Category Archives: Nottingham’s Heritage

Judge not…

23 Forman Street, Nottingham

23 Forman Street, Nottingham

Photo:  Harriet Buckthorp

Diners at the Foreman Street, Nottingham, branch of Prezzo [,%20United%20Kingdom&lng=-1.1390802999999323&lat=53.00821670000001&f] are mostly unaware of the history of the site.

In the late nineteenth century 23 Foreman Street was a well-known brothel, distinguished as the scene of the demise of Sir Charles Henry Watkin Williams, a High Court judge who, according to a pointedly satirical memorial card, “departed this life suddenly at Mrs Salmands” on the evening of July 17th 1884 aged 55.

After dinner at the Judge’s Lodgings he had gone to visit a young lady called Nellie Banks at Mrs Salmands.  There is a factual account in Reynolds’s News, July 27th 1884.

The gangster ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser, in his compendium of criminality, Mad Frank’s Britain (Random House 2012), p 107, felicitously describes what happened:  “the old gentleman gave a sort of grunt and she thought he’d come, but he’d gone”.

By the time the police returned Sir Watkin Williams’ corpse to the Judge’s Lodgings too many people knew what had happened for the story to be concealed.

The borough coroner, Mr Arthur Brown, was clearly under considerable pressure to limit his inquiries, and he had to lean hard to make the inquest jury fulfil their oath to establish “when, where, how, and by what means” the judge had met his death.

It appeared that Sir Watkin suffered from aneurism of the aorta and, according to his doctor’s recommendation, he really should have been more careful.

Reynolds’s News and many other papers reported the affair with circumspection, under a headline “DISCREDITABLE DEATH OF A JUDGE”, in an article more than a column in length that invited readers to use their imaginations.

The memorial-card broadsheet was altogether more succinct:

…in eight feet deep of solid earth

Sir Watkin Williams lies.

He lost his breath,

which caused his death,

‘twixt Nellie Blankey’s thighs.

Nellie Banks was an enterprising young lady.  My friend Stewart tracked her down in the Boston Guardian dated August 2nd 1884 where her name is meticulously rendered in inverted commas:

She was the housekeeper of a farmer at Butterwick who, in the early part of this year, absconded with a large sum of money and with [the] young lady in question made a trip to Paris.  He was on his return to this country apprehended as a fraudulent bankrupt aboard an Inman Line steamer as he and “Nelly” were about to emigrate to America.

She is described as aged 22, pale and slender and about five feet high.  She would have thrived in an age of reality TV and social media.

Nothing much remains of Mrs Salmand’s premises, but the story gives an entertaining twist to dining at Prezzo.

Elite cinema

Former Elite Cinema, Nottingham

Former Elite Cinema, Nottingham

Diagonally opposite Nottingham’s Theatre Royal, the town’s prestige entertainment building of the mid-nineteenth century, stands the Elite Cinema, aptly and no doubt deliberately named as the city’s premier picture palace of the early 1920s.

This huge building, clad in white Hathern faience with an elaborate display of statuary on its parapet, was designed by James E Adamson of the architectural practice Adamson & Kinns.

The foyer welcomed patrons with a roaring open fire in the winter months, and there were two “swift and soft-running passenger elevators” to the upper levels.

The auditorium, a confection in the style and colouring of Wedgwood ware, with trompe l’oeil arches and portrait medallions, brought a new level of quality and luxury beyond the picture palaces that had opened before the Great War.

The Elite had a magnificent Willis & Lewis organ, “the largest and most complete instrument that has been built for any cinema in the British Isles”.

The building was intended not only to show movies, but to build a separate reputation as a social and business venue.  A suite of dining spaces offered catering for individuals and groups.

The Louis XVI Café, white, green and gold, decorated with tapestries, contained a Soda Fountain “of the latest pattern”.  The larger of two cafés on the second floor was decorated in Jacobean style.  On the third floor there was another large room in Georgian style, “a thoroughly joyous room” decorated in a “daring” white and yellow scheme, and a smaller companion called the Dutch Café, “adorned by a very attractive hand-painted frieze illustrating scenes from favourite fairy tales”.

