The Magazine of Lenton Local History Society

Lenton Times Issue 7 - September 1992

Society Snips

The speaker at our February meeting was Chris Weir. Chris is Senior Archivist at the Nottinghamshire Record office, an adult education local history tutor, and author of two recent books for Phlllimore. Given his background Chris was clearly well qualified to lead us through the making of Victorian Nottingham in his illustrated talk 'Slums, Lace and the Occasional Riot'.

We started in Georgian times. Daniel Defoe visited Nottingham in 1724 and thought it 'one of the most pleasant towns in England'. Nottingham's garden town, however, was soon under threat from a major increase in population. The 9,890 inhabitants in 1740 had grown to nearly 29,000 by the beginning of the nineteenth century. The burgesses zealously guarded their 'common' rights in the surrounding fields and until the advent of the 1835 Municipal Corporations Act the town was unable to countenance expansion. As a result many of its inhabitants were forced to live in poorly built back-to-back houses often arranged in enclosed courts that had little light or fresh air.

By the end of the eighteenth century Nottingham had become a leading centre for the manufacture of hosiery. Then machine-made lace arrived on the scene. Chris outlined the development of the lace industry and spoke of some of its most prominent figures and of the buildings they erected in the Lace Market area. In the early years lace operatives were able to earn good money. Framework knitters were not always so fortunate. In 1842 a large number of hosiery workers, based in outlying areas, suffering the effects of a drop in demand for their skills, had joined forces and were heading towards Nottingham intent on demonstrating against their plight. The Nottingham authorities, fearful that a riot might subsequently occur, sent out the cavalry and, in what became known at the time as the Battle of Mapperley Hill, they rounded up four hundred demonstrators with the rest scattering in all directions. Nottingham, of course, was no stranger to riots and Chris told us about some of those that took place in the Victorian era.

In 1832 Nottingham suffered a severe cholera epidemic. A young engineer, Thomas Hawksley, was commissioned to investigate matters. He reported on the poor housing and insanitary conditions and claimed 'Nottingham is unsurpassed in the misery of its inhabitants'. Hawksley was then employed to improve matters. He designed a new waterworks near Trent Bridge, driving filtered river water at high pressure through a network of pipes around the town. This scheme was to gain him a nationwide reputation.

A number of familiar names graced Chris Weir's narrative. Included were William Saville, whose public hanging in front of the Shire Hall in 1844 led to thirteen spectators being crushed to death by the crowd; Fergus O‘Connor, the firebrand orator and M.P. for Nottingham; Zebedee Jessop, founder of the department store that now occupies part of the Victoria Centre; Watson Fothergill and T.C. Hine, two of Nottingham's leading architects; Frank Bowden whose Raleigh Cycle Co. became the largest of its kind in the world; and William Thompson, better known as the pugilist, Bendigo.

Many of themes covered in the course of this talk were already known by those in the audience. Nevertheless everyone clearly enjoyed the evening given the accomplished manner with which Chris Weir handled his material. We shall be eagerly looking forward to February when Chris makes a return visit and gives us another of his illustrated talks.

The 'Old Nottinghamshire Coalfield' featured in Tom Leafe's talk to the Society last March lies on the eastern bank of the Erewash Valley in the general vicinity of the villages of Greasley, Kimberley and Strelley. Here the coal measures come close to the surface and it was a comparatively easy matter for early miners to extract the coal. They would dig a hole down into the coal measures, probably no deeper than twenty feet, and then continue to pick away at the coal until their activities caused the ground to fall in on the workings. When the collapse occurred the miners would simply move to a new site a few yards away and begin to dig afresh. Given the overall shape created by their excavation we now refer to these as bell pits. Once you know what to look for, the sites of abandoned bell pits can still be identified. The key characteristics are a concavity, formed where the ground fell in, surrounded by a raised edge resulting from the deposition of spoil. The sites may well be covered by trees and bushes which would have been given the opportunity to establish themselves there when the old workings were fenced off to prevent livestock straying into danger.

Until the coming of the canals and the later arrival of the railways the coal mined in the Erewash Valley would have been used locally. There wasn't any easy way to 'export' it and so until the nineteenth century the coal industry in Nottinghamshire remained pretty small scale. There was also a seasonal quality to the work and many of the men who worked a landowner's pits during the winter, when demand for coal was high, would probably have been engaged by that same landowner in more agricultural pursuits for the rest of the year.

After discussing very early mining practice viz. the bell pit, Tom Leafe outlined developments in the local industry and the gradual introduction of ever more sophisticated technology. The bell pit gradually made way for the 'pillar and stall' and 'longway' methods of excavation. These enabled miners to tunnel horizontally into the coal seam with some degree of confidence that the workings wouldn't collapse on them. As the coal face could now be quite a way from the shaft, hewn coal was loaded on to sledges and dragged by men, boys or donkeys to the bottom of the shaft where it was raised to the surface by means of a windlass. By the eighteenth century horse gins, like the one now installed at Wollaton's Industrial Museum, were being used to raise the coal. Newcomen steam engines were in local use by 1739 to pump water out of the mines. Water was a big problem and Tom explained how in earlier centuries mine owners spent large amounts of money driving drainage tunnels, known as 'soughs', into their workings. Locally we had the 'Lenton Sough' which was constructed to drain water from pits at Strelley and direct it into the Tottle Brook.

In the concluding part of a most illuminating talk Tom Leafe described how 'modern' mining arrived on the scene with the sinking of pits at Hucknall and Babbington and how the last of the Erewash's small backward pits only ceased operations in the 1880s.


Dear Sir, I wonder if any of your readers know any details of the burial at Holy Trinity of the 1918 flu epidemic victims. My interest in this topic has arisen from my work on the family tree of the Mitchell family who lived in Dunkirk. The Mitchells were my mother's side of the family and she told me the story of her sister Annie who died in December 1918 when she was 19 years old. My mother recalled her funeral and those of several others taking place on the same day. Starting early in the morning the funerals simply followed one after the other. I understand that schoolboys helped to dig some of the graves. Perhaps some of your readers might have memories of this.

Mother also recalled that when a baby died in infancy, my mother and her young friends would knock at the door and enquire if anyone was needed to help carry the coffin. Two would be chosen and they would have to don dark clothes and white gloves and they would be given a purple sash to wear. This job was considered a great honour and they would accompany the funeral. At the end the sashes were handed back; presumably so that they could be used again on another occasion. People seemed to have been surrounded by death in those days but don't appear to have been frightened by it.

Mrs M. Hudson (nee Stables) New Road, Radcliffe -on- Trent

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