Barker Gate, Pierrepont House, Plumtree Place

Near the south-west corner of Barker Gate, protruding upon the thoroughfare, are the old buildings of the Nottingham High School, or Free School as it was called in olden days. The history of this school is interesting, and the Three Merlins of the Mellers family are well known to almost everybody in Nottingham. A school was known to exist in Nottingham as far back as 1382. There are odd notices of this school scattered about in the various records of the city, but nothing very definite is known about it. However, in 1513 Dame Agnes Mellers, the widow of Richard Mellers the bell-founder, the site of whose house we have already passed in Broad Street, seriously took in hand the matter of education, and she established a Free School in the parish of St. Mary. This school is still doing splendid work under its new name of the Nottingham High School. This is hardly the place to enter into a detailed history of the school, or to give copies of the foundation deeds, but a few notes as to its early masters and their remuneration may not be without interest. In 1583 the master was paid £13 6s. 8d., and his usher, or assistant, received £3 1s. 6d., a princely sum compared with that which was paid to John Depup, who was master in 1579, for he only received £8 6s. 8d. However, by 1610 the salary had increased to the magnificent sum of £18 for the master and £12 for the usher. Of course, to bring these sums up to present-day value it is necessary to multiply them by about ten, but even allowing for the difference in value of money, the payment was ridiculous and could only have attracted men of poor calibre. This is shown by the fact that in 1532 the then master was accused of murder, while sixty years later, in 1592, the master was discharged for stealing the school books.

The buildings upon the site under consideration were originally erected by Dame Agnes Mellers and her trustees in 1513. They are mentioned in 1613, and they were constantly being repaired and altered during the 17th and 18th centuries. Finally, they were enlarged, and the present stone front was added to them in 1850, but in 1868 the school was removed from Stoney Street to the new buildings in Arboretum Street, designed by Mr. Simpson, and at the same time the name of the school was changed from the Free School to the High School.

Pierrepont House as shown on Jan Kip's East Prospect of Nottingham from the East, 1707-08.
Pierrepont House as shown on Jan Kip's East Prospect of Nottingham from the East, 1707-08.

On the site occupied by the great block of lace warehouses on the eastern side of Stoney Street, numbered No. 7, stood, until 1740, the magnificent town house of the Pierrepont family. This family, which had a great deal to do with Nottingham during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, may be said to have been founded by George Pierrepont, who was knighted by Edward VI. I do not know his origin, but he was a large purchaser of church property at the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and seems to have acquired great wealth. His son Henry was created Baron Pierrepont and Viscount Newark of Holme Pierrepont, and by the time of the Civil War the family had been advanced to the Earldom of Kingston. During the Parliamentarian wars the Earl attempted to maintain neutrality, and his sons were divided in their opinions between the Parliamentarian and the Royalist causes. Circumstances compelled the Earl to throw in his lot with the King, and he took part in the fighting at Gainsborough, where unfortunately for him his arms were unsuccessful and he was captured. He was put into a boat, together with other prisoners, for convoy to Hull, but his friends attempted a rescue, and during the skirmish consequent upon this attempt a stray bullet struck the Earl and mortally wounded him.

His eldest son, Lord Newark, helped the king zealously with men, money and advice, and after the king's death he found himself ruined, for—in addition to the money that he had advanced to the Royal Exchequer—he was mulcted in a penalty of £1,167 by the Parliament for his delinquency. He appears to have been a fine character, for instead of allowing his misfortunes to overwhelm him, he settled down in London, where he took up the study and practice of medicine, and did valuable work as a doctor.

His brother, the Hon. William Pierrepont, second son of the Earl of Kingston, took the opposite political view to his elder brother, and he became Cromwell's friend and adviser, and did so much good work that he was rewarded by Parliament with a great gift of money. This grant amounted to £7,767, the exact and extraordinary amount that his brother had been fined, so that we may gather, I think, that no money passed either in fine or grant through the hands of Parliament. The Hon. Willaim Pierrepont's name deserves to be reverenced, for it was he who introduced the Triennial Act, which rendered impossible a repetition of the old Tudor policy of ruling without a Parliament. He died before Lord Newark, and his son succeeded to the Earldom.