The entire building was cleaned by a Stuyvesant Engineer centralised vacuum cleaner, “sucking up ravenously every particle of dust and small refuse and depositing it all, via a suction hose, in a central dustbin”, and in the aftermath of the Spanish Flu epidemic, the heating and ventilation system was designed so “that the ubiquitous influenza bacilli and their kin will have a difficult task to make both ends meet”.

It opened on August 22nd 1921, and became part of the ABC circuit in 1935.  Though repeatedly refurbished in the 1950s, it gradually lost its prestige as the years went by.

Much of the décor survives because the Elite was listed as long ago as 1972, and was subsequently upgraded from Grade II to Grade II*.

The auditorium and café areas are described in the English Heritage listing [],

The fact that the Elite went over to bingo in 1977 helped to keep the place in good order, and after the demise of bingo in the 1990s the auditorium became a night-club.

The building was advertised for sale at a price of £4¼ million in June 2015.

Nottingham’s Water Palaces 2: Papplewick Pumping Station

Papplewick Pumping Station, Nottinghamshire

Papplewick Pumping Station, Nottinghamshire

If, while dining in splendour at the Lakeside Restaurant, the former Bestwood Pumping Station outside Nottingham, your imagination wonders how much more splendid the place is than when it was a waterworks, you need only drive up the road to the Papplewick Pumping Station to see a similar installation that was and is even more splendid.

The Papplewick Pumping Station was completed in 1886 after the Waterworks Company was taken over by Nottingham Corporation, and its construction was the responsibility of the engineer Marriott Ogle Tarbotton (1834-1887), who gave Nottingham its sewage system and the present-day Trent Bridge.

The engine house at Papplewick was built of local Bulwell bricks with terracotta and Mansfield stone decorations.  It contains two magnificent James Watt & Co beam engines, which pumped from wells two hundred feet deep.  The building stands off-centre to the ornate cooling pond, suggesting that a second engine-house was considered, though it was not needed.

Papplewick Pumping Station was given the same elaborate architectural treatment and landscaped grounds as Bestwood, but, apparently because the project – even with the ornamentation – cost £55,000, well under the £67,000 budget, it is more richly decorative, with stained glass, carved stone and ornamental brasswork designed around the theme of water and water-creatures.

Brass fish swim between the individually turned brass water-lilies, reeds and bullrushes that decorate the square faces of the columns supporting the engine-beams and gilded ibis support the capitals.

The strong resemblance between the Bestwood and Papplewick buildings may indicate the guiding hand of Thomas Hawksley, who acted as an informal mentor to Marriott Ogle Tarbotton.  A letter from James Watt & Co about the design of the engines asked if they could save time and money by adapting features for Hawksley’s Yarmouth waterworks:  “There is a great similarity and we seem to detect Mr Hawksley’s design and ornamentation in your drawings.”

The sheer magnificence of the interior of Papplewick Pumping Station almost certainly saved the engines when it was decommissioned in 1969.  The Bestwood engines were scrapped without controversy in 1968.  The scrap value of the engines at Boughton Pumping Station further north near Ollerton was assessed in 1970 at £10,000, and the proceeds of that sale helped to set up the Preservation Trust that took over Papplewick Pumping Station and brought it back to life:

Opening and steaming dates and times at Papplewick Pumping Station are at

Nottingham’s Water Palaces 1: Bestwood Pumping Station

Former Bestwood Pumping Station, Nottinghamshire

Former Bestwood Pumping Station, Nottinghamshire

There can be few more splendid places to dine in Nottinghamshire than the Lakeside Restaurant [], a spectacular conversion of one of Nottingham’s fine Victorian water-supply pumping stations.

Nottingham was the birthplace of one of the greatest British civil engineers of the nineteenth century, Thomas Hawksley (1807-1893), who specialised in water-supply engineering and served as consulting engineer to the Nottingham Waterworks Company.  He was the first to prove it was feasible to provide twenty-four-hour supply, a convenience that made water-closets fully practical.

