Articles from the Thoroton Society Newsletter

Who’s your tram? (Part One)

If you hop on board tram no. 202 you will find it labelled ‘D.H. Lawrence’ and will perhaps recall trying to find and read a copy of his novel ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’, back in your youth. The controversial author, born in Eastwood in 1885 to a coal-miner and his wife, attended Nottingham High School but showed little promise during his early school days. He later studied for a teacher’s certificate while embarking on his writing career and producing, with the encouragement of his friend Jessie Chambers, not only poetry but also short stories and his first novel, ‘The White Peacock’. A job in Croydon took him to London where he wrote more and had his work published, but his life was far from settled, as various relationships (including a broken engagement), the death of his mother and serious illness took their toll. After a return to Nottingham his foreign travels began: to Germany and then to Italy with his new German partner, a married lady named Frieda von Richthofen, but they were forced to return to England by the outbreak of war. By then his latest novel ‘Sons and Lovers’ had been published and favourably received, and he began to move in contemporary artistic circles.

Lawrence’s next major work, ‘The Rainbow’, was met with disapproval and after it was banned he retired to Cornwall, where his health deteriorated but he continued to write. The fact that Frieda, now his wife, was German made him unpopular in Britain and America, he was often ill and serious money worries added to his difficulties. He nevertheless visited Italy, Sicily and Sardinia, producing travel books from his experiences, and then moved further afield to Ceylon and Australia, where ‘Kangaroo’ was written. ‘Women in Love’ was launched in 1917 to mixed reviews. He made it to America in 1924, eventually returning to Europe and dying in France from TB six years later, but not before the publication of his final and most notorious book, ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’.

Tram no. 203 will introduce you to a very different individual, notable more for his physical rather than his intellectual prowess. William ‘Bendigo’ Thompson was a bare-knuckle fighter who was born in Nottingham in 1811, the last of 21 children; his middle name was a corruption of the Old Testament name ‘Abednego’. When he was 15 his father died and he was sent to the Nottingham workhouse. He became an oyster-seller and iron turner but by the time he was 21 he was fighting - and winning - until in 1839 he beat James Burke for the all-England championship. His last bout was fought in 1850, after which he became a Methodist evangelist and died, aged 60, in 1880. His name was entered into the Ring Boxing Hall of Fame in 1955 and his trophies together with a portrait were on show at the Forest Tavern on Mansfield Road for several years.

Arguably the most flamboyant of the historical figures featured on our trams is the great Romantic poet Lord Byron, whose name appears on tram no. 205. Born in 1788 to Captain John ‘mad Jack’ Gordon and his wife Catherine, probably in London, the young George moved with his parents to Aberdeen but saw little of his profligate father who soon left for France and died there after draining his wife’s resources to pay off his huge debts. When George was ten, his great uncle Lord Byron died and he inherited both the title and the ancestral home, Newstead Abbey, which was in a poor state of repair. Byron did not take up residence until he was almost 21 and then renovated and lived in only a few of the smaller rooms for about six years before selling the estate in 1817. He did, however, use some of the larger rooms for pistol shooting, boxing and fencing, and many of his pets (among which were a bear and a wolf) roamed freely around the house.

George was educated first at Aberdeen Grammar School and then at Harrow School (1801¬ 5), where he failed to distinguish himself academically but began to write poetry while becoming known for his volatile temper and numerous liaisons with other boys and young women. His club foot and the inconsistent upbringing he received from his mother combined to make his early life difficult and did not encourage self-control. He did, however, attend Cambridge University, became for a short while interested in politics and published a volume of poems in 1807, which was not well received, before embarking on a European tour (1809-11) and later achieving overnight fame on the publication of the first two cantos of ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’ in which he described the travels of a young man and his reflections on his experiences.

In 1815 Lord Byron married Annabella Milbanke who bore him a daughter, Augusta Ada, but the marriage did not survive beyond 1816 as his scandals and debts put it under intolerable pressure. Byron then left England and spent a summer on the shores of Lake Geneva with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, his wife Mary and her step-sister Claire, who bore Byron’s child the next year. He then moved on to Italy, where, his affair with the wife of an Italian nobleman did not prevent him from writing a considerable quantity of poetry, including ‘Don Juan’, and consolidating his literary reputation. But in 1823 he became involved in the war being fought by Greece against the Ottoman Empire and was killed at Missolonghi the following year. Regarded now as a hero by the Greeks, his embalmed body was brought back to England and buried in the church of St Mary Magdalene at Hucknall, alongside many of his family members.

