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Literary Locations #78: Hucknall

John Baird
Sun 18 Oct, 2020

Hucknall, known as Hucknall Torkard until 1916, has a proud literary heritage spanning the past two centuries, from Lord Byron’s resting place to the introduction of new literary events.

In 1988, after a bi-centenary celebration of Byron’s birthday, the Newstead Abbey Byron Society was formed. The society’s first Chairman, David Herbert, was succeeded by Ken Purslow, who also served as Chairman of the annual Hucknall Byron Festival, first held in 1998.

Taking place in Hucknall and Newstead Abbey, the Byron Festival offers a variety of activities for all ages. Many events are free to attend and, over the years, local authors and publishers have taken part. One regular speaker is the librarian and Byron scholar Ralph Lloyd-Jones.

Lord Byron’s influence on the town is everywhere.

Carpets, Cinema, Coffee – there’s no escaping our most famous poet.

When Byron died, his long-time companion and valet, William Fletcher (1777-1837), the 'stout yeoman' of ‘Childe Harold's Pilgrimage’, accompanied his body back from Greece. Byron’s body lay overnight at the Blackamoor’s Head Inn behind the Exchange in Nottingham, where thousands paid their respects. Among them was the writer Mary Howitt, who wrote, “We laid our hands upon the coffin. It was a moment of enthusiastic feeling to me...” William Howitt followed the funeral procession before writing his poem ‘A Poet’s Thoughts’.

Lord Byron’s remains were not taken to Newstead, as he had requested in a will, nor Westminster Abbey, due to his ‘questionable morality’; his final destination was to be the Byron family vault in Hucknall. The vault in St Mary Magdalene church had been built in the 17th century by Newstead Abbey’s Sir John Byron, whose wife Cecile was the first to be laid to rest there.

Mourners attending Byron’s funeral included his friends Colonel Wildman, owner of Newstead Abbey, John Cam Hobhouse, a constant friend since his Cambridge days, John Hanson, family lawyer and father figure, and William Fletcher, who was inconsolable.

An album was presented to the church in 1825 to be used to register the names of visitors and record their comments. In 1834 the contents of this album were published in a book entitled ‘Byroniana’, edited by J. M. Langford. The Nottingham poet Philip James Bailey, later to write ‘Festus’, was one of many notable names listed in the book.

In 1852, Lord Byron’s only legitimate daughter, Ada, Lady Lovelace (1815-1852), was buried in the vault. This extract, from ‘Gossip of the Century’, explains why:

‘Sixteen months before her death she paid a visit to the home of her ancestors, and in the great Library at the Abbey, Colonel Wildman quoted a passage from Byron's works to Byron's daughter, and she, touched by the beauty of the words, enquired the name of the author. For reply, Colonel Wildman pointed to the painting of her father which hung on the Library wall. It came as a revelation to her. Instantly she confessed that she was brought up in complete ignorance of all regarding her father. From that time Lady Lovelace devoted herself to a close study of her father's life and works. The loss of the affection of that noble heart, which had so long been kept from her, preyed upon her mind. She fell ill—so ill that she knew she could never hope to recover. In this last illness she wrote to Colonel Wildman a letter, begging to be buried beside her father: “Yes, I will be buried there; not where my mother can join me, but by the side of him who so loved me, and whom I was not taught to love; and this reunion of our bodies in the grave shall be an emblem of union of our spirits in the bosom of the Eternal”.’

A gambler who most likely had extra marital affairs, Ada Lovelace was a true Byron. Like her father, she died aged 36 and was touched by genius. It was her mother, Anne Isabella (‘Annabella’) Milbanke, who steered her away from poetic pursuits and towards science, and Lovelace is credited with having written the first computer programme, her famous ‘notes on the translation’, which followed her collaboration with Charles Babbage, being arguably the most important paper in the history of digital computing pre modern times.

There are many memorials to Lord Byron and Ada Lovelace in St Mary Magdalene church, such as the marble floor-slab donated by the King of Greece in 1881, in recognition of Byron's heroics in their war of independence. Among the interesting artefacts is a memorial to Ann Jackson, placed high on a wall. Jackson was a girlfriend of Byron’s when he was in Southwell. He almost hit her in a shooting accident, an incident he immortalised in an early poem.

