High Street

High Street from Poultry (A Nicholson, 2004).
High Street from Poultry (A Nicholson, 2004).

High Street is a narrow and short thoroughfare, but it has always been of very great importance in the polity of Nottingham. Its very name—High Street—means the principal street. It is part of a secondary route which in very early times was constructed to pass the western end of the Enclosure of ancient Nottingham and during the earlier part of the Middle Ages it formed a link in the thoroughfare through the town represented to-day by Narrow Marsh, Drury Hill, Bridlesmith Gate, High Street and Clumber Street. This importance remained with it when wheeled traffic was introduced and the main way through Nottingham passed up Hollowstone and Low Pavement to Bridle-smith Gate. But it is curious that it always has remained so narrow and it must have been an extremely difficult bottle neck at the zenith of coaching in the early part of last century.

The district at its southern end has been so much modified in modern times that its ancient topography is somewhat difficult to make out, for as we have seen Victoria Street has completely changed the run of the old Chandlers Lane. In olden times there appears to have been a sort of square round about the Hen Cross, and the portion we now call Bridlesmith Gate extending from Bottle Lane to Victoria Street was called Hen Cross Row, but all this was completely changed when the thoroughfare was widened and the houses set back in 1870.

High Street was called Sadler Gate in 1677 by Dr. Thoroton, and its exceeding narrowness remained until about 1900 when it was set back on its eastern side in the course of which alterations a series of shops of no great antiquity were done away with and a piazza. similar to those still remaining on Long Row was destroyed for the erection of Messrs. Boots Ltd., central premises.

There are few remains of antiquity in High Street, but its memories have a great deal of interest. Messrs. Armitage, grocers, premises (number 2) were erected about sixty or seventy years ago (?) and the widening of High Street in front of them is due to the perspicuity of Samuel Fox who founded the business. Samuel Fox was an extremely fine character. He was a member of the Society of Friends and was born in 1781 and died in 1868, but although a member of so exclusive a religious body, any good work which would ameliorate the condition of his contemporaries was fish for his net. In 1798 he assisted Mr. Singleton in founding the Adult School in East Street. This was the first establishment of its kind and its value cannot be over estimated. In those days reading and writing, at any rate amongst the labouring classes, were rare accomplishments. The provision for education amongst the poor was of the most elementary and unsatisfactory description, and the only opportunity that a workman had of learning something of the pleasures of culture came to him through voluntary efforts of such institutions as the adult school, where devoted amateur teachers attended week by week to teach the rudiments of education to adult pupils who would otherwise have been left in the slough of ignorance. Then Fox was associated with that excellent body The Nottingham Board of Health which was purely unofficial, but which was called into being, or at any rate provided with its main activities, by the terrible outbreak of cholera in the town in 1832. In that year there were 800 cases of this terrible disease in Nottingham of which 300 proved fatal. The burial ground accommodation of the town was utterly inadequate to deal with the situation, and further than this the Barker Gate burial ground was completely surrounded by houses, the inhabitants of which were terrified at the prospect of infected bodies being interred so close to their place of residence. Attempts were made to provide new and more suitable burial grounds, but this required permission from government headquarters and the wheels of the government revolved slowly even in emergencies. The situation became desperate and at last Fox provided a close of ground in Bath Street free of charge for the interments of these unfortunate bodies and then arose a curious situation. The two men who did most for the town during this awful visitation were Samuel Fox, the Quaker, and the Rev. R. W. Willson, the Roman Catholic Priest, who afterwards became Bishop of Nottingham and built St. Barnabas Cathedral. Fox consented to the consecration of his burial ground by the Archbishop of Canterbury and by doing so he quite unwittingly passed the control into the hands of the Church of England and excluded all dissenting ministers, so that both he and Mr. Willson and their friends were unable to hold burial services within these quarters. The position was felt to be ridiculous and so a strong committee was formed in the town, of which Fox was the most active member, which obtained an Act of Parliament incorporating them for the establishment of a cemetery in Nottingham. They agreed that part of the cemetery might be consecrated by the Archbishop if so desired, but that the other part should not be consecrated by him and should consequently be opened for the ministration of other denominations than the Anglicans and hence arose the Nottingham General Cemetery at the top of Derby Road. Fox was full of all good works. During the famine years 1847-48-49 he obtained great stocks of maize flour which was a cheap substitute for other cereals and which was hitherto unknown in the town. This he retailed to all comers at 2d. a stone less than it cost him and so he saved many lives. Crowds of folk besieged his premises to obtain this boon and a pleasant story is told of Fox's conduct upon this occasion. He insisted that everybody should be served in the order in which they arrived, high or low, rich or poor, all had to take their place in the queue. This system was quite foreign to the feeling of the times for in those days the possession of wealth and position always gave people precedence. It is related that upon one occasion a well-dressed and affluent lady, availing herself of this custom, pushed in before her humbler fellow customers, some of whom had been waiting a considerable time. Fox watched her and when she reached the counter he touched her on the shoulder and said "Thee get back and take thy place at the end of the queue else thou wilt get no flour." But I think the most delightful story that I know of Fox's practical charity is the one concerning an unfortunate coster whose barrow full of trade stuff was upset in front of Fox's shop. The poor man's goods were scattered hither and thither in the mud, his barrow was ruined and his stock-in-trade completely destroyed. Passers-by paused to look at the ruin and noticing the coster's despondent looks began to express their sympathy lor him. Fox coming out of his shop saw the disaster and the sympathetic looks of the bystanders one of whom said "Oh, I am sorry!" Fox took this up and said, "Art thou so, friend, so am I, I am sorry 5/-, how much art thou?" His shop was always crowded with customers, for in those days Quaker honesty was a byword and everybody got the fairest of terms in his shop. Mrs. Gilbert tells us of its arrangements, and it really must have been a very charming sight, for the two long counters were divided between the men and the women, the one being served by men in Quaker costume, while at the other counter the women were served by Quakeresses dressed in lavender gowns with white shawls, low shoes and tunnel bonnets. All the assistants were teetotallers and all were serious-minded people.