Last time, I left you awaiting the arrival of Ragnar Lothbrok and his rather fierce friends in Anglo-Saxon Nottingham.
Well, by 867, Anglo-Saxon Nottingham had been well and truly captured by the Vikings and it became one of the Five Boroughs of the Danelaw. There may have been little in the way of extreme weather in this era, but their names were fabulous. The Five Boroughs of the Danelaw is a striking enough phrase, but the name of the army which made Snotingaham, at sword point, an offer they could not refuse, is, quite simply, wonderful. A thousand years before Heavy Metal bands, they rejoiced in the name of “The Great Heathen Army“. And here they are. They’re really quite handsome, aren’t they?
Then again, I really don’t see them as a group of people capable of waiting quietly for a bus: Another episode of extreme weather on the rain front came in 1141 when there was another Great Flood. And once again, the flooding was caused, as in 1947, by the mechanism of a sudden melt of large quantities of snow after prodigious amounts of rain. People in 1141 looked like this. Around this time there was clearly a significant risk for everybody of just rusting solid into one great mass:
In 1309, Hethbeth Bridge, the medieval precursor of today’s Trent Bridge, was washed away by severe winter floods. A small fragment of this old bridge is still visible on the road island at the southern end of the modern Trent Bridge: If you go to see it, be very careful. Traffic nowadays is much more dangerous than “The Great Heathen Army”. Look for the orange arrow:
In 1346, little detail has come down to us, other than:
“from mid-summer to Christmas, the rains fell almost without intermission”.
The River Trent duly experienced:
“One of the earliest recorded floods.”
In 1499 Richard Mellers, the husband of Dame Agnes Mellers, of High School fame, is known to have given twenty shillings to help repair one of an apparent succession of Hethbeth Bridges, but it was pretty much in vain, as the Great Flood of 1683 washed a good proportion of it away. Here are two men in 1683. That’s not a look you can just throw together:
The worst ever flood in Nottingham was the so-called “Candlemas Flood” of February 1795, when two months of continuous ice and snow all melted extremely rapidly. Every single bridge on the entire River Trent was either damaged or washed away, including the Hethbeth Bridge for the umpteenth time. In the Narrow Marsh area of the city, around what is nowadays Canal Street and the land to the south of St Mary’s Church, the residents were all trapped in the upstairs of their houses and had to be given food from boats. At Wilford, up to 100 sheep were drowned and ten cows perished in West Bridgford. That doesn’t sound much, but they only had twelve.
The late eighteenth century provided some wonderfully ornate dresses, all guaranteed to keep you afloat until help arrived:
Another less severe flood came in November 1852 when the peak flow of the Trent was measured at some 38,200 cubic feet per second, between twelve and thirteen times the normal levels. A second, slightly worse Victorian inundation came in October 1875 when floodwater was up to six feet deep. During this latter flood the peak flow of the Trent was 45,000 cubic feet per second, fifteen times the normal levels. On Wilford Road an overcrowded cart was washed away and six people were killed. Higher up the river, huge numbers of farm animals were drowned and they must have been a ghastly sight as they floated down to the sea past Trent Bridge:
In a previous article, I wrote about the flooding of Nottingham during the modern era, and the ways in which we have learnt lessons from the floods of 1947 and constructed concrete embankments and sluices so that the River Trent is nowadays, to all intents and purposes, relatively tame. (“relatively” being the operative word.) If you walk down to Trent Bridge and look underneath the bridge on the City side, directly beneath the Riverbank Bar and Kitchen, however, you will see how the flood levels of previous years of watery disaster have been recorded. They are scarily impressive and well worth a visit:
The very first records of floods in Nottingham are more a case of inference than anything else. According to the (Royal) Journal of the Statistical Society, Volume XLI and “The Insurance Cyclopaedia” by Cornelius Walford (I need to get out more):
“29 A.D. There was a great overflow of the River Trent in England”.
