This presentation acknowledges the contribution of June Perry’s publication (see end) and Paul Watts’ History of All Saints Church (on this website).
This is an ambitious subject and only a superficial overview is given here.
Overview: the changing shape of the Forest over time
The name The Forest survives from medieval times when the land was part of Sherwood Forest, a royal hunting forest that extended from Nottingham itself up to the north of the county. What is now the Forest stood on the Nottingham Lings, a large expanse of open land once covered by gorse and low bushes that extended into the parishes of Radford, Lenton and Basford.
1480 Butler’s map showing the Lings and the ways across them, Lingdale and Larkdale.
There was a sunken road leading across the Forest in the direction of Shakespeare Street. This was called Lark Dales, a narrow pathway and very lonely spot on a dark night. Nottingham Lings went as far west as what is now Alfreton Road, and to the east across Mansfield Road to where the bottom of Redcliffe Road now is.
Local inhabitants could wander into the waste and had limited rights of common to use the open or common fields around Nottingham, but the fields were strictly regulated by the town’s burgesses who held the principal grazing rights.
1835 Sanderson map showing extent of the Forest from Alfreton Road to the bottom of Redcliffe Road, the Toll Bar at the junction of Redclilffe Road and Mansfield Road, the windmills along the ridge, The Cricket Ground and Cavalry Ground.
In the 18th century windmills extended along the top of the Forest. This picture gives some idea of the terrain.
Windmills on the Forest (Elizabeth Robibson’s picture) 1904 – presumably copy of earlier picture.
The windmills were nearly all post-mills of wooden construction. They were probably constructed sometime in the 18th century. With the 1845 Inclosure Act all the 13 windmills on the ridge had to be removed.
The 1845 Inclosure Act released the common fields for development.
To ensure that Nottingham inhabitants continued to have access to open space in the town, the Act allotted a total of 122 acres for “public recreation”. This land included The Forest, the Arboretum and a number of public walks. The Act stated:
The commissioners should further allot and award unto the Mayor, Aldermen and Burgesses out of and from the said Commons and waste Lands … such further pieces of land to the extent of 80 acres to include the then present Race course, Cricket ground and Military Training ground … should be appropriated as and for public places of Recreation.
1848 Proposals for the Inclosure Act
The 1848 map shows the intended extent of the inclosure and the lines of the old field boundaries. It was planned to extend to Alfreton Road, transected by Hyson Green Road (now Burns Street). The plan was foreshortened as commissioners ran out of money: they sold off building plots at the west end between Burns Street and Alfreton Road.
1865 The Inclosure Award map
The final 1865 Inclosure map shows the actual extent, the church cemetery at the corner of Forest Road and Turnpike Road. The line of Mount Hooton Street defined the west side of the Forest.
1865 Award with Google Earth superimposed
After the Inclosure Act 1845, Nottingham Corporation set about creating a fine recreational park on the Forest. The land was enclosed by a low stone wall, topped by decorative railings. Handsome entrance gates and lodges were built, attractive paths were laid down and trees planted on the southern slopes. Outdoor recreations flourished including cricket, football and bowls. Brass bands played regularly and public gatherings ranged from political meetings, military parades and royal celebrations.
The aims of the Inclosure Act to provide recreational space were not forgotten in the Borough Extension of 1877 when the Health Committee were asked by the corporation to ensure that open spaces were left in crowded parts of the city for playgrounds for children. In the late 19th century, the Forest’s importance as a place of public recreation increased as the once open land on its northern side was developed for housing and became Forest Fields from 1890s.
1877 Tarbotton’s map
1877 Tarbotton’s map shows the proposed road to become Gregory Boulevard. Forest Fields was not yet built on but 1st and 2nd Avenues have houses as does Hyson Green. Note the tree-lined walk ways and recreation walks. Waterloo Promenade was not yet laid out.
Between the two world wars, the Forest was providing recreation for countless individuals and it continued to provide a venue for major events. In 1926 Robert Mellors described the Forest as “a little paradise … a place where trees rejoice and children are glad”. From 1928 the Forest became the home of Nottingham’s annual Goose Fair. It was moved from the old Market Square during the construction of the Council House. The fair’s rides and sideshows attracted not only hundreds of local visitors but people from all over the country.
