Jackson L M 1861 2

The history of the Lace Market

Hilary Silvester from Nottingham Civic Society writes about the history of The Lace Market and Lace .

The Lace Market is known to be the oldest area of Nottingham, and has a history stretching from the troglodyte settlers, who hollowed out cave dwellings in the rock of the sandstone cliff to the commercial, residential and leisure area of today.

The town of Nottingham developed around this settlement during Anglo-Saxon times, when it became known as Snotengaham – or the home of the wise man’s people (the Anglo-Saxon word ‘snotor’ means wise), which later became Nottingham.

Although the town was invaded by the Vikings, it managed to survive and later became part of the Danelaw, the area of eastern England dominated by the Danish Vikings.   It flourished and developed housing, gardens, grazing lands and orchards.

Following William the Conqueror’s invasion in 1066, life continued in the Saxon town,  while a new Norman borough grew up around the Castle Rock on the western side of the town.   A new market place was established in between the two settlements, while there was also a daily market held in the Saxon town at Weekday Cross, now marked by the cross on Fletcher Gate opposite Nottingham Contemporary.   A guildhall was also built there, on the current site of Contemporary, and this became the centre of justice and administration of this growing and prosperous town.    There was also the foundation of a new church, which it is assumed was the predecessor of St Mary’s;  the foundations of a pillar,  possibly from this church or an early successor, can be seen in the current building, displayed under glazing near the north wall.

There seems always to have been some rivalry between the Saxon and Norman settlements, but nevertheless the fact that the position of Nottingham near the River Trent, which formed what the Romans had thought of as the dividing line between the north and south of Britain, and the existence of the two defensible rocky outcrops of the Lace Market and the Castle Rock, made the town of Nottingham an important and favoured site in medieval England.   In fact, the splendid building on the Castle Rock was a favourite of King Richard III and was where he stayed prior to the Battle of Bosworth  where he was to lose his crown and his life.  It is quite probable that the king heard Mass in the church of St Mary before setting out for Leicestershire and his last battle.

As the town became more important its street patterns developed, and despite the fact that the earlier buildings no longer survive, the street patterns remain very similar to what they were in the Middle Ages:  take a walk from St Mary’s to the Castle, along High, Middle and Low Pavements, across to Castle Gate and you are following the important route between the two settlements – perhaps a route which Richard III would have taken.   Many of the streets have the word ‘gate’ at the end e.g. Fletcher Gatre, Wasergate, Bridlesmith Gate;   this does not suggest gates to the town (the word for that is ‘bar’ as in Chapel Bar), but is the Saxon and Danish word ‘gat’ meaning street.   The names of the streets suggest the trades which were carried on there.

But in addition to the trades and housing (sometimes under the same roof), there were a number of splendid mansions being built with extensive gardens and orchards.   Sadly, these no longer exist as they were gradually demolished to make way for commerce, but at least one of these mansions is commemorated in  Plumptre

Street, on the site of the Plumptre family’s fine house and garden.

While the town continued to develop, the judicial and administrative systems also developed, and the town, incorporating the Saxon and Norman boroughs, was made a separate entity from the County of Nottinghamshire;  however, the county’s courthouse, the Shire Hall and the Castle remained under the control of the crown and county, so the Shire Hall in High Pavement was officially part of the county until it ceased to be courts in the latter part of the last century.

Nottingham continued to prosper during the Tudor period and its prosperity can still be judged by the elegance and splendour of the houses being built around St Mary’s and the Pavements.   A period of great anxiety occurred during the English Civil Was in the mid-seventeenth century.  Nottingham was a Parliamentarian (Roundhead) town, despite King Charles having raised his standard at the Castle to start the war, and Colonel Hutchinson, in charge of the town’s defence climbed up to the top of St Mary’s tower to survey the surrounding terrain and to decide how best to defend the town against the King’s army.   It is still  possible to follow in his footsteps from time to time when the church tower is open to the public.

The town of Nottingham survived the Civil War, despite the fact that its Castle came under attack, and was later slighted and made ruinous on the orders of Oliver Cromwell.

The area around St Mary’s continued to develop as an elegant residential district during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with buildings such as Willoughby House on Low Pavement being built for nobility and rich merchants.   The trade and industry side of the town also developed, and it rapidly became a centre for the hosiery industry during the eighteenth century, with workers making the stockings on frames in their houses, and selling their products to merchants.   Thjs increase in manufacture also led to an increase in the population, with growing over-crowding within the town.

However, the invention of mechanised frames, together with the introduction of men’s trousers as the fashion in place of the stocking hose worn with knee breeches which had  been the staple fashion for many years, spelt the death knell for much the hosiery trade, and many workers had turned their hands to the making of lace.

But the Industrial Revolution could not be turned back, despite the actions of the ‘Luddites’ who attempted to destroy the new mechanised methods, which were doing so many of them out of a livelihood.    The march of the machine continued, and astute businessmen realised that this was the future.   However, the narrow confines of the town meant that there was very little room to build factories  for the growing  lace and related industries, so the businessmen set up their works in the surrounding districts:  nineteenth century mills can still be seen in the town and suburbs around Nottingham, many of them now converted to residential or small industry and business use but still imposing in their scale.

Even though the manufacturing side of the lace industry left the Lace Market, the area now developed its commercial side, which gave it its name.   It never was a public market place, but a ‘market’ in the sense that it dealt with the wholesaling and promotiun of the products of the lace industry – brought in from the outlying factories to be ‘finished’ i.e. the rough edges trimmed off the lace if necessary, checked and so on, with the women and girls working in the ‘top shops’ or top floors with large windows – and then put in the downstairs showrooms to be displayed to buyers from the world of fashion and domestic furnishing representing many corners of the world.

Nottingham Lace became the byword for machine-made lace, and while some factories made a very high-grade fabric, a staple of much of the industry was the lace curtain trade.    The introduction of the railway (and the Lace Market was very conveniently placed for the railway lines) and the penny post made the trade much more easy to develop and extend).    The lace merchants became very prosperous and began to build warehouses and showrooms which they felt matched this prosperity:  in the process they sadly demolished some of the fine older buildings, to replace them with imposing multi-storey stone-trimmed brick mansions of trade.    The most imposing of these was that designed by one of Nottingham’s leading architects, T.C. Hine for Thomas Adams and James Pages.   Opened in 1855,  to great local acclaim, the warehouse contained a number of features not previously seen in the town, including facilities for the workers such as a library, school-room, tea-room and a chapel with a resident chaplain to conduct a daily service each morning before work commenced.   The chapel windows can still be seen in the right-hand basement of the Stoney Street frontage.   The building feels almost too grand for a place of trade and has been compared to an Elizabethan manor house.

But, as with so many fashions, that for lace declined and as the twentieth century progressed the buildings of the Lace Market gradually fell into disuse and their fabric deteriorated, until by the middle of the century, it looked as if demolition and redevelopment was the only prospect.

However, a far-sighted group of business people saw the possibilities of a restored Lace Market, not to market lace, but to provide attractive city centre accommodation for (often young) business men and women and, more recently, students, and for  clubs, restaurants and other facilities to bring new life to the area.

There have been great successes, and some dips in the process owing to economic factors, but it does seem now that a balance is being created between living space, the enhancing of historical features and the introduction once more of trade and industry – albeit of a twenty-first century character, but the line is surely very narrow between the ingenuity of the deviser of the Leavers lace machine and the digital devisers of the Lace Market’s new Creative Quarter.

Hilary Silvester

Nottingham Civic Society