In 214 A.D. the entire River Trent was again in flood and overflowed its banks by some 20 miles on each side from the normal course of its flow. Many people were drowned as the whole Trent valley was awash and there was great destruction. Both of these dates are during the Roman era, although Nottingham was not, as far as I know, a Roman town. Perhaps they knew that an underlying band of hard rock could be used to ford the river and its adjacent marshes. Just to establish our dates firmly, here is a Roman. Like every single Roman, he is a legionnaire, although he doesn’t look particularly ill to me, but that hat is really something: In 525 A.D. the entire Trent again burst its banks and a great number of cattle were drowned. The locals at his time may well have been Celts since we know that Nottingham, in the Brythonic Celtic language was called “Tigguo Cobauc”, meaning “The Place of Caves”. The Welsh may have been aware of Nottingham’s existence since they called it “Y Ty Ogofog” and even the distant Irish had a word or two for it, namely “Na Tithe Uaimh”, “The Cavey Dwelling”. Here are some Celts, managing to appear very, very fierce indeed, although admittedly, there is more than a dash of Village People in the overall look, especially the one at the front who may have no clothes on at all: Whoever the locals were in 530 A.D., they would certainly have got extremely wet at some point. The mighty River Humber is known to have flooded extensively onto adjacent low-lying ground and most of the region’s cattle were drowned. Much of that excess of water, of course, was bound to have come from the River Trent, which feeds into the Humber. It is difficult to see how Nottingham, at the side of the River Trent, of course, could have escaped floods of such severity. It was slightly after this date that Nottingham, by now a small group of wooden huts and a line of washing, came under the sway of the wonderfully named “Snot”, an Anglo-Saxon chieftain. The place where “The Mighty Snot” lived was immediately called “Snotingaham”, the “home of the people of Snot the Magnificent”. At this time, “Snotingaham”, was part of the Kingdom of Elmet. Here is an Anglo-Saxon chief and his friend. What impressive elmets they are wearing:
I just couldn’t resist that!
Next time, we will see what happens when Ragnar Lothbrok and his pals arrive in Nottingham on a seven-day-cruise in 867AD.
In the first part of this article, I demonstrated how Richard Mellers, the husband of Dame Agnes, was, at best, a fairly unscrupulous businessman. I ended by relating how, in 1507, Richard had received a pardon for having committed offenses against the statutes of weights and measures. This charge related to problems with the purity of his bells. The metal, apparently, was just not as valuable as he said it was. Richard’s pardon would have been granted because of his previous position as Mayor of Nottingham. A less prestigious person would have been in very, very, serious trouble:
Dame Agnes, of course, may well have known absolutely nothing whatsoever about any of this rather serious matter. Like many, many husbands over the centuries, Richard may have decided, quite simply, to tell her nothing at all about it. And if she did know about her husband’s cheating and double dealing, then, like many, many wives over the centuries, she may perhaps have turned a blind eye to it, hoping that one day her errant husband would rejoin the forces of light.
He didn’t though. At least not for long, because on or about Sunday, June 16th 1507, Richard Mellers died, with the ink on the pardon if not still wet, then certainly recognisably damp. I think Dame Agnes would have seen his sudden demise as a direct consequence of his previous wrongdoing. She must have thought that her husband’s death so soon after receiving a pardon was the true verdict from on high.
In more modern, medical, terms, Richard may well just have hastened a natural death by continually feeling guilty or by worrying too much about the outcome of the affair. He may, quite simply, have been a victim of early sixteenth century stress. Irrespective of the clinical truth, though, for a devout woman in Tudor times, these events must have seemed like a clear judgement from Heaven.
At the beginning of the sixteenth century, it would have been completely impossible for a sincere and devout Roman Catholic to be in any conceivable way ignorant of the rôle played by Hell in the scheme of things. How can Dame Agnes have possibly thought back about her husband’s life, misdemeanours and sudden death, and not have seen him as the proud possessor of a “Go straight to Hell, Do not pass Go, Do not collect a ticket to Heaven” card?
That must have been a very, very real fear in her mind.
Here’s how the Rock Combo “AC/DC” saw the situation, firstly on an album cover:
And then on stage:
More or less straightway after his death, therefore, Dame Agnes, the grieving widow, became a “vowess”. She resolved never to remarry, and instead to devote herself to the service of the church.
“a woman who has vowed chastity or devotion to a religious life; a nun”.
Other dictionaries tell pretty much the same tale. One other interesting detail about vowesses is given in “The Customs of Old England” by F. J. Snell. Writing about how a vowess would view her obligations, he states that:
“Whatever fasts a vowess might neglect as non-obligatory, it seems probable that she would not willingly forgo any opportunity of showing reverence to the Blessed Virgin.”
More of this later.