At the end of WW2, in 1949 Princess Elizabeth visited Nottingham and was entertained by hundreds of school pupils on the Forest. In recent years the Forest has continued to provide invaluable open space.
Recreation pre-1845 Inclosure
From the 18th century onwards, local people enjoyed walking on the Forest and gathered there for all sorts of open air events such as foot racing, ballooning, circuses.
Large crowds would gather for foot racing. In 1773 15,000 people assembled on the Forest for a ten-mile contest between the most noted runners of the day, Harrison of Staffordshire and Granny of Belper. The match was for 10 miles or five times round the course and the prize £200. The runners performed entirely naked in the creditable time of 56mins and 2 secs.
1785: First balloon ascent. Unfortunately the aeronaut “had no proper apparatus for generating sufficient hydrogen gas and the thousands of people watching got so impatient they cut the cords and liberated the balloon without an occupant.”
Bear baiting: at the end of the Forest, near the New Basford Road and partly hidden by thick gorse, was a deep pit where bear baiting took place after the races.
Open spaces also facilitated traditional sports such as racing and cricket.
The Race Course
There was a race course on the large open space north of the city as early as 1689. The original race course although beginning in the Forest was four miles in length and ran across much of Lenton and Radford parishes beyond Alfreton Road. No map is available.
On 26th May 1690 the Corporation decided “to gratify the gentlemen of the county” in that they should subscribe towards a piece of plate for the horse races. The subscription of the Chamberlynes was £5 towards a plate to be run on the Nottingham and Basford Lings.
The course was said to be among the best in England, one of only 12 where races for the King’s Guineas could be staged, (The King’s Guineas was a prize of 100 guineas i.e. £105 – a great deal of money in the 18th century). The course earned the praise of chroniclers of the time, including Daniel Defoe.
A 1720 newspaper cutting described how the Duke of Newcastle went to Nottingham Castle and went to the races “to see the King’s plate run for the 16th August on Sherwood Forest where tis reported there will be a great concourse of nobility and gentry and that his Grace will keep a Publick table, during his stay at Nottingham, three times a week.”
Charles Deering in the 1740s wrote, “Nottingham is one of the twelve towns where the King’s Guineas are run for, besides other Money or Plates. These Races are kept in July, the Course which formerly was four miles round, is at this time but two miles. It is one of the best in England and is never out of order for running be the Weather what it will. Here is a fine valley for coaches. Chariots to pass and repass, and for the Accomodation of the Nobility and Gentry who come to the Races. This Nottingham course could once have vied with any course in the Kingdom for a grand appearance of nobility, neither Newmarket nor Banstead Downs boast of better Company nor horses, but since the great increase of Horse-races it has rather dwindled.”
By 1751 the course was reduced to 2 miles although it still extended towards Basford.
Meetings usually lasted three days and by 1770s landowners for miles around were converging on Nottingham. Over the decades, many famous horses ran at The Forest, ridden by the leading jockeys of the time and watched by some of the most important people in the land. (The Duke of Cumberland, brother of George II, was granted the freedom of Nottingham to mark his visit in 1779, In 1770 the races was won by ‘Eclipse’, a famous horse winner of 11 King’s plates, which is ancestor to many of today’s winners.
The gentry rubbed shoulders with the lower classes who sat in large numbers on the slopes of the Forest where they had a good view of the racing for free. Opportunities for gambling and drinking encouraged the popularity of the races. Racing was associated with rough people and so the gentry felt the need of a safe place away from the hurly burly of the ground, open to everyone.
In 1776 at a meeting of noblemen a subscription list was opened, nobody being allowed to give less than 20 guineas. Each subscriber was to receive two silver tickets, to be transferable, each ticket to admit a lady and a gentleman to the grandstand. £2460 was raised and the Corporation granted a lease of the ground to Lord Ewrad Bentick and others in trust for the noblemen and other gentlemen of the county. The lease containing a covenant that in the event of a Town Inclsoure Act being passed, such leasehold property should revert to the corporation – as indeed happened on the passing of the Inclosure Act of 1845.
