The Magazine of Lenton Local History Society

Lenton Times Issue 3 - November 1989

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James Green And Francis Evanís Involvement With The Nottingham Canal

In Issue 2 we included a brief history of the Nottingham canal. Here Frank Barnes has more to relate about two of the men who were intimately involved in its planning and construction and who both bought land and built mansions in the Lenton area. These gentlemen were Francis Evans of Lenton Grove and James Green of Lenton Abbey.

Francis Evans was a Nottingham attorney with chambers in Thurland Hall and Prothonotary of the Peveril Court in the mid-1780s. More particularly he was appointed Secretary to the company building the Cromford canal and also Clerk to the Nottingham Canal Company. If you recall the Cromford canal was built to acquire access to the Trent at Long Eaton, via the Erewash canal. The Nottingham canal was conceived soon afterwards as a means to direct the anticipated Cromford trade away from the Erewash canal and towards Nottingham and the Trent. Francis Evans was therefore ideally positioned to learn what negotiations were being proposed for the Nottingham canal. That he should choose in 1791 to purchase almost all the land which made up the 'Lenton Grove' estate in Lenton, while the canal was still at the planning stage, is highly significant, as will be shown below.

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Lenton Grove, now part of the University's Music School.
Photograph by Paul Bexon.

William Jessop, the nationally renowned canal engineer, was asked in November 1790 to survey a possible route for the Nottingham canal. (This was the same year that Jessop along with John Wright of Lenton Hall and two others founded the Butterley Company). Jessop's line was basically the one eventually adopted, except that from the west of Wollaton village he favoured a route down the Tottle Brook valley along the west side of Wollaton Park. This was not to Lord Middleton's liking; he had proposed his own route designed to serve his Wollaton pits and using the Leen valley along the eastern side of Wollaton Park. Middleton's support was regarded as essential for the success of the whole project and he threatened to withdraw unless his preferred route was adopted. Even though Middleton's route was substantially more expensive it was agreed to, with minor modifications. Shortly afterwards Jessop himself withdrew as surveyor and engineer, ostensibly through ill health, and in June 1791 he recommended James Green of Wollaton to re-survey the route, lay out the detailed line of the canal, and supervise its construction under Jessop's own general oversight. There was reluctant and belated agreement to this proposition and Green re-surveyed the amended route of the canal in the autumn of 1791. Benjamin Outram, one of Jessop's colleagues at Butterley, and collaborator on many projects, acted as consultant engineer. Green himself was formally appointed in June 1792 to superintend the construction of the canal in the field and actual building work began on 30th July 1792.

Green's responsibilities were onerous, for he undertook to make contracts, appoint staff and workers, purchase materials, treat with landowners and deal with innumerable details of planning and construction. He continued to receive a salary until March 1795, after which he voluntarily attended to the final details of the work until the canal was completed in April 1796. Green was also heavily involved in the construction of the Nottinghamshire section of the Grantham canal. All 33 miles of this canal were opened in 1797 and so far as is known here ended Green's active career as a canal builder. The following year he bought the land that became the Lenton Abbey estate and at the age of about 50 built his mansion there.

James Green bought his land after the Nottingham canal had been completed but Francis Evans' purchase took place in 1791, before it had been started, although Lenton Grove itself was not built until around 1800. This suggests to me that Evans bought the land from the Moore family estate for speculative purposes rather than as a site for a new home. In a marginal note on an abstract of title of Lord Middleton, Francis Evans was described in 1867 as 'the well-known and respected attorney and banker in Nottingham'. (This was some fifty years or so after his death). Evans may well have been well known and considered a respectable citizen but I think he was also an enterprising speculator and seemingly not averse to using methods akin to those of 'inside trading'.

Jessop's original survey had favoured a route from west of Wollaton village down the Tottle Brook valley to gain the Trent vale past the present Florence Boot Hall and the 'paddling pool' in University Park as the most direct, easiest and cheapest line. As stated earlier Francis Evans was well placed to know of this plan from its initial stage of consideration in 1791, the very year of his land purchase. Doubtless it was evident to him that the Lenton Grove estate (where the University's Willoughby, Cavendish and Ancaster Halls, Florence Boot Close and the Music School are all now located) would provide a prime industrial site, with a frontage on to the proposed canal on one side and bounded by the Nottingham to Birmingham turnpike on two other sides, and with no problems of slope. In the same year Evans acquired further land in 'the Comb closes', which lay alongside the west bank of the Tottle Brook immediately west of the southern part of the present Wollaton Vale, adjacent to the point where the canal would have crossed the Nottingham to Derby turnpike near the present Priory Inn. Had the canal gone through here, the land would undoubtedly have been of great industrial value, having immediate access to both a major road and the waterway.

The altered routing of the canal must have disappointed Evans to say the least, but he made the best of his bad luck.(*) He eventually chose to build his house at Lenton Grove in what was still a favoured position for a Nottingham businessman's country home, with good road connections nearby but a secluded outlook. In the course of the Beeston inclosures Francis Evans also took the opportunity to extend the estate on to the Beeston side of the Tottle Brook (where the student flats off Broadgate are now situated) through exchanges involving the lands in the Comb closes. Evans then continued to live at Lenton Grove until his death in 1815.

Had the Tottle Brook route actually been adopted for the Nottingham canal there is little doubt that the land on University Park, the Woodside Road area and probably even out as far as the Wollaton Vale area would all have undergone industrial development in a similar fashion to what actually happened beside the canal in the Leen valley. Whether the University with its handsome parkland campus site would ever have come into being here is a debatable point. Perhaps we ought to give thanks that Lord Middleton exercised his veto, even if it was to serve his own private pecuniary interests.

(*) Francis Evans was to suffer further disappointment in the 1790s. In 1792, together with Dr John Storer FRS, who also had rooms in Thurland Hall and who eventually retired to Lenton Firs in 1828, Evans bought an expensive piece of land in a highly unsuitable part of Nottingham and built a brewery costing £15,000, an extremely large sum at that time. The brewery opened in 1794 but closed suddenly after only two years. After a period as a barracks most of it was demolished in 1799 and, small tenements built from the materials and given the name Poplar Place.

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