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Crappest Jobs in Nottingham

31 December 08 words: Michael Abbott
illustrations: Rikki Marr

Crap jobs in the City of Nottingham, 600AD - 2008AD: A Retrospective

Sick of your rubbish job? Never mind, at least you’re not dipping your hands in wee, carrying your gaffer about, or being strangled by lace-making machinery – all major industries in Notts back in the day…

In 600AD, you’d probably be: on the farm, seeing as offices and factories weren’t invented then. And neither was the dole, or being on the sick. Or tellies. Yes, living off the land was the thing back then, and continued to be so for the next, ooh, 800 years or so.

If you were dead lucky, you’d be: working as a brewer. Ale was an incredibly important product back in the day; not only did it take your mind off having a life expectancy in the mid-thirties, it actually kept you alive for a few more years, seeing as the water was potentially lethal. Brewing was a niche industry all over the country, but only Nottingham – with its network of caves offering a constant temperature and humidity that was conveniently perfect for malting – could do it all year round.

But if you were really unlucky, you'd be: manning Mester Snott’s toll bridge across the Trent. Long hours, surly, pissed-off customers, and all the carts looked the same.

Your working conditions were: pretty decent-ish. Work was a stone’s throw from your hut. You were out in the sun. Nottingham was a big allotment, really, without the convenience of a nearby Wilko’s.  

Your snap tin would probably contain: Whatever you could grow, and a hunk of bread that your missus spent as much as four hours a day to make, what with having to grind up wheat, rye, oats and barley between two plate-sized stones to make the ‘flour’.     

After work, you'd be: getting pissed up in order to get the taste of manky bread out your mouth.

In the 1300s, you’d probably be: working the land for a Lord of the Manor. Thanks to the good old feudal system, approximately 90% of us were grafting for someone else’s benefit. Naturally, new-fangled trades were coming in, borne out by street names that still exist today: Fletcher Gate (from the Saxon for ‘flesh hewers’, or butchers), Beast Market Hill, Bridlesmith Gate, etc. Sadly, we somehow lost Blow Bladder Street (part of Fletcher Gate where they made musical instruments using bladders as the wind-bag on pipes!), Fair Maiden Lane (off Stoney Street) and Whore Lane. Next to BZR.

If you were dead lucky, you’d be: an alabaster carver. Our lads were the absolute top rank in their field, so much so that ‘Nottingham Alabaster’ became a catch-all term for all sculptures of the period, rather like Hoover and vacuum cleaners. The best local carvers made an absolute packet; ancient records show that Windsor Castle forked out £200 for a carved altar piece.

But if you were really unlucky, you'd be: soaking animal hides in a vat of horse shit and piss for a couple of weeks, then scraping the fat off it and stretching it and making leather. The tanning industry was huge in Notts, and ran from where the Loggerheads is now all the way to the Lace Market. The downside of this was that Nottingham funked so badly that not even the rats would go there. The upside – according to legend – was that Notts only had a dozen or so fatalities from the bubonic plague, as opposed to the one-in-two death rate in other towns across Europe.

Your working conditions were: unbelievably squalid. Not only were our ancestors caked in shit and piss, they also couldn’t be arsed to wash and were lifting with lice, the chatty boggers.  

Your snap tin would probably contain: a surprisingly tip-top selection of fresh fruit and veg, and even fish. The mediaeval diet was pretty good, meaning that most Nottinghamians of working age were tall and fit.

After work, you'd be: having your tea and getting your head down.These poor bastards used to go at it eighteen hours a day. Fortunately, Nottingham’s foremost leisure pursuit – buying crap – kicked off round about this time, due to the city’s handy location and the addition of that French settlement that was clustered on Castle Rock. A Saturday market attracted peddlers and hawkers from as far afield as Yorkshire and Norfolk. And what’s this? An annual ‘Goose Fair’? It’ll never catch on…

In the 1600s, you’d probably be: a farmer, still, although vacancies were starting to arise for manufacturing jobs in town. Lots of building work available too, as Notts was on the up. We’d been granted a royal charter, making us the de facto commercial powerhouse in the East Midlands, so down came the wood-and-horse-shit domiciles and up went new buildings with state-of-the-art things like bricks and tiles. And if you didn’t fancy that, you could be recruited by either the Roundheads or Cavaliers in the Sal, and have a bang on that Civil War thing everyone was going on about. 

If you were dead lucky, you’d be: a silk dresser, making dead expensive clobber and accessories for people with more money than sense and togging out yourself and your mates on the cheap. Bit like working at Smithy’s today, then.

But if you were really unlucky, you'd be: a sedan-chair bearer. Massively plush armchairs set on runners were the must-have, ultra-pimpin’ vehicle for anyone with a bit of cash (which was quite a few people by this time). Problem was, you and three equally brick shithouse-like mates had the job of lugging your gaffer round town. And presumably spending Sunday nights pegging it round Broad Marsh with the Stuart version of UV lighting protruding from your master’s arse. 

Your working conditions were: a combination of lots of smoke, lots of dirt and lots of accidents from all the manufacturing and sedan-racing across the town centre. 

