1. Whiston: People who live around the hill on Mansfield Rd, which rises from the Victoria Centre and drops to Gregory Boulevard, in an area spreading across from Woodborough Rd to Waverley St, might be forgiven for assuming that the area was vacant or fields until the Industrial Revolution and the Nottingham Enclosure Act set out the present plan. In fact it seems safe to say that the area was called Whiston and had quite a number of homes and businesses at least until the Plague came in 1349. Historians argue whether or not Whiston was a place with a boundary, parish status and a measure of independence from the Town, or whether it was made a parish before the church was destroyed and not rebuilt in 1328. Some suggest a place with a few rock houses, no real settlement and no need for it after the Plague, except for antisocial activities like horse knackering and robbery. So, was this a general area – the land to the north of the Town Wall but within the town parishes, or was it a precise area, with a settled local population, providing land for Town facilities and regularly visited by everyone travelling past or through Nottingham on their way north?
2. Remains of Whiston are visible in the road pattern. The traveller into Nottingham from the north stands at the top of the hill and sees the town spread out before. It’s the place to choose your route. Straight down the hill to the main north gate of the town, first of all by the route now called Glasshouse St, which if allowed to do so would still take the traveller to the central gate of the separate Saxon town, leading to the through road of Stoney St. The union of the 2 boroughs, Saxon and Norman, meant that the central north gate on the north side of the town moved to the line of Bridlesmith Gate. So the traveller wishing to miss the town, its taxes and delay, could branch off down what we call Huntingdon St, and follow the valley between Snotengaham and Snot-ton, then go down to the causeway through the Meadows to the Hethbeth Bridge, from just outside the southern wall. The traveller at the top of the hill, wanting to go straight to the Market Square could follow the line of North Sherwood St, which goes directly. But why does North Sherwood St go separately from the top? A veering to the right about where Huntingdon St veers left fits the angle of the road and maybe this is what happened. It may be that rock houses along the Great North road were in the way and forced a detour behind them. Or it may be that travellers wanted a route which they could take to avoid walking past the Leprosy Hospital. It’s all conjecture and probably will never be known.
1480 Butler’s map.
3. Evidence for Whiston: This exists in 3 forms:
- Oral history later preserved by being written on an early map or described in documents.
- The story of St Leonard’s Leprosy Hospital.
- The story of St Michael’s church
The name Whiston, in one form or another, is recorded a number of times. It’s not in the Domesday book, but it is recorded that Whiston Lings where bracken and cattle bedding could be cut free was near where the Forest runs beside Gregory Boulevard. The gallows about 100 yds downhill on the out of town side of the hill was referred to a Whiston gallows. Documents from 1217 (RI p134) show it as a recognised place in St Mary’s parish and is said to be on the bounds of the royal forest. The last record of the name comes in 1608-9 as Whetstone Hill.
4. St Leonards and the origins of the name: Where better to locate the local leper hospital than near the top of the hill going north out of town? Better still on a part of one of the common fields: no use for agriculture but excellently located for the residents to beg from passersby. And so it seems to have been. The narrow strip of land between Mansfield Rd and Huntingdon St was the site. The recognised sign for a place where beggars were permitted to beg was a large white cross. It is tempting to think that North Sherwood St was useful, not only as the direct route to the Market Square, but to bypass St Leonard’s. The narrow strip itself is due to the characteristic of footpaths that faced with divergent goals some way ahead, they get trodden into separate and gradually divergent routes. Hence for travellers coming over the brow of the hill into town, they could see the route straight ahead to the central gate of the town, where Clumber St is now, and the route to the left skirting the town walls, avoiding going into the town, but going on to the causeway and down to the Hethbeth Bridge,(The precursor of the Trent Bridge).
From Stevenson & Stapleton 1895
There is evidence of St Leonards existing in the reign of Henry II, 1154 – 1189. There is no record of its foundation but a number of references to grants of land or Forest Rights. For example, the lepers had the right to dead wood from Bestwood for their fires. In 1222 the foundation of St John’s Hospital was granted ½ acre abutting St Leonards and 2 acres in Snapedale. This appears to have been the valley running down East from the point where the two routes divide, and is now the steep hills of the land around Cranmer St and the housing of Phase 10 of St Anne’s. In 1341 the Prior of Lenton was complaining that his income from St Mary’s was low because 60 acres were barren and uncultivated after the destruction of the nearby church and hamlet. In 1521, the Mayor and Burgesses had acquired the right to appoint the Warden of St Leonards and other establishments previously dependent on the Prior of Lenton, who had now lost this right in the early moves towards Reformation. It continued. A record from the time of Elizabeth 1st, 1571-2 showed it still in existence. At the dissolution of monastic foundations, the property and rights of foundations in the city were unusually granted to the Mayor and Corporation to be used for the maintenance of Trent Bridge, since this was a military necessity. Thus is the start of the Bridge Estate Charity, still important in the City. Stevenson and Stapleton surmise that St Leonards ended when the lepers ceased; the disease appears to have died out in the UK in the late C16th or early C17th.
