Wednesday 5 November 2014

Harsh Times

In this post, I want to look at the coming together of two branches of my lineage in 19th Century Nottingham. However, as well as setting the scene for a subsequent post, I want to be a little ambitious and try to give a feel for the conditions in the town during that period, and the harsh lives of many ordinary people.

My great-grandmother was a Rebecca Watts who later marred the Frederick Thomas Major Horace Jesson mentioned in A Rich French Actor. I know from a hand-written note in my possession that she was born on 23 Nov 1875:[1]

Rebecca Watts
Born 23 November 1875
Mothers Name

Ma[i]den Name
Emma Pearson
Place of Birth of Mo[t]her
Millstone Lane NE

It is not clear whether the reference to Millstone Lane was in the context of Rebecca or Emma. There was no Rebecca Watts registered in 1875 but there was a Rebecca Pearson, born 23 Nov 1875 at 4 Hill’s Yard (off Millstone Lane). No father was recorded and the mother’s name was recorded as “Hannah” rather than the expected Emma.[2] However, the birth certificate for Emma Pearson, born 3 Jun 1856 at 4 Hill’s Yard, shows that Hannah was actually her own mother’s name.[3]

Emma married a William George Watts very soon after the birth of Rebecca (17 Apr 1876) so I am assuming that he was the unrecorded father.[4] At this time, Emma was living at 4 Millstone Lane and William at 7 Howard Street (also off Millstone Lane) so they were very close neighbours.


Millstone Lane is obviously a central location in this piece of history to let’s look to see where it was. The tool at Millstone Lane (1875 layer)[5] shows this location to be where Huntingdon Street is today, Not all the streets and yards that branch off Millstone Lane are marked on these old maps but they can be determined from historical directories as follows (traversing NW-to-SE ):[6]

South side
North side
Howard Street

Pleasant Place
(Recreation Ground)
Rick Street
(Leg of Mutton P.H. — Public House)

Leg of Mutton Yard

Hill’s Yard

Princess Square
Kent Street
York Court

(Horse & Chaise P.H.)

Providence Court

Millstone Place
Convent Street
Crown Court

Smith’s Yard

Southampton Yard

The proximity of the Leg of Mutton pub explains the singularly awful street name: Leg of Mutton Yard. Trumpet Street and Commerce Street — both of which are mentioned elsewhere in this section — may be found just north of York Court.

Other referenced places are about 2km SE of there, around the area of Pierrepont Street (1875 layer) in Sneinton; Pomfret Street and Stanhope Street just above it, and Holland’s Yard just below it.

These yards were usually cobbled cul de sacs with overcrowding, polluted water, and poor sanitation.[7];EQUALS;NTGM013891&pos=1&action=zoom&id=65337
Figure 1 - Leg of Mutton Yard, c1902.[8];EQUALS;NTGM013795&pos=1&action=zoom&id=65337
Figure 2 - Hill's Yard, c1910.[9]

Millstone Lane was previously called Sandy Lane (before c1806), and the name was associated with a “low quarter of town, which was looked upon by many as being morally objectionable”.[10] Back in 1800, a serious riot began on Millstone Lane as a result of escalating bread prices caused by a poor harvest of corn in England, combined with the difficulties of importing grain due to the Napoleonic Wars:

31 Aug 1800: Although this was a Sunday, it was marked as the commencement of a serious riot. (The second this year.) A great increase in the price of provisions, more especially of bread, had roused the vindictive spirit of the poorer classes to an almost ungovernable pitch. They began late in the evening by breaking the windows of a baker in Millstone Lane, and in the morning proceeded, with an increase of numbers and renewed energy, to treat others of the trade in the same unwelcome manner.[11]

Emma Pearson’s family was a little complicated. Her mother, Hannah Hart, had an illegitimate child in 1841, Harriet Hart/Maule, before her first marriage to Samuel Maule. Samuel died in 1848, just before the birth of their second child; also Samuel. However, the registration of the child was a mess because he was registered as Samuel Hart, the father was listed as Samuel Hart rather than Maule, and her own name was given as “Hannah Hart formerly Maule” rather than the other way around.