He was responsible for managing the huge increase in demand as the population of Nottingham grew in the nineteenth century by tapping the abundant supplies of water held in the Bunter Sandstone that lies beneath the town.

The Bestwood Pumping Station, built in 1869-73, was part of that great project.  The brick engine house was built in thirteenth-century French Gothic style with stone facings.

Its architectural splendour was a gesture towards the 10th Duke of St Albans, from whom the six-acre site was leased.  He had rebuilt his nearby residence, Bestwood Lodge, in 1865, so the pumping-station chimney is contained in a 172-feet-high Venetian Gothic staircase tower which leads to a viewing loggia.

The engines were constructed by Joseph Whitham of Leeds, with a capacity of three million gallons per day, drawn from a well 176 feet deep.  They were replaced by electric pumps in 1964 and dismantled in 1968.

Following a steeplejack’s report that the tower was unsafe because of mining subsidence, plans were announced in 1972 to demolish the historic buildings.

Faced with a public outcry, the chairman of Nottingham Corporation Water Committee, Councillor Len Squires (Labour), complained, “Nobody realised the building had any architectural merit whatsoever until we decided to pull it down.”

When the Nottingham Corporation Waterworks Department was taken over by Severn Trent, Bestwood Pumping Station became derelict, listed but unusable, until 1997:

In fact, its architectural merit made it a superb location for an upmarket restaurant and wedding venue, with a fitness suite in the former boiler house.

The main floor, the Pump Room Restaurant, is flamboyantly decorated in Victorian country-house style, and the beam floor provides a further function room, the Tower Suite.

It’s an indication of the pride that Victorian municipalities took in their utilities that this practical waterworks should so successfully become an elegant place for fine dining.

Semi-detached theatre

Theatre Royal, Nottingham

Theatre Royal, Nottingham

The classical portico of Nottingham’s Theatre Royal has dominated the streetscape since it was built in 1865:

Originally designed by the prolific and prestigious Victorian theatre-architect Charles John Phipps (1835-1897), it was modernised in 1896-7 by the more famous Frank Matcham (1854-1920), who at the same time built the new Empire Palace Theatre for what shortly after became Moss Empires partly on what had been the site of the Theatre Royal dressing-rooms.

There are stories of artistes straying into the wrong backstage-area, particularly after Moss Empires took over the Theatre Royal in 1924.

The Empire was also the site of Ken Dodd’s stage debut, as Professor Yaffle Chucklebutty, “Operatic Tenor and Sausage Knotter”, in 1954.

The Empire closed in 1958 and was demolished eleven years later for road-widening.  At a time when Nottingham City Council were planning and building the ultra-modern Playhouse as a repertory theatre, there was talk of demolishing the Theatre Royal also and building a replacement touring house elsewhere.

In fact, the Theatre Royal lingered on, becoming so decrepit that eventually the D’Oyly Carte company refused to appear because of the state of the backstage areas.

In 1977 the City Council purchased the County Hotel, on the opposite side of the Theatre Royal building to the former Empire, and commissioned Renton Howard Wood Levin to restore Matcham’s design, except for the proscenium arch and adjacent boxes, within Phipps’ auditorium envelope.

Subsequently, in 1980, Renton Howard Wood Levin built from scratch the magnificent Royal Concert Hall behind the Theatre Royal.  The two auditoria work in tandem [], with the Playhouse operating at the other side of the city centre:

Nottingham has a proud claim to have been at the forefront of the late twentieth-century revival of live performances in provincial towns and cities.

Nottingham’s underground 2

Drury Hill Caves, Nottingham

Drury Hill Caves, Nottingham

Nottingham’s City of Caves attraction shows what remains of the Drury Hill cave-system, named after a street that was swept away to make room for the Broadmarsh shopping centre which opened in 1972.

The complex includes the only underground tanneries in Britain, if not the world, dated, by pottery found in the cess-pit, to 1270-1300, and known to have been used as late as 1639.  The tanning process was so obnoxious, involving soaking hides from the slaughterhouses in vats of urine and ordure, that the caves were rat-free and the tanners, who had little else to be cheerful about, were notably immune to the plague.

