From 'The Lenton Listener' Issue 21
November - December 1982
The Story of Nottingham's Barracks
Entrance to Barrack Lane - 1982
Strangers to the area, wanting to gain access to the Park Estate from Derby Road would undoubtedly be directed towards North Road. But as local residents will know, the road, shown in our photograph below, also leads from Derby Road up into the Park. The narrow thoroughfare, the line of which forms part of the eastern limit of Lenton parish, was in use long before the Park Estate was developed and T.C. Hine and C.I. Evans, designers of the Park's layout, merely incorporated it into their plans drawn up in 1861 or thereabouts. A mixture of different residential properties now stands on either side of the road but originally it was an open track leading up to an establishment of which there is sadly no trace. Only the name of the road, Barrack Lane, remains to remind us that here was the site of Nottingham's only army barracks.
In medieval times, troops stationed in a town were entitled to seek quarters in any suitable building whether the owners wanted their company or not. Of course, the practice caused much resentment until in 1689 a royal proclamation largely restricted the soldiers' choice to the various inns within a town. The innkeepers were obliged to take these 'guests' and were often unhappy with the arrangement. So local landlords must have been among the many Nottingham people who gave thanks when in 1792 they heard that a cavalry barracks was to be built to house at least some of the soldiers stationed in Nottingham.
T.C. Hine and C.I. Evans's plan of 1861 with the layout of
the barracks superimposed on to it.
The Duke of Newcastle had leased a portion of land to the army board of ordnance and the barracks were built in the north-western corner of the Park. The exact position can be seen from the present day road plan on which we have superimposed the plan of the barracks. The open space at the centre of the barracks was a huge cobbled yard around which a variety of brick buildings were constructed, the whole surrounded by tall brick, walling. The buildings consisted of officers' quarters, a huge building containing more than eighty rooms and of barrack rooms for the ordinary soldiers, a small hospital and surgery, a sutling house in which provisions and supplies were kept, a magazine, and stabling for three troops of horse.
An interesting aside: when the foundations of the barracks were being laid, the soil dug out was carried across the Park to the fish ponds at the foot of the Castle Rock and used to fill them in. These pools, formerly well stocked with fish for the use of the occupants of the Castle, had been let to a waterworks company for use as a reservoir in about 1720, but the company failed to prevent silting and the ponds deteriorated into a boggy swamp. Once filled in, the area was turned into allotments and called 'Fishpond Gardens', and then later developed for housing. The name of one of the roads, Fishpond Drive, within the Park Estate, just off Castle Boulevard, is the last reminder.
For a variety of reasons, in the last quarter of the eighteenth century rioting broke out in Nottingham with monotonous regularity; whenever the justices of the peace and local police force were unable to contain the disturbances, troops were called in to restore the peace. This continued need for the presence of military in the town may well have contributed to the decision to build permanent quarters here. The most well-known occasions when troops from the barracks were called out, along with volunteer yeomanry and local militia men were the troubled times of the Luddites, and the riots surrounding the failure of the Reform Bill in 1831. During the seventy years the barracks were used as military quarters, they housed a great variety of different cavalry regiments, but always ones brought from distant parts, never local regiments. These regiments rarely seemed to stay for long in Nottingham, which might suggest that the military authorities wished to prevent the men from becoming too 'familiar' with the local populace.
Inside the Barrack Yard, looking north with part of the Officers'
quarters on the far right.
Little has so far come to light as to life and conditions within these barracks. Local newspapers reported the comings and goings of the various regiments, but rarely devoted space to anything else. This is probably a reflection of a general indifference as to what was happening within the barracks. It was only the publicity given to the sufferings of the British troops in the Crimea that eventually aroused public concern for the living conditions of the forces. In the 1850s a variety of commissions and committees investigated Army affairs. Among them, a committee on Barrack Accommodation, found that conditions in barracks were frequently wretchedly bad, with overcrowding, poor sanitation and little ventilation. Married quarters were virtually non-existent. A married couple were often just given a bed in the corner of the barrack room and children had to sleep alongside them. (The Army actually tried to restrict the number of married men to a maximum of six per hundred men. The wives of 'unapproved' marriages were obliged to live separately from their husbands in lodgings outside the barracks}. Later committees examined the conditions at every barracks in the British Isles and outlined what improvements should be made. At about this time, for reasons made clear later, the Nottingham barracks were closed down and so no mention of them appears in any of these official reports.
Barrack Square in 1926 - built some time after the barracks
themselves - just outside the southern wall.
