A Brief History of Hosiery and Lacemaking in Nottingham

Thomas Williams (1753 - 1804) was involved with the manufacture and sales of hosiery. This page will give some insight into the industry of that exact period, and is placed here to further enlighten the reader on references made to the industry in Thomas's Letters and the main articles on this website.

Hosiery manufacturing

    The history of Nottingham starts in the 6th century but the period we are concerned with here starts in the mid-17th century. The wool trade created some early prosperity but when this went into decline it was superseded by cloth making. By the end of the 17th century it was recorded that 'the manufacture of the town mostly consists in weaving of stockings'.

    In Tudor and earlier times stockings had been made of cloth but by Elizabeth's reign they were being hand-knitted. Towards the end of the 17th century the Rev. William Lee, a clergyman of Calverton, is said to have grown impatient at the time taken by his fiancée in knitting stockings, so he invented a machine to do the work faster. The stocking frame was frowned upon by Queen Elizabeth, who feared it would cause unemployment amongst the hand-knitters. Lee therefore took the frame to France but on his death a stocking frame industry became established in England, principally in the area around London. The work was mainly carried out in the homes of the framework knitters and a merchant class of hosiers organised the selling and distribution of the finished garments.

    By the middle of the 17th century, disagreements between the hosiers and the knitters caused a migration of the industry northwards to the East Midlands. Economic conditions at that time meant there was a ready source of labour in that region and because frame work knitting could be carried out in the home, it could be fitted in with the seasonal agricultural work. As a result, a number of villages around Hinckley, Loughborough, Derby and Nottingham became centres for the manufacture of stockings. Nottingham was favourably placed to become the commercial centre of this trade and the term 'hosier' became increasingly common by the latter part of the 17th century. It has been estimated that by the first decade of the 19th century there were around thirty thousand knitting frames at work in England, of which twenty thousand were in these three midland counties; over 9,000 being in Nottinghamshire. By 1812, the number of Midland knitting frames comprised 85% of all the frames in the United Kingdom.

    In 1669 King Charles II's brother James (later to become King James II), announced that he had been converted to the Roman Catholic faith, and, as a result, the Test Act of 1673 was passed, requiring all concerned with the government of the country to take the sacrament of the Church of England. The political and religious differences in the country were largely resolved when James II was deposed and replaced by his daughter Mary and her husband, William of Orange, in 1689. One of the consequences of this was the passing of the Toleration Act in 1689, which allowed dissenters or non-conformists to build their own places of worship. In Nottingham, the Independents quickly took advantage of this dispensation to build a meeting house in Castle gate, followed two years later by the Presbyterians who obtained land on High Pavement for their chapel. In the next century, the congregations of the latter included many men influential in Nottingham's affairs, especially in the business of the Corporation.

    After about 1750 the population of England started to increase rapidly. In Nottingham, coupled no doubt with the growing migration of people from surrounding villages, the population at the end of the century had reached 29,000, about three times what it had been fifty years earlier. Building of new houses to accommodate the increase was not allowed on the fields to the north and south of the town, as the burgesses, or freemen of the town had grazing and other rights there. As a result, the gardens of some of the existing houses were built on, with houses crowded into alleys and courts. The gentry who could afford to do so left the town for more pleasant places in the surrounding countryside. In the old borough, their large houses were taken over by the hosiers, who not only lived in them but also used them for their businesses.

    During the second half of the 18th century two developments gradually took place in Nottingham's trade. Because of changes in fashions and increasing competition from the Lancashire cotton industry, the hosiery industry began to decline and framework knitting increasingly became a depressed industry. At the same time, much thought and effort was devoted by men of an inventive turn of mind to try and make lace on the stocking frame. Lace had for centuries been made by hand and it was hoped that the production on machines would be much speedier and cheaper. A form of lace was in fact produced on a stocking frame around 1769 but this was not true lace. The latter had to be made in a series of hexagonal meshes which were knotted together, whilst the product of the knitting frame used a series of loops, as in hand knitting. The technical innovations which were to produce real machine made lace did not reach fruition until the next century.

    Willoughby's Directory of 1799 listed the main trades and occupations carried out in Nottingham. There were 149 hosiers, most of whom lived on the premises where they carried on their business, although a few were living away from Nottingham. Only 6 lacemakers were listed, of which 1 lived on High Pavement.

