Dr Richard A Gaunt explores Nottingham’s rebellious history in anticipation of the activist exhibitions
Nottingham has a proud tradition of rebellion and protest dating back a thousand years. The foundation of Nottingham Castle, shortly after the Norman Conquest of 1066, is the most symbolic manifestation of the stand-off between townspeople and rulers which came to characterise Nottingham’s subsequent relations with authority. Nottingham became a centre of medieval government over the next 500 years. The town, which did not become a city until 1897, was crucial in commanding the road and river communications with northern England and successive Norman kings – notably Richard I (1189-99), John (1199-1216) and Edward III (1327-77) – used it as a place to meet their most important feudal supporters. It is no coincidence that this period gave rise to the legend of Robin Hood. The hero’s natural hunting-ground was Sherwood Forest and Nottingham and his championing of Anglo-Saxon liberties assured the town a reputation for standing up against injustices which it continues to enjoy.
With the defeat of Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, Nottingham’s place as a centre of royal government declined. Charles I (1600-49), who claimed to rule by Divine Right, unsuccessfully attempted, on three occasions, to raise military support for his conflict with Parliament, by raising his royal standard at Nottingham in August 1642. His failure was an ominous foreshadowing of his subsequent defeat in the British Civil Wars. Nottingham held out in favour of the ‘Roundheads’ (the Parliamentary cause) but this did not prevent a tense and argumentative relationship developing between the town’s governor, John Hutchinson, and the population who were forced to pay and provision its defences.
Before the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the fabric of Nottingham Castle was pulled down to prevent it playing a role in future conflicts. However, the ducal palace built in its place exerted as much significance during subsequent conflicts in the town. On 10 October 1831, following the rejection of the Parliamentary Reform Bill by the House of Lords, a group of some 500 or so rioters, angry at the hostile vote registered by the castle’s owner, the 4th Duke of Newcastle, set the (largely empty) building on fire. It was the most significant act in three days of rioting, which included attacks on Sharpe’s mill on the Forest and the firing of properties at Colwick and Beeston.
By this period, Nottingham was enjoying its hey-day as a centre of the lace and hosiery industry. However, the introduction of mechanisation and capitalist practices led local knitters to acts of resistance in defence of their traditional craft practices and wage-levels. Their attacks on the machines responsible for producing the cheap, shoddy goods which were undercutting them were christened ‘Luddism’ after the name of the movement’s fictional leader Ned Ludd. Luddism was a Nottingham creation which subsequently spread north. It was at its peak in the years 1811-12, with some three dozen frames broken at Beeston, Blidworth, Basford, Radford and Bobbers Mill on 29-30 November 1811. When Daniel Diggle, a 21-year old Luddite, shot at George Kerrey of Radford, during a frame-breaking incident at the end of 1816, he was tried and subsequently executed outside the county gaol.
Though Luddism died away, the discontented voices of Nottingham hosiery workers were dominant, locally, within the Chartist movement (1838-48). Organised around the six points of the ‘People’s Charter’, Chartists sought democratic rights of representation for the people. It was a political movement spurred on by social and economic discontent and Nottingham was one of its key centres. The town boasted particular advantages in its large, open meeting places: the Old Market Square and the Forest (which was, historically, the site of Nottingham Races but subsequently became home to the annual Goose Fair). One Chartist meeting on the Forest attracted 3000 people. It is no surprise that Feargus O’Connor, the national leader of Chartism, was a frequent visitor to the town, nor that he was returned as one of Nottingham’s two MPs (and the first sitting Chartist MP) in 1847. Today, his statue stands in the Arboretum.
Chartism was notable for the prominence it gave to women as political leaders. However, progress on female suffrage was painfully slow. Its principal stimulus came with the Suffragette movement, in the early years of the 20th Century. Leading suffragettes, including Christobel and Sylvia Pankhurst, were frequent visitors to rallies in Nottingham and, as with many preceding campaigns, its supporters used a variety of peaceful and militant methods, including arson. When George V and Queen Mary visited Nottingham in June 1914, a local Suffragette, Eileen Casey, was found to be in possession of explosives and sentenced to fifteen months imprisonment. Casey was subsequently released when the outbreak of the First World War focused everyone’s minds on other battles.
Dr Richard A Gaunt is Associate Professor in British History at the University of Nottingham and Curator of Rebellion at Nottingham Castle, helping to develop their proposed new ‘Rebellion’ Gallery.