Brewhouse Yard Stories
Sitting at the foot of the hill, 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, which will open in early summer 2022, tell the stories of everyday people in a rapidly expanding and industrialising Nottingham – but the history of this area stretches back much further.
Having transformed from a sordid den for cutthroats and thieves to the genteel home of a stocking dyeing pioneer, Brewhouse Yard has just as many stories to tell as the Castle atop the hill.
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 has been pulling pints for thirsty visitors and travellers since 1189 AD.
King Richard I is said to have famously drank at the Trip – England’s oldest pub – before embarking on the Crusades. We know for sure that watermills provided the Castle with flour on the site from before 1217, when an invoice is dated for repairs to the mill in the papers of King Henry III.
Outside the law
The Brewhouse Yard was ‘an extra-parochial liberty,’ which placed it outside the jurisdiction of the town’s parishes for law and order. It became a hub for undesirables and a den of iniquity. It was also 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. They dragged Mortimer down from the lofty heights of 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, gifted Nottingham Castle to his wife, Queen Joan, who affectionately named the four mills at Brewhouse Yard – Sparrow, Donne, Dosse and Gloff.
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 1670s, Samuel and Tobias Wildboare and their families lived at Brewhouse Yard. They were originally from Northampton but attracted to the area by its extra-parochial status, due to being members of an independent church. The Wildboares were comfortably off and lived in the new cottages until the early 18th Century, growing wealthy through cloth dyeing.
In 1732, William Elliot 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’ – another demonstration of the profitability of Nottingham’s hosiery trade at this time.
Protest and rebellion
A home of the Luddites?
At the beginning of the 19th Century, the Ley family lived in the cottages, renting it from the wealthy Norton family who owned the land. Although not paupers, they were not as well off as either the Elliots or the Wildboares. Both Charles Ley 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. Industrial action and the famous protests of the Luddites – who vandalised and broke the frames that were devaluing their jobs – demonstrated this rising discontent.
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 whilst his daughter Lucy worked in the finish line at one of the lace factories. William’s son, John, was killed in action in France in 1914 serving with the Sherwood Foresters. The family left Brewhouse Yard in 1908, moving to St Ann’s when the Waterworks took control of the area.
During the Second World War, the caves of Brewhouse Yard served as an emergency headquarters for the Air Raid Precautions – to protect Nottingham from bombing raids. Office space was used, with desks and telephone lines installed. Bunk beds were also provided so the volunteers could get some rest during extended bombing raids.
In 1972, Brewhouse Yard was purchased by Nottingham City Council, who carried out extensive repairs and restoration to the site. It reopened as The Museum of Nottingham Life in 1977 and continues to tell the area’s stories to this day.