The Ropewalk and Derby Road

The Ropewalk bears in its name a story of its history. It was the Ropewalk of 18th century Nottingham and there is really little of interest to say about it. The reservoir at its junction with Park Row was completed in 1831. Up to the seventies or eighties of last century it used to be extremely picturesque and was surrounded by trees, but it was concreted over in order that the water stored within it might be kept free from contamination. It does not appear to have been a great success and in 1924 it was granted on very favourable terms to the governors of the General Hospital and upon its site has been erected the out-patients department.

The Eye Hospital next door is an exceedingly well managed and successful institution which never seems to be in financial straits and which was erected in 1912. The old pumping station nearer to Derby Road had to be disused because it was found that the water which it was supplying was contaminated by the General Cemetery. It however, marks the site of an old windmill which stood there until 1832 or thereabouts.

Cottages and entrance to the General Cemetery at Canning Circus (photo: A Nicholson, 2004).
Cottages and entrance to the General Cemetery at Canning Circus (photo: A Nicholson, 2004).

The open space at the top of Derby Road just outside the entrance to the General Cemetery was anciently called the Sandhills and it is really a very important road junction. The ancient trackway had struggled up the hollow sandy way leading up Derby Road and at this point it forked into three different roads. The most easterly being Alfreton Road, the centre road being Ilkeston Road and the western one being Derby Road. All these are ancient trackways, but to them have been added other modern roads so that the traffic at this point is exceedingly difficult and congested.

Of the thousands of people who daily pass over this area either on foot or on wheels there are very few who realise that in times passed the site was used as a suitable place in which to bury suicides, the ceremony usually taking place at night without any form of religious office. There are many notes in the records of Nottingham of these unfortunate people, thus in 1764 John Higgins, in 1772 Thomas Smith, in 1800 George Caunt are noted as being disposed of here. But the most interesting of all perhaps is Thomas Morris who was the first paid Sunday School Teacher in Nottingham and who deceased in 1787. Perhaps the good that he had wrought spoke for him at his latter end, at any rate the restrictions were so far relaxed that he was allowed a coffin, and this coffin together with his remains were discovered in 1840. This custom of burying suicides at a cross road is really a very ancient custom which still survives amongst certain savage tribes who are in a very lowly state of intellectual development. According to the idea underlying the custom as soon as a spirit leaves a body it is filled with a desire to get back to its old haunts and associations and as long as the body remains amongst the surroundings which it was accustomed the spirit is more or less content, but when the body is removed for sepulture the spirit gets lost and becomes irritated with those who have moved its body away from its ancient home. In order to escape the evil effects of this irritation, it is necessary for the relatives to disguise themselves as much as possible and so prevent their recognition by the departed spirit. To this end they were wont to dress themselves in a different manner to that which they had been accustomed, which gives rise to our modern custom of wearing mourning which is a conventionalisation of the disguising adopted by our primitive forefathers. But further than this the departed spirit must have been visualised as extremely simple for it was believed that if in returning from the burial place to the home the mourners pursued a devious way with as many turnings and branches in it as possible the spirit would be confused and get lost and be unable to find its way back to the abode of its relatives, whom it was intent to harm. Cross roads were, of course, points much sought after in those hurried retreats from funerals and from this forgotten origin sprang the ghastly custom of burying suicides at the cross roads where they would find it difficult to know which way to go in order to reach their ancient homes.

There were three windmills in the neighbourhood of this open space in the early days of the 19th century. There was one at the corner of the Ropewalk which was occupied by a certain Mr. Chumley, a second one stood where the garage now stands at the corner of Wollaton Street and Talbot Street and worked only one pair of stones. It was pulled down and taken to Ashover, where I believe it was working only a few years ago, and I am not at all sure where the third mill stood, but I rather fancy it was above the site now occupied by Messrs. Glower's taxi office.

The General Cemetery originated in the year 1836 in which year the Royal assent was given to a bill authorising its establishment. It was commenced in 1837 and in that year the first burial took place, being that of the wife of the landlord of "The Strugglers" a public house which stood about where the Albert Hall was afterwards erected. There are many interesting monuments in the cemetery commemorating departed worthies. In 1839 Robert Millhouse the weaver poet was buried here. He was a man of humble origin and his whole life was a struggle against poverty and ill-health, but he produced some excellent verses which seem to be forgotten nowadays, though perhaps we should all of us be better if we read such works as his Destinies of Man and Sherwood Forest and the Song of the Patriot, all of which were much admired in their day.

There is a great obelisk to the memory of Daft Smith Churchill who was drowned in the wreck of the "Forfarshire" off the Farne Islands in 1838 in spite of Grace Darling's heroic efforts to save him. An elaborate memorial is also to be found to the memory of "The Old General" but his body is not interred here. But the most extraordinary story about the cemetery concerns John Wheatley of Lincoln Street. He was an eccentric character who seemed to take a delight in the contemplation of his own decease for he kept a coffin in his house which he stored well with wine. In 1838 he purchased a square plot in the General Cemetery in which he eventually proposed to be buried, but meanwhile he had a summer house erected upon it and a grave dug by its side and proposed that he should spend many hours of delightful contemplation in this extraordinary paradise. However, the sight of the open grave and the use to which the plot was proposed to be put so much upset the directors of the cemetery that they somehow or other managed to get rid of Wheatley and terminated the exhibition. After all these preparations it is rather hard to record that he was buried in quite ad ordinary manner in Barker Gate. The cemetery was closed for burials in 1925, but by its entrance are a row of half a dozen houses the architecture of which, and of the entrance gate, is really quite good.

Of Derby Road itself from this point westward there is nothing very much of interest to say. Park Hill Chapel, which is a re-incarnation of the old Independent Chapel in St. James's Street, is a perfectly modern building, while the Drill Hall was opened in 1912. Zion Hill with its water works belonged to Messrs. S. J. Walker, who received £5,000 from the Water Works Company to terminate the supply, we have already considered to a certain extent when we were concerned with the supply of water to ancient Nottingham. The most interesting street in the neighbourhood is the little St. Helens Street where lived James Hargreaves, the inventor of the spinning jenny. He was driven from his home in Blackburn by a mob of his fellow weavers who feared that his invention would take away their livelihood, and in 1767 he fled to Nottingham, where in conjunction with Thomas James he built a small mill in a little street off Wollaton Street. It was in this house in St. Helens Street that he perfected his models which led to such a revolution in industry It is always worth while going to the top of Derby Road on a clear day for the view across Wollaton Park and Wollaton Hall, although the outlook in other directions has been sadly marred by the erection of factories and mean streets.