Born in Sherwood Rise, Thomas Gerrard Barber arrived in Hucknall in 1904. Twenty years later, as Vicar of St Mary Magdalene Church, he founded a Byron memorial committee on the centenary of the poet’s death. Frustrated by rumours that Byron’s body was not in the vault, and intrigued by the idea that there may be an ancient crypt, Canon Barber sought to investigate. Obtaining the approval of the Home Office and the Reverend Lord Byron of Thrumpton Hall, Canon Barber got permission to open the vault, and, in June 1938, with those involved sworn to secrecy, his meticulously planned undercover operation took place.

A lorry dropped off the required tools and, at staggered times, those involved arrived largely unseen. Present in the church was Canon Barber and his wife, Seymour Cocks (local MP), N. M. Lane (the Surveyor of the Diocese), Holland Walker, Captain McCraith and his wife, Dr Llewellyn, G. L. Willis (vicar’s warden) and his wife, C. G. Campbell and his wife, Geoffrey Johnstone, James ‘Jim’ Bettridge (caretaker/church fireman) and Claude Bullock (photographer). Press were excluded.

It took an hour to ease open the first of the six-inch-thick flagstones, beneath which were eleven stone steps, descending from the nave of the church towards the vault. Barber went first, followed by the surveyor. On examination, there were signs that the vault had been disturbed. Souvenir-hunters had taken items and the poet’s coffin had previously been opened. Had Byron’s body been snatched?

Within the vault’s rectangular chamber were three stacks of coffins in varying states. The right stack, the children’s coffins, had perished. The middle pile belonged to the women. The uppermost of these contained the remains of Ada Lovelace, the last of the Byrons to be buried there. Her coffin was in good condition, her coronet intact. Underneath Lady Lovelace was Lord Byron’s mother, resting upon the debris of other Byron women and their coffins.

The mostly crushed left stack held the peers. At the top, placed above the coffin of the ‘wicked’ 5th Lord Byron, was the poet Lord Byron’s oak coffin. There was no name plate on the lid and some handles were missing. Nearby was an upright chest, within which was an urn encased in lead containing the poet’s heart and brain.

The party disbanded at midnight and operations were delayed until the morning, but Canon Barber, the caretaker and the photographer, returned for closer inspection. Barber noticed that the lid of Lord Byron’s coffin was loose and the leaden case within had been cut open. This was Barber’s chance to prove that the poet’s remains were there. A year later, in his book ‘Byron and Where he is Buried’, published by Henry Morley & Sons of Hucknall, Canon Barber described what he saw when sneaking a look at the poet:

“Reverently, very reverently, I raised the lid, and before my eyes there lay the embalmed body of Byron in as perfect a condition as when it was placed in the coffin one hundred and fourteen years ago. His features and hair easily recognisable from the portraits with which I was so familiar. The serene, almost happy expression on his face made a profound impression upon me. The feet and ankles were uncovered, and I was able to establish the fact that his lameness had been that of his right foot. But enough—I gently lowered the lid of the coffin—and as I did so, breathed a prayer for the peace of his soul."

Canon Barber’s midnight visit has been well documented. What’s less well known is his secret third descent into the vault, taken with the novelist Cecil Roberts. Barber had previously promised Roberts that if he ever got permission to open the vault, to check for an ancient crypt, he’d invite him along, knowing he was an admirer of the poet. Barber had written to Roberts informing him that the vault would be opened but the novelist arrived a day late. Fortunately for Roberts, the vault had not yet been sealed.

Cecil Roberts was taken by Barber to the church where he entered the vault. Under his feet was several inches of debris, decayed wood and innumerable bones. At Byron’s coffin, Roberts felt uneasy as he watched Canon Barber slowly lifting the lid, allowing him to look upon the face of the poet. In the 4th volume of his autobiography, ‘Sunshine and Shadow’ (1972), he described what he saw. In 1971, Roberts returned to the church and met up with James Bettridge, the former caretaker, and they shared their memories of visiting the opened vault. They were (perhaps) the last survivors of the vault’s opening.