The erection of a large cross was not meant to be an act of piety. High Crosses or crosses also named after a benefactor, as occur in most established towns were the recognised warning that begging was happening in this place, and many of the tolerated or permitted beggars would be doing it because of an illness which expelled them from their family who would normally have tended them. Why was it white not sandstone, like the local building stone? Tony Waltham, geologist and expert on Nottingham caves, has suggested that the local sandstone contains skerries, harder, whiter rocks within the sandstone. These could have provided a ready source of the materials for the cross.
How do we know that this is where St Leonards was sited? The location of many of the grants of land give the clue to its being in the north of the town’s parish area. An example of the detail sometimes available from old records is in the reference in 1339 to the gift of “an acre of arable land in Snapedale, abutting on the dovecote of St Leonards.” Snapedale was in the hollow of Alfred St North today. Dovecot Close was in the old St Ann’s built up area, lost in the rebuilding of the 1970’s. “Abutting” in a strip field system, means the strip running up to the site named; in other words there was a strip of land given to St Leonards which ran up to its Dovecot.
5. St Michael’s Whiston: The church of St Michael stood on the site of the present Victoria Centre northern car park, previously the deep excavation in the 1890’s of the Great Central railway station, south of Woodborough Rd. The deep excavation finally removed any possibility of further traces of the old remains being found. Previously the area was the old St Mary’s Workhouse.
A witness of the excavations, Mr J Shipman, mapped and reported on the human remains found on the old workhouse site. [RI p143-4]. The bones began to occur 60ft south of Woodborough Rd and extended for some 70 or 80 ft further south. They might have been dismissed as the remains of workhouse inhabitants but for the earlier reports of 1796 [summarised in RI p139ff] are clear that they were of “great antiquity” when discovered near Fox Lane, “great quantities of human bones have been discovered, most of which were in a mutilated state, also several Saxon and old English coins, that denoted it to have been a place of consequence.”
Other evidence is found in the lingering traditions from late mediaeval Nottingham; the name St Michael’s churchyard continued in use in the time of Blackner’s history in 1815, and in the Mickleton Jury walking the bounds of the town’s boundaries always stopped at the site to read a lesson of scripture marking the memory of the old church. There is a record in “Records , III p 442 of the town corporation having the “full right” to appoint to some sinecures, described as “the wardenship of the Hospital of St Leonard, Nottingham, the chantry of St Mary the Virgin in Mary’s church and the [chapel]of Michael the archangel.” Archaeological evidence on good authority includes the uncovering of an area of glazed floor tiles. These were of a size and type fitting the dates for St Michael’s.
St Michaels ended as a church (and parish, if it was one) in 1328. It was probably not rebuilt after being burned down. There is no evidence; if it was not rebuilt, the subsequent appointments were to sinecures. This is possible as it would keep the foundation alive and could be drawn on by St Mary’s and ultimately, Lenton Priory. On the other hand, if it was rebuilt, why was it not there some 200 years later. If it is possible to find out its status as a church, the status of the area will be clearer. Secondly, why the fire and why was it not rebuilt?
St Michaels is not referred to in the Domesday survey, and is apparently treated as a subsidiary foundation of St Mary’s in the foundation grant to Lenton Priory by William Peveril in 1103 – 1108. Greater certainty occurs in 1262, when there was a well recorded dispute between the Abbot of Darley and the Prior of Shelford over William, described as rector of St Michael’s. This implies that some agricultural land paid him tithes in the locality; it might imply land close to the church. The church also had rights of sepulture; this meant that local residents had a consecrated place to take their dead before burial. This tells us that there was economic activity going on in Whiston, enough to keep a church and a, probably pluralist, priest. It also implies that the area had an identity of its own and was a daughter parish of St Mary’s, rather than just a daughter church. The similar suburb, the settlement straggling up the Derby Rd hill from Chapel Bar, had no such chapel or right of sepulture.