    The two largest houses in the area were situated on either side of Stoney Street. Pierrepont House occupied land extending to Barker Gate, and Plumtre House (usually spelled Plumptre). After the Plumptre family ceased to live in the latter, it had a number of occupants. Thomas Bailey, in his Annals of Nottingham, written in 1855, commented on the election of John Davison as Sheriff of Nottingham in 1787. He said that 'Mr Davison occupied Plumtre House and carried on his business in the premises .... He had been at one time among the principal manufacturers of hosiery in Nottingham but perished before the new principles of trade and manufacture introduced by youthful competitors'. John Davison was Mayor in 1801 and died in January 1804. An advertisement in the Nottingham Journal the following month gave notice of an auction sale of the effects to be sold on the premises at Plumtre House , described as a most extensive, fashionable and very valuable assortment of of household furniture and other effects, including a patent water closet, bidets and night stools.

    An advertisement in the Nottingham Journal for 2nd April 1803, announcing that Plumptre House was to be sold, described it as 'A Capital Messuage, in Stoney Street in the Town of Nottingham, (now divided into two Houses) , with the coach-houses, warehouse, stables, buildings, yards, and garden; containing in the whole, 3,903 square yards, in the occupation of Mr. Davison and Mr Williams.'

    John Marsh visited his sister and brother-in-law at Nottingham in August 1796 and recorded that 'The Dwelling in which they were now settled was the half of a very large Mansion adjoining to the Yard of St. Mary's, the principal Church, belonging to the Plumptre Family which with its Garden was divided in 2 as equal parts as possible, the other half of which was occupied by a Mr Davidson [Davison] a Stocking Manufacturer & his family, who had almost all the Atticks, Mr Williams all the greatest portion of the lower portion of the House, with the great Hall & principal Entrance.

    William Wilson who was Mayor of Nottingham on four occasions between 1811 and 1830, lived for many years at Plumptre House, where he died in 1833. He was a cotton spinner but unlike John Davison he remained successful, leaving an estate of £25,000 when he died. Like Thomas Williams, he was a member of Castle Gate Independent Chapel.

    By 1851 the premises were used as a girl's boarding school. The census return for that year tells us that Mrs Anna Eliza Treffry, a widow aged 46 was the proprietor, with three daughters of her own as pupils, together with twelve other girls aged from twelve to seventeen.


    Although Nottingham in 1800 was a very different place than it had been 100 years earlier, far greater changes were to take place in the next century. It was then that the term 'Lace Market' in relation to the area of the old borough came into use. In 1843 the Nottingham Journal referred to two groups of warehouses, the older one in the Hounds Gate and Castle Gate area and the newer around St. Mary's Gate. Four years later the same newspaper expressed the view that 'Mary Gate' was the seat of the Lace Market. In fact, this situation had existed for some time before that. In 1832 the first edition of William White's History, Gazeteer and Directory of Nottinghamshire was published, listing the various trades and occupations in the town. There were now 186 lace manufacturers and 70 hosiery manufacturers, which illustrates the relative changes of the two principal industries since 1799. 66 of the lace manufacturers lived in the Lace Market area, mainly on St. Mary's Gate, High Pavement and Stoney Street, whilst there were only 25 in the Hounds Gate locality. There were, however, still 12 hosiery manufacturers in the Lace Market area.

    White's Directory also lists 257 bobbin-net makers and explains that 'these are Lace-net makers who employ machines and sell their net in the brown state to merchants and manufacturers, who finish it for the home and foreign markets'. There were only 14 of these makers in the Lace Market area and they were mainly on the fringe in Barker Gate, Hollowstone and Woolpack Lane. In addition, there were 546 bobbin-net makers in the four industrial villages nearest to the town, Radford, Lenton, Basford and Sneinton. Others could be found in smaller numbers in more distant places such as Arnold and Sutton-in-Ashfield.

    The circumstances, which had led to this remarkable and rapid rise of a new industry, had started about 10 years earlier when the 'bobbin-net fever' had broken out. This was the result of the expiration of the patent of John Heathcoat who had perfected a technique of mechanically producing lace as the hand-lace worker did, by throwing bobbins over each other. The expiration of the patent meant that anyone with a little capital could buy a bobbin-net machine and make 'brown net' on it in his own home. Boom conditions lasted for a short time, then reaction set in when there was an economic crisis in the country but nevertheless the machine-wrought lace industry was firmly established.

    The 'brown net' as its name implies was not the finished article, which was sold as lace for collars, dresses, edging for other garments and increasingly for lace curtains. To produce these a number of other processes had to be carried out, singeing and gassing to remove imperfections, mending, bleaching, dyeing and embroidering. It was these operations which the lace manufacturers organised, with an increasingly female and child labour force. Then the finished products had to be packaged, distributed and sold, and invoicing and book-keeping undertaken. In addition, as products became more sophisticated, designers had to be employed to produce new lines in a competitive industry.