When Hannah later married John Pearson, on 23 Aug 1851 at Nottingham St Paul, they were recorded as bachelor and spinster of “full age” (he was 38 and she was 33) and so John may have been previously married too.[12] Emma’s birth certificate does correctly identify her mother as “…late Maule formerly Hart” though.

Shortly after their marriage, on 28 Aug 1851, Hannah was mentioned in the newspaper after quarrelling with a neighbor at 12:45am on a Thursday morning. The other woman, named Glynn, was arrested, but both had to appear in court. On listening to both women, the Mayor decided that “one was as bad as the other” and they were reprimanded, and then discharged on signing the book and promising to behave better in the future.

In 1867 a 10-year old Emma had been left in charge of a shoe & boot maker’s shop on Millstone Lane over a Saturday lunchtime. A youth stole a pair of boots from the shop and escaped over the “Lammas” before being caught.[13] I remember my grandmother explaining where the “Lammas” was but I was too young to have taken note. It took a bit of research to find that the “Lammas” ground was a local name for St Michael’s Recreation Ground[14], and that St Michael's Recreation Ground opened on Millstone Lane on 14 May 1860[15] — hence being the same “recreation ground” mentioned in the above table. Lammas was actually celebration, not unlike Thanksgiving, and there was a very old tradition that “from Lammas Day (14th August) to Martinmas (11th November)” the Burgesses could common the land and “all the fences were thrown down and the enclosure converted into one great common field in its ancient sense”.[16] It’s to be expected, therefore, that an open area may have retained an informal “Lammas field” description.

Emma’s younger brother, Henry, was what might be termed a “bad ‘un”, and seemed to have confused the concept of “police record” with “world record”. I found so many references to his convictions that it painted a clearer picture of his life than any decennial census ever could. The following are all abstracts from newspaper reports in the Nottingham Evening Post:[17]

