A History of Nottingham

By Tim Lambert

Saxon Nottingham

Nottingham began in the 6th century as a small settlement called Snotta inga ham. The Anglo-Saxon word ham meant village. The word inga meant ‘belonging to’ and Snotta was a man. So its name meant the village owned by Snotta. Gradually its name changed to Snottingham then just Nottingham.

It was inevitable that sooner or later Nottingham would grow into a town as it is the first point where the Trent can be forded but the river is also navigable this far inland.

In the late 9th century the Danes conquered North East and Eastern England. They turned Nottingham into a fortified settlement or burgh. The town had a ditch around it and an earth rampart with a wooden palisade on top.

In 920 the English king recaptured Nottingham and he built a bridge across the Trent. By the 10th century, Nottingham was a busy little town though with a population of only several hundred. The Western limit of the town stood roughly where Bridlesmith Gate is today. From the 10th century, Nottingham also had a mint.

Nottingham in the Middle Ages

In 1067William the Conqueror built a wooden castle to guard Nottingham. (It was rebuilt in stone in the 12th century). Nottingham grew rapidly after the Norman Conquest. A new area was created between the old town and the castle. It was called the French borough because most of those who lived there were Norman French. The old town was called the English borough. The two areas had separate administrations until about 1300. The ditch and rampart around Nottingham were extended to surround the new area. Later, in the late 13th and early 14th centuries, they were replaced by stone walls.

Nottingham may have had a population of around 1,500 at the time of the Norman Conquest. By the 14th century, it may have grown to 3,000. By the standards of the time, Nottingham was a fair-sized town. However, it was not large or important nationally.

In 1155 the king gave Nottingham a charter. In the Middle Ages, a charter was a document granting the townspeople certain rights. Nottingham gained its first mayor in 1284 and it gained its first sheriff in 1449.

Medieval Nottingham had a weekly market. It also had an annual fair. From 1284 it had two. In those days a fair was like a market but was held only once a year for a period of a few days. Buyers and sellers would come from all over Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire to attend one.

In Medieval Nottingham, the main industry was wool making. The raw wool was woven. It was then fulled. This means it was pounded in a mixture of water and clay to clean and thicken it. Wooden hammers worked by watermills pounded the wool. There were also some tilers and potters in Nottingham as well as goldsmiths.

There were also the same craftsmen you would find in any Medieval town. These included brewers, bakers, carpenters, shoemakers, and blacksmiths. There were bridlesmiths who gave a street its name and wheelwrights who did the same. Fletchergate is named after fletchers (arrow makers) who once worked there.

In the 13th century, friars arrived in Nottingham. The friars were like monks but instead of withdrawing from the world, they went out to preach. There were Franciscans known as grey friars because of their grey habits and Carmelite friars known as white friars. In the Middle Ages, the church ran the only hospitals. In Nottingham, there was a hospital dedicated to St Thomas. In it, monks cared for the sick and the poor as best they could. There were also 2 leper hostels outside the gates of Nottingham, dedicated to St Leonard and St Mary.

In the 12th and 13th centuries, there was also a Jewish community in Nottingham. However, all Jews were forced to leave England in 1290.

Robin Hood is supposed to have lived in Sherwood Forest near Nottingham. The story of Robin Hood was first recorded in the 14th century and it may be based on a real person or possibly several real people. However, the town of Nottingham did not get its own sheriff until 1449.

Nottingham in the 16th century and 17th century

In 1513 a grammar school was founded in Nottingham. In the 1530s Henry VIII closed the leper hostels and the friaries. Robert Smythson (1535-1614) built Wollaton Hall in 1588. In Nottingham, traditional industries such as the manufacture of wool declined. Tanning declined in the late 17th century. Yet new industries arose to replace them. These included making silk or wool hosiery. By the late 17th century this industry was booming in Nottingham. So was a malting industry (malt, made from barley, is used in brewing).

A new industry in Nottingham in this period was glassmaking. Glass windows were rare in the Middle Ages but they became common in the 17th century. So did brick houses. In the 1600s many of the houses in the town were rebuilt in brick with tiled roofs. By the early 18th century it was an elegant town with many fine buildings.

Nottingham grew steadily during this era despite outbreaks of plague, which occurred throughout the 16th and early 17th centuries. The last outbreak was in 1667. By 1600 Nottingham probably had a population between 3,500 and 4,000. It probably rose to about 5,000 by the late 17th century.