1777 a handsome brick grand stand two storeys high was built to provide wealthy spectators with a better view and refreshments. It was at the time taken as a pattern for the rest of the country. On the ground floor there were tea and card rooms and on the upper floor a large room which could give a good view of the race course. Another 500 people could stand on the roof.
1798 Spectacle course: following the inclosure of that portion of the Forest adjoining Radford and Lenton, the racecourse consortium laid out a new course, the shape of a pair of spectacles or figure of eight.
Jalland’s 1801 map
Jalland’s map (1801) shows ‘the spectacle’ course. Notice the windmills and grand stand. There was a Bowling Alley where Vernon Arms now is and that field called Bowling Alley Field.
Jalland’s map of 1801 superimposed on Google Earth
Note that the race course extended to Alfreton Road
But many patrons found the view inadequate and in 1813 the course was altered to an oval shape, a mile and a quarter in length. The Staveley and Wood map (1830) shows the reduced race course with its grandstand, the Cricket Ground and Cavalry Ground.
The Staveley and Wood map, 1830
The 1830 Staveley and Wood map shows the reduced race course with its grandstand, the Cricket Ground and the Cavalry Ground.
With the exception of the silver ring, the course was always free, and the slopes which formed a natural amphitheatre presented a remarkable sight when crowded with thousands of spectators. The races attracted many other entertainments from conjurors, knife throwers, etc.
An 1815 account says “the sport always continues three days, and while the eye is delighted with the sports of the turf, the soul is swelled with exaltation on beholding in front, all bounteous nature presenting her autumnal tribute (i.e. the fields of Hyson Green and beyond were covered with ripening corn and other crops) while in the rear, thirteen windmills are preparing food for use of man.”
With the passing of the Inclosure Act in 1845 the corporation exercised the right to cancel the consortium’s lease and took legal possession of the property.
In 1846 the Races were still well patronised as shown by quote of Samuel Collinson a stockbroker:
The weather glorious, the hillside covered with merrymakers enjoying themselves, some under cover of the booths, others with better taste preferred to sun themselves in the open air and breathe the invigorating breeze. On the low ground amongst the carriages from any indications that the deportment of the people offered a spectator might just as easily have judged that the crowd was collected to attend a political meeting as a mere holiday or recreation, so much quiet gravity, almost solemnity, pervades the middle and upper classes of this country. On the hill side among the humble classes, you would find more of what would remind you of what you have been accustomed to consider as Merry England. Good humopured groups sat on the green turf joking, laughing and passing round mugs of Nottingham ale, looked as happy as if they never had been and never would be ‘shut up’ from morn to dewy eve in close factories or closer attics barely able by long hours and hard work to earn enough to sustain existence.” (Beckett, pp 394-5).
1853: A spring as well as a summer meeting was introduced and employers began to grant a half-day holiday for the races, but this did not please the Wesleyan Methodists and middle class reformers who saw them as an opportunity for all sorts of vices. Samuel Collinson in 1856 commented on the villainous looking set he encountered at the races.
1888: “the race course, lying in a valley, is one of the most prettily situated courses in the UK and spectators can see the whole of it which is one mile and a quarter in circumference.”
1889: Horse racing was the first sport in England to become highly organised. The popularity of racing increased as professional jockeys and thoroughbred horses came to dominate the major meetings and as courses closed and were replaced by purpose built enclosed courses,
The Race Course in 1890
The Race track in 1892
The Race track in 1897
1890: Open courses such as the Forest seemed anachronistic with the need to control the crowds, charge entry and regulate the sport. The Race Committee was disbanded and the Borough Council took over.
1891: Racing moved to a new course at Colwick and the Forest was being redesigned to make it more suitable for other types of recreation.
1912: The grandstand was demolished.
1900: Picture of grandstand shortly before demolished
The Forest was redesigned to make it more suitable for other types of recreation.
Political Rallies and Military Displays
Notice the cavalry ground on the Staveley and Wood (1830) map above.