Your snap tin would probably contain: unleavened black bread with some boiled grain, cheese, and loads of veg. No meat, though; any domestic animal was kept for its eggs or milk. 

After work, you'd be: knackered, even though you only worked a mere 16 hours a day. Possibly checking out any traveling musicians and plays who strolled into town every now and then. 

By the 1800s, you’d probably be: caught right up in the Industrial Revolution, working your genitalia off in a factory, mill or mine. Nottingham was right at the forefront of the mass production boom, and it showed; a mass exodus to the city for work saw our population rise from 29,000 in 1801 to over 50,000 in 1841. Seeing as the boundaries of the city didn’t open up to swallow vast tracts of former farmland until 1865, town was heaving. Obviously, lace was the major industry; the machine that copied hand-made lace was invented by a Derby lad called John Heathcoat, but when his patent ran out, scores of Nottingham entrepreneurs ripped it off - ha ha! – and within a decade, Notts was the dominant lace city in the world, with factories running from Canning Circus to the bottom of Carlton Hill. And the Lace Market, of course.

If you were dead lucky, you’d be: running your own shop or market stall in a family-owned business - like FG Garton, who invented HP Sauce in his grocer’s, and then gave away the recipe and brand to settle a debt. The twat.

But if you were really unlucky, you'd be: in the workhouse, knocking back gruel and doing the most menial of labour - possibly the one in Southwell, which was so deliberately grim and austere that Victorian legislation made every other workhouse in the county follow its lead. Nice.

Your working conditions were: not brilliant, usually consisting of 16 to 18 hours in the vicinity of a massive and temperamental machine that was prone to toppling over, snagging you with its assorted flailing gubbins, or exploding. For next to nothing in pay. 

Your snap tin would probably contain: some suet pudding and boiled spuds. Maybe the odd pint of soup or broth. Meat? Only on Sundays. If you’re lucky.

After work, you'd be: trying to stay alive. Nottingham was renowned for being one of the most densely populated places in the British Empire at one point, meaning that viruses and disease spread like wildfire – particularly in your one-room house, on your only mattress, with the rest of your family.

By the 1950s, you’d probably be: running straight out of school at the age of fifteen right into the loving arms of the factory of your choice. Raleigh, Boots and Players absolutely dominated the job market, but you could also take your pick from Sturmey-Archer, Speedo, the local Royal Ordnance in the Meadows, the massive telephone exchange on Alfreton Road, or a host of smaller factories and offices. 

If you were dead lucky, you’d be: Working at that new University of Nottingham place, which was granted university status in 1948 (although it has roots going back as far as 1798, giving it a serious claim to being the third oldest Uni after Oxbridge).

But if you were really unlucky, you'd be: havingyour quiff shorn off and doing a two-year stint of National Service (which was compulsory for every healthy man between 17 and 21 from 1950 to 1960), sharing a barracks with other assorted herberts and hoping that the Cold War doesn’t heat up.

Your working conditions were: a quantum leap from anything even 30 years previous. Unionisation ensured a decent-ish wage and safer premises, overtime if you want it, a brand new National Health Service, a Welfare State, you’d probably have a cupboard full of Players vouchers and England were going to win the World Cup in a decade or so’s time.

Your snap tin would probably contain: Cobs, and loads on ‘em. War rationing only ended properly in 1954, so stodge both sweet and savoury was the order of the day. And it’s not like you’re not gonna burn it off at your lathe in the afternoon, right?

After work, you'd be: well, if you were Arthur Seaton, you’d be a) getting kaylide, b) tipping over cars in Canning Circus, and c) knocking off your workmate’s missus. The post-war period appears now to be an absolute golden age for the average grafter, with more leisure time and leisure opportunities.

In 2008, you’re probably: not in a factory. Of the top ten employers in Notts, only one is a manufacturing company (Boots), and only three more in the top thirty (Imperial Tobacco, Rolls Royce and Games Workshop). Players was swallowed by Imperial twenty years ago. Raleigh was bought out by – spit! – Derby International at the same time and moved production to China. Like most other cities, service culture reigns supreme – the two local councils, the two local unis, the local NHS and Police and the QMC are the biggest employers now. Oh, and there’s a few shops and pubs, too. In 2004, Nottingham’s gross domestic product per capita was second in England only to London’s. 

If you’re dead lucky, you’re: in a job that’s not going to take a direct hit from the credit crunch. 

If you’re really unlucky, you're: looking to make a living doing something vaguely creative or media-ish, especially when there are so many graduates sticking around. One box office job in the city attracted over 200 applications from arts grads desperate to get a foot on the ladder, and the established media companies in the city are pretty much closed shops. 

Your working conditions probably: involve you hunched over a monitor, dicking about on Facebook or YouTube; according to a recent survey, 25% of office employers waste more than four hours a week on cyber-dossing (the other 75% presumably position their monitors away from doors and windows). On the other hand, 55% of us are now working unpaid overtime.

Your snap tin probably contains: Nothing. It’s most likely in the cupboard, seeing as there’s a Greggs on virtually every street. Just because we’re not working in factories doesn’t mean we can’t eat like we do.

After work, you're: in the pub, reading this.


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