St Peter's parish

The St George Memorial in St Peter's Church, NottinghamThe first church of St Peter's was built on its present site more than 850 years ago. The life around the church was that of a busy market town. For many years the immediate buildings around the church and churchyard were small dwellings each with a little land, a few cattle or pigs and fowls; others were the homes and workshops of the artisans and tradesmen: Bridlesmith Gate where the smiths worked, Fletcher Gate where the butchers lived and Lister Gate, the street of dyers. Further away were larger houses occupied by the merchants, physicians and lawyers. In 1677 Celia Fiennes, on her ride around England, wrote:

the town of Nottingham is the neatest I have seen, built of stone and delicate and long streetes… the houses lofty and well built.

The Guilds

In the Middle Ages life centred around the church; as well as fulfilling a religious function the church accepted responsibility for education and carried out many welfare activities through its Guilds. St Peter's has the great distinction and good fortune to have preserved intact the Guild Books of two fifteenth-century guilds whose home was in this church. The guilds, dedicated to St George and St Mary, were founded about 1440 - the earliest record of a guild in Nottingham is 1379; the last entry for the Guild of St. George dates from 1545-46, after which all guilds and chantries, like the monasteries, were swept away by Henry VIII.

Medieval parish life had an intensity that is hard to imagine today, and the guilds were at the heart of it. In addition to religious matters they cared for such things as mutual assistance, sustenance for the poor and sick, shelter for strangers and pilgrims, and visiting those in prison. Guilds were the provident and benevolent societies of the time; one of their concerns was with burial, in an age when this was an ever-present concern.

Medieval entertainments

The guilds also made a great contribution to entertainment in the town, through the elaborate and colourful celebrations associated with the feast-days of their patron saints. The records of the Guild of St George at St Peter's include references to a large statue of St George (and horse!) which was used in processions. Such entertainments involved pageantry and mystery plays, in which bible stories were enacted. The plays were often performed on mobile stages, which could be carried through the town, so bringing entertainment to everyone. Special performances of the plays would be given outside the homes of wealthy citizens, in a medieval equivalent of the Command Performance.

A seventeenth century collection

Although St Peter's has a list of Rectors beginning in 1240, and of churchwardens from 1559 onwards, little other recorded information is available about the Parish before the oldest Vestry notes of 1649. In 1624 a collection was made for the Easter gift to the Rector, the Revd. George Cotes. A small book records the collection, naming the nearby streets with delightful names: St Peter's Gate, Wheelwrights Gate, Angel Rowe, Timber Hill, Cuckstoole Rowe and Parsonage Corner.

St Peter's like many parish churches had a good-sized churchyard round it; this was unfenced until 1641. In 1518 there were houses in the churchyard; one tenement was let for 28s 8d (1.43) a year. In 1828 there were five houses bringing in 37 a year rent for the Free Grammar School.

Four quarters

The four quarters of St Peter's Parish all have their own character. The North side of the parish is not large, only covering the distance from the church to South Parade and Wollaton Street further away. Much of this area in days gone by contained large private properties, but it is now exclusively shops, banks, building societies etc. The East side of the parish is equally small, only running from the church up to Fletcher Gate, an area of shops and businesses including Bridlesmith Gate, which has always been an important centre of trade. In the past the streets had small houses, gardens and smallholdings.

The Park - rus in urbe

Nowadays on the West of the parish is The Park, a large area of high class houses and flats. The history of its growth is interesting. In the seventeenth century the land was owned by the Duke of Newcastle as private property, and formed the Park of Nottingham Castle. It was mainly open land, pasture and the fish pond gardens. It was the nearest to the country for the dwellers in the town, for whom strolling in the Park became a pleasant visit and walk in this pretty rural area. Later the Park began to change from a rural to an urban area. By 1827 the first houses were planned and started to be built, and from 1854 the estate with Victorian enterprise comprised prestigious houses, large and elegant with coach houses and beautiful gardens. Some were the work of T. C. Hine and Watson Fothergill, the well-known Nottingham architects. The Nottingham people must have been saddened to lose their chance to walk and stroll here. This was the time of the wealth of the lace trade and other large industries, and many a factory owner built his house here. Roads in the Park reflect the ducal connection: Cavendish Crescent, Newcastle Drive, Clumber Crescent etc. After the First World War and the advent of the car, some of the owners began to build houses further from the centre of the City, and after the Peace of 1945 many more moved. Some houses are however still in private hands and others have been converted into flats. The land was owned by Oxford University from 1938 until 1986, when the Nottingham Park Estate (formed by an Act of Parliament) acquired it for the residents.

St James' Church was opened on Standard Hill, on the edge of The Park, in 1808. It was an extra-parochial church (i.e. outside any of the old parishes) and although most of the Park residents worshipped there some came to St Peter's. There are two memorials in St Peter's in memory of Park residents who came to St Peter's: James Forman and Thomas Gimson. When St James' Church closed in 1933 the congregation joined St Peter's, and most of The Park came into the combined parish of St Peter and St James.

