Nottingham: the Rebel City, with “a strange, black-souled vein of its own”
“Once a rebel, always a rebel. You can’t help being one. You can’t deny that. And it’s best to be a rebel so as to show ’em it don’t pay to try to do you down”
– Alan Sillitoe, Saturday Night, Sunday Morning
Ingrained in the city’s soul
Nottingham is the Rebel City. It has been for centuries. There’s something ingrained deep in our civic psyche that makes us defiant in the face of oppression and brave fighting it. It’s impossible to precisely put a finger on where this attitude began, but having Robin Hood, fighter of class injustice, as your most famous local character certainly helps. We have a tradition of opposing the establishment, inspired by Robin, but also documents like Magna Carta which prevented Robin’s famous enemy King John, and subsequent monarchs, from doing whatever they pleased.
Parliaments and protesters
During the British Civil War, we declared support for the Parliamentarian fight against Charles I and his outdated idea that kings had a divine right to rule. In the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries we fought in the streets and the workplace for everything from fairer food prices and political reform to better working conditions and job security. Feargus O’Connor and Helen Kirkpatrick Watts made Nottingham a key battleground in the national and international movements of Chartism and Women’s Suffrage respectively, while the Luddite movement, a fight for job security against falling wages, had its very beginnings here – we broke old frameworks and made our common voice heard.
A castle atop the rock
At the centre of these stories, often as a symbol of oppression, overlooking Nottingham from atop its rock, was the castle itself. It was the stronghold for Prince John’s supporters against Richard I and the site where Charles I unsuccessfully raised his Civil War standard. In 1831 after a challenge to the status quo, the Reform Bill, was rejected in Westminster, we marched through the city and torched the hated symbol. Today the castle represents the opposite side of the battle and carries the responsibility that comes with being the largest cultural organisation in the city. It recognises Nottingham as Rebel City and the valued place of a proud narrative of activism and protest. Through its telling of past and present stories, Nottingham Castle’s role is now to celebrate rebelliousness, challenge injustice and promote artistic expression and dialogue.
Our art has always reflected our rebelliousness. DH Lawrence, the banned author of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and The Rainbow, unapologetically flouted the law to produce some of the country’s most celebrated literature. Lord Byron and Alan Sillitoe both profoundly captured the universal sense of youthful disillusionment with authority that is still so visible in our rich youth sub-cultures. More recently, that persevering quality has been clear to see in the films of Shane Meadows, the breakdancing of Rock City Crew, the poetry of Panya Banjoko and the music of Out Da Ville and Sleaford Mods.
The struggle continues
Once a rebel, always a rebel
Nottingham is still a Rebel City. We have activism coursing through our veins. We’ve battled racism in the streets since 1958 and before and, inspired by Eric Irons, we’ve continued to fight racial discrimination, including the founding of the UK’s first chapter of Black Lives Matter. And just look at those who fought to make misogyny an official hate crime, advocated for refugees, walked out of school for climate change or made Nottingham one of the country’s most LGBTQI+ friendly cities. The hard work of our charities, grassroots organisations and community workers, as well as the high number of independent businesses are all testament to that enduring Nottingham spirit – we won’t just accept the position you give us. If it’s wrong, we’ll tell you and if you don’t change it, we will!