote their impressions. All of them were fulsome in their praise of Nottingham, portraying it in a very favourable light, indeed, from contemporary comments it seems that Nottingham was one of the most attractive towns in England.

The first known illustration of Nottingham is one from around 1675 by the artist Richard hall. It shows the town as it appears when seen viewed from what are now The Meadows. By then however the city walls were in considerable disrepair, much of the materials from it having been removed for use in the construction of new properties in the town. Adrian then went on to show a succession of views that gave the audience a very good impression of the look and layout of the town. No buildings were allowed to be built on the land surrounding the town, all development had to take place within the confines of the old town walls. This was to prove a real problem as, with the increase in the population, space began to become scarcer and scarcer. Ultimately this would lead, in Victorian times, to Nottingham being plagued with slums that were as bad as any in the British Empire.

Adrian then showed a succession of interesting scenes from the period depicting such things as The Guild Hall, The Town Gaol, The surviving town gates, and various buildings that gave a real flavour of the nature of Nottingham at the time. It was interesting to see how many of the older buildings in the town survived into Georgian and, even, Victorian times. After the English Civil War there was a trend for the gentry to establish themselves in town houses where it was possible to have a more convenient social life. This trend really took off in the Georgian era and Nottingham became a focus for some new and very grand new buildings. Views of some of the houses on Low Pavement showed this off to perfection. Some of these new properties also had very grand gardens attached to them.

An interesting slide depicted the Thurland Hall, named after Thomas Thurland, a wealthy mediaeval merchant. The original hall had been replaced, in 17th Century, with a more substantial brick building. In the 1674 Hearth Tax the property is registered as having 47 fireplaces, giving some idea of the large size of the building. Indeed, it was the most commodious building in the town. The old castle was, by then, in a ruinous state so whenever Royalty visited Nottingham Thurland Hall was the place that they resided in. Thanks to the excellent selection of Adrian’s slides it was possible to get a very real sense of how the town developed during the period that was covered by his talk. One interesting aspect was the impact that the advent of the stocking-frame had on the town. Introduced in the early 18th Century to the town the stocking frame was responsible for turning Nottingham into an industrial centre. Indeed, by 1750 approximately 4,000 persons in and around Nottingham were either employed or directly dependent on the industry.

One aspect of the town, for which Nottingham was famous throughout the land, was the market place. By Georgian times the square was surrounded by fine house that houses shops on their ground floors. Most of these houses had been built in the ‘jetted’ style whereby the upper stories projected out into the street above the ground floor. In order to support the weight of the upper floors pillars had been strategically placed and these pillars created a colonnade under which it was possible to walk. The market place was so large and these colonnades so extensive that they were reputed to stretch around the square for a distance of no less than one mile. Many visitors to Nottingham were greatly impressed by this colonnade and the immense variety of items that could be purchased in the shops behind them. The colonnades effectively created the 18th Century equivalent of the Victoria Centre!

A constantly recurring theme however was how much of the town’s architectural heritage has been lost due to development, so much so that there is now a woefully small amount of buildings that have survived from the date that Adrian’s presentation began at. Today there is virtually nothing left of Nottingham’s medieval past, for historians this is a great shame. However, with the aid of Adrian’s excellent presentation those members of the Society that managed to beat the elements and attend the meeting were rewarded with a talk that gave them a very real feel for what it must have been like to be a resident of the town three to four centuries ago.