12th-13th August 1839: Chartist sympathisers assembled to proclaim their cause and skirmishes with the dragoons
Exercise ground for the military.
1861 the Duke of Newcastle inspected the Robin Hood Rifles on the Forest with an innumerable crowd.
1771: A Nottingham eleven beat Sheffield on the north side of the Race course. (The stumps were two canes and the bat had a broad base that narrowed towards the handle).
1815: A new cricket ground was laid out on the Forest.
1817: A ‘grand’ cricket match was held between Nottingham and an All England team which Nottingham won. Admission to the grandstand was 2s but the majority of spectators sat on the Forest slopes without paying. “As the multitude squatted on the patches of award watching the play, the white tenets, the greenery and the click-clack of the windmills appeared with fine effect.”
In August 1823 “thousands assembled to witness … a cricket match between eleven Nottingham players and fourteen Leicester players” (team members were not regulated to eleven in those days).
1838: Cricket became professionalised and commercialised and the new Trent Bridge ground opened.
Cricket and football were both spectator sports and participatory. During the course of the 19th century they came to be seen as worthwhile ways of keeping young men occupied by youth clubs and organisations such as the Boys’ Brigade.
In 1926 Robert Mellors noted that there were two cricket grounds on the Forest and 24 practice pitches.
After the war, many cricket teams were organised or started again using the Forest as their home or practice ground. Before long the Caribs (formed by recently arrived West Indians) could be seen there as well.
Football originally a free-for-all but the transformation of sport in public school in mid 19th century, football took on a new format rather than being traditionally played without pitches or rules and frequently upset trade in town centres on holidays.
1860s: Formation of Notts County Football Club (in the Park, 1862), and Nottingham Forest Football Club (1865) by a group of young people associated with St Andrews Church. No fixed no of players and rules decided before match began. More than 4000 people attended the first match against Notts County in 1866. Forest won 1-0
1879: The Club moved from the Forest but retained the name. They last played there in 1898, six years after election to the Football League, when they moved to the Town Ground on the banks of the River Trent and finally the City Ground in 1898.
1926: Amateur teams used 3 pitches, 9 clubs and 350 matches
There was a bowling alley where Vernon Arms now is in 1600
1906 A bowling green was opened at the east end of the park and was soon added to so by 1913 there were three greens and an 18 hole putting green. The pavilion was replaced in 1976.
Although sports such as racing, and cricket became more regulated and divided by class in the 19th century, there was great social mixing in the one-off celebrations which brought thousands of people into the parks and open spaces.
1897: hundreds gathered to watch a review of the Robin Hood Rifles as part of Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. There was a mayor’s banquet, a Jubilee Bonfire and a civic and representative procession on the Forest
1897: Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, crowd celebrating. Note that the grandstand is still there!
1911: Gun salute
1911: Coronation of King George V
1923: Visit of Prince of Wales
In 1923 the Prince of Wales held a ‘review of scholars’ drawn from all over the City
Visit of Queen Elizabeth II in 1955
Before Goose Fair moved from the Market Place in 1928 , the Forest was a place for popular entertainment such as bear baiting, donkey races and the performances of the Montebanks’ entertainments including climbing the greasy pole.
Picture of Sangar’s circus
From 1928 the Forest became the home of Nottingham’s annual Goose Fair. It was moved from the old Market Square during the construction of the Council House. The fair’s rides and sideshows attracted not only hundreds of local visitors but people from all over the country.
1928: Goose fair
Goose Fair Moved to Forest from Market Square in 1928, and included not only a fair but a circus and a menagerie.
After 1845, the land was enclosed by a low stone wall, topped by decorative railings. Handsome entrance gates and lodges were built, attractive paths were laid out and trees planted on the southern slopes. Brass bands played regularly.
Perry, J., Weir, C., (2000) “The Forest, a history from wasteland to allotted recreation ground”. The Friends of the Forest, Awards for all.
Beckett, J. (Ed) (1997/2006) “A centenary history of Nottingham”. Phillimore
“Picture the Past” Website.
Watts, P. (2010) “A History of All Saints Church” This website