Nottingham is for Lace

4 11 2006

I am writing these notes at the four-star YHA accommodation that is right at the doorstep of Sherwood Forest. If I had failed to find Robin Hood last week, here was a chance to redeem that disappointment. Sherwood Forest was the usual haunt of the legendary hero. This was the land of the outlaws. It was here that he used to rob the rich and share the spoils with his fellow outlaws. This was the place for merry-making and idle pastimes of his folks. Right now, my room at the hostel is named “Robin Hood” although I would have to be in the next room named “Maid Marian”!

Since getting to Sherwood meant that I had pass through Nottingham I decided to spend some time here. Last weekend I had only a whiff of Nottingham. I would have been in the city for less than an hour but it was enough to see and feel that it is a vibrant city. Today I have confirmed that first impression. If there is a city that comes close to the constant energy and activity of London, then Nottingham must be it. Edinburgh was dull, drab, congested and overcrowded. Leeds was deserted and empty as I had passed through it on a Bank Holiday weekend. Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield, Newcastle, Cardiff and other major cities are as yet unvisited. For now, Nottingham appeals to me very much with its shopping centres and general cleanliness. Small lanes climb up or down the hill. Wide roads make way for modern trams, their smooth quiet journeys and their distinct bells. Here, for the first time in my life, I have seen trams.

A regenerated Nottingham

A regenerated Nottingham

One of my colleagues mentioned to me that “Nottingham is for lace as Northampton is for shoes”. So I began a self-guided walking tour of the city to discover all about lace and lace-making. I started by visiting the Lace Market. I had not done adequate research on this. I had expected, in some naive nostalgic manner, a busy market place teeming with vendors and buyers, in the active trading of lace; demonstrations taking place on lace-making; a vast collection of laces with unimaginable variety of designs and patterns; a ceaseless sound of lace-making machines churning out in great quantities the prized export of the city; and behind them, hidden from open view, the warehouses busy with the loading and unloading of cartons and containers of lace bound for international markets. If the fame of Nottingham for lace is anything to go by, I can hardly be blamed for having such a modest expectation.

I had trouble finding the Lace Market. I walked around in circles looking at the same empty buildings, some of which were under scaffolding. I asked a woman for directions and she pointed to the empty street I had just left behind. So once more I tried to find some hidden entrance or alleyway leading to the Lace Market. Again this is not a foolish pursuit. I have found in the past that though streets may be deserted, there is much activity and life inside buildings. Inside Waterloo Station, there is a great deal of human traffic. Just outside, if you come out at some vague exit, you might be the only one. This is truer during the winter months.

At best, there was a tram stop named “The Lace Market”. I asked someone for directions. He returned my question with a puzzled look.

“This is it”, he added. Pause. “What were you expecting?”
“Trading of lace”, I said.
“They used to sell something near the church”, he pointed in some vague direction, “but it’s a pub now”.

He said this last statement with some resignation as if all things in this country were destined to become pubs and bars.

Then I decided to visit another attraction, “The Caves of Nottingham”. I had hoped to take a guided tour of the caves of which there are many under the city. These have been used as cellars, for malting, as houses and even tanneries. I could not find the entrance at all. My walking tour of the city was going very well and for once I was keeping good time.

Modern statue of Robin Hood

Modern statue of Robin Hood

The next destination was the famous Nottingham Castle, featured so often in association with the adventures of Robin Hood. On this matter, I had no great expectations. Suffering the same fate as Corfe Castle, this castle had long been destroyed in the 17th century by the Parliamentarians. Even worse, no ruins of that castle remain. A different building, designed for the First Duke of Newcastle, stands today. It is of classical design. In its creation it has destroyed everything of the ancient castle. Today it serves as the Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery. Thus, I have been forced to kill time at a museum rather than learn from real life. Although history has far-reaching effects, history in itself is fragile. If it had not been so, we wouldn’t need museums to preserve and protect. If we ask why this is so, the answer is easy. History never rests. It is restless in its making. It is constantly re-writing itself. It derives from its past but the past is left behind. Every episode it writes is for the next one to become. History is time.

There is nothing spectacular in this museum. I was not awed by anything I saw, although some paintings captured my attention. Where this museum succeeds is in presenting its moderate collection in a user-friendly manner. Rather than simply naming, dating or describing objects, it encourages the visitor to formulate his own personal responses. It prompts you to ask questions, to discover the exhibit on your own before reading the descriptions. To do this, items are only numbered. Descriptions are in separate printed sheets that you can refer to if desired. Yet another interesting approach has been to arrange exhibits by theme or form rather than separate them by age, artist or a certain school. Thus we have a 1990 stoneware vase displayed next to a Cypriot earthenware vessel of 900 BC. Thus we have a painting of the Bosnian war close to the mythical theme of Hercules killing Diomedes. Thus we have Georgian silverware displayed in the same cabinet as those made just a few decades ago. In this way, this museum stands not just to preserve art but to prompt an artistic response from each visitor.

Every museum must have something of a local flavour. In fact, every museum must have a great deal of it. I had expected some exhibits unearthed at Creswell Crags. I had either missed them or there are none in this museum. I had expected some paintings or drawings of lace, lace-making and lace knitters. I found none. But I found a number of other things I had not expected. If visiting a museum, the only proper expectation is to be surprised.