23 Jul 1878
Henry, along with John Glue and Thomas Glue, charged with causing a disturbance and assaulting the police. All had previous convictions. Henry offered choice of 10s or 7 days prison; he took the latter.
3 Feb 1879
Henry fined 10s for sliding on the causeway in Millstone Lane.
16 Jan 1882
Henry charged with being drunk and fighting on Millstone Lane. Fined 21s with option of 21 days imprisonment.
27 Oct 1884
Henry summoned for using obscene and threatening language against a policeman in St. Michael’s Recreation ground.
7 Sep 1885
Henry fined 10s for being drunk  & disorderly in Trumpet St.
19 Sep 1887
Henry drunk & disorderly in Millstone Lane. 14 days in prison.
8 Oct 1887
Henry charged with stealing a quantity of cotton waste from the Great Northern Railway Company. Committed to the Sessions for trial.
6 Feb 1888
Henry drunk and fighting with John Bagnall in Millstone Lane. Fined 10s.
24 Feb 1888
Henry & Edward Pearson, and John Bagnall found sleeping in an outhouse in a yard off Millstone Lane. 7 days in prison.
7 May 1888
Henry drunk & disorderly in St John St. One month in prison; a dozen previous convictions being recorded against him.
18 Apr 1889
Henry and a John Hannon charged with attempting to steal a gold watch & chain from a Stephen Seal. Discharged on inconclusive evidence.
6 Sep 1889
Henry charged with cruelty to Rebecca Belshaw, his partner of “some time past” and mother of 3 children. 2 months prison.
24 Nov 1890
Henry charged with obscene language, obstructing a policeman while arresting someone in Bridlesmith Gate, and inciting crowd to release the prisoner. Fined 20s or 14 days.
2 Feb 1892
Henry, of 22 Trumpet St, charged with being drunk & disorderly and assaulting George Duncan in Glasshouse St. 1 month prison.
23 Nov 1892
Henry charged with being drunk and assaulting the police. Refused to give his address. 38th appearance. 2 months hard labour.
19 Jul 1902
Henry, of 11 Promfret St, charged with being drunk & disorderly, and assaulting landlord of a pub on Millstone Lane. Sentenced to 1 month prison, but a threatening expression on leaving the court caused him to be recalled. Bench said that when current sentence expired, he’d have to find £10 surety to keep the peace or face another month in prison.
15 Dec 1902
Henry charged with stealing two pieces of beef from a butcher. He claimed to suffer from kleptomania but his long list of previous convictions meant 3 months prison.
6 Jun 1907
Henry, 14 Holland’s Yard (off Kelly St), prosecuted by NSPCC for child neglect. 3 months prison.
4 Nov 1907
Henry sentenced to 14 days prison for drunk & disorderly. 70 previous convictions.
21 Jan 1908
Prosecuted by the NSPCC for child neglect. 6 months prison.
6 Oct 1908
Henry, 16 Stanhope St, charged with obscene language and assaulting a detective. Described as “one of the most notorious characters known to Nottingham”. 1 month prison.
15 Mar 1909
Henry, hawker of Stanhope St, charged with neglecting his 3 (of 5) children. Described as “laziest vagabond in Nottingham”. 6 months with hard labour;
18 Jun 1910
Henry, 41 Promfret St, arrested for being drunk & disorderly but violently resisted arrest. Two members of public had to help the policeman. 81 previous convictions. 2 months prison with hard labour.
8 Sep 1913
Henry, Stanhope St, prosecuted for being drunk & disorderly. Fined 20s or 1 month.
31 Dec 1913
Henry, hawker of Stanhope St, sent to trial at the Quarter Sessions for neglecting his family. 87 previous convictions.

Henry married Rebecca Belshaw in c1900 but the woman had already given birth to at least seven illegitimate children before that. The newspaper article mentioned above from Sep 1889 suggests that Henry knew Rebecca for longer than both of these dates, and also that those other children were very likely his. This man just has to be the subject of a later blog-post.


The family of William George Watts came from an area called Narrow Marsh (1875 layer)[18], about 1km south of Millstone Lane. Nottingham is acknowledged to have had the “worst slums in Europe” during the 19th Century[19] but Narrow Marsh was one of its most notorious. Its location in a narrow stretch between a sandstone cliff and the River Leen was the cause marshy conditions, constant flooding (e.g. 1795 and again in 1809), and many of its diseases and ailments. Overcrowding was a serious problem affecting many of the poorer areas of the town. It had effectively become land-locked due to grazing rights granted to the Burgess Freemen, and this resulted in “incredible misery for the poor crammed into Nottingham's back-to-back housing”.[20]

According to Granger, an attempt was made in about 1820 to change the name of Narrow Marsh to Red Lion Street “which ultimately failed”. He also remarked: “…there are certain circumstances which, I think, point strongly to the probability of this attempted change being made by private individuals, and not by the Corporation or Council”.[21] The new name is still used occasionally — such as on the 1912 layer of the historical maps cited in this post — but the original name is still used to this day.

There were two major cholera epidemics that hit Britain in the 19th Century: 1832 and 1849. When the first of these hit Nottingham, the first victim was a Mr T. Farnsworth of Lees' Yard, Narrow Marsh. The disease spread rapidly through the poor, overcrowded areas until it had affected some 1,000 people and caused nearly 300 deaths.[22]

In 1923, a Housing Committee report on the Red Lion Street Unhealthy Area, as it had been labelled, recommended clearance and reconstruction of its streets. This took place in two phases, with the southern side being cleared first.


