The lace market in Nottingham
Posted On June 29, 2023
Lace-making is one of the key aspects of Nottingham’s history, and a quarter-square-mile area in the heart of the city contains one of the lasting signs of the impact lace has had on the area. It was officially named “The Lace Market” in 1847.
The area now known as The Lace Market is built on the site of the original 6th century Snottingham village. 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 the older church, has been a part important to the neighborhood since it was completed in 1474.
As the city grew around its core of church and administrative buildings, the Market remained an important part of city life until the 17th century, when it gradually became a residential area.
The first “sock machine” was invented by William Lee in Nottingham in 1685, which developed into a “warp frame” or “sock frame” in the 1700s, but changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution also left their footprint in Nottingham. Even then, it was known as a fine lace center. Some 120,000 people and their families made their living creating stockings and bobbin lace from cotton thread in their homes, fueled by the cotton mill built in the village of Hockley by Richard Arkwright in 1770.
As the industry, like many others, transitioned from the domestic trade of handmade lace to large-scale factories, people feared losing their livelihood. “Luddite” riots briefly threatened to reverse the technological and social changes brought by mechanization, and soldiers had to be posted to protect factories and machines, but resistance soon passed.
Lace-making reached real efficiency when John Leavers invented what became known as the “Leavers machine” in 1814. These machines, first powered by teams of men and later by steam, gradually replaced manual frames. The factories predominantly employed male 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 companies focused solely on finishing the lace that was made elsewhere in the East Midlands countryside; unfinished lace was often loose, tangled, and dirty, and sometimes smeared with the same graphite and oil that kept the machines running efficiently. Finishing tasks—whitewashing, running, mending, drawing, scalloping, trimming, and cutting—were primarily performed by women, often in overheated, stuffy, and poorly lit factory settings; even so, their hours were generally better than those of workers in other manufacturing industries.
Thomas Adams, a leading Quaker, did much to reform the working conditions of the ladies in his factory, providing indoor baths, a tea room, and a sickness fund.
In 1847 the district was formally named The Lace Market. Local architect Watson Fothergill was hired by many of the wealthy new knitting magnates to design stately factories, warehouses, and office buildings to fit in with the area’s historic architecture. He designed over a hundred buildings in Nottingham in the last quarter of the 19th century, most in a quaint Gothic Revival style. Thomas Chambers Hine was another notable and busy local architect, who had a great Anglo-Italian style. He created The Birkin Building and several other Nottingham landmarks.
By 1865, there were one hundred and thirty lace factories, with almost as many supporting industries, and Nottingham’s population had increased fivefold over the previous century. Around the same time, during Queen Victoria’s mourning for Prince Albert, the fashion for black lace swept across the country.
In the early 1900s Nottingham dominated the machine-made lace industry, and almost all machine-made lace in the UK was produced, finished, processed or shipped through one or another of Nottingham’s lace businesses. the city. Almost every passenger ship that crossed the Atlantic in those decades carried a Nottingham Lace freighter (including the Titanic).
Trade began to decline only in the 1950s, when it became less expensive to set up factories and machines abroad where labor was cheaper. Cotton lace has been replaced by synthetic and elastic yarns, and the vast majority of lace is now used for undergarments, rather than outerwear. Today, the lace-making that survives in Nottingham is a specialist industry using state-of-the-art computer-controlled machines to create ever more elaborate designs.
Meanwhile, Lace Market’s beautiful old 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 with history (right down to the misspelling of the “County Goal” chiseled into the rock of the former prison). Gothic and Tudor influences are felt in some of the decorative details.
The area is now an English Heritage site, and intensive work is being done to preserve and restore the historic beauty of the many buildings and parks at The Lace Market.