Queen Victoria reigned for 63 years, during which the completion of the Industrial Revolution transformed England.
Whether they were ‘happy and glorious’ years is debatable, but the majority of her subjects whole heartedly meant every word when they sang the National Anthem.
And well they might, writes Nigel Kirk , as they saw great commercial towns such as Nottingham boldly re-planned, with buildings that were a testament to Pax Britannica, free trade and an empire that was both a rich source of raw materials and a ready market for exports.
All that was made possible because the great wealth that flowed from the mills, mines and factories went into the pockets of a few, who loved to build on the grand scale.
In Nottingham much of this work went to local architects, partly as a result of the recently established Government School of Design at the People’s Hall in Heathcoat Street. It was the first to be established outside London and later became the School of Architecture.
Victorian architecture was especially at risk during the mid-20th century. Many important buildings were destroyed during the 1960s.
In Nottingham the Black Boy Hotel in Long Row was demolished in 1970 and the Victoria Station, apart from its clock tower, a year or two earlier, in the face of much local opposition.
There would be no question that both of these landmarks would now be listed Grade II and protected. Sir John Betjeman, poet and a great enthusiast for Victorian architecture, unsuccessfully campaigned to save the famous Euston Arch at the London rail terminus, but did much to raise awareness of this vanishing heritage.
On a happier note, Nottingham still has much to be proud of. Most of the buildings in the Lace Market, true temples to commerce, have been converted – some more successfully than others - and given a new lease of life. It is difficult to understand that wholescale clearance of the area was once seriously considered.
Until 1877, roughly the midpoint in Queen Victoria’s reign, the area of the town of Nottingham was just over eight square kilometres, or about one ninth of its present size. That such a rich variety of really excellent Victorian buildings can be so concentrated is what gives the area its Victorian character, even though the streets and roads follow the medieval town plan.
All of the buildings in my list of Nottingham’s best Victorian architecture, with one exception, can be seen on a walk of no more than one hour.
1. St Barnabas Cathedral, 1841-4
Nottingham has reason to be grateful to the priest (later bishop) Robert Willson for commissioning A W N Pugin, the most important architect of the Gothic Revival, to build Nottingham’s Roman Catholic cathedral. Not only in their design, but in their furnishings every detail Pugin’s buildings are of the highest quality. The dazzling polychrome to be seen in the small Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament is stunning.
2. Great Northern Station, 1857
T C Hine, Nottingham’s best known architect was also involved in the lace industry. He built both commercial buildings and houses for business owners and prosperous professionals in and around Nottingham from The Park to the Lace Market. His style is a blend of Elizabethan and Italian renaissance but my favourite is this small station which resembles a French chateau. It is best seen when the early morning sunlight shows the detail of the highly elaborate north façade to great effect. It is now a Virgin Active gym!
3. The Broadway, 1855
T C Hine again, and especially the Birkin Building. The serpentine street invites the curious to explore but the Birkin warehouse’s two curves (instead of right angles) and the choice of a slightly orange coloured brickwork is memorable. So pleased with it was Hine that the building bears his initials carved over the arch. This and the Adams Building around the corner on Stoney Street really evoke the atmosphere of the Lace Market in the Victorian era.
4. 15 George Street, 1895
Watson Fothergill who changed his name from Fothergill Watson was by far Nottingham’s most distinctive as well as eccentric Victorian architect. He designed over 100 buildings all of which are instantly recognisable. In this, his own, tiny gem of an office he really went over the top indulging every one of his architectural fantasies, even adorning the façade with busts of his architectural heroes - such as Pugin - that stare down on passers-by. The building was badly damaged a year or two ago and has still not been repaired. It is such a shame.
5. Theatre Royal, 1865
Prior to the Victorians little thought had been given to the design, as opposed to the decoration, of theatres in England. Nottingham’s impressive Theatre Royal with its very French – and therefore to the Victorians in good taste – interior is by Charles Phipps the foremost Victorian architect of theatres and music halls. The interior has had several make-overs which have worked well.
6. Jesse Boot’s shop, 16-22 Goose Gate, 1882
Not so distinguished as the other buildings in this list but it is included as a rare survival and an important example of a shop of its period, with its two stage cast-iron shop front. It is also of historical importance. The Nottingham architect was R C Sutton whose other buildings include the impressive Castle Gate Congregational Church.
7. Nottingham Journal Offices, Pelham Street, 1860
I seldom walk past without imagining what life was like for a Victorian leader writer and columnist within those walls. Two men who would have known were author of Peter Pan, J M Barrie, who worked there in 1883 and later Graham Greene who was the Journal’s sub-editor. Barrie’s novel When a Man’s Single drew on his experiences of the year he spent in Nottingham.
The local architect R C Clarke could have hardly have squeezed another window into the façade with its 24 gothic lancet arches on the three upper storeys, but if only those walls could talk…
8. Papplewick Pumping Station interior, 1881-4
This is included because it can be regarded as part of Nottingham’s built heritage as it supplied the town with clean water. It was the work of borough engineer Marriott Ogle Tarbotton who was a typically versatile and industrious Victorian, installing Nottingham’s underground sewage system (the first to be built outside London) as well as designing Trent Bridge, which could equally merit inclusion in this list.
At Papplewick his imagination ran riot with the “beautiful” (to quote Sir Nikolaus Pevsner) decoration of the interior, full of flora and fauna and painted in bright colours. It almost outshines the two magnificent and beautifully preserved beam engines. Even the original pine furnishings survive in-situ.
9. Prudential Assurance Building, 1893-8
And the winner is… This has to be Nottingham’s best example of Victorian architecture. Seldom can a magnificent building have risen in a more difficult site. Set on sloping ground at the fork of King and Queen Streets only an architect of very great ability could have pulled it off.
It is by Alfred Waterhouse, an enormously successful Lancashire architect whose most famous buildings are the National History Museum in London and Manchester Town Hall. Of an intense red brick this is first rate architecture at its most successful. It is beautified with Burmantofts terracotta reliefs from Leeds and originally a shaft of light ran straight through the building from top to bottom, illuminating the ground floor office, a surprisingly modern concept.
Nottingham Post - Nigel Kirk