The Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature website is hosting 20th Century Notts, a weekly series looking back at our county’s history and heritage through a literary lens. These articles are, and will continue to be, first featured on the City of Literature website three years at a time. Once each decade has been completed it will then appear here. So, as they are currently up to 1911, here is the opener, 1900 to 1909.
Book of the year: Willow the King: The Story of a Cricket Match by J. C. Snaith (1900)
In the year 1900, author J. C. Snaith played first-class cricket for Nottinghamshire, the same year in which his novel Willow the King was published. The book, about an annual cricket match between Little Clumpton and Hickory, has been described as ‘the best cricket story ever written’.
A Jack of all genres, Snaith wrote novels of romance, humour, history and crime. He is credited by the Oxford dictionary with the earliest use of the expression ‘street person’.
Between 1890 and 1913 there was an amateur cricket team called the Allahakbarries. This team often featured famous writers, with Arthur Conan Doyle, P. G. Wodehouse, Jerome K. Jerome, A. A. Milne, A. E. W. Mason, E. W. Hornung and Walter Raleigh all turning out for the side set up by J. M. Barrie (pictured bowling). During one of their ‘friendly’ matches, Barrie’s wife took the crease and was promptly struck on the ankle by a yorker from left-hander J. C. Snaith, a ringer if ever there was one. Apparently, Snaith didn’t know whether to appeal for forgiveness or lbw.
It was in 1900 that the poet and playwright John Drinkwater became involved in Nottingham’s amateur theatre scene making an appearance in a performance at the Mechanics. At that time Drinkwater worked on the staff of the Northern Assurance Co. in Victoria Street. The young, cash-stripped office worker used to buy rotten fruit from the Market Place to bulk up his lunch.
Book of the year: Forest Folk by James Prior (1901)
J. M. Barrie commented that James Prior was a ‘fine writer’, and D. H. Lawrence rated him, but Prior never reached the heights his talent warranted.
Forest Folk is Nottingham born Prior’s best-known work. Full of the local vernacular it’s awash with believable characters coming together through the demands of country life, all taking place in North Notts during an eventful period of history that included the Napoleonic Wars and Luddite riots.
The former Forest Folk pub/hotel in Blidworth was one of the few named after a novel. Would Prior, a teetotaller, have approved?
I were born an’ bred I’ th’ forest, and lay mysen to die here; it’s a fairish ordinary sort o’ soil to live on an’ be buried in. (from Forest Folk)
In 2017 Spokesman Books breathed new life into this lost local literary classic.
Book of the year: The Little White Bird by J. M. Barrie (1902)
It was this adult novel that introduced the character Peter Pan, a magical boy who flies around with fairies. Between 1883 and 1884 Barrie had worked as a writer on the Nottingham Journal. It has been suggested that it was in Nottingham that he developed Peter Pan, apparently after witnessing a street urchin wandering through Clifton Grove. It’s more likely that his inspiration for a boy for whom death would be "an awfully big adventure" is likely to be traced back to the death of his brother who died in a skating accident. Barrie later said that his mother had taken some comfort from the thought that her golden boy would never grow up. Barrie did however take regular walks through the Arboretum which does share a few features with Neverland.
The reason birds can fly and we can't is simply because they have perfect faith, for to have faith is to have wings. (from The Little White Bird)
Philip James Bailey died in this year. Nottingham-born Bailey is best-known for his epic poem Festus, initially written at Basford House (pictured) where his father lived. Festus was constantly being added to by Bailey who read his poem to the writers William and Mary Howitt at their Chemist’s shop in Nottingham.
We live in deeds, not years; in thoughts not breaths;
In feelings, not in figures on a dial.
We should count time by heart throbs: he most lives
Who thinks most, feels the noblest, acts the best.
Book of the year: The Management of Money by Lucy H. Yates (1903)
The daughter of a lace-maker, Lucy Helen Yates was born in Basford. She wrote for The Girls’ Own Paper, offering fiction and advice on housekeeping and cookery. One of her many books, The Management of Money, was published in 1903. It was a handbook of finance for women. Yates was a suffragist who lectured on 'The Financial Independence of Women’, advising women to read the money column in the newspapers.
Baroness Emma Magdolna Rozália Mária Jozefa Borbála "Emmuska" Orczy de Orci (better-known as Baroness Orczy) struggled to find a publisher for her novel The Scarlet Pimpernel so she rewrote it as a play. This was first performed at Nottingham’s Theatre Royal in 1903 where it received a lukewarm reception. However, the play’s stars, Fred Terry and Julia Neilson, had confidence in the play and, with a rewritten final act, took it to London’s West End to some success. This led to the novel’s publication in 1905, a book of influence on the mystery genre, arguably creating the ‘masked hero’ prototype: often a person of wealth with an alter ego who operates in the shadows. Zorro, Batman and other heroes have followed our Pimpernel’s lead.
Book of the year: Recollections of Old Nottingham by Anne Gilbert (1904)
Anne Gilbert’s Recollections of Old Nottingham was based on a lecture she had given three years earlier to a Nottingham literary society. In the book, Gilbert described Nottingham as it was in the 19th Century.
J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up premiered in this year at the Duke of York's Theatre in London. Nina Boucicault took the title role and Gerald du Maurier played Captain Hook. During his time in Nottingham, J. M. Barrie lived at 5 Birkland Avenue.
He worked for the Nottingham Journal on Pelham Street.