Beg to Report:-
That the Medical Officer of Health of the City has submitted to them a representation (copy of which is annexed to this Report) that within a certain area within the City there are houses, Courts and Alleys which are unfit for human habitation and that the narrowness, closeness and bad arrangement and bad condition of the streets and houses and groups of houses within such area and the want of light, air, ventilation and proper convenience and other sanitary defects are dangerous or injurious to the health of the inhabitants and that the only method of dealing with the evils connected with such houses, Courts and Alleys and the sanitary defects in the area is an improvement scheme under Part II of the Housing Act, 1890, for the re-arrangement and re-construction of the streets and houses within the Area. [23];EQUALS;NTGM001889&pos=2&action=zoom&id=53336
Figure 3 - Red Lion Street, c1919.[24]

The parents of William George Watts: William Watts — a framework knitter — and Jane Eliza Bradshaw, were both living in Foundry Yard, adjoining the western end of Narrow Marsh, when they got married in 1850. By the 1851 census, they’d moved to Knotted Alley, one street to the east of Foundry Yard, but in both 1861 and 1871 they were living at 17 Narrow Marsh, a comparatively large, three-storey, terraced house.

Their second son, Francis, died as a child in about 1862. This would not be unexpected since half the children born in the marsh area died before they were five years old.[25]

In the 1871 census, the son, William George, was a framework knitter, just like his father, William, and his mother was a “Seamer (of Hose Work)”.[26] At some point during 1871, they began using this address as a lodging house; possibly when William George left home.

However, this lodging house would have been unlike anything that we know of today, and similar establishments were springing up all over the town. Sarah Seaton, in 2008, made the case that they were a feature of the Industrial Revolution, and the result of a massive redistribution of the workforce from rural areas to the industrialised towns and cities. Sarah gave an example of one overcrowded room in a house on Red Lion Street which measured 18’x 10’, and into which over sixty people would sleep each night; occasionally having to share a bed with a complete stranger.[27]

During 1871, a man named Henry Thompson was charged with wilful damage after breaking two panes of glass at their lodging house by throwing a brick through them. He had been lodging there for some time but was asked to leave when he came in, one evening, drunk and abusive. He was found guilty and ordered to pay 21s or serve 14 days with hard labour.[28]

In January and February of 1873 — around the time that William died — the home was offered at auction, together with no. 15 (occupied by a Mr. Pickburn), at a net rental of £22 per annum.[29] We may never know the cause but Jane decided to continue and she ran the lodging house for a further 20 years.

In 1878, Jane had to give evidence at an inquest on the body of a Robert Bassington, aged 24, who had been lodging with her for about a fortnight. It was alleged that the negligence of a medical officer had contributed to his death, but the verdict reached was that he had died of fatty heart disease.[30]

In the 1881 census, Jane’s nephews, Samuel and James Watts, were lodging at 44 Narrow Marsh, and the entry records “no. 44 (Reg Lodging House No 17)”, thus suggesting that she then had more than one establishment.[31]

In 1889, Jane was robbed of £12 10s by a George Richards from Sheffield. He was eventually arrested in Sheffield and served 2 months in prison after pleading guilty.[32];EQUALS;NTGM001890&pos=1&action=zoom&id=53337
Figure 4 - Red Lion Street, c1919.[33]

On the morning of 5 Aug 1893, William George Watts found his mother dead in bed. The bedroom door was fastened and had to be broken open. Witnesses said that she was “worse for drink” the previous night, and that she had been “drinking for nearly a week past”. An inquest was held the same day at the Woodman Inn on Narrow Marsh, and a post mortem concluded that she had died of “coma and pulmonary congestion”. Her liver was found to be greatly enlarged and presented the appearance usually found in habitual drunkards.[34] The National Probate Calendar recorded her effects as £925 19s 7d, which was a tidy sum back then.[35]


William George Watts married Emma Pearson on 17 Apr 1876 (see note 4) but things did not go well for them. In March 1881, William was charged with a violent assault on Emma. A policeman saw him kick his wife, twice, and saw her fall to the ground insensible. It transpired that on the previous night he had kicked her in the mouth resulting in the loss of a tooth. William was sent to prison for 2 months.[36]