Meanwhile, in 1938, the last year the vault had been opened, the Hucknall born actor Robin Bailey (1919-99) made his professional stage debut with the Court Players, as George in ‘The Barretts of Wimpole Street’ at Nottingham’s Theatre Royal, having first been on stage in Hucknall at the Church Hall. The son of a local china and glass merchant, Bailey had been educated at the Henry Mellish Grammar School. His stage career was surpassed by a long TV career that included an appearance in ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’ (1955), a series featuring scripts by Hollywood writers blacklisted during the McCarthy era (a subject of Michael Eaton’s screenplay ‘Fellow Traveller’). For a while, Roberts presented the quiz show, ‘The 64,000 Question’ (based on the US show 'The $64,000 Question'), but his favourite roles were in comedies. He is best remembered for playing Uncle Mort in the TV show 'I Didn't Know Your Cared (1975-79).

Later in life, Robin Bailey voiced audio books, including Nevil Shute’s ‘A Town Like Alice’, and many crime novels, Ruth Rendell’s ‘The Veiled One’, Catherine Aird’s ‘A Religious Body’, and Agatha Christie’s masterpiece, ‘The Murder of Roger Ackroyd’, among them.

Hucknall boasts many literary plaques that, if you look down, you’ll see on the ground in front of the church and public library. Several of these are associated with Byron and Ada Lovelace, while the poet and his daughter are also two of the faces featured on the railing in front of the library.

Outside the church and in the Market Place are other fine tributes, including Nottinghamshire’s only full-size statue of the poet, erected by Elias Lacey in 1903. The statue looks over the Market Place from its position high on the side of the Co-op Building.

Opposite the statue on the other side of the Market Place is Hucknall Library. The library was built in 1887 and gifted to the town by John Edward Ellis and Herbert Byng Paget, two partners of the Hucknall Colliery Company. By the turn of the 20th century, 13,500 books were being borrowed, with around 500 people visiting each day. Extended in the 1960s, the large library is now run by Inspire for Notts County Council. It hosts a crime café.

Hucknall’s oldest pub, the Red Lion, has a plaque outside its entrance letting us know that back in the 18th century it was at one time the rent house of Lord Byron. To the rear of the pub was a row of terraced cottages rented at £7 a year. In 2011 Christie Fearn performed a speech here titled ‘Lord Byron - The First Rockstar?’ in which she compared Byron to David Bowie.

Hucknall can associate itself with a number of writers, past and present. The most famous of these is Eric Coates (1886-1957) one of Britain’s most familiar names in light music. Coates’ autobiography, 'Suite in Four Movements' (1953), came out a year before he wrote what became his most famous score. Within days of writing his score, film producers happened to need a march for their soundtrack. The film was ‘The Dambusters’.

Maureen Newton is chairman of the Hucknall Heritage Society, having started as an officer for the society in 1985. It was a local history course at the University of Nottingham in 1990 that prompted Newton’s writing, which often explores and expands upon details from two significant books about Hucknall, Beardsmore’s ‘History of Hucknall Torkard’ (1909) and Horriben’s ‘Hucknall: Of Lowly Birth and Iron Fortune’ (1974). Maureen Newton writes the ‘Hucknall Torkard Times’, a quarterly history-based newsletter that, this December, will publish its 97th issue. The newsletter contains research, articles, snippets, news and views from Newton and other contributors. The author/historian has written a number of books and booklets about the town.

By Maureen Newton: ‘Factories & Fabrics: A Look at the Textile Industry in Hucknall’, ‘One More Step. A Look at 10 Hucknall Churches’, ‘Steadily Forward March. History of Hucknall Salvation Army’, ‘Challenge of Change: 18th Nottingham (Hucknall) Boys’ Brigade’, ‘Hucknall Carnival Bands’, a Byron Festival souvenir Issue (booklet), and ‘Hucknall Corps 1879 – 2004’, a souvenir brochure of the Salvation Army.

Newton, who also writes a monthly article about Hucknall for the bimonthly NG15 magazine, has compiled a list of Hucknall-related books, booklets and poetry, especially for us. Her list has been added to the bottom of this article.

