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Literary Locations #65: The Arkwright Building, Shakespeare Street

John Baird
Sat 4 Jul, 2020

Once described as the “finest pile of public buildings in Nottinghamshire” the Arkwright Building is one of England’s most important places of learning. It was built with the aim to bring education to all those who desired it, regardless of class, sex or financial means.

It was in the mid-1870s that the Nottingham Corporation decided to bring together a further educational college, a public library and a museum, to provide quality education in the centre of Nottingham. The desire was to open up university education to people unable to attend the traditional universities of Oxford or Cambridge. Work began in 1877 on this superb example of late 19th Century architecture, with its Gothic Revival style of gables, arches and pinnacles, many of which survive to this day.

The Corporation had received an anonymous £10,000 private donation on condition that suitable accommodation for lectures was provided and that the Corporation would pay the rest. The Corporation found the extra £61,000 and used land they already owned, known as Horse Pool Close, which had had Shakespeare Street built across it since 1852.

In 1881 the grand development was complete and courses began at University College in the autumn. The former public library - which had taken over the old Artizans’ Library in 1867 – moved from Thurland Street to become Nottingham’s Central Library (remaining there until 1977). The new adult education centre, with its fine lecture rooms and inclusive daytime and evening classes, was the first municipally funded college of further education, leading ‘The Times’ to predict that it would eventually become Nottingham University. Completing the Arkwright Building’s trinity of educational establishments was the Natural History Museum (which moved to Wollaton Hall in 1927). Not only was the Arkwright Building Nottingham’s most significant educational venue, it would play an important role in the history of both our Universities.

The majority of its early students were in the age group 14 upwards, their 'university extension classes’ paving the way for the College to aligned itself with the University of London, an affiliation that allowed University College students to study to degree level. Its first B.A. was awarded in 1884.

The Arkwright Building was a place of learning and literary inspiration for D H Lawrence. He was due to start his studies at University College in 1905 but, monetarily challenged, he decided to continue teaching for another year. By the time he was studying teacher training at University College he had already spent three years as a pupil-teacher in Eastwood and Ilkeston. He was twenty-one when he began his Teacher’s Certificate course and his professors thought he’d “make an excellent teacher of upper classes,” but added, “…for a large class of boys in a rough district he would not have sufficient persistence and enthusiasm.”

Elementary teachers had been trained at University College from 1890. Nottingham was one of the first places in the country to establish day training for teachers, the students studying a combination of educational theory and academic subjects in addition to undertaking a teaching practice in local schools.

Largely unimpressed by his college education, Lawrence wrote that his professors “went on in such a miserable jogtrot, earn-your-money manner that I was startled… I came to feel that I might as well be taught by gramophones… I doubted them, I began to despise or distrust things.” He left the college two years later having gained his certificate but without staying on for a Bachelor’s Degree. He did admit to gaining maturity from the experience and it was during his time here that he completed the second draft of Laetitia later to become his first novel ‘The White Peacock’ (1911).

It was also during this period, in 1907, that Lawrence wrote three stories for the ‘Nottingham Guardian’s Christmas story competition, winning with ‘A Prelude’, entered under the name of his first girlfriend Jessie Chambers.

In ‘The Rainbow’ (chapter 15), the Arkwright Building is described by Ursula Brangwen:

“The big college built of stone, standing in the quiet street, with its rim of grass and lime-trees all so peaceful: she felt it remote, a magic-land. Its architecture was foolish, she knew from her father. Still, it was different from that of all other buildings. Its rather pretty, plaything, Gothic form was almost a style, in the dirty industrial town. She liked the hall, with its big stone chimney-piece of cardboard-like carved stone, with its armorial decoration, looked silly just opposite the bicycle stand and the radiator, whilst the great notice-board with its fluttering papers seemed to slam away all senses of retreat and mystery from the far wall.”

Just inside the building’s main entrance, to the left, remains that “big stone chimney-piece of cardboard-like carved stone...”. To its right is a plaque with the familiar Lawrence phoenix and an inscribed date marking his time there (a date that’s incorrect).

It’s worth visiting the big stone chimney. If you get the chance, head up the stone stairs opposite and look out a window. Perhaps have a read of Lawrence’s poem ‘From A College Window’:

The glimmer of the limes, sun-heavy, sleeping,

Goes trembling past me up the College wall.

Below, the lawn, in soft blue shade is keeping,

The daisy-froth quiescent, softly in thrall.

Beyond the leaves that overhang the street,

Along the flagged, clean pavement summer-white,

Passes the world with shadows at their feet

Going left and right.

Remote, although I hear the beggar's cough,

See the woman's twinkling fingers tend him a coin,

Beyond a world I never want to join.

(from ‘New Poems’, 1916)

After qualifying as a teacher Lawrence took up a post at an elementary school in Croydon. The experiences he gained teaching informed ‘The Rainbow’ in which Ursula is a teacher.

By the 1920s University College moved most of its faculties to the new Highfields site where it achieved university status after World War II, becoming what is now the University of Nottingham. During the war the Luftwaffe had bombed the Arkwright Building. The raid destroyed part of the façade and roof. Two casualties were the statues of James Watt and Georges Cuvier. The four other figures, William Shakespeare, John Milton, Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton, survived and can be seen on the Shakespeare Street side.

