Nottingham is one of the very flat midland counties in the Trent Valley. The northern part of the county is a continuation of the Plain of York; this is a good corn-growing district, with hop-gardens in some parts, as about East Ketford and Eneesall.
Low as the county is generally, it sinks still lower near the rivers; and only by good draining are the river-side lands saved from being waste marshes; the farmers, however, manage to get, even in the most marshy spots, capital grass crops, upon which many cattle are fed; excellent cheese is made in the county.
The Car, quite in the north, between the Trent and its tributary the Idle, is one of these marshy tracts. So is the country about Newark, where the Trent bends north, and is joined by the Devon; this is a very low, flat district, and the rivers often overflow and flood the fields.
The south has some low moors, but the only part that can be called hilly is the west, the prettiest part of the county in every way. Through West Notts and Yorkshire, as far north as Whitby, the great forest of Sherwood once stretched, with its grassy glades, and mighty oaks, and merrie men clad in forest green. Here Robin Hood and his hundred merrie men, famous archers every one, did what they thought was rough justice—robbed the rich to help the poor. Those were lawless days: the king, the brave Coeur-de-Lion, was in Palestine fighting in the Holy Wars, and his brother John, who cared for nothing but his own pleasure, ruled England in his stead; so the poor were oppressed, and bad rich men had things their own way.
Robin Hood, who was really a nobleman born, but who loved the free forest life better than lands or name, did what he could to right these wrongs. He, however, and Friar Tuck, Little John, and Maid Marion, and all his foresters free, lived royally on the king's deer, and helped themselves to all they wanted out of other people's purses; so we cannot think they went to work in the best way, or that they chose this way of life altogether for the sake of helping the oppressed.
There are many fine old oaks here still which might have sheltered Robin and his men, especially near Worksop. No less than five dukes have parks near this town; and there are many gentlemen's seats with fine trees in West Nottinghamshire.
The great coal-field which reaches from Leeds to Nottingham occupies part of the west of the county. Greasley is the centre of a mining and iron district, and there are ironworks at Mansfield and some other towns.
The making of stockings and of lace are important employments in the three midland counties, Leicestershire, Derbyshire, and Nottinghamshire. The town of Nottingham is the centre of the trade, and all the towns and villages in the south of the county are more or less employed in it—Eadford, Basford, Stapleford, Arnold, Bulwell, and as far north as Mansfield.
The stockinger can do his work in his own home just as well as in a factory where many frames are engaged. He works at a stocking-frame, making his whole stocking of a single thread, just as a hand-knitter does; but instead of working with four needles, he uses many, as many as fifty needles to an inch if the stocking is very fine.
There are more stockingers in the trade than can be properly paid for their work: it is a business easy to learn; children and women can work the frames as well as men; and there are so many ready to do the work, that perhaps there is no trade at which people have to labour for such long hours and for so little money.
The poor pay he got for his stocking work put it into the head of a rather idle workman named Hammond to invent a way of making lace on his stocking-frame. Up to this time every tiny hole or mesh in lace and net was made by handwork, the work of women who might be seen with pillow and bobbins at their cottage doors. Hammond examined the pillow lace on his wife's cap, and at last did invent a frame, which succeeded so well that the stocking weavers were able to make far cheaper lace than the pillow-lace makers.
In the beginning of this century a Mr. Heathcote invented a bobbin-net machine, which made, at a quick rate, and for little money, net with a beautiful even mesh, as perfect as any hand-worked lace made in France.
Great was the excitement caused by this invention: everybody in Nottingham thought of nothing but ways of making lace. The earnings of the workpeople were enormous; a man might easily earn 30s. or even 40s. a day at a lace frame.
But prices soon fell, and now the lace-makers are only a little better paid than the stockingers.
"THE princely Trent, the north's imperious flood," appears to have a special regard for the county of Notts. It enters from Derbyshire at the south-west corner, flows, "crowned with many a dainty wood," past "Nottingham's proud height, that brave exalted seat," the old feudal castle, with "large-spread meads upon the other side, all flourishing in flowers." Still between "large-spread meads" the river flows on to Newark, past another stately castle. Then as if loth to leave this favoured county, it takes a sudden bend northwards, and enters Lincoln after its junction with the Idle, quite at the north of Nottingham.
River vessels can make their way upon the Trent all through Nottinghamshire, indeed as far as Burton in Stafford; and perhaps it is to the Trent that the county owed its importance in days when there were no railways. Certain it is that many interesting events occurred at the two castles of Nottingham and Newark.
Not always pleasant events; these two castles are associated with two kings who went to war with their own people. One of these was John, whose barons rose against him because he broke the Great Charter they had compelled him to sign. The king had hired foreign soldiers, who held Newark Castle. The barons besieged it, and John marched down from Lincoln in haste to relieve his friends. Then follows the story of how he lost the Crown jewels in the Wash, and fretted himself into a fever, and ate greedily while the fever was on him, and reached Newark Castle in time to die.
The second king, Charles I, though a far better man, plunged his country into a civil war of an even worse kind, for Englishmen fought against Englishmen, often brother against brother and son against father.
On the evening of a very stormy and tempestuous day he raised the Boyal Standard at Nottingham as a signal for his friends to join him (1642). The standard was nearly blown down by the stormy wind, and but few gathered round the king at first; but this was the beginning of a civil war which lasted four years, and in which many terrible battles were fought up and down the country. Many of his subjects cared more for the king than for father or mother, wife or child; many who had never seen him, nor been charmed by their prince's kind and gracious manner, were ready to give up lands and money, their dearest friends, their lives for his sake; and brave men, like the old lord of Basing House, brave women too, like the Lady Banks of Corfe Castle, did deeds of noble daring for the king.
But the efforts of his friends were vain; the county of Nottingham saw the close of the war as it had seen its commencement. An army of Scots had come into England to help the Parliament party; they were laying siege to Newark Castle, which was held by the king's friends. Charles saw that things were going against him, thought the Scots would be true, and gave himself into their hands. They retired from Newark with their prize; and in the end they gave him up to the army of the Parliament. Two or three years were spent in trying to settle matters, and at last a grievous thing was done—the king was beheaded by his own people (1649).