David Edwards grew up on Carlingford Road, Hucknall, and his aunt taught in the local school, inspiring his love of literature. He now lives in Montreux, Switzerland, and tells us, “Byron used to live here. It’s where he wrote the poem, ‘The Prisoner of Chillon’. I was inspired by Lord Byron [back in Hucknall], and he is still stalking me!”

Edwards’ latest novel is ‘Something to Tell You’ (2019), which comes on the back of his children's fiction, ‘The Black Hand Gang’. Under the pseudonym Jack George Edmunson he had previously written ‘The Sun Sharer’ series, which began in 2010.

“I think a hard start to life inspired all my books,” says Edwards, adding, “Hucknall was dark and brooding in my childhood. My extended family were down the pit or working on the repair of steam trains; coal-driven beasts that thundered past their homes. We had an outside lavvy, a jitty to run down and holler in, huge slag heaps, giant onions off the allotment down by the retired pit ponies, and dark draught beer carried home in cans from the working men’s club where my grandfather played dominoes. The highlight of my day would be sat in front of a black range in the living room, eating homemade bread and raw onion with cheese.”

The author made the news in 2010 when he left his high-flying career and luxury home to devote his time to writing, something he did from a caravan in Wales. He still visits Hucknall where he has many strong memories. “I loved listening to my cousins play in the miners’ brass band,” he says. “It was a time of community support and help from all the family when someone was in trouble. We all lived within walking distance of one another. And the Methodist Chapel was strong, the backbone of our family. Proper songs proper prayers, tough and strong to match the life."

NTU Creative Writing MA graduate, Kristina Adams, lives in Hucknall. Her debut, ‘What Happens in New York’ (2016), is the first in a successful series from an author whose books about friendship and supporting each other aim to inspire people. Adams, who lives with fibromyalgia, finds that reading and writing are a good way to take her mind off the pain she endures. Nottingham plays a role in two of her ‘What Happens in…’ novels, and the city centre provides the setting for ‘Behind the Spotlight’ (2019).

Adams' blog, ‘The Writer's Cookbook’, attracts more than 30,000 aspiring authors each month, seeking advice on all aspects of writing. Her latest book is a Hollywood gossip novel entitled ‘Hollywood Parents’, and she’s currently writing a ghost story set in Hucknall. She tells us, “I think Hucknall’s got so many cool locations and such a great atmosphere. My partner and I have discovered all sorts of spooky spots on walks with our dog that are perfect for my ghost story. We’ve lived here five years and only discovered the other day one of Lord Byron’s poems in the market square. It’s amazing the things you notice when you take the time to look."

Often frequenting Hucknall’s Friday market was Arthur Parkinson and his Mum, seeking plants for their cottage. Little did Parkinson know that his growing interest would lead to him becoming a social media sensation, and a star of the gardening world. Alongside posting to his thousands of Instagram followers, Parkinson has written a book, ‘The Pottery Gardener’ (2018). He continues to attend to his troughs and tubs in his small courtyard in Hucknall.

Gareth Baker moved to Hucknall six years ago when he gave up full-time teaching to pursue his writing and storytelling career. Since 2013 he has written twelve books for children, covering a range of topics and genres as well as writing for different age groups. His most recent release has been a picture book which he has created with the illustrator Vicky Kuhn. He has also written four books for adults, including two thrillers set in Nottingham and Hucknall under the name G. H. Mockford.

“Hucknall's a great town,” says Baker. “It has something for everyone. Lovely independent cafés, a beautiful library, and now a fabulous new cinema.”

He works with Primary Schools across the East Midlands, helping them to promote a love of reading and writing with not only their pupils but their teachers too. He is currently a Patron of Reading in three schools, work he loves because it has a real, lasting impact on children's lives.

The transgender rights activist and Vogue columnist Paris Lees was born in Hucknall. The former Holgate School pupil (now The Holgate Academy), has a book out next year, ‘What It Feels Like for a Girl’ (2021), part memoir, part fiction. It’s a story about growing up poor in noughties Hucknall. The novel’s 13-year-old protagonist is called Byron.

