The Lace Market in Nottingham



Lacemaking is one of the key aspects of the history of Nottingham, and a quarter-mile square area in the heart of the city contains one of the enduring signs of the impact lace has had upon the area. It was officially named "The Lace Market" in 1847.

The area now known as The Lace Market is built upon the site of the original 6th century village of Snottingham.  The area was fortified in the 800s, and the first Christian church was built there sometime before the Battle of Hastings in 1066.  St. Mary's Church, built on the same foundations as that older church, has been a prominent part of the neighbourhood since it was completed in 1474.   

As the city grew around its core of church and the administrative buildings, the Market remained an important part of city life until the 1600s, when it gradually became a residential sector.

The first "stocking machine" was invented by William Lee in Nottingham in 1685, which further developed into a "warp frame" or "stocking frame" in the 1700s, but the changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution left their mark on Nottingham too.  Even then, it was known as a centre of fine lace making.  As many as 120,000 people and their families made their living by creating stockings and bobbin lace from cotton thread in their homes, fuelled by the cotton mill built in the village of Hockley by Richard Arkwright in 1770.

As the industry, like many others, shifted from the home trade of handmade lace to large-scale factories, individuals were frightened of losing their livelihood.  The "Luddite" riots briefly threatened to overturn the technological and social changes that mechanization brought, and soldiers had to be posted to protect the factories and the machines, but the resistance soon passed. 

Lace making reached true efficiency when John Leavers invented what came to be known as the "Leavers machine" in 1814.  These machines, first powered by teams of men, then by steam, gradually replaced the hand-powered frames.  The factories employed predominantly male factory workers known as "twisthands", who operated the 20-ton machines and kept them lubricated with graphite ("black lead") and oil.

Many of the local Nottingham businesses were focused solely on the finishing of lace which was made elsewhere in the East Midlands countryside; unfinished lace was often limp, tangled and dirty, and sometimes stained with the very graphite and oil that kept the machines running efficiently.  The finishing tasks (bleaching, running, mending, drawing, scalloping, clipping, and cropping) were performed mainly by women, often in factory surroundings that were overheated, poorly ventilated and poorly lit; still, their hours were generally better than workers in other factory industries. 

Thomas Adams, a noted Quaker, did much to reform the working conditions for the ladies in his factory, providing indoor toilets, a tea room, and a sick fund.
By 1847, the district was formally named The Lace Market.  Local architect Watson Fothergill was hired by many of the newly wealthy knitting magnates to design stately factories, warehouses and office buildings which fit into the other historic architecture in the area.  He designed over a hundred buildings in Nottingham in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, mostly in a picturesque Gothic Revival style.  Thomas Chambers Hine was another notable and busy local architect, who had a grand Anglo-Italian style.  He created The Birkin Building and several other Nottingham landmarks.

By 1865, there were one hundred and thirty lace factories, with nearly as many supporting industries, and the population of Nottingham had quintupled over the previous century.   At about the same time, during Queen Victoria's mourning for Prince Albert, a fashion for black lace swept the country.
Throughout the early 1900s, Nottingham dominated the machine-made lace industry, with nearly all of the machine lace in the United Kingdom being produced, finished, processed or shipped through one or another of the city's lace businesses.  Nearly every passenger ship that travelled across the Atlantic in those decades carried a cargo of Nottingham lace (including the Titanic). 

The trade began to decline only in the 1950s, when it became less expensive to establish factories and machines overseas where the labour was cheaper.  Cotton lace has been replaced with synthetic and elastic threads, and the vast majority of lace is now used for undergarments, rather than outerwear.  Today the lacemaking that survives in Nottingham is a specialized industry, using cutting edge computer-controlled machines to create ever-more elaborate designs.
In the meantime, the lovely old Lace Market buildings are now being converted into residential apartments, shops, restaurants, and tourist attractions.  The Victorian architecture of the factories, the Georgian masterpieces along the High Pavement and the Medieval buildings around Fletcher Gate are rich in history (right down to the misspelling of the "County Goal" chiselled into the rock of the ancient prison).  Gothic and Tudor influences are felt in some of the the decorative details.

The area is now an English Heritage site, and intensive work is under way to preserve and restore the historic beauty of the many buildings and parks in The Lace Market.

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