    The lace manufacturers therefore needed larger premises in which they could carry out all the various operations. The town was almost completely built up and there was still a political battle, which prevented them building new warehouses on the open sites to the north and south of the town. Moreover, they would be reluctant to do so as the penny post, started in 1840, had its post-office in the centre of the town, where today Marks and Spencers main store is. In addition, the railway station was not far away. This had been opened in 1836 on a site alongside the Nottingham Canal near Wilford Road. Both these developments helped to increase the trade in lace throughout the country and indeed throughout the world. The availability of the large gentry houses of the old borough, as the hosiers left them, provided an ideal solution for the lace manufacturers. They needed to be located near to each other because of the inter-connection of the different finishing trades and so that prospective buyers could more conveniently find what they wanted.

    In the 1840s two important developments took place which were to give greater impetus to the already thriving lace industry and which were to help the declining hosiery industry. The first was the outcome of the political battle to allow the open fields, the Clay Field, the Sand Field and the Meadows, to be built upon. This was done by an Enclosure Act in 1845, which allowed such building to take place and compensated the freemen for their lost rights. Secondly, the use of steam power to drive larger lace and hosiery machines became greatly extended. These two factors together enabled large steam-powered factories to be built in areas not too far away from the town.

    The increase in lace output and trade was to be a dominant part of Nottingham's economy in the second half of the nineteenth century. The Lace Market could not have provided the necessary finishing and commercial operations at the increased level had it continued to be housed in former residences. Fortunately, two men had the foresight to take the necessary action to start to re-build the Lace Market at the crucial time. They were Richard Birkin and Thomas Adams. Their influence can still be seen today in the Lace Market, as can that of the architect both men employed to design new warehouses, Thomas Chambers Hine.

    Richard Birkin came from a humble family in Belper in Derbyshire to New Basford in the 1820s during the bobbin-net 'fever'. He soon built up a thriving business there, in partnership with Richard Biddle. In 1853 he purchased at auction, for £8,410 Plumtre House, the mansion near St. Mary's Church, which had been such a notable feature of Nottingham's earlier 'garden-city' appearance. It was soon demolished and with adjoining land Richard Birkin with his son Thomas Isaac Birkin built not only a new set of warehouses but had a new street, Broadway, laid out between St. Mary's Gate and Stoney Street. Although the distance was less than 100 yards the Street was designed with a curve in the centre, so that when viewed from either end one saw what appeared to be a cul-de-sac. This was done deliberately to give a favourable impression to visitors.

    At about the same time T. C. Hine was designing another new lace warehouse to be built on Stoney Street, for the partnership of Adams and Page, the two partners being Thomas Adams and James Page. This building was even grander than Birkin's and the Nottingham Review for 13th July 1855 devoted a whole page to an account of the building and the opening ceremony. The warehouse contained a number of features not previously seen in Nottingham, including facilities for the workers such as a library, schoolroom, tea-room and a chapel with a resident chaplain to conduct a daily service each morning before work commenced.

    Important as these two buildings were in themselves, they were also influential in setting the standard, which was to be maintained in other warehouses, which were erected throughout the rest of the century. From 1874 the Town Council required plans of all new buildings and alterations to existing ones to be submitted to it for approval. These plans have survived and are deposited in the Nottinghamshire Archives. From these the dates of erection and the names of the architects of the buildings erected in the Lace Market can be obtained. Many of Nottingham's leading architects designed new warehouses in the Lace Market.

    The extent to which the older buildings were demolished and replaced by new ones can be seen on the large scale maps which were produced from about 1880 onwards, including Goad's insurance plans, in colour and showing the heights of buildings, and ordnance survey plans. By 1914 the Lace Market had been built to an extent that was to remain practically unchanged for the next fifty years.

    One effect of the construction of the new warehouses was that many of the houses in the area were demolished and the number of people living in the area, as distinct from working there, declined. This can be measured fairly accurately from 1841 to 1881 because at ten-yearly intervals the national censuses were taken. The enumerators' forms, which give the names of every one living in each house on census night, are available for consultation and so the resident population of the Lace Market for those years can be ascertained. In 1841 most buildings in the area had people living in them; the 38 houses on High Pavement accommodating 223 people. Similarly the other main thoroughfares, Stoney Street and St. Mary's Gate, were shown as having mainly residential buildings, whilst tucked away behind those streets were the crowded places and courts. Forty years later the situation was very different. There were very few people actually living on High Pavement, Stoney Street and St. Mary's Gate. There were still some of the smaller houses in such places as Bagthorpe Place, Pleasant Place and Albert Place, all just off Pilcher Gate, where there were 65 people living in 19 surviving houses.