Here is a splendid painting of Nottingham from 1695 by Jan Siberechts. It shows the ancient castle on a hill and the town spreading out from it in a valley blessed by the River Trent. The Old Trent Bridge, mentioned by Daniel Defoe, is seen in the picture. Such has been the importance and history of this bridge, that today the cricket ground near Nottingham bears that name. The bridge no longer exists. The second painting with a local flavour is “The Goose Fair” painted by Arthur Spooner in 1926. This is said to be one of Europe’s largest travelling fair. It perpetuates a 700-year old tradition. Yet another nostalgic 1920s painting by Arthur Spooner is a view of the Old Market. Against the backdrop of a modern building it captures the transition from the old to the new. The funniest painting is by Daniel Maclise. He paints Robin Hood and his men entertaining Richard the Lionheart in Sherwood Forest. The king seems to have lost his authority and respect. The merry-men of the woods, the outlaws of the land, have lost all sense of propriety. They are drunk and lie sprawled on the ground. Robin Hood is having a laugh while the king sits demurely trying to make sense of his disorderly company. This is the kind of stuff which makes legends. This is the kind of stuff which legends inspire.

In association with Sherwood Forest and continuing the Robin Hood theme, I was most captivated by the gallery dedicated to The Sherwood Foresters. Their humble beginnings lay in a handful of men who gathered to found a voluntary corps in 1859 to stand against a rumoured invasion of Napolean III. They came to be called the Robin Hood Rifles, amalgamated with the Worcestershire and Sherwood Forest Regiment in 1908. The exploits of the Sherwood Foresters are many. One only has to read dedications in their honour printed in the London Gazette during the Great War:

prompt action and absolute contempt for danger; conspicuous devotion to duty; exceptional gallantry; highest example of valour; rushed forward, regardless of personal safety;

For this, they have won many medals. I took special note of medals awarded for their contributions in the Indian sub-continent:

  1. Army of India Medal, 1799-1826; printed with “Ava” and “Victoria Regina”; for action in Burma, 1826.
  2. India General Service Medal, 1854-1895; printed with “Sikkim 1888” and hung with red-and-blue ribbon; for action against Tibetan incursion.
  3. India General Service Medal, 1895-1902; for action against the rebellion of Indian tribes in Tirah & Punjab Frontier, 1897-1898.
  4. Indian Mutiny Medal, 1857-1858; printed with “Central India”; for action against mutinous Sepoy Regiments.

What one calls a mutiny, the other calls a fight for freedom and righteousness. It is during the same mutiny that a ram was captured in Kotah, India in 1858. This became the mascot of the Sherwood Foresters. It was named “Private Derby”. It participated in 33 battles and was never undefeated. The current mascot is Derby XXVIII.

In the same room, there is a display of weights and measures which has always intrigued me. Brass vessels were neatly arranged in this order:

Quarter Gill, Half Gill, Gill, Half Pint, Pint, Quart, Half Gallon, Gallon, Peck, Half Bushel, Bushel

Some of these are by no means a thing of the past. They are very much in active use today. Why is it that when the world has moved on to the metric system founded on the basis of the decimal system that’s so flexible and easy to use, do people in Britain still cling to a decadent system of measures? Milk is sold in shops based on the measure of a pint. So too is beer in all the pubs in Britain. It took me sometime to learn how much is a pint and how to pronounce the very word. When I ask strangers for directions they quote distances in yards and furlongs. They are baffled when I ask for it in meters. The truth is old habits die hard. Established systems that have had many years of active life are hard to relinquish. Even if there is something better in offer, a quarter gill of nostalgia is enough to keep the old systems in eternal perpetuation.

If I did not find the Lace Market, a small compensation came in the Lace Centre. This proved to be no more than a small shop selling machine-manufactured lace. A few posters and photographs gave a brief history of this industry. However, I learned a little more in the museum. I don’t know when exactly lace-making started but by the end of the 16th century it had become firmly established in its parent form: the hosiery industry. Of greatest importance was the design and keeping it with the fashion of the times. The main processes were making and finishing. It was particularly in the latter that Nottingham flourished. Initially lace was made by hand. In 1589, William Lee of Calverton invented the knitting frame. It was a revolutionary invention for its time but being obsolete, we rarely hear of it these days. Lace making by framework knitting continued for a long until machine-made lace started to gain steam from the 1820s onwards. Once the lace was made, the finishing process commenced. Machine-made lace was greased in oil and graphite which had been used for lubricating the machines. Lace was washed and cleaned in the brown-room. While white lace was the most popular output coloured lace was also produced. This involved the dye-room in which the dyes were added.

Finishing was labour intensive and employed mainly women. It involved lace separation (drawing) and removal of surplus threads (scalloping or clipping). The women worked long hours in crowded and poorly ventilated rooms. Working conditions started to improve in factories but outworkers continued to work in poor conditions for many more decades. This was one of those industries where women could work from home and even subcontract this work others in the neighbourhood. This class of workers were called outworkers. This was particularly a good system for mothers and the aged who couldn’t leave their homes. Overall, lace making was a job of pride for all involved in it. They were paid better than workers in other industries.

With mechanization came the loss of jobs for the framework knitters. A slump in the hosiery trade in 1836 and 1839 caused further unemployment. Workhouses became overcrowded and unfit for human habitation. As a temporary measure, the prohibition on out-relief to the able-bodied was lifted. As conditions grew worse, a new workhouse was built in 1840 and opened in 1841. By now, the New Poor Law of 1834 had become standard. The workhouses at Nottingham operated on the same model pioneered by its Southwell counterpart. It was to these workhouses many of the new jobless sought relief. Work that is performed with love is joyous. Many frame-knitters took pride in their work. Work that is performed under compulsion is close to slavery. One can then imagine the mental torture they must have endured in the sudden change from lace-making to the tedious tasks of a workhouse.

The conclusion is simple. To say, “Nottingham is for lace” is not right: “Nottingham was for lace”.

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