Poverty to the South

From this affluent area, living in comparative wealth and comfort, we now come to the remaining part of the parish, on the South. The activities recorded from the earliest days of the Vestry notes reflect the care, time and money spent on the poor of the parish by St Peter's Church. As early as 1601 the parish had its own workhouse; in the next century land was granted for a new workhouse, which was built in 1788. But Abigail Gawthern, in her diary, recorded that her husband paid 20 for its removal in 1789 as it obscured the view of the Meadows from their house!

The care of the poor had always been part of the work of the Parish, from the time of the Guilds onwards. For centuries it was the parish officers who carried much of the burden of social and civic administration at a local level, together with the Corporation (often the same people!) Over the years the structure changed, but whether they were "overseers of the poor" or "Board of Guardians" the responsibility was at parish level until the reformation of local government in the later nineteenth century. They had to maintain order and take care of their own parishioners, and in particular were responsible for the unemployed or creating work for them, finding employment for orphans from the parish workhouse, and passing on those who did not "belong" to the parish to the proper authorities. It was therefore important to know exactly who did belong to the parish and so could claim benefit; William Stretton records that:

a child was found in a back room of Bromley House (in Angel Row) where the parishes meet; the child was adjudged to belong to St Peter's, being found on that side of the room towards that parish.

This must have been in the late eighteenth century.

Charities and workhouses

In the same way the parish officers were much involved with charitable foundations in the town; a good example is Martin Roe, whose monument can be seen in the chancel. He was overseer of the poor and workhouse manager (an honorary office), and also one of the trustees of Sanderson's Charity, which gave money to the poor and to the Bluecoat School. St Peter's has been concerned with the Bluecoat School since its foundation under the Revd. Peter Fenton in 1706, and links are still strong. Similarly the General Hospital, founded in 1781, has long had connections with St Peter's and with members of its congregation; most of the present site now falls within St Peter's parish. (Editor's note: since this article was written the General Hospital has closed but the original buildings now house the headquarters of the Nottingham Health Authority.)

The Broad Marsh

The large houses along Low Pavement had beautiful gardens. Their occupants were proud of the site and the extensive view from the back windows. Abigail Gawthern wrote in her diary of "apricot blossom in the Paddock", of "asparagus grown in the garden" and of tea in the summer house in the gardens of the White Lead Works lower down on the Broad Marsh. One night she was awakened and looking out of the window she could "see the haystacks on fire". Another time the wind blew down and destroyed the windmill she could usually see on Wilford Hill.

But the area Abigail looked at and admired - the Broad Marsh - was rapidly changed from the beginning of the nineteenth century, with the advent of the Industrial Revolution and the surge of people who came to work in the city. To house them, tenements were built on Abigail's beautiful rural view. They were built cheaply as the rent could not be above 2/6 (12p) a week. The area was packed with back-to-back houses in rows and occasionally in a square, with earth closets in a group at the end of the street or ash pits under the houses. A health report in 1844 said that there should be one "necessary" to 3 or 4 houses, but it was more usual to have one "necessary" for every 6 to 8 houses. Water taps were placed here and there, and all the water had to be carried to the house. Pity the people who lived on the third floor! The workers were badly needed in the factories, but also some work was "outwork"; the framework-knitters were in huddled hovels.

St Peter's School

St Peter's did valiant work to assist those living in such circumstances. A school was built in 1863 for Infants and Girls, and later expanded and developed into two departments. This school was built on the old burial ground of St Peter's after the necessary legislation. Many groups were started to help the leisure and ease the burden of the dwellers. There was every kind of uniformed brigade and company for boys and girls and younger children: Girls' Club and Boys' Club for the older children, Men's Club and Mother's Union for the adults. What a pleasure it must have been for these people to come out, to find company and sympathy, in an area where so many would only find relief in alcohol. When the children's Sunday School Service was held it was boasted that as the first children entered the church, the end of the procession was just leaving the Broad Marsh.

The church records hold accounts for feeding the sick, for soup kitchens and for a scheme to send children to country cottages. The Broad Marsh tenements, some of the worst in the country, continued to exist until the slum clearance of the 1930s. St Peter's School, at its closure in 1906, became the Parish Hall where most of the caring work took place, until in 1935 it was reported that the area was "empty".

The wider "parish"

Church parishes, especially in cities, are not as relevant as they were. St Peter's present congregation, for instance, comes not only from the immediate "parish" but also from outlying districts - Wollaton, West Bridgford, Woodthorpe and Beeston, bringing to St Peter's those who enjoy worshipping there together. Much of the inner city is now shops and offices and there are few dwellings. There is a Commercial Chaplain based at St Peter's, who ministers to the city's industry and commerce, and many city-centre workers join the midweek activities: for Communion, for meditation, or for a snack at the coffee bar. Finally, the Saturday concerts attract a wide audience to enjoy the music. Some become members of the Church, where they receive a friendly welcome and may find a more satisfying concept of life.

Doreen Moat, 1991

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St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 17th November 2001