He was a member of the Nottingham Sette of Odde Volumes, a literary society that met fortnightly on Victoria Street to discuss and read literature. Barrie was said to have been moved when made an honorary member of the group co-founded by John Potter Briscoe.
Book of the year: Bypaths of Nottinghamshire History by John Potter Briscoe (1905)
John Potter Briscoe, Principal Librarian of the Nottingham Free Public Libraries from 1869 to 1916, wrote many books on Nottingham, including Bypaths of Nottinghamshire.
Potter Briscoe was an original member of the Library Association and a leading figure in the development of professional librarianship. He extended Nottingham’s services to provide books especially for children, giving birth to the Nottingham Library for Boys and Girls.
‘The Hemlock Stone’ at Bramcote is one of the enigmas of the County, not only to the rank and file of its inhabitants but to the generally well-informed portion of our community. (from Bypaths of Nottinghamshire)
The sister of the writer Henry Septimus Sutton, and daughter of a publisher/bookseller Richard Sutton, Mrs. Eliza S. Oldham died in this year. Oldham was author of The Haunted House (1863) and By the Trent (1864), the latter being an award-winning novel set in a fictionalised Nottingham.
Upon the river the wind rode, and with playful hands turned back the ripples, and carved them curiously, and whipped their edges softy into foam. (from By the Trent)
Book of the year: The Clifton Book (Nottingham) by Rev. Rosslyn Bruce (1906)
The Rector of Clifton’s The Clifton Book (Nottingham) was published in Nottingham by Henry B. Saxton. Recording a thousand years of local history it was compiled by the Notts born writer, clergyman and animal rights campaigner Francis Rosslyn Courtenay Bruce (1871-1956).
Having been an uncertificated teacher at his local chapel in Eastwood, a twenty-one-year-old D. H. Lawrence took up a two-year teacher training course at University College, Nottingham.
‘The big college built of stone,’ at which Lawrence attended, is now NTU’s Arkwright Building. Lawrence was critical of his education here, writing 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.’
Lawrence did admit to gaining maturity from the experience, and it was during his time at University College that he began to write Laetitia later to become The White Peacock.
He was assessed as being ‘well-read, scholarly and refined.’ Whilst his professors thought he’d ‘make an excellent teacher of upper classes,’ they added, ‘but for a large class of boys in a rough district he would not have sufficient persistence and enthusiasm.’
The big college built of stone, standing in the quiet street, with a rim of grass and lime-trees all so peaceful: she felt it remote, a magic-land. Ursula Brangwen’s view of University College, from D. H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow (1915).
Book of the year: Gods and Heroes of the North by Alice Zimmern (1907)
Nottingham born Alice Zimmern was a writer, translator and suffragist whose books made a big contribution to the debate on the education and rights of women. Gods and Heroes of the North published by Longmans, Green and co. tells of the Gods worshipped by our English ancestors.
When the Angles and Saxons invaded Britain and gradually spread their rule over the greater part of this island, they brought with them their own customs and religion. (from Gods and Heroes of the North by Alice Zimmern)
Dudley Dexter Watkins (1907-1969) came to Nottingham as a three-year-old and spent his formative years here. A student at Nottingham’s School of Art, he went on to illustrate the Scottish comics The Broons and Oor Wullie.
He also created strips for The Beano, The Dandy and The Beezer, drawing characters such as Lord Snooty and Desperate Dan. Whilst working on the D. C. Thompson comics Watkins was the only artist allowed to sign his work.
Book of the year: The Children's Encyclopedia originated and edited by Arthur Mee (1908)
Stapleford-born Arthur Mee was a journalist at our Post and our Express, and he edited our Evening News. The founder of the Children’s Encyclopedia, Children’s Newspaper, Children’s Shakespeare and Children’s Bible, he produced over a million words a year. The son of a militant non-conformist, Mee refused an honorary title several times during his life.
His Children’s Encyclopedia broke new ground in its approach to education, aiming to make learning interesting and enjoyable. With clearly-written articles it intended to develop character and a sense of duty.
It is a Big Book for Little People, and it has come into the world to make your life happy and wise and good. That is what we are meant to be. That is what we will help each other to be, Your affectionate friend, Arthur Mee. (from The Children’s Encyclopedia)
Book of the year: God the Known and God the Unknown by Samuel Butler (1909)
Samuel Butler was born at the rectory in the village of Langar, near Bingham. God the Known and God the Unknown, a philosophical work of Butler’s, was published posthumously in this year. First serialised in The Examiner, the author discusses many topics, including spirituality, the existence of God, pantheism, and Orthodox theism. Though anti-Charles Darwin, Butler was not anti-evolution, and he rightly thought that Darwin took much from his grandfather, the Notts-born poet Erasmus Darwin, a man Butler had more time for.
Mankind has ever been ready to discuss matters in the inverse ratio of their importance, so that the more closely a question is felt to touch the hearts of all of us, the more incumbent it is considered upon prudent people to profess that it does not exist, to frown it down, to tell it to hold its tongue, to maintain that it has long been finally settled, so that there is now no question concerning it. (from God the Known and God the Unknown)
The son of a wine merchant, Geoffrey Trease was born in 1909 in Chaucer Street, in the Arboretum area. Trease was educated at Nottingham High School where he was head boy, leading to a scholarship to study Classics at Oxford, only to leave after a year to focus on his writing.
At one time, Trease had more books in print than any other British author. His many titles included children’s books, novels, autobiography, criticism and historical studies, such as Portrait of a Cavalier, the life of the duke who built Nottingham Castle.