Numbers living in Nottingham's barracks would of course fluctuate as different regiments came and went. The buildings were originally designed for three troops of cavalry and as a troop usually numbered about sixty we presume the barracks could cater comfortably for around two hundred people. We do have one set of figures as the barracks appear in the 1851 census. Details were given for 8 officers, 23 non-commissioned officers, 138 privates, the wife of one officer, plus thirteen other wives who had sixteen children between them. In addition 34 non-military staff such as servants etc. lived there, thus making a grand total of 204 people. It would seem that, in 1851 at least, overcrowding did not appear to be a problem.
The etching by C.J. Greenwood shown here depicts an idyllic scene in Nottingham Park with grazing cattle, parading soldiers and the barracks on the left of the picture. Although the property of the Duke of Newcastle, the Park was open to public access and proved an extremely popular resort. On Sundays in summer, the Barracks provided an additional attraction when, after the morning church parade, the regimental bands would set up their music stands and play to all who gathered to loll or rest in the shade of the sycamore trees growing nearby. In 1821 the fourth Duke of Newcastle announced that he wished to develop the whole Park for housing and accordingly had plans drawn up. A start was made when houses were built in the Ropewalk area, and in 1828 the road beside the Castle gateway into the Park was widened and called Lenton Road. Gradually plots were sold on the town side of the Park and a number of imposing buildings constructed for the town's richer merchants and manufacturers. All these buildings, however, were situated on the perimeter of the Park. On the death of the Duke of Newcastle in 1851, his son, the fifth Duke expressed his intention to continue the development of the Park.
Demolition of the same properties in the 1970s.
In September 1855 the lease of the barracks expired and the duke preferred not to renew it so that the site could be included in the housing estate being designed by the architects, Hine and Evans. The Duke did agree that the troops could stay on until an alternative site was found. On the 30th of May 1860 the 11th Hussars left the barracks for new quarters at Burnley and the Army transferred its East Midlands Command from Nottingham to Sheffield. Thereafter the barracks never again housed troops on a full time basis, but were probably used for soldiers passing through Nottingham on their way to their barracks. In a few years almost all the barrack buildings had been pulled down and the large houses now standing on the site built soon after. A few of the nearby buildings were retained as private residences but these too have now gone.
Robert Mellers in his In and about Nottinghamshire (1908) relates that it was once proposed to build barracks on a site at Bagthorpe, once the name for an area just to the north of Sherwood. Eighteen acres of land had been purchased for this purpose, but there was such an outcry from the residents in the area that the idea was dropped and barracks were erected near Derby and Leicester instead and Bagthorpe subsequently became the site of Nottingham prison. Mellers mentions no dates, so it is difficult to decide how this relates to the closing of Nottingham's barracks.
The bearer Joseph Mee is permitted to receive six pails of water daily from the barracks. This card must be produced to the corporal of the guard each day & it is not to be lent or transferred to any other person as if so, the indulgence will be forfeited.
(Signature of) Barrack Master
3rd Sept. 1853
The photograph of this document is courtesy of Mr. P. Mee, whose great grandfather, Joseph Mee, lived in a house close to Barrack Square with its entrance off the passageway, which now leads from Barrack Lane to Harlaxton Drive. Joseph Mee was entitled to his six buckets of water from the barrack's well where the water was raised by horse power.
Soldiers drill marching on the wide open spaces of Nottingham Castle's park estate
Illustration of Charles Blondin taken on another occasion.
The Other Ropewalk
Charles Blondin had become a celebrity worldwide, after he had successfully crossed above Niagara Falls on a tight rope in 1859. Two years later he made a tour of Britain and was engaged to appear at Nottingham. The Castle grounds had been chosen as the venue, but permission to hold the event there was refused and alternative arrangements had to be made. The promoters had to find somewhere which would hold a sizeable audience, allow the rope to be raised to a dramatic height and yet not afford those outside a free view of the proceedings. The empty barracks were not ideal, but no more suitable alternative could be found so they were hired. The promoters were forced to restrict the height of the rope to sixty feet and still it was necessary to erect canvas shields around the barracks to try and block the view of those outside.
On the day, the 30th July 1861, between five and ten thousand paid their shilling to gain admittance to the barracks - a bitter disappointment to the promoter who had hoped for 20,000 people. A large crowd were quite happy to stay outside and try and see the act free of charge. Those inside were entertained by a brass band, a quadrille band, a set of Aunt Sallies (?) and a 'corps of n______ [minstrels]'. After a long delay Blondin finally emerged, climbed up and quickly ran the hundred yard length of rope. He returned to kneel on the rope, stand on his head, lie full length on it, do a somersault, walk across blindfold, perform a number of other routines and conclude the act by crossing with a man carried on his back.
We must presume that those who paid their shillings and those who didn't went home satisfied with the day's entertainment.