On 23 Sep 1882, William was again in court for assaulting Emma. The prosecutrix tried to withdraw the charges but, on seeing the evidence, the bench sentenced him to 21 days in prison.[37]

Another court case occurred in 1885 when he was fined 10s for drunkenness in Narrow Marsh.[38] There were several other cases involving a “William Watts” but it’s not always possible to make a positive identification from a newspaper report alone. As with so many people, he may have had a violent streak when drinking.

In the previous article mentioned in the introduction, I included a recollection from my aunt that Rebecca (Pearson/Watts) Jesson also had a “drink problem”, and that my grandmother (Rebecca’s daughter) had to be partially raised by her paternal grandmother, Mary Jesson.

Having read back though this article, it makes me wonder how I ever came to be here. So many obstacles, so much hardship, and so fragile the relationships. It really is hard to understand life as it was back then.

[1] Note in the hand of Annie Elizabeth Proctor, torn from the corner of a lined sheet. Date unknown. Passed to me by my aunt, Beryl (Proctor) Gamble, following the death of my uncle’s wife, Margaret (Moulds) Proctor, in Feb 2011.
[2] England, birth certificate for Rebecca Pearson, born 23 Nov 1875; citing 7b/304/418, registered Nottingham 1875/Dec [Q4]; General Register Office (GRO), Southport.
[3] England, birth certificate for Emma Pearson, born 3 Jun 1856; citing 7b/214/338, registered Nottingham 1856/Jun [Q2]; GRO.
[4] England, marriage certificate for William [George] Watts and Emma Pearson, married 17 Apr 1876; citing 7b/400/402, registered Nottingham 1876/Jun [Q2]; GRO.
[5] "Nottinghamshire Insight Mapping", Nottingham City Council, GIS tool ( : accessed 30 Oct 2014); Ordnance Survey Licence number 100019317. Initial click required to accept T&Cs. Select 'Historicalfrom the toolbar where it normally says 'Road Map'. Select the 1875 layer.
[6] Kelly's Directory of Derbyshire, Leicestershire & Rutland, Nottinghamshire, 1891. [Part 3: Nottinghamshire], pp.1174-5 (images 186-7 of 543), online PDF, University of Leicester, compiler, Historical Directories ( : accessed 30 Oct 2014), entry for Millstone Lane.
[7] “19th Century Nottingham”, BBC, Jul 2003 ( : accessed 31 Oct 2014); page archived and is no longer updated.
[8] Leg of Mutton Yard (1902). Picture by Nottingham Historical Film Unit. Displayed by permission of Image Ref: NTGM013891.
[9] Hill's Yard (c1910). Picture by Nottingham City Council. Displayed by permission of Image Ref: NTGM013795.
[10] James Granger, OLD NOTTINGHAM: Its Streets, People, etc., 2nd series (Nottingham Daily Express Office, 1904), p.201; reprinted from the Nottingham Daily Express, 3 Oct 1903 – 9 Jul 1904.
[11] Granger, OLD NOTTINGHAM, 2nd series, p.62.
[12] England, marriage certificate for John Pearson and Hannah Hart, married 23 Aug 1851; citing 15/794/447, registered Nottingham 1851/Sep [Q3]; GRO.
[13] “Stealing a Pair of Boots”, Nottinghamshire Guardian (15 Feb 1867): p.2, col.2.
[14] “The Missing Boy in Nottingham”, Nottingham Evening Post (18 Sep 1879): p.4, col.4.
[15] John Frost Sutton, DATE-BOOK of Remarkable & Memorable Events connected with NOTTINGHAM and its neighbourhood 1750-1879, From Authentic Records (Henry Field, Derby Rd, Nottingham, 1880), p.510.