Immediately after her husband’s death, Dame Agnes tried to repay many of his victims. She literally gave them back the exact sums of money which she was worried they had lost to her husband.
She then decided to spend the rest of Richard’s money on charitable causes. Most important of all, she decided to found a school. Or alternatively, she decided to fund a school which was already in existence and was clearly in need of financial assistance. She must have known that this one simple act would benefit the citizens of Nottingham in the long term, and make up for the occasions when, for short term gain, her late husband had cheated them. Here is the grateful city in 1610. St Mary’s church is marked with the letter “A”. Keep looking. It is there:
Before the official first day of her school, February 2nd 1513, there had already been eleven apparent references to a “Nottingham Grammar School” between 1289 and 1513. At this point in time, of course, it is impossible to tell what connection, if any, there is, with Dame Agnes’ school. Indeed, we do not even know if the eleven schools mentioned before 1513 have a continuous history, or whether they were all short lived affairs.
Having said that, though, Dame Agnes may well have decided to develop an ancient original grammar school into her own school. This original establishment may have depended solely on fees paid by the pupils. Dame Agnes perhaps thought it would be a good idea to establish a foundation, which would then ensure a much better financial future for the school. Equally, she may well have wished to take personal dcontrol of an older school, and then, as a loyal Catholic, to bring it under the control of St Mary’s Church.
Whatever the details of founding, funding, refounding or whatever, from Dame Agnes’ point of view, the most important thing was that the school should remain closely linked to St Mary’s Church. This, of course, carries out the words of F. J. Snell. Her efforts with this school clearly showed that Dame Agnes would “not willingly forgo any opportunity of showing reverence to the Blessed Virgin”. Here is St Mary’s Church nowadays:
“he was appointed Headmaster of the Nottingham High School, an ancient Grammar School, already existing in the thirteenth century, and refounded and endowed by Dame Agnes Mellers, under a Charter of King Henry VIII, in 1513.”
These words are anonymous, but were most probably written by Mr “Sammy” Corner who had been the school’s Deputy Headmaster until his retirement in 1914. Mr Corner had spent much of his spare time researching school history and had become a great expert. Much of this knowledge was to appear in the school magazine which he edited for many years, and which at one point had contained a serialised history of the school. After his retirement, the plan was that Mr Corner would finish writing his history of the High School.
Alas, this popular member of staff was destined never to write his book, as the Great War broke out only a month after he was due to start work, and, despite his advanced age, Mr Corner went off to do his bit for the war effort. At the end of the conflict, Mr Corner moved from Nottingham to Croydon, but his life’s work was to remain forever uncompleted, a source of great regret, as he later told Mr Reynolds, the Headmaster, in a letter. This is the great Sammy Corner in 1913, showing off the school’s charter in the 400th anniversary celebrations in 1913:
On the afternoon of Monday, November 13th, 1933, similar ideas about the school’s history to those in Dr Gow’s obituary were being expressed by the Duke of Portland, when he performed the formal opening ceremony for two new High School buildings, the Gymnasium and the newly converted Library.
This very same interpretation was obviously still current around this time, when Mr.C.L.Reynolds, the Headmaster, wrote his own brief history of “The Buildings of Nottingham High School”. He described the events of 1513 as “…the re-foundation or endowment of the School by Dame Agnes Mellers.” Here is Mr Reynolds, seen with the prefects, in an unknown year, probably in the 1930s:
Furthermore, a document more contemporary to Dame Agnes’ time said that what Dame Agnes was doing was to “…unite, create and establishe a Free Scole” as if there were some definite connection between her school and the Nottingham schools of previous centuries. Similarly, she is referred to in a number of other early documents not as a “foundress” but as a “fundress”, as if she were building and strengthening what was already there.
How that fear of the “Go straight to Hell, Do not pass Go, Do not collect a ticket to Heaven” card must have haunted Dame Agnes. As well as her wonderful achievements with the school, she also laid down that a service of commemoration for her deceased husband should be held every year on June 16th. This latter date is thought to have been chosen because it was the Feast Day of St Richard of Gloucester. Interestingly enough, St Richard’s shrine in Chichester Cathedral, at this time, was a magnificently decorated and popular destination for the Tudor Pilgrim. Perhaps Dame Agnes had been there herself as a dedicated vowess:
The ceremony which Dame Agnes had requested was, of course, a solemn Roman Catholic mass for the soul of her dear departed husband. It is thought that this mass was probably celebrated for about thirty five years, until such services were abolished by order of the then king, Edward VI. This same type of mass may then possibly have been revived under the Catholic Queen Mary, but it certainly would have disappeared for ever when the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I came to the throne in 1558.