Between 2011 and 2013, the Hucknall Book Day took place in the centre of the town, using rooms at the John Godber Centre and the Central Methodist Church, and featuring local authors Ian C. Douglas, Ian Collinson, Megan Taylor and the late Nigel Pickard. A new Hucknall Book Festival was due to take place this month. Set around #NationalPoetryDay, the new event now hopes to launch next year, with a giant book sale, live entertainment, storytelling workshops, children's activities, poetry recitals and more. Look out for #HuckABook in 2021 as the town continues its proud relationship with literature.

Here is Maureen Newton’s list of Hucknall-related books:

‘Byron and Where He is Buried’ by Thomas Gerrard Barber (featured above).

‘The Children's Pilgrimage’ by Thomas Gerrard Barber.

‘History of Hucknall Torkard’ by J. H. Beardsmore, written as a series of articles in a local newspaper that were collected for publishing in this 1909 book with illustrations. It covers from the beginning of Hucknall to the time of printing with quite a bit of Byron detail.

‘Hucknall: Of Lowly Birth and Iron Fortune’ by Eric Horriben. Written in the 1960s, it may originally have been his thesis for his Local History course with Nottingham University. The book begins in Hucknall’s early days and brings the town up to the mid-20th century. Horriben worked in the local council offices of H.U.D.C. as a Rates Officer and used material held there. He tutored in local history for W.E.A. and was chairman of the Hucknall Heritage Society when it formed in 1984.

‘Hucknall in the 80s’, by Charles A. Eyre Allsebrook & Chris Heane, is a booklet containing a photographic record of shops and businesses at the time.

‘Turning Back the Pages in Old Hucknall’ by Ray Bickel & Sharon Wells. The authors worked in Hucknall Library and had access to the library’s pictorial collection.

‘Mr. King Sent Butter and Mrs Mole Gave Bread’ by Hanby & Barratt. A National Lottery book for the Lovelace Theatre Group.

‘Ben Caunt: The Nottinghamshire Bare-knuckle Boxer Who Became Champion of England’ by David Fells. A comprehensive book about Hucknall’s prize-fighter, Ben Caunt, that’s written by a descendant of his.

‘The Gentle Revolution: 200 Years of Church Education in Hucknall’ by Peter L. Foster who, for many years, was a teacher at Hucknall’s National School.

‘Memorials of the Great War. Hucknall & Newstead Cemeteries’ by Peter L. Foster.

Holgate School’s various departments produced a series of booklets:

‘A Record of the 1881 Census for Albert Street, Hucknall Torkard’.

‘Benjamin Caunt. Prizefighter 1815 – 1861’.

‘Recollections of Hucknall High Street in the 1930s’

‘The Impact of the Industrial Revolution in the Local Area’

‘Hucknall Co-operative Society Ltd: A Century of Progress 1864 – 1964’ (No author listed).

‘Hucknall in the 1930s and 1940s’ by Hucknall Library Local History Group. Tape recordings were made of local people’s memories. It’s one of the few books where the transcribers have tried to replicate the local dialect.

‘Memories of Hucknall Co-operative Society’ by Enid Molsher of the Hucknall Heritage Society.

‘Hucknall in Old Picture Postcards’ by David Ottewell.

‘The Life of Henry Morley and the Birth of Hucknall Dispatch’ by Ann Smith. Smith was the daughter (or granddaughter) of Henry Morley, founder of ‘Hucknall Dispatch’ newspaper. Her husband, Harry Smith, capitalised on his family’s access to the newspaper’s photographic archive, publishing ‘Hucknall Looking Back, Images of Hucknall’ and ‘Hucknall & District Images’.

‘Houses, Houses, Houses, Hucknall from Hamlet to Town’ C.J. Turner for the Hucknall Heritage Society. The author was a former Headteacher of Annie Holgate Junior School, back when she was known as Miss Swarbrick. In the book, she tried to show how Hucknall developed by building houses.

Poetry Collections:

Carl Chamberlain’s ‘Byron’s Town, A Modern Chronicle’.

Lily West’s ‘A Life Worth Living’.

Lorna West Clayton’s ‘A Collection of Poems’ (several booklets with the same title).

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