Nottingham marketplace in 1914.
Nottingham marketplace in 1914.

IN the year 1896,—the year before Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee,—I, a thin, pale lad of sixteen, began to earn my living. A job had been obtained for me under the Corporation. Very appropriately, I was told to take up my duties on New Year's Day, and to report myself at the Weights and Measures Office, Exchange Alley, to a Mr. Radford, who was the Chief Official. This gentleman was about 80 years old, and I soon discovered that his position in the office was largely ornamental. He occupied the greater part of his time in collecting weekly pennies for the hospital, and he held all and sundry to ransom without mercy. He was a peppery old man, with a large streak of good nature; and was always ready to yarn about his early achievements in enforcing the law, at a time when many traders were shamelessly dishonest.

I was set to work by Mr. Holroyd, a youngish man who, shortly before my arrival, had been transferred from the City Engineer's department to act as deputy to Mr. Radford, with the expectation of succeeding him when he died, or retired. The odd thing was that he did not stay long enough. Six years later, Holroyd got a better job in another town, and when the old man died, shortly afterwards, I was appointed to succeed him.

My job, as a youth, was to receive from shopkeepers, their weights, measures and scales brought to be tested and adjusted; to do the necessary booking and to take the fees. In addition, I was expected to make myself generally useful. The place in which we worked was a single room, 15 or 16 ft. square. It had an open fireplace, a large stone sink with a water tap, where measures were tested and where the staff performed their ablutions, and a long table on which were balances used for testing weights. A small desk, covered with dark oilcloth, had been installed for my particular use. In one corner a door led into the "back place", a small room serving as a workshop. Here there was a little blacksmith's forge, used for heating a soldering iron and for melting lead in an iron ladle. There was also a small hand drilling machine, and a bench strewn with various tools. The place was untidy and dirty, and smelt of grease and spirits of salts used in the soldering operations. Here, I was initiated into the craft of "adjusting". Iron weights were adjusted by means of a lead plug in a round hole in the underside. Brass weights were corrected by running a blob of solder on the bottom. Scales with brass pans were dealt with in the same way.

There was one other extension to the main room, a tiny "private office" for the "Chief", just large enough to hold a tall desk and two stools. There was also a cellar, excavated out of the rock, and separated from that of the public house on the other side of the "Alley" by a crumbling brick wall, from the cellar came a strong smell of stale beer. The general construction of the building suggested that it had been a "lock up" of some kind, originally. The outer door was covered with iron studs, and the windows were very narrow and inadequate. Artificial lighting was in constant use and was supplied by huge flaring gas jets. Incandescent gas 'mantles' came later, and eventually, electric light.

It did not take me long to become acquainted with the "staff", most of whom were elderly men. They all treated me decently, and even deferred to me, on account of my ability to write legibly and to add up figures. One old man, George Hickling, went out of his way to be kind to me. Apparently he thought I needed feeding, and he generally slipped out of the office at about eleven in the morning to get something for ''lunch". Often it was a penny "cob and cheese" from the pub opposite. These were intended for customers who wanted something to eat with their beer; but the old man "wangled" one for the lad, without the beer. Occasionally, a hot veal patty, straight from the oven, was fetched from a pastry cook's on Long Row. My mouth still waters at the recollection of these delicious concoctions, which cost only two pence each. In hot weather, a generous two pennyworth of ice cream, in a large cup, was fetched from Mrs. Cappocci, who sat enthoned at her stall opposite the Talbot, at the far end of the market. She wore her gorgeous Italian clothes like a queen. Old George took me to his "garden" sometimes,—an allotment up the Wells Road, where his wife was waiting to give us tea. On these occasions, George would take some delicacy from the fish market,— shrimps or winkles,—and he would even persuade a fishmonger to let him have crab-claws, which had fallen off during boiling. George's position in the office was peculiar: he ranked as an Inspector, although he was practically illiterate. A few years before I entered the service, an act had been passed making it compulsory for Inspectors, appointed after a certain date, to pass an examination by the Board of Trade. The authorities at the time, knowing that George could not pass an examination of any kind, decided to appoint him Inspector before the Act came into force. In spite of his lack of education, he was a good practical man at his job, and he taught me many things.