    By 1881, the warehouses had been erected mainly to the west side of the Lace Market and the eastern ends of Hollowstone, Plumptre Street and Barker Gate consisted mainly of houses as did the area to the north of Barker Gate, towards Woolpack Lane. These, together with others to the east towards Carter Gate, were some of the most overcrowded and insanitary houses of the town, most of which were not demolished until slum clearance schemes were implemented in the 1920s and 1930s.

    Another important reconstruction on High Pavement took place in 1876 when the new Unitarian Chapel was built. The new building came nearer to the street than the one it replaced and its spire became a notable landmark. It was said that it was built to rival St. Mary's Church tower.

    In 1897 Nottingham was granted the status of city, and the census of 1901 showed the population was 240,000. The dominance of the lace trade is shown by White's Directory published in 1902. There were 178 lace makers, many of them in the 30 tenement factories, which had been built in the last 30 years or so, each of which housed several different firms. These were mainly situated in Radford, Basford and the Alfreton Road areas. By contrast, there were 249 lace manufacturers and over 200 of these were in the Lace Market or close by. The lace industry in the town of Nottingham employed over 20,000 people, the majority of them women. Their products were classed under three headings - Leavers lace for millinery, dresses and other ornamental uses, the curtain branch and the plain net branch. A large part of the produce was exported to all parts of the world. Before 1880, such exports rarely exceeded £1 million in value, but between 1880 and 1900 they varied between £2 and £3 million each year. Although this brought prosperity to Nottingham, this was by no means continuous. Trade depended to a large extent on fashion and competition was intense, especially from Germany and France, so the familiar pattern of boom and slump affected the lace industry as much, if not more, as it did other industries.

    The first fourteen years of the twentieth century followed much the same pattern as did the last quarter of the nineteenth century both as regards the lace industry and the Lace Market. Demand both at home and abroad continued to be strong, although exports peaked at £4.5 million in 1906. In the Lace Market a further 25 new warehouses were built in this period.

    In August 1914 the First World War started, which was to last over four years and was the most catastrophic event the world had known. It was to cause such disruption to world trade that the decline of Nottingham's lace industry can be dated from then. Thomas Adams Ltd., one of the largest lace firms had £134,000 owed it by South American firms at the outbreak of war and had considerable difficulty in collecting this. The firm had to write off £23,500 in 1917 being debts from enemy countries and a further £20,000 of Russian debts the following year. The war of course strictly curtailed the export trade and at home the demand for fashion goods fell. A number of firms in the Lace Market developed other lines of business, mostly in other textiles or dry goods, whilst others went into liquidation.

    Hopes that Nottingham's lace industry would recover its pre-1914 dominance after the war were soon dashed. There was short-lived boom which only lasted until April 1920 and exports only amounted to £1 million a year. In August 1922 Thomas Adams Ltd. reported a year's loss of £48,526, compared with profits averaging £30,000 a year before the war. The Leavers branch was particularly hard hit, half of its firms becoming bankrupt between 1920 and 1926. The curtain manufacturers were less affected but Thomas Adams Ltd., who traded in both curtains and fashion goods, faced difficult times. In 1926, it decided to make overalls and pinafores and also considered making silk stockings but decided this was too risky. The firm also let 30,000 square feet of its premises to the Boots Company and sold a forge and cottage, numbers 10 and l0a St. Mary's Gate.

    World trade conditions worsened after the 1929 financial crisis, which started in America and the lace trade continued to decline. The effect on the Lace Market can be seen from an analysis of the firms in Kelly's Directory for 1932 of Nottinghamshire. The old distinction in earlier directories between lace makers and lace manufacturers disappeared and instead the trade is divided into lace manufacturers and lace curtain manufacturers. The directory names 158 and 44 respectively, after allowing for a few firms which appeared in both. Of these 202 firms, which covered the whole county, 37 were outside the town mainly at Beeston and Chilwell. Of the remainder 120 were in or adjoining the Lace Market. The way in which the buildings in the Lace Market were now used can be seen from the directory. On High Pavement, 54 firms were listed and 15 of these were not lace firms. They included a printer, bookseller, engraver, cardboard box manufacturer, colliery furnishers, a manufacturing chemist and textile trades other than lace. On Stoney Street, the change was even more marked. Out of 58 firms only 36 were connected with lace. Other uses included the Telephone Manager's Office, a foreign translating and typewriting agency, a secretarial training college as well as electrical wholesalers, a plumber and a tyre manufacturer. It is interesting to note that the directory also lists nine lace dealers in Nottingham, seven of whom had stalls in the newly opened Central Market on Parliament Street.