Tram no. 210 celebrates the man who probably made a greater impact on the city of Nottingham than any of the other people featured in this article, and whose legacy continues up to the present day: Sir Jesse Boot. He was born in 1850 to John, an agricultural worker, and Mary Boot, a teacher with a keen interest in herbal medicines that prompted John to open a shop in Goosegate in order to sell these remedies. After the death of his father when Jesse was 10, he assisted his mother in running the shop as well as attending school until he was 13. By the time he was 21 he became a partner in the business and initiated plans to sell patent medicines, despite opposition from professional pharmacists at first, as well as a variety of other products such as toiletries and food items, with the aim of buying stock in bulk and keeping prices as low as possible. He also advertised widely, showed off his wares in large window displays, and installed additional facilities such as toilets.

Jesse took over the whole business when Mary retired in the late 1870s. As the business prospered, he moved the shop to larger premises and before long established other outlets in the city, as well as one in Sheffield in 1884 and many more elsewhere, until by 1914 there were more than 560 Boots shops in the UK. Motivated by concern for his employees and a strong Methodist faith, he improved working conditions, introduced apprenticeships and evening classes and later, organised staff outings and a social club. It is hardly surprising that running a rapidly expanding company like this resulted in overwork and exhaustion; advised by his sister, Jesse took a holiday on Jersey where he met his future wife, Florence Rowe.

Florence helped Jesse widen the range of products sold in his shops by including items like books, fancy goods, pictures and picture frames. The business flourished, the family moved to The Park - there were now three children - and by 1892 a factory was opened on Island Street. Jesse, now very wealthy, provided large sums for a variety of projects which included improvements at the City Hospital, the donation of land for playing fields and a war memorial by the River Trent, alms houses for war veterans, and the provision of the Highfields estate for the University of Nottingham. Knighted in 1909, he was made Lord Trent in 1928 but died in Jersey in 1931.

Tram no. 211 transports us into the mists of legend as it bears the name of Robin Hood, the sharp-shooting hero and lover of Maid Marian brought to life in many books and films and represented as an archer in the robust statue that stands at the foot of Nottingham Castle. Very little is really known of the man who came to be regarded as a wronged nobleman and supporter of King Richard I who was forced to flee from the vicious, vindictive Sherriff of Nottingham into Sherwood Forest, where he sheltered with a band of fellow outlaws, launching attacks on rich travellers (especially tax collectors) and redistributing the proceeds among the poor and oppressed. Robin features briefly in several 14¬ 15th century songs and ballads but (if he existed) may have lived much earlier, according to fleeting references in historical sources, in the 12th century. Not only is his identity obscure but also his place of origin, as he is associated with several parts of Yorkshire as well as Nottinghamshire.

A curiously elusive figure, and one therefore capable of being remodelled in literature and on screen to suit the tastes of succeeding generations, was Robin. One theory has it that a certain Robert of Wetherby or Robert Hod who was pursued, caught and executed for robbery with violence by Eustace of Lowdham, the Sherriff of Yorkshire (and later of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire) known for his devotion to justice rather than ruthlessness. It seems not unlikely that this story spread along the Great North Road, becoming transformed in the constant retelling into the tales we now know, with the roles of villain and popular hero reversed. Whatever the truth, Robin Hood is embedded in our city’s culture and the legend of his life and exploits will continue to be a source of fascination.

A very different sort of hero gives his name to tram no. 212: General William Booth, founder of the Volunteer (later Salvation) Army which he launched to help those stricken with poverty and unemployment. He was born in Sneinton in 1829 to a family of limited means and at the age of 13 started work as an apprentice to a pawnbroker in a very poor area of Nottingham. He also began to attend Broad Street Methodist Chapel, experiencing a life-changing conversion in 1844 and two years later preaching on the streets of the city. After leaving his job, however, he was out of work for a while and then moved to London in 1849, where he met his future wife Catherine at a chapel in Clapham and became an evangelist. He married Catherine in 1855; they moved north for a short while, then returned to London and William resumed preaching in the open air, this time in Whitechapel with a tent as his base. His enterprise became known as the Christian Mission by 1878 and developed into the Salvation Army, with William himself assuming the title of ‘General’ and publicising his aim to ‘save souls’, although the methods of the organisation gave rise to some opposition.

After Catherine’s death in 1890, General Booth pressed on with his ground-breaking work among the poor, formulating ideas on hostels, employment centres and agricultural education, amongst other projects, and undertaking widespread journeys in the UK - usually by car, the most modern form of transport - and as far afield as Australia, New Zealand and the Holy Land. His eldest son Bramwell took on the administration of the Army but three of his children left the organisation, no doubt to William’s great sorrow, and another perished in a train crash.

His strong personality and tireless work earned him many honours, including the freedom of the cities of London and Nottingham. But following a visit to Norway in 1912, William later fell ill and died. The new General of the Salvation Army, his son Bramwell, conducted the funeral service and his passing was marked by a huge procession through the streets of London accompanied by the music of many bands. By the time he died, his Army had nearly 16,000 members in 58 countries.

Part Two of this article will feature Mary Potter, George Green, Ada Lovelace and George Africanus.

Janet Wilson