Even in the 1660s though, some hundred and fifty years after Dame Agnes, the students still went every Friday during the period of Lent, with their teachers, to visit St.Mary’s church, and kneel in front of the tombs of Richard and Agnes Mellers, and say prayers for their souls, and the souls of all their relatives. And even nowadays, every year on Founder’s Day, the congregation still says prayers for the souls of Dame Agnes, and more importantly perhaps, her husband, Richard. This is Founder’s Day in 1957, a beautiful backlit day:
This is the Cheese and Ale Ceremony in the same year:
They’re going to get very drunk very quickly if they fill those tankards too frequently. Here is the traditional Cricket Match on that sunlit afternoon in 1957:
Having explored the history of the High School for more than twenty five years, I have always thought that the school’s beginnings are shrouded in mystery. For me, the High School has always been very like the Soviet Union:
“a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”
What do we know about the founder of the school, Dame Agnes Mellers, for example? What was she like as a person? There are a very few illustrations which are thought to be her. This is the school’s charter:
And here is a close-up of Dame Agnes and King Henry VIII:
This is the charter changed into a line drawing:
For me, there have always seemed to have been two enormously important motivating forces in her character. The first was her staunch religious faith as a Roman Catholic with a sincere love of Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church. Dame Agnes seems in many ways to have been an uncomplicated soul, who viewed the world in a simple direct way. She tried to be a good person, with the sincere belief that we should all try to make things better rather than worse, that we should do good things rather than evil and that we should always strive to be on the side of the Angels.
The second motivation for her was the love she had for her husband, Richard, which seems as sincere and unswerving as her love for the Church. Richard was, as his name suggests, a rich man. He was at one time or another, Sheriff of Nottingham (1472-1473), Chamberlain (1484-1485) and Royal Commissioner and Mayor of Nottingham (1499-1500 and again in 1506). In 1499, he is known to have given twenty shillings to help repair the Hethbeth Bridge, as Trent Bridge’s predecessor was called. Here is one of the last photographs ever taken of the old bridge before it was superseded by the present Trent Bridge. You can certainly see why it was easier for the river to freeze up in those days:
This is all that remains of the Hethbeth Bridge nowadays:
It is in the middle of a road island to the south of Trent Bridge. If you decide to take a look at it, be very careful of the traffic and use the proper crossings. Look for the (camouflaged) orange arrow in the centre of the (red) road junction:
Richard Mellers was a brazier, and probably a potter, and he had certainly dealt in metal pots and dishes. Most important of all, he owned the largest church bell-foundry in the region. The site of his premises has long disappeared, but its exact location is still known today.
From 1888 onwards, just a very few yards north of the city centre, steps began to clear away:
“a curious V-shaped slice of slum property…a most unhygienic and immoral neighbourhood and nothing good could be said for it”.
This slum clearance took a number of years, and resulted in the formation of King Street and Queen Street, the latter being opened on June 22nd, 1892.
During this time, it was inevitable that, along with all the slums and all the undesirable features, a few other more reputable premises were destined to disappear. Among these was Richard Mellers’ Bell Foundry, which is known to have stood more or less exactly on the site of the present day Queen Street Post Office. The orange arrow points to the general area, and the letters PO stand for the purple edged Post Office:
Perhaps it was working so close to such an “immoral neighbourhood” that deflected Richard away from the straight and narrow. He had, for example, already paid out £20 to be the Mayor of Nottingham for twelve months. There wasn’t really much of the democratic process involved here, or indeed, much evidence of any genuine interest in the workings of democracy. That payment of £20, a rather sizeable sum of money by modern standards, may well have been the reason that, in the very same year, Richard had been so keen to do a good deed by paying for the upkeep of the ever ailing Hethbeth Bridge.
