The story of the city of caves is a long one, rife with rebels and riots, legends and lace…
“If ever Nottingham decided to put up plaques and monuments to itself, the place would be tagged as a museum. Partly out of modesty, partly out of indifference, Nottingham prefers to hide its light under a bushel”
– Emrys Bryson, a Portrait of Nottingham
City of caves
Nottingham’s settlement began in the 6th century as the village of Snottaingaham – the home of a warlord called Snotta. The Anglo-Saxon word “ham” meant village. The word “inga” meant belonging to and Snotta was obviously the lord’s name. Gradually this changed to Snottingham then just Nottingham. The original site of this “first” Nottingham was in the Lace Market area where many people lived in cave-dwellings dug into the area’s soft sandstone.
The position of the settlement was vital – Nottingham was located where the River Trent could be crossed easily while still allowing boats to navigate. This access to water and shipping would continue to keep Nottingham valuable and important for hundreds of years to come.
The Northmen come
The Viking army, under Ivar the Boneless and Halfdan Ragnarsson, first captured Nottingham from the Saxons in 868. They turned Nottingham into a fortified settlement or burgh under the Danelaw. The town was surrounded by a ditch and an earth rampart with a wooden palisade – or fence – on top.
In 920, King Edmumd of the Saxons retook Nottingham from the Vikings and built a bridge across the Trent. By the end of the Saxon period, Nottingham was a small town of strategic importance – even housing a royal mint – but it would grow rapidly over the next centuries.
With the arrival of the Normans after the Battle of Hastings and William the Conqueror’s edict that a castle be built at Nottingham, the town became divided. A new French borough housing the new Norman French community sprang up near the castle. The old Saxon town, still located in what is now the Lace Market, was called the English borough. A dividing wall ran through the marketplace, today the Old Market Square, where the two communities would come and trade. You can still see where this wall would have been marked by a line of grates in the slabbed surface.
In 1155, Henry II granted Nottingham a Royal Charter giving townspeople certain rights. Nottingham gained its first mayor in 1284 and held the first Goose Fair the same year. Nottingham didn’t get a Sheriff until 1449.
Wool was the main industry in medieval Nottingham. Raw wool was woven, then fulled (wooden hammers, worked by watermills, pounded the wool in a mixture of water and clay to clean and thicken it). Nottingham had an array craftspeople, from brewers and malters in Brewhouse Yard, tanners, bakers, carpenters, shoemakers, and blacksmiths. There were also the alabastermen, kervers, marblers, and image-makers. Nottingham was famous for its highly prized alabaster still mined in the area today as gypsum. Skilled artisans sculpted pieces that were exported widely across Europe.
New industries and the Elizabethans
The town’s first grammar school was founded in Nottingham in 1513 allowing some of the townspeople to gain a formal education. The town’s medieval industries like wool and leather had declined and fresh ideas were needed. The town innovated and production of new goods like textiles, silk and wool hosiery, glass and stoneware took their places. From the late 17th century Nottingham became famous for its craftspeople making salt-glaze pottery. New heavy industries like mining took hold too, with small collieries springing up in places like Wollaton, which would see Wollaton Hall built in 1588.
Royalists and a rebel Parliament
The town saw the beginning of the Civil War when Charles I raised his standard at the castle, calling the townsfolk to join his cause. The people however supported Parliament and not the king and so saw repeated raids from Royalist troops from Newark throughout the war. To add to the suffering, Nottingham was also ravaged by plague in 1667.
In the 18th century Nottingham’s hosiery industry boomed. Lace was also being made in the town, though these businesses were still relatively small. In the 18th century Nottingham had a piped water supply although it was expensive and not many people could afford it. Fine houses were built, like Bromley House in 1752, which is now a library. From the 1760s oil lamps lit the streets and gas lighting followed in 1819. The first theatre in Nottingham was built in 1760 and between 1769 and 1772 Shire Hall, now the National Justice Museum, was rebuilt. The General Hospital was erected on part of the original Outer Bailey of the castle in 1782. Nottingham also connected to the highways of the day in 1796 with the opening of the Nottingham Canal.
Overall, the town remained dirty and unsanitary, with one report stating the slums were among the Empire’s worst. Unrest fermented in the filthy streets. From the 1760s, Nottingham people would regularly riot over food shortages, working conditions and corrupt politics, culminating in the burning down of the castle in 1831. The Luddites, angered by falling wages, smashed knitting frames from Bulwell to Clifton, and Jerimiah Brandreth led his rebellious march on Nottingham, before being captured and beheaded. The continuation of the dirty conditions saw outbreaks of terrible diseases like cholera, which struck in 1833. In the face of such unrest, by the end of the Georgian era Nottingham had founded its own police force!
Queen of the Midlands
Nottingham continued to grow rapidly, especially after 1845 when a great deal of land around it was released for building. The Nottingham Corporation took on the supply of water to the town, building great reservoirs and waterworks that radically improved the town’s cleanliness. The railway reached Nottingham in 1839, opening the opportunity for increasing trade and travel. In the late 19th century Nottingham opened parks like The Arboretum and its first public library in 1868, increasing leisure activities. Two of the oldest football clubs in the world were started in Nottingham. Nottingham County Football Club was founded in 1862 and Nottingham Forest was founded in 1865. Also, in 1878, Nottingham Castle reopened as a public art museum and gallery.
The Lace legacy begins
Nottingham’s Victorian industries
In the 19th century the hosiery industry continued to flourish, and Nottingham became famous for its production of lace. John Heathcote’s lace-making machine, introduced in 1809, revolutionised how Nottingham lace was made. New industries began too. Jesse Boot opened his first herbalist shop in 1849, John Player founded Players cigarettes in 1877, and Frank Bowden began making bicycles on Raleigh Street, Radford in 1887.
Nottingham was finally made a city in 1897.
20th Century Nottingham
Nottingham continued to expand – adding electric trams in 1906, although they were removed again in 1936, and a new ring road was introduced instead. A new City Council House was built in the Old Market Square in 1929 and residential council houses proliferated in the outer estates of Bilborough and Clifton, which was then the largest estate in Europe.
Nottingham was heavily bombed on 8th May 1941 and sent many soldiers to both World Wars. 159 people were recorded as killed with 274 injured. At the Co-op bakery on Meadow Lane, 49 employees and members of the Home Guard were killed.
In 1952 a statue of Robin Hood was unveiled outside Nottingham Castle. Nottingham Playhouse opened in 1963 and the Queens Medical Centre in 1970. Venues like Rock City opened in 1980 and the Royal Concert Hall in 1982 to enrich the cultural life of the city. Nottingham Forest were crowned champions of Europe by winning the European Cup back to back in 1979 and 1980 under the inspirational leadership of Brian Clough and Peter Taylor: ‘Come on you Reds!’.
By the late 20th Century, the main industries in Nottingham were textiles, tobacco, bicycles, pharmaceuticals and printing, but new businesses continued to emerge including miniature wargames makers Games Workshop and consumer credit reporting company Experian which opened headquarters in the city.
A new millennium
In 2004 a new network of electric trams opened in Nottingham, the first since the 1930’s. Nottingham also received the designation of UNESCO City of Literature, in recognition of its rich literary heritage of Byron, Lawrence and Sillitoe in 2015.
In 2021, Nottingham Castle will reopen following a £30 million-pound restoration project to restore and protect the castle, and its collections and grounds, and to share the stories of the castle, the city and its people with future generations.