There was another man, Willbond who acted as Inspector, but whose appointment dated before the examination period. His work was mainly out of doors, and he also had duties at the Cattle Market, where he lived in one of the lodges. He was an old soldier, and had been an N.C.O. in India. He could be disagreeable when he felt like it. The Deputy Chief, Holroyd, was also an Inspector, properly qualified by examination.

Two other men completed the staff, and they were brothers. Bob Woodward was the general factotum, who fetched and carried, ran errands, made fires and had fits. He was an epileptic, and I found his fits alarming at first: but I got used to them. He had another job, inherited from his father, which provided an interesting link with the past. He was the Town Pinder, who in earlier days was an important functionary. It was his job to round up and impound stray animals, and he was entitled to charge a fee before releasing them to the owners. His services in this respect were not much required and the job died with him. The other Woodward, Edwin, was a younger and smarter man who collected tolls and rents in the Market. Supervision of the markets was included in the work of the office.

When I had been at work a few months, I was given a task which soon made me familiar with the Market and its tenants. An enormous account book was placed before me, (it is still in the office), and I was instructed to prepare and keep a weekly record of every tenancy in the Market. These totalled about four hundred, of which no record had been kept. The collector had relied on his memory, or on his own rough notes, and disputes about payments were frequent. To compile a complete record, under the proper headings, I had to make a systematic survey of the Market, and this is what I found. Starting from the office, at the corner nearest to Long Row, were the fishmongers' stalls, arranged on both sides of an avenue, running, like the rest of the stalls, parallel to the Row and South Parade. These traders combined wholesale and retail business, and what impressed me, was their gift of language, in quality as well as volume. On Saturday nights, especially during the hour before closing time their shouting was deafening. No other class of trader could compete with them in this accomplishment.

Moving towards South Parade, the next block of stalls was occupied by the wholesale fruit and vegetable dealers. These formed a class rather apart from the ordinary market trader, and their dealings, being on a large scale were conducted with some dignity. I thought they rather spoiled the appearance of the Market, as they made no display of goods. A few years later, they were removed, along with the wholesale fishmongers, to other quarters at Sneinton Market. The retail fruit and vegetable dealers were also situated on the South Parade side of the Market place, at the corner nearest Exchange Alley. Here stood Mrs. Bark, whose name was appropriate. In spite of a rough tongue and a total disregard of appearances, she had built up a large business of a superior type; and many of her customers came to her stall in their private carriages.

I had now covered about one third of the Market, and, crossing an avenue which ran from Long Row to South Parade, I came to the main block of stalls, comprising row after row, not too evenly spaced, and all covered with canvas "tilts". The stalls were built of wooden framework, supported by stout posts held in iron sockets sunk in the ground. They were provided by the Corporation, and the tilts were hired out by two men who made quite a good living, though they had their bad times when gales ripped canvases to ribbons, or when they were covered with heavy snow. Stalls and covers had to be removed, whatever the weather, after midnight every Saturday, the rule being that the Market Place must be entirely clear on Sundays. It was an all-night job to dismantle the stalls, load them on to horse-drawn "drugs", and convey them to a store yard on London Road. This required a large gang of workmen, and each man was paid half-a-crown per night.

It was a rather bewildering job for me to list, classify and measure the hundreds of stalls in the centre block. Nurserymen, market-gardeners and local farmers were placed together in their own avenues. They brought their home-grown produce; and fresh eggs, butter, cheese, fresh fruit, vegetables, flowers and bedding plants found eager customers. More than one hundred and fifty carrier's carts, which conveyed country produce to the Market, were allowed to stand in neighbouring streets on payment of a toll. When I came to the stalls dealing in miscellaneous goods, the assortment was extremely varied and confusing. Local manufacturers were well represented by sellers of lace and hosiery, and almost all traders, whose goods were of suitable size, had market stalls. There were many "sweet" stalls, dealing in home-made products, where vast quantities of butter-scotch-drops, cough lozenges, humbugs, toffee apples, sugar pigs and similar delights were disposed of.

The best time in the Market was after dark, when the closed-in avenues were packed with humanity and its attendant sounds and smells. The atmosphere was thickened by the fumes from roaring gas jets with great fans of yellow flame. Gas was gas in those days, before the introduction of the incandescent mantle.