Richard was certainly widely known as a fairly unscrupulous businessman. During his lifetime, in his efforts to acquire great personal wealth, he certainly seems to have cheated many of his bell buying customers. In 1507, for example, we know that Richard had received a pardon for having committed offenses against the statutes of weights and measures. This charge is believed to have related to problems with the purity of his bells and the metal they contained. The pardon would only have been granted because of his previous position as Mayor of Nottingham. A less prestigious person would have been in very, very, serious trouble. These bells, though, are all 100% the real peal:
In a recent blogpost, I mused about the cold past of our city, and how the River Trent had frozen over on a number of occasions in the nineteenth century, the last being in 1892. Previous years when similar brass monkey weather conditions had occurred were 1682, 1814, 1838 and 1855. In all of these winters, the River Trent at Nottingham had literally frozen over from one bank to the other. I found these extremes of weather really quite interesting, so I continued to do further research of my own. I duly found some extra details, such as, for example, the sad fact that:
“on 10 January 1814, seven boys drowned in the River Trent in England by the breaking of the ice.”
One or two more examples of extreme cold have since come to light, in years of which I had previously been completely ignorant. During the winter of 1092-1093, for example, when William Rufus was king:
“the River Thames and all the English rivers (were) heavily locked in with ice”. There was severe frost in this winter. English rivers (were) frozen so hard that horsemen and wagons could travel on them.”
When warmer weather finally came, however:
“drifting ice on the rivers destroyed bridges, and mills were carried away”.
Here is William Rufus, who was to be killed by an arrow in the New Forest:
Four hundred years later, the River Trent was frozen near Nottingham in the winter of 1485-1486. When the thaw finally came, “the bridge at Newark-on-Trent was swept away.” In 1766, on February 15th, a great snowstorm hit Nottinghamshire, which lasted fifty hours. That is a lot of snow!
Our old friend “Wikipedia” provided a great deal of historical detail about this kind of event, not all of it totally fascinating, although the word “palaeochannel” was new to me and it does contain three unusual vowels in a row. Here’s one I photographed earlier:
I knew that Giant Floods generally follow any Big Freeze but it was interesting to see that, in the modern era, the worst flooding experienced in Nottingham came very soon after the vast snows of the winter of 1946-1947 had melted. This melt was extremely sudden because of continuous heavy rain throughout March. The result was extensive and severe flooding all along the valley of the Trent. During this flood the peak flow of the Trent was 39,100 cubic feet per second, thirteen times the norm. As many as 9,000 houses were flooded and almost one hundred industrial premises were awash, with floodwater up to the height of the first floor. Here are one or two photographs of the flooding. These are of West Bridgford:
Here is Arkwright Street next to the railway station:
This is the aptly named Canal Street:
Here is a picture of the River Trent near the present day Harry Ramsden’s and Toys-r-us. On the left is Wilford Power Station, demolished in the 1980s, and on the right, Clifton Colliery which disappeared even before this (possibly through flooding?):
Here is Beeston, looking remarkably like Venice:
This photograph is just about recognisable as Melton Road in West Bridgford:
This natural disaster in 1947 was the beginning of our modern attempts to tame the river, by building concrete embankments and sluices in an effort to avoid the surging floods which had devastated Long Eaton, Beeston, the Meadows area, Colwick and West Bridgford on more than one occasion during this period. Here is the Trent, with early concrete steps visible only on the far side of the river, and just a grassy slope on this, southern, side:
This photograph was probably taken in the 1950s, with concrete embankments on both sides. Trent Bridge is in the background, so we must be looking north:
Nowadays, the concrete steps near Wilford Suspension Bridge would stop a Soviet tank. Well, perhaps make them feel a little motion sick:
Here’s the other side, looking north towards Trent Bridge and the green roof of County Hall:
These are the sluices on the river between Holme Pierrepont and Colwick, designed to hold back excessive flood water so that it can be released gradually at sensible intervals. By the way, firm promises have now been given that the next time they release fifty billion gallons of floodwater, not only will they look first to see if any anglers are fishing at the riverside, but they will also sound a warning klaxon:
This huge construction work of the modern era seems to have been completely successful. During the Millenium Flood of November 2000, the peak flow of the Trent was 36,000 cubic feet per second, around twelve times the norm, and certainly comparable to the conditions experienced in 1946-1947. But this time, the 15,000 homes at risk were completely unaffected and there was none of the widespread flooding seen in 1947 within the city:
In this photo the flooded Trent is, for the most part, still contained within its banks, although Nottingham Forest’s pitch does look as if it may be somewhat waterlogged. All of the floodwater in the background, by the way, is, for the most part, lying harmlessly on playing fields.