Following the war, the Arkwright Building continued its role in education becoming home to the Nottingham & District Technical College. In 1958, with the building now part of the Nottingham Regional College of Technology, the Newton Building opened (city-centre-side of the Arkwright Building). The Newton Building was the city’s first high rise (nine floors). The college's name changes continued and by the 1970s the Arkwright Building was part of the College of Technology which, together with Nottingham School of Art and other institutions, amalgamated to form Trent Polytechnic, then Nottingham Polytechnic which achieved its own University Status in 1993 becoming Nottingham Trent University (NTU).

In that same year Sue Thomas and others devised an MA writing course which has become one of the longest established postgraduate courses of its kind in the UK. The poet and author Gregory Woods was one of the colleagues assisting Thomas in setting up the new MA which took its first intake of students in 1994. Woods is now Emeritus Professor of Gay and Lesbian Studies at NTU.

The course has mostly been taught at NTU’s Clifton site where it has proved to be both popular and successful. To celebrate 25 years of the course, Shoestring Press published ‘25’ in 2019. The book features writers with a connection to the MA course. With contributions from members of staff (past and present), visiting professors and former students, it’s a unique book of original work from a host of award-winning writers spanning a wide variety of genres including fiction, poetry, children’s and young adult fiction, and writing for radio, stage and screen.

‘25’ was launched on Shakespeare Street, near the Arkwright Building, at NTU’s historic University Hall, a former Wesleyan Chapel (pictured above) originally constructed in 1854. 25 writers were selected for inclusion in the collection. They, and many more connected to the MA course, have contributed to Nottingham’s literary output. To highlight some of these writers and their published work, I’ve picked out a title (in brackets) for each writer mentioned below.

Teachers on the early MA course were (or would later become) published writers. There was Sue Thomas herself (‘Correspondence’), the biographers Katherine Frank (‘Crusoe’) and Kathryn Hughes (‘George Eliot’), the multi-genre author Graham Joyce (‘The Facts of Life’), and the poets Catherine Byron (‘Settlements’) and Mahendra Solanki (‘The Lies We Tell’), the latter becoming course leader in 1999.

Sue Thomas later founded trAce Online Writing Centre (1995-2006) at NTU, an early global online community. Other previous leaders of the MA course are the writers David Belbin (‘The Great Deception’) who changed the course’s title to MA Creative Writing, Vicki Bertram (‘Kicking Daffodils’) and Sarah Jackson (‘Pelt’). Rory Waterman (‘Sweet Nothings’) has been course leader since 2013.

Current staff members on the Creative Writing MA also have a wealth of publications to their name. Anthony Cropper (‘Nature’s Magician’) leads the script module. His latest book ‘The Accidental Memoir’ was written with Eve Makis (‘Spice Box Letters’) who leads the fiction module. The aforementioned David Belbin runs a module on Children's and Young Adult Fiction, and Andrew Taylor (‘March’) teaches English and Creative Writing.

Guest speakers on the MA have included some wonderful writers for the page, stage and screen, such as Jon McGregor (‘Reservoir 13’), Jackie Kay (‘Trumpet’), Alison Moore (‘The Lighthouse’), Kate Mosse (‘Labyrinth’), Amanda Whittington (‘Be My Bady’), Miranda Seymour (‘In Byron’s Wake’) and Alan Sillitoe (‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’). Visiting professors include Peter Porter (‘Once Bitten Twice Bitten’), David Almond (‘Skellig’), William Ivory (‘Made in Dagenham’) and Michael Eaton (‘Lockerbie’).

Each year the students produce and publish an anthology of original creative writing. Recent anthologies, ‘Monster’ (2016), ‘Bystander’ (2017) and ‘Crossroads’ (2018), contain fiction, poetry and other writing from the students alongside the work of lecturers, guest lecturers and others.

Beyond the anthology, NTU’s Creative Writing MA has a strong record of publication by its graduates. Here’s a selection of alumna (and selected ‘titles’) to look out for: Nicola Monaghan (‘Dead Flowers’), Kim Slater (‘Smart’), Clare Stevens (‘Blue Tide Rising’), Clare Littleford (‘Beholden’), Maria Allen (‘Before the Earthquake’), Maxine Linnell (‘Breaking the Rules’), Lynda Clark (‘Beyond Kidding’), Kerry Young (‘Pao’), Stephan Collishaw (‘The Song of the Stalk’), Kristina Adams (‘What Happens in London’), Frances Thimann (‘Cello and other stories’), Freda Love Smith (‘Red Velvet Underground’ - part memoir, part cookbook); and poetry from Rebecca Cullen (‘Majid Sits in a Tree’), Mark Goodwin (‘The Ground Aslant’), Rich Goodson (‘Mr Universe’), Jo Dixon (‘A Woman in the Queue’), Zayneb Allak (‘Keine Angst’) and Di Slaney (‘Reward for Winter’).

In 2019 NTU set up the Nottingham Creative Writing Hub, a central place for writers at the University. The Hub is hosted by the Department of English, Philosophy and Communications. Visit the Hub for links to NTU’s writing courses, member profiles, and the latest news about their events, awards and publications.

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