The house was built by the Hon. Francis Pierrepont, who was the third son of the Earl of Kingston, and apparently he attempted to hold the scales between his two brothers, for Mrs. Hutchinson reports of him that he was "coldly on the side of Parliament." One or two interesting members of the family are associated with the house. The most romantic of which is perhaps Evelyn Pierrepont, the second Duke, the story of whose unhappy marriage with Elizabeth Chudley is worth recording. Miss Chudley was a Devonshire lady, born in 1725, and apparently possessed very great beauty. In her early life she received the addresses of the Duke of Hamilton, but while the Duke was courting her she secretly married Captain Harvey, and at the same time carried on a courtship with the Duke of Kingston. After a few years she tired of Captain Harvey, and wishing to be rid of the incubus of her wedding, which was still kept secret, and finding that all the witnesses of the ceremony were dead, she gained access to the register where her marriage was noted and abstracted the leaf from the book. And then Captain Harvey came on the scene. He wanted to marry another lady and pressed his wife to divorce him, but she refused. Eventually the Duke of Kingston married her in 1769, and she led him a miserable life, subjecting him to all sorts of insults and indignities. After his death in 1773 she remained possessed of certain family property, but she had completely estranged her relatives by marriage, who got wind of her marriage with Captain Harvey, and in order to obtain possession of the family property they instituted an action for bigamy against her. She underwent a long trial by the House of Lords in Westminster Hall, and eventually was found guilty, but pleaded "Privilege of Peerage," and was consequently discharged from custody without any penalty, a strange comment upon the outlook of our forefathers a couple of hundred years ago. She retired to Paris and seems to have lived a rather horrible life, and eventually she died, and her true character comes out in her last wish. She had spent a great part of her life in tormenting the Duke, her miserable husband, and her last wish was that she should be buried in the vault in Holme Pierre-pont Church, and that her coffin should be securely chained to that of her husband, a wish, which it is needless to say, was never carried out.

Another lady, whose memory is associated with this vanished house, is of a very different type. The sprightly writings of Lady Mary Wortley Montague still provide pleasant relaxation and instruction for those who take the trouble to read them. She was born in 1689, and her mother died in 1694. Her father, the Duke of Kingston, early made her the mistress of his house, and so her childhood was quickly clouded by the responsibilities of the management of a large establishment. The Duke was a morose and severe individual, greatly impressed with the importance of his station in life, and insisted upon his daughter waiting upon him in an almost obsequious manner. For example, she had to carve at meals, and, in order that she should perform this important office in a proper manner, he insisted that she should have her meals separately and before him so that her attention should not be diverted from his requirements. On the whole, her home-life was most uncomfortable. However, in 1712 she married Edward Wortley Montague and went to live in London where she was a great success, her wit and beauty attracting much attention, and she became the friend of Addison, Pope and other wits of the XVIII. century. In 1716 Montague was appointed Ambassador to Constantinople, and it was during her sojourn in Constantinople and the Levant that she wrote those delightful "Letters from the East," which are such a pleasure to read nowadays. But greater than her literary success and her wit and her beauty is the fact that she was the first to recognise and introduce into England the custom of innoculation against small-pox. She came across this custom in the East, and having tried it upon her own child and found it successful, she proceeded to do all that she could to introduce to her countrymen this valuable protection against a fell disease. I need not follow the rest of her life until her death in 1762, for it has no connection with Nottingham, nor with this old house which was built in 1650. There is nothing whatever left of the house, but in Kipp's View of Nottingham, published in 1680, there is a representation of it showing it to have been a large three-storied house with a flat roof whose edges were guarded by balustrades, which must have formed a delightful promenade with perfectly magnificent views. It had large formal gardens which stretched right away down to Bellar Gate, and which have now completely disappeared, and all that remains of it are a few odd street names such as "Duke's Place," and so forth, and these names have now lost their meaning for the general public, and seem only to be understood by the few who take delight in digging into the past. The house was completely pulled down in 1740.