[16] James Granger, OLD NOTTINGHAM: Its Streets, People, etc., [1st series] (Nottingham Daily Express Office, 1902), p.184; reprinted from the Nottingham Daily Express, 7 Nov 1901 – 2 Jun 1902; the author actually disagrees that this “throwing down of fences” did ever occur.
[17] Individually, it would be hard to associate any of these newspaper reports with the Henry who was Emma Pearson’s brother. However, in addition to his name and age, they can all be correlated on one or more other items such as the nature of the offences, the location of the offences, the ever-growing number of previous convictions, and his residential address.
[18] The 1887 layer doesn’t have full coverage and so shows half a screen at this location.
[19] “Honorary Freemen and Freemen", Nottingham City Council ( : accessed 13 Oct 2014), under “Decline and Extension”.
[20] ibid.
[21] Granger, OLD NOTTINGHAM, 2nd series, p.44-45.
[22] The cholera epidemics of 1832 and 1849”, Manuscripts and Special Collections, The University of Nottingham ( : accessed 4 Nov 2014).
[23] 1923 Housing Committee report on the Red Lion Street Unhealthy Area, extract, document reference: CA/TC/10/121/6/12; "Slum Clearance and Re-development", Broad Marsh and Narrow Marsh - The Story of a Nottingham Community, Nottingham County Council ( : accessed 3 Nov 2014).
[24] Red Lion Street (c1919). Picture by Nottingham City Council. Displayed by permission of Image Ref: NTGM001889.
[25] “19th Century Nottingham”, BBC, under “Overcrowding”;
[26] "1871 England, Wales & Scotland Census", database, FindMyPast ( : accessed 4 Nov 2014), household of William Watts (age 42); citing RG 10/3523, folio 42, page 2; The National Archives of the UK (TNA).
[27] Sarah Seaton, "The Common Lodging Houses of Narrow Marsh, 1841 - 1931", speech at society meeting, Keyworth & District Local History Society (Centenary Lounge, Friday 7th Mar 2008); online meeting report ( : accessed 3 Nov 2014).
[28] “Police Intelligence: Wednesday”, Nottinghamshire Guardian (27 Oct 1871): p.7, col.5.
[29] “FREEHOLD TENEMENTS IN NOTTINGHAM AND RADFORD: LOT I”, Nottinghamshire Guardian (17 Jan 1873): p.1; also appearing on (31 Jan): p.1 and (7 Feb): p.1.
[30] “Sudden Death in Nottingham”, Nottingham Evening Post (5 Sep 1878): p.3, col.4.
[31] "1881 England, Wales & Scotland Census", database, FindMyPast ( : accessed 4 Nov 2014), address 44 Red Lion Street, annex to no. 17, all residents being “lodgers”; citing RG 11/3361, folio 120, page 27; TNA.
[32] “Thefts from Lodging Houses”, Nottingham Evening Post (8 May 1889): p.3, col.4.
[33] Red Lion Street (c1919). Picture by Nottingham City Council. Displayed by permission of Image Ref: NTGM001890.
[34] “Death Through Drink in Nottingham”, Nottinghamshire Guardian (8 Aug 1893): p.2, col. 2; same article previously appeared in Nottingham Evening Post (5 Aug 1893): p.3, col.1.
[35] "England & Wales, National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), 1858-1966", digital images, Ancestry ( : accessed 4 Nov 2014), entry for "Jane Watts", died 1893, Nottinghamshire; Principal Probate Registry, Calendar of the Grants of Probate and Letters of Administration made in the Probate Registries of the High Court of Justice in England.
[36] “Violent Assault on a Wife”, Nottinghamshire Guardian (23 Mar 1881): p.2, col.2.
[37] “Assault on a Wife”, Nottingham Evening Post (2 Oct 1882): p.3, col.4.
[38] “Drunkenness &c”, Nottingham Evening Post (10 Sep 1885): p.3, col.5.

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