Brewhouse Yard – Life beneath Castle Rock

Brewhouse Yard

Go to Nottingham City Museums

Sitting at the foot of the Rock, Brewhouse Yard is one of Nottingham Castle’s hidden gems, a fascinating historical site with a rich history of its own.

Brewhouse Yard and its 17th Century cottages tell the stories of some of the people who lived here over four hundred years. These are times of economic ups and downs, urban expansion and increasingly rapid industrial change. Visitors are invited to explore the homes of four families, each with a connection to Nottingham’s history of textiles – but the history of this area stretches back much further.

Medieval beginnings

Crusades and Castle connections

The area that would later be known as Brewhouse Yard has long been associated with Nottingham Castle, not least for the world-famous Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem pub, which claims to have been pulling pints for thirsty visitors and travellers since 1189 AD.

Goods were also transported via the nearby River Leen and taken up to the Castle through a tunnel called Mortimer’s Hole.

Outside the law

Brewhouse Yard was ‘an extra-parochial liberty,’ which placed it outside the jurisdiction of the town’s parishes. It became a hub for criminal activity but was also a place of safety for religious non-conformists. It was officially tax-free, which may have inspired the rise of brewing in the rock caves. The Nottingham historian Robert Thoroton once described it as ‘a great receptacle for fanatics, and other like people, who would not live conformable to the laws.’

Plot and intrigue

To preserve the powers of a King

In 1330, the Castle’s caves provided the backdrop to a daring coup d’état which saw supporters of the young King Edward III capture the King’s mother, Queen Isabella and her new lover, Roger Mortimer. Legend has it that they dragged Mortimer down from the Castle to Brewhouse Yard, where he was slung onto a horse and led to London to meet his grisly end.

Later, in 1403, Edward’s grandson, King Henry IV, gave Nottingham Castle to his wife, Queen Joan, who also had an eventful life. Following her husband’s death, she was accused of trying to kill his son King Henry V through witchcraft and sorcery. She was imprisoned but later pardoned by the king on his deathbed and lived out the remainder of her life peacefully at Nottingham Castle.

Cottage Industry

Brewhouse Yard was sold out of royal hands by James I in 1611 and the earliest parts of the cottages were built in the 1670s. The first reference to ‘Brewhouse Yard’ was recorded in 1680 – but it is widely believed that brewing and malting had been happening here for many years before.

In the late 1600s, Samuel Wildboare and his family lived at Brewhouse Yard. They were originally from Northampton but were members of an independent church and so attracted to the area by its extra-parochial status. The Wildboares were comfortably off and earned their living as cloth ‘fullers’ and dyers; their eldest son Tobias was also a preacher and land surveyor.

In 1732, William Elliott and his family moved into the Brewhouse Yard cottages. Although his occupation is originally listed as a stocking trimmer and dyer, it later changed in 1750 to ‘gentleman’ – perhaps because he made his fortune from the invention of a secret recipe for black dye, used for men’s stockings.

Protest and rebellion

A home of the Luddites?

At the beginning of the 19th Century, the Lee family lived in the cottages, renting from the wealthy Norton family who owned the land. Although not paupers, they were not as well off as either the Elliotts or the Wildboares. Both Charles Lee and his wife Frances were framework knitters, an occupation which steadily became less and less profitable as the industrial revolution took hold, and imports arrived from Europe following the end of the Napoleonic wars. The phrase ‘as poor as a stockinger’ became a common one in Nottingham and  the famous protests and frame-breaking of the Luddites  demonstrated this rising discontent. Visit the Rebellion gallery in the Ducal Palace to discover more about the Luddites.

Last residents and new beginnings

By the end of the Victorian period, knitting frames were gone and Nottingham’s great lace factories had taken their place. Living in Brewhouse Yard at this time were the Websters. William Webster was an ironworker but most of the family were involved in the lace industry. His daughter Lucy worked in the Lace Market as a ‘finisher’, carrying out a variety of tasks to prepare lace for sale when it came to the city centre from the outlying lace factories. Lucy’s brother, John, was killed in action in France in 1914 serving with the Sherwood Foresters.  However, Lucy lived much longer, leaving behind a rich account of her early life at Brewhouse Yard when she was interviewed in 1982, at the age of 89. This has formed the basis of the new interpretation of the Yard and its cottages. Visit the Lace Gallery in the Ducal Palace, and Nottingham Industrial Museum at Wollaton Hall, to discover more about Nottingham’s famous lace industry.

In the Websters’ day, the residents of Nottingham got water from wells, or had to buy buckets of clean water from private water companies, such as the Castle Pumping Station next to Brewhouse Yard. But in 1880, Nottingham Corporation took over town water provision and built a new Waterworks to provide clean, plentiful water to Nottingham and the surrounding villages. Brewhouse Yard cottages became homes to some of the Waterworks staff.

During the Second World War, the caves at Brewhouse Yard were used as air raid shelters for all the Waterworks staff and their families. The cottages were used as a dormitory for volunteer firewatchers, who needed to be on hand during air raids.

In 1972, Brewhouse Yard was purchased by Nottingham City Council, restored and opened as a museum.

To discover more about visiting Brewhouse Yard, plan your visit and book your admission ticket, which covers you for Nottingham Castle, Museum & Grounds, plus ‘Brewhouse Yard: Life beneath Castle Rock’.

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