    The outbreak of war, in 1939, again meant a disruption of normal trade. The lace industry was adapted for wartime production making such items as mosquito nets and camouflage netting. Whilst this enabled the industry to carry on, it did nothing to help the physical environment of the Lace Market. The diversification of uses and the unavailability of resources to maintain the buildings meant that they continued to deteriorate. In addition, although Nottingham did not experience the devastation from air raids which other towns did, the Lace Market had buildings on Short Hill and St. Mary's Gate which were considerably damaged in May 1941.

    The end of hostilities saw the Lace Market as a run-down enclave, the tall warehouses blackened by decades of coal-burning, in narrow streets with derelict and worn-out facilities. The immediate post-war years saw a gradual improvement in the lace industry with encouragement to earn foreign currency from exports. Gradually what was virtually a new lace industry developed. New products made with new man-made yarns, produced on new high-speed machines were the outcome. There was little room in all this for the Lace Market. This new industry required new premises, built mainly on sites away from the centre of Nottingham. The end of an era lasting almost a hundred years came symbolically in 1950, when Thomas Adams Ltd. ceased trading and the celebrated complex of buildings between Stoney Street and St. Mary's Gate succumbed like so many others to multiple occupation.


    At this stage the Lace Market could have disappeared with its existing buildings demolished and complete redevelopment to follow. Fortunately this did not happen. In the first instance, some demolition did take place, which resulted in the Lace Market taking on a new appearance. Barker Gate from Bellar Gate to Stoney Street was widened although this meant the loss of the former Free Grammar school. This was followed by further demolitions of warehouses opposite Barker Gate, between Stoney Street and St. Mary's Gate. The purpose of this was to enable a new road to be built to connect via Pilcher Gate and Fletcher Gate with the proposed redevelopment of Broad Marsh. The proposals even included a heliport on the top of the new development. Due to changes in policy affecting highway development this did not materialise and a surface car park was laid out between Stoney Street and St. Mary's Gate. At about this time there was a growing concern nationally about the likelihood of historic buildings being demolished and legislation was passed under which a Government department could designate buildings of special architectural or historic interest. A 'listed building' as such became known could not be altered or demolished without special planning permission. By 1972 some 35 buildings or groups of buildings in the Lace Market had been listed in this way. In 1996, a review of the City's listed buildings increased this number to 94. In addition there was a growing awareness, nationally and locally, that particular areas even if they did not contain listed buildings ought to be protected from action which would destroy their character. One result of this locally was the formation of Nottingham Civic Society in 1962 with the object of encouraging good planning to achieve a worthwhile environment and to preserve desirable aspects of the City's heritage.

    A further step forward was taken in 1967 when a Civic Amenities Act was passed, which enabled local authorities to declare conservation areas. The Lace Market was declared such an area in 1969, which meant that the buildings of historic or architectural interest were protected, as was the character of the area, by requiring special planning permission for any proposed development in the area. The Conservation Area has since been progressively extended some distance away from the Lace Market itself. More positively, local authorities were encouraged to assist in improving such areas. An illustrated booklet entitled A Conservation Policy for the Lace Market was published by the City Planning Department in February 1974 and this described the new policy as a combination of conservation and selective redevelopment which accepted the loss of the worst to promote restoration of the best aspects of the area.

    To assist in the regeneration of the area, in 1990 the Lace Market Development Company Limited was formed. This consists of members of Nottingham City and Nottinghamshire County Councils, together with four other companies - Bendigo Properties Limited, Bovis Urban Renewal Limited, Lilley Developments Limited and Lovell Developments Limited. This new partnership aimed to complete the redevelopment within a five-year period, by promoting and undertaking the development of sites and the renewal of buildings within the agreed strategy. It will try to carry out these aims by seeking private investment for suitable projects, aided where necessary with grants from public funds.

    This history of an integral part of Nottingham has tried to show how it has changed over the centuries in response to changing social and economic conditions. The measures outlined above will ensure that this process will continue.

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    This account is based mainly on The Lace Market, Nottingham (2001) by Geoffrey Oldfield of the Nottingham Civic Society, but some additional material from other sources has also been included. (such as A Centenary History of Nottingham, edited by John Beckett).
In recent years a Lace Market Heritage Trail has been laid out for which an audio guide is available narrated by Joanna Lumley. Details here

© Nevil Harvey-Williams (1930-2021)
Historian from Market Harborough
December 2008