Further tanneries at the Black’s Head, Drury Hill, behind 14 Low Pavement, were filled in for safety in 1992

The City of Caves website is at  It’s a good idea to switch your computer to mute.


Nottingham’s underground 1

Trip to Jerusalem, Nottingham

Trip to Jerusalem, Nottingham

Tony Waltham begins his invaluable study of underground Nottingham, Sandstone Caves of Nottingham (East Midlands Geological Society, 2nd edn, 1996), by saying that there are no caves in Nottingham:  all the cavities which honeycomb the historic centre are man-made.

The Sherwood Sandstone strata on which the city stands is so soft that it’s possible to dig a well by hand faster than the aquifer can fill it.  Indeed, the cavities beneath Nottingham have been used as cellars, dwellings, wells and cisterns, access passages, malt kilns and in one possibly unique case a tannery.  Wealthy householders sometimes dug ornamental garden features out of the rock, and from the late eighteenth-century at least sand was mined as an industrial abrasive.

Some of the existing underground sites date as far back as the twelfth century, and centuries before that a Welsh chronicler refers to a locality called ‘Tiggua Cobaucc’ – the place of the caves.

I’m indebted to my friend Stewart for tipping me off about the Nottingham Caves Survey [], which seeks to map all the surviving underground spaces in and around central Nottingham.  The survey uses laser-scanner technology to produce accurate three-dimensional representations for record, and to create fascinating fly-through videos.  The team continues to make new discoveries:

If you’re in Nottingham, of course, some of these fascinating spaces are physically accessible, in some cases for the price of a drink.

The most famous of all, perhaps is the Trip to Jerusalem, a pub which claims a history back to 1189AD, though the buildings are clearly seventeenth-century or later:  Its history is certainly much older than the buildings, because it stands at the foot of the Castle Rock, next to the castle’s Brewhouse Yard.

Drinkers have been calling at the Trip, so it seems, ever since the Crusaders set off to the Holy Land.


Castle that’s not a castle

Nottingham Castle

Nottingham Castle

When is a castle not a castle?  For many visitors, Nottingham Castle comes as a surprise, because it doesn’t have battlements or a drawbridge.  It did, of course, at one time, but the medieval fortress that guarded the crossing of the River Trent that is now a famous cricket ground disappeared after the English Civil War.

Nottingham was the place where King Charles I first raised his standard, signalling his military opposition to the forces of Parliament and triggering the conflict that led to his execution.  The old castle was “slighted”, that is, rendered indefensible, by order of Parliament in 1651, and its ruins and the park around it were bought after the Restoration by William Cavendish, a prominent Royalist and the first Duke of Newcastle.

He swept away the remains of the old castle and – well into his eighties – began a completely new, extremely modern classical palace that was completed, three years after his death, in 1679.  It cost £14,000.  (Curiously, the 8th Earl of Rutland, a Roundhead, had built a similarly splendid baroque palace in place of his slighted castle, beginning in 1654.  All that remains of this is a model, now displayed in the nineteenth-century replacement Belvoir Castle [].)

The seventeenth-century Nottingham Castle was little used in the decades that followed, and was virtually empty when in 1832 it was set alight by Reform Bill rioters.  Its then owner, the 4th Duke of Newcastle, was anything but popular:  in an election in 1830 he had evicted tenants who wouldn’t vote as he wished, saying, “Is it not lawful for me to do what I please with my own?”

Eventually, in 1876, Nottingham Corporation bought the Castle from the 6th Duke and commissioned the local architect Thomas Chambers Hine to rebuild the interior as the first municipal museum of art in England.

Now it is the Castle Museum [], centrepiece of a cultural quarter that also includes a fascinating series of caves, including Mortimer’s Hole, and, at the foot of the cliff on which the Castle stands, the Museum of Nottingham Life at Brewhouse Yard.

It may not look like a castle, but you can spend an entire day in and under it without getting bored.