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The History of Nottingham

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Few people are aware that the East Midlands city of Nottingham was once called Snotingaham. Many, especially the residents of the city, will be relieved that the old Saxon name has evolved over time to become Nottingham! The original title derived from the name of a Saxon chieftain who ruled the ‘place of caves’ as it had previously been known. The Saxons had their original settlement in the area now known as the Lace Market.

Nottingham grew up during the Middle Ages and the Danes fortified the town as one of their Five Burghs, the fortified towns of the Danelaw. In the 11th Century the Normans built a castle on the sandstone outcrop by the River Leen. At this time Nottingham was in effect two towns, with the French living separate from the Saxons they had recently deposed. Eventually, all the ground between their separate enclaves was built on and is now the Old Market Square.

By the 15th century Nottingham was thriving and the onset of the Industrial Revolution saw it go from strength to strength, largely because of the growth of its textile industry. Gas street lights came to Nottingham in 1819, the railway arrived later, in 1839. The population shot up from a meagre 5,000 late in the 17th century to a bulging 51,000 by 1831. However, the rapid rise of Nottingham’s population was not matched by housing and sanitary infrastructure and riots broke out in 1831 in protest over the terrible city centre slums. The resident of Nottingham Castle , the Duke of Newcastle, had opposed the Reform Act (eventually passed in 1832) making him a target for the angry protesters who set fire to the castle. The castle subsequently lay in ruins for the next 44 years until the town council rebuilt it as a museum and art gallery. A cholera outbreak in 1833 killed 330 people and served to underline just what unsanitary places 19th century English cities were.

The rapid expansion of Nottingham was further fuelled when large tracts of land surrounding it were released in 1845. It was during the 19th century that Nottingham’s reputation as a textile town was formed. Lace-making was already popular in the area but the introduction of a lace making machine in 1809 ensured that lace would make not only a reputation for the town, but also make it a fortune. Nottingham was already famous for its hosiery, and the mechanisation of the textile industry saw the rapid growth of big textile and clothing manufacturers there.

Cloth wasn’t the only product of Nottingham. Frank Bowden set up a workshop in Raleigh Street in 1887, using the name of the street for his products. Raleigh Cycles were making 50,000 bicycles each year by 1910. Sturmey-Archer, manufacturers of components and gears for bicycles and motorcycles, were also established in Nottingham. John Player was another who chose to set up his business in Nottingham, establishing his firm there ten years before in 1877. His product, cigarettes, were to prove far less beneficial to the health than Mr Bowden’s bikes.

Nottingham was finally granted a city charter by Queen Victoria in 1897. During Victoria’s reign the city had seen many changes including the formation of a police force in 1835 and a new prison in 1846, presumably to house all the criminals caught by the new bobbies! Many new municipal and public buildings also sprang up in Nottingham during the Victorian Era including the city’s first public library in 1868. The University College, first opened opened its doors in 1881 as a college of education. The college eventually gained full University status in 1948. Nottingham’s two famous football clubs also hail from Queen Victoria’s era, Nottingham County FC was formed in 1862 and Nottingham Forest just a few years later in 1865. Notts County FC is the oldest football club in the world.

The city of Nottingham marked the start of the 20th century with the electrification of its trams, in 1901. They stopped running in 1836, only to return once again in 2004 as people begin to realise the many shortcomings of the private car for city centre travel. Nottingham expanded again during the 20th century with many sprawling council housing estates springing up all around the city. The main council house building sprees took place in the 1920s and 30s and again in the 50s and 60s. Pharmaceuticals and printing joined textiles, tobacco and bicycles as the main Nottingham industries but all of them have suffered significant decline since the 1970s.

Nottingham, like many large British cities saw much of its heritage foolishly destroyed to make way for modern development. Fortunately, Nottingham fared much better than many other cities and still retains a great deal of its historic buildings and features. Despite the erection of several city centre shopping malls, such as the Broad Marsh centre built 1972 and the Victoria shopping mall constructed in 1975, Nottingham’s city centre is still stylish and historic. In 1922 and 1932 a dual carriageway was built around the city as the motorcar started it’s bid to become the principle means of transport for the city’s population.

Nottingham has always had a close association with the bandit of legend Robin Hood , who is supposed to have lived in Sherwood Forest which once surrounded the ancient city.  In 1952, to commemorate this very strong link with the famous villain, a statue of Robin Hood by James Woodford was erected near the castle. A short walk through the city today proves that the link is still very strong as many bars, clubs, restaurants and businesses have an element of the Robin of Sherwood story in their names, such as the Robin Hood public house.

The latter half of the 20th century saw massive immigration with people coming from the former colonies into Nottingham, especially from the Caribbean. The result is that today Nottingham is a vibrant multi-cultural city with more than a touch of the Afro-Caribbean flavour. The population of modern Nottingham is around 283,000 and it has the fourth highest per capita income of any UK city, after London , Edinburgh and Belfast . This demonstrates that the city has continued to prosper despite the virtual collapse of the traditional industry, including textiles, that the city once grew rich on.

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On this day:
The English Restoration - Charles II lands on British Soil - 1660, HMS Pinafore Opens - 1878, Celtic win the European Cup - 1967, Tubular Bells released - 1973, Star Wars Opens - 1977, HMS Coventry Sunk - 1982
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