In 1642 the civil war began when Charles I raised his standard on a hill north of Nottingham and called on men to join his cause. Nevertheless, in November, Parliamentarian troops occupied Nottingham. They held it for the rest of the war despite attacks by the royalist army in June 1643 and January 1644.

In 1651, after the war, parliament ordered that Nottingham Castle should be destroyed (to prevent it from ever falling into royalists’ hands). In 1674 The Duke of Newcastle bought the site. A mansion was built there between 1674 and 1679.

At the end of the 17th century, the travel writer Celia Fiennes said: ‘The town of Nottingham is the neatest town I have seen. It is built of stone and has delicate large and long streets much like London and the houses are lofty and well built. The Market Place is very broad – out of which run 2 very large streets’.

Nottingham in the 18th century

In the early 18th century Daniel Defoe described Nottingham as one of the most pleasant and beautiful towns in England. From the late 17th century, salt-glazed stoneware was made in Nottingham. In the 18th century, the hosiery industry boomed. There was also a lace industry although it was quite small.

During the 18th century, Nottingham grew rapidly. By the middle of the century, the population had passed 10,000. By 1801, the year of the first census it exceeded 28,000. By the standards of the time, Nottingham was a large and important town.

For the well-to-do, it was elegant and genteel (although, as always, there were many poor people). In the 18th century, there was a piped water supply although it was expensive, and not many people could afford it. From the 1760s oil, lamps lit the streets. The first theatre in Nottingham was built in 1760 and a general hospital was built in 1782.

Nottingham in the 19th century

Nottingham continued to grow rapidly, especially after 1845 when a great deal of land around it was released for building. Nottingham gained gas street lighting in 1819. However, like all towns in the early 19th century, Nottingham was a dirty, unsanitary place. There was a cholera epidemic in 1833, which killed 330 people.

However, life in 19th century Nottingham gradually improved. In the mid-19th century, the piped water supply was taken over by the corporation and was greatly expanded. After 1835 Nottingham had its first proper police force and a new prison was built in 1846. Meanwhile, the railway first reached Nottingham in 1839.

The first public library in Nottingham opened in 1868 and University College was formed in 1881.

In the late 19th century Nottingham Corporation created parks and recreation grounds. The Goose Fair evolved from an event where people bought and sold goods to a pleasure fair. Nottingham County Football Club was founded in 1862. Nottingham Forest was founded in 1865.

In 1831 the House of Lords rejected the Great Reform Bill which was intended to increase the number of people who could vote for MPs. The people of Nottingham were so angry they rioted. The Duke of Newcastle was opposed to reform so they burned his residence, the castle. It remained in ruins for 44 years until the town council took it over and rebuilt it as a museum and art gallery.

In the 19th century, the hosiery industry continued. Nottingham was also famous for lace. A lace-making machine was introduced in 1809. However, some new industries began in Nottingham. John Player founded Players Cigarettes in 1877. A man named Frank Bowden began making bicycles on Raleigh Street in 1887. He named his company after the street. By 1910 Raleigh was making 50,000 bicycles each year. Nottingham was made a city in 1897.

Nottingham in the 20th century

Electric trams began running in Nottingham in 1901. The last ones ran in 1936. Between 1922 and 1932 a dual carriageway was built around the city.

From 1928 Nottingham had a Lord Mayor and a new Council House opened in 1929.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the Nottingham Council began building council houses. Many were built on new estates north of the city. In the 1950s and 1960s, many more council estates were built in the north of the city including estates at Bilborough. Another estate was built in the south at Clifton.

Nottingham University was founded in 1948.

In the late 20th century Nottingham continued to develop rapidly. In 1952 a statue of Robin Hood by James Woodford was erected by the castle. A new Clifton Bridge was built in 1958. The Playhouse Theatre opened in 1963. Queens Medical Centre was built in 1970. Victoria bus station was built in 1972.

Broad Marsh Shopping Centre was built in 1972. Victoria Shopping Centre was built in 1975. The National Water Sports Centre opened in 1973.

Meanwhile, Nottingham Industrial Museum opened in 1971. The Museum of Nottingham Life opened in 1977 and the National Justice Museum opened in 1995.

In the late 20th century the main industries in Nottingham were textiles, tobacco, bicycles, pharmaceuticals, and printing. In 1998 Nottingham was made a unitary authority.


Nottingham Town Hall

In 2004 a network of trams opened in Nottingham. It was extended in 2015. Nottingham was made a UNESCO City of Literature in 2015. In 2023 the population of Nottingham was 323,000.