Our story

Our rebel city

As well as being internationally renowned for the legend of Robin Hood, Nottingham has a history of rebellion – from stealing from the rich to give to the poor, to making a stand for the rights of the working classes. Nottingham was the centre of the Luddite rebellion and at the heart of the Chartist movement. Two centuries earlier, we hosted the start of the English Civil War when King Charles I flew the Royal Standard within the Castle. 

Our rebel writers

We have world-class rebel writers in our past, with more to come:

Lord Byron (1788–1824) was a great Romantic poet, some say the best poet writing in English at the time. In the House of Lords, he used his maiden speech to denigrate the ‘benefits’ of automation, which he claimed was making the lot of working class people worse while producing inferior quality goods, and only served to put money in the pockets of the rich.

DH Lawrence (1885–1930) was the son of an Eastwood miner. Lawrence is most famous for 1928’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. His earlier novel, The Rainbow, was banned for obscenity in 1915. One of the world’s most acclaimed novelists, Lawrence wrote extensively about the dehumanising effects of industrialisation and modernity.

Stanley Middleton (1919-2009) was the son of a Bulwell railway worker. After serving in the Second World War, he became a schoolteacher at High Pavement for the rest of his career. From 1958 onwards, he published 44 novels. The best known is Holiday, which won The Booker Prize in 1974. Most of his novels are set in Beechnall, a fictional version of Nottingham.

Alan Sillitoe (1928–2010) was born and brought up in Lenton and Radford. He left school at 14 and worked as a labourer and factory-hand. While in the RAF, he developed tuberculosis, and read widely during his convalescence, after which he took up writing his gritty novels documenting the lives and loves of the working classes.

Other important writers

There are many less-well-known writers in Nottingham’s history who are just as important.

Robert Millhouse (1788–1839) was born and died in Nottingham. As part of the influential Sherwood Forest group he wrote about and campaigned vigorously for the reinstatement of the green spaces of the City. He has a commemorative plaque at Nottingham Castle. 

Mary Howitt (1799–1888) wrote a well-known series of children’s books. She and her husband were contemporaries and friends of literary luminaries including Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell.

Philip James Bailey (1816–1902) spent much of his life working on his ever-expanding poem Festus, an attempt to represent the relationship between God and man, which was much admired by Tennyson.

Katharine Morris (‘Mollie’) (1910–1999) was the daughter of a lace manufacturer. Mollie had her first story published aged nine. The family moved to Bleasby, which inspired Mollie to write five rural novels over 25 years. 

Spencer T Hall (1812-1855) received little education and was put to work on stocking frames as a child. He attended literary gatherings at Richard Howitt’s pharmacy on Low Pavement, walking 14 miles from Sutton-in-Ashfield, then 14 miles home. One of the Sherwood Forest Group, he wrote about the Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire countryside.

Rose Fyleman (1877–1957) wrote children’s poetry and tales about fairies, including ‘A Princess Came to Our Town’, which gives a remarkably detailed description of late 1920s Nottingham. This was reissued in 2015 by Nottingham publisher Five Leaves

“The eighteen months we spent working on our bid to become a UNESCO City of Literature made so many things happen that, in a way, we’d already won.”

Winning the bid - "We've done it!"

Being awarded UNESCO City of Literature is great news for Nottingham. It followed lots of hard work and was, quite frankly, an emotional moment. Our chair, David Belbin, paints a vivid picture:

“We didn’t think we’d done it. And we were OK with that. The eighteen months we spent working on our bid to become a UNESCO City of Literature made so many things happen that, in a way, we’d already won. We encouraged so much creativity and civic pride, engineered numerous events and produced several publications. The process of putting together the bid in itself helped the city’s literature scene to become more joined up. And we made a start on the biggest task of all, using Nottingham literature to improve the city’s literacy.

But UNESCO accreditation is a big ask. We knew from the start that the odds were against us. We were told that UNESCO wanted to reach into continents other than Europe and that there are already two great UNESCO Cities of Literature in the UK.

Our City of Literature will be inclusive and ambitious. We need time to get our infrastructure in place before we work out the most effective way to involve the many people who have offered to help. I’m very proud of my adopted city and the way in which we won this accreditation. I ask everyone not to lose patience with us or expect immediate results. This is only the beginning.”

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