Plumtree House in the mid-18th century..
Plumtree House in the mid-18th century.

Plumtree Place and Plumtree Street remind us that the gardens of the great Plumtree House were situated on the eastern side of Stoney Street, and must have been adjacent to the site of the gardens of Pierre-pont House which we have just considered. Plumtree House itself was situated about where Messrs. Birkin's lace warehouse and Broadway are now constructed, and from the windows of this house there must have been a very beautiful view. The Plumtree family were of great importance in the history of Nottingham. They were settled here about the time of Edward I., that is to say about the XIII. century, and the history of Nottingham is full of references to their acts of charity and civic good feeling. Their original home appears to have been upon the site now occupied by the Flying Horse Hotel in the Poultry, and later they were to be found on the site of Vault Hall, at the top of Drury Lane. Finally they came to this Plumtree House, which was erected in 1707, the year of the Act of Union with Scotland. Views of this house show it to have been a typical, stately Georgian mansion with a basement and three storeys; above it, the roof appears to have been flat, and its edges to have been guarded by balustrades, so that the prospect from the roof might be enjoyed in safety. Except for details, its appearance must have been somewhat like Lord Howe's house at the corner of Stanford Street and Castle Gate. The family continued to live here for many years, and at last, in 1791, there died John Plumtree, who was the last holder of the name to live in Nottingham. He died at his London house, Jermyn Street, at the advanced age of eighty. Plumtree House was afterwards let to Alderman Wilson, who was a cotton-spinner, and who married Miss Morley, sister of the founders of the great firm of I. & R. Morley, and who had the misfortune to be acting-mayor of Nottingham when the Castle was burnt in 1831. Finally, the old house was sold to Alderman Birkin in 1853 for £8,410, and was pulled down and the modern warehouse and street called Broadway were erected upon its site. Although the house itself has completely disappeared, there are a few relics still left. At Bulwell Hall is one of the fire-places of the old mansion. It is a beautiful 18th century structure, the shelf being supported by two Caryatid figures, and in the Castle Museum is a very beautiful wrought-iron screen, which was used in the gardens of Plumtree House. But the most extraordinary remains in this neighbourhood may be found in an archway on the south side of Broadway leading into Messrs. Birkin's goods yard. There, built into a modern brick wall for preservation, will be found the Plumtree Coat of Arms on a stone lozenge, which was probably used as an enrichment on the facade of the house, while underneath it is a very strange relic indeed, which takes the form of a double-light window. Each light is topped by a segmental arch, and the whole is enclosed within a 12th century roll mould, the point of intersection between the two arches being stopped by a mask which is much weathered, but which appears to be a fox's head. This is by far the oldest architectural relic that I know of in Nottingham. Its roll-mould proclaims it to be of the 12th century, and its provenance is unknown. The late Mr. Harry Gill told me that in his opinion it was part of the old rectory house of St. Mary's Church, which he believed stood on the site of Plumtree House. The living of St. Mary's was impropriated to Lenton Abbey by William Peveril in 1105, and of course as soon as that impropriation took place the rectory would cease, so that Mr. Gill's theory was quite tenable. My own opinion, however, is that it is some part of the Norman Church of St. Mary's, of which a few other relics were discovered when the great alterations and reparations to St. Mary's Church took place in 1828, and which church suffered from fires in 1141 and 1171, and which must finally have been destroyed, together with whatever work was done during the XIII. century when the present St. Mary's Church was built during the 14th and 15th centuries. It is a curious and interesting fact that on the great 12th century font at Lenton Church, which is the font of the old Priory of the Church of Lenton, there is a room represented which is illuminated by windows of exactly this type, so that I feel confident that the artist who achieved that wonderful sculpture must have had this window in his mind while working upon his subject.