Destruction: The Nottingham charter of 1330 is quoted by Orange, an earlier Victorian historian, showing that Edward III restores the privileges and immunities which had been taken away a few years beforehand. Bailey, a local C19 historian using Orange as a source, but without other evidence cited, recounts an explanation.
“’an unfortunate quarrel, attended with such serious consequences as to cause it to be viewed in the light of an insurrection, between the inhabitants of the town and a body of foreign soldiers, who had been brought to this country with the young Queen Philippa; a number of whom, it would seem, had been stationed at Nottingham, and were quartered in the northern suburb of the town. These troops, on more than one occasion, appear to have conducted themselves with great violence and intractability of manner, as it was principally owing to a disagreement between them and the English forces, on some point of military etiquette, that the Scottish army was enabled to affect a safe retreat from the dangers by which they were environed at Stanhope Park, and which escape constituted one of the leading charges against the Earl of March, who was in the principal command of the army at that time. As to what were the precise grounds of this affray, we have now no opportunity of forming a correct judgment; but of such insurrection having taken place, and that it was attended with a considerable loss of life, and the destruction of the ancient chapel of St. Michael, into which edifice it is probable the troops had been driven to take refuge, as well as the whole suburb occupied by them, there is indubitable evidence in several documents connected with our ancient history. The circumstance this detail were correct, it is obvious that a great deal of this quarrel, in which, as it would appear, the townspeople were victorious, may possibly account for the numerous fragments of human bodies.’ Bailey< P209, quoted RI p136.
It is quite possible, say Stapleton and Stevenson, that the church was almost immediately rebuilt, and the materials re-used, and that it lasted until the reformation. If so, the records go suspiciously quiet. Instead, we get references to the desolation of the area. We do not know. The balance of probability seems to be towards it being too controversial to rebuild for some time, when its parish area was desolate, and by the time it could have been tackled, the need had passed and the area too poor to pay for it itself. St Michael’s is referred to a number of times from 1521 in the Borough records, (III p150), when the right of presentation had transferred from Lenton Priory to the Mayor, burgesses and citizens and again in 1534 (Records III p 442. The final dissolution of chantries, hospitals etc: came 13 years later after which date it would have been disused, and land and materials became part of the Bridge Estate.
A cautious conclusion to this story is that there was a church named after St Michael, on what was then a low hill on the land now occupied by the north end of the Victoria Centre car park. It provided for an area of the town without rich benefactors, inheritance or land. That is the sort if place Whiston was. It may have been an unremarkable local parish church of a poor suburb, apart from the time when something happened in 1328, to leave us the oral history 5 Centuries later of a burning out of foreign soldiery. Through those events we get a picture of an area, called a suburb, meaning an area outside the protection of the town walls, where activities and people not so welcome in the town could happen. Other references in the Town Records suggest that many of the population lived in cave houses along the roadside, right up the hill (York Rd going north out of the town) to the gallows at the top. (RI p134). Cave residents had a reputation for following their own rules; a story from a later period when there was social pressure to improve the area, illustrates this. In August 1813 the residents of Back Lane petitioned the Mayor to stop Messrs Loone and Dutton using their cave house to kill horses and leave the remains to go putrid. They reported that it prevented them eating, that passing cattle were “enraged” by it and that dogs were locked in to the cave to prevent action being taken.
- William Stevenson and Alfred Stapleton, Some account of the Religious Institutions of Old Nottingham(Nottingham, 3 Vols, all 1890’s), Copy preserved in Bromley House library. It is referred to as RI in the text notes.
- Some of this work is summarised in Alfred Stapleton, The churches and monasteries of old and new Nottingham (Nottingham 1903.)
- R Mellors, Old Nottingham Suburbs, then and now (Nottingham 1914)
- A C Wood, A History of Nottinghamshire (London, 19nn)
- Cornelius Brown, A History of Nottinghamshire (London 1891)
- Ed. John Beckett, A Centenary History of Nottingham (Manchester 1997)
- Blackner J., The History of Nottingham (Nottingham 1815)
- T Bailey, The annals of Nottinghamshire: History of the County of Nottingham, including the Borough(Nottingham 1853)
- J. Orange, History and Antiquities of Nottingham (Nottingham 1840)
- Records of the Borough of Nottingham, Vol III
To be attached:
- Nottingham in 1485, as reconstructed by Prof Barley, Thoroton Journal 54,1950.
- 2 diagrams from vol 2 of William Stevenson and Alfred Stapleton. “Some account of the Religious Institutions of Old Nottingham,”
- Text to show you what the late Victorian history is like and to explain the diagrams.