The Victorian music hall, the place where normal folk went to sink a few drinks, watch some light entertainment and generally let loose. One of the big appeals being that you could drink and smoke to your heart’s content, something that was prohibited in ‘proper’ theatres. In the late-eighteenth century Nottingham boasted a fair few around the city, but these days the Malt Cross is the only one left standing in its original function. Built in 1877, it was a late-comer to the scene and although not the fanciest one in town, it was considered more high class than a lot of the ‘free and easies’. Originally it was just blokes who frequented these sorts of establishments, but the ladies did begin to get in on the action near the end of the century.
The man who originally built the Malt Cross was a bit of a jack of all trades, who went by the name of Charles Weldon and purchased the music hall on borrowed money. His building plans for ‘A Public House and Skating Rink’ were rejected four times for various reasons before he finally got approval. The authorities obviously never did any follow-up checks because what was actually built barely resembled what was okayed. There’s no record of the basement ever being a skating rink – which is a crying shame, because drunk people on skates, what could possibly go wrong? The stage between the ground and first floor, the cast iron columns, the size of the ‘wells’ and the sub-basement weren’t on the plans either. The architect, Edwin Hill, must have been pretty good at thinking on his feet because they built the entire thing in six months and not to plan. But hey, nothing like making it up as you go along.
Even the roof, one of the main architecturally fascinating features of the building, was a last minute amendment. The huge arched, glazed roof was meant to be made from cast iron frames but instead they were constructed out of laminated timber. It’s been a bit of a mystery for a long time as it was found to have no nails or bolts holding it together. It’s been up there for over a century though, so we don’t reckon it’s going to fall in any time soon. When it did open on 8 October 1877 – the rush job was so that it could be opened in time for Goose Fair, which at the time was still held in the Old Market Square – it was a two storey music hall with a two storeyed dining and billiard suite below. Mr Weldon only managed to hold on to it for a few years before the mortgage of £5,500 was foreclosed in 1880. It was then subject to a frequent change of management with William Hulse taking the reins from 1883 – 1889, E.F. Buxenstein for a year in 1891, Arthur B. Johnson for a slightly lengthier period of 1893 – 1900, and then into the hands of the most excellently named Lewis Thompson Donkersley between 1902 - 1904.
A popular act of the day who played at the Malt Cross was Sam Torr. Hailing from Beeston, his tune Daddy-O, where he dressed with a dummy prop and sang and danced, sent the crowds wild. Different times, people... Fred Karno of Karno’s Army undoubtedly would have performed his comic acrobatic routine. Credited with inventing the classic ‘custard pie in face’ gag, he was quite the draw, and two notable comedians who worked with him in their earlier days were Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel – although sadly neither played at the Malt Cross.
During this year’s renovations, secret passageways in the basement levels were found and it’s thought they would have been an escape route for when police raided the premises during cock fights. It probably isn’t too much of a stretch of the imagination to assume that it was the proprietor William Hulse who might have brought that kind of ‘fun’ to the hall as he was described as “a fine sportsman, fond of fighting, ratting and cock fighting…”
The aforementioned Sam Torr took over managing the premises in 1911 following a decline in standards. He tried to raise the reputation but the courts got involved in 1914 just before the First World War, shutting the hall down when magistrates heard it had become “a haunt for felons and whores.” It’s more than likely that the rooms above what is now Non-Stop – a space which was part of the original Malt Cross – were utilised for the kind of kicks you pay for.
Left empty during the war years, it was passed to wholesale drapers Chapman and Watson after 1918 who used it as a warehouse until the late seventies. Amazingly they never actually knocked anything down in the quest for extra space and although not exactly ‘looked after’, the building’s structure and interior features were left relatively unscathed during their residency. Not saying that it wasn’t a massive restoration job when it was bought in 1981 by Purdy and Klein, who wanted it to relive its days as a music hall. They re-opened the ground and first floors as a venue in 1983, while the basement was let out to Trattoria Conti, an Italian restaurant – and who’s tastefully tiled floor was unearthed just a couple of months ago.
In 1989 the lease was purchased by the Potter’s House Trust, a charity who renamed it The Potter’s House and changed it to a coffee shop and as a place to provide support and counselling to people in need. The Trust applied for a whole host of funding and in 1997 they successfully secured £1.8m for a further restoration project and it was re-opened in 1998 as a variety venue with live music, comedy and theatre.
A rather interesting mural that was, thankfully, painted over in the 1997 restorations.
In 2003 The Malt Cross was set up by a group of churches based in the city centre, hoping to preserve the building and help the community with outreach work. If you’ve ever seen the Street Pastors helping inebriated people in town on a Friday or Saturday night, they are all based at the Malt Cross. Since the Sapna Indian restaurant closed its doors a few years ago, the basement levels of the building have remained unoccupied, and it’s these that the majority of the restoration grants have enabled the Malt Cross to get properly stuck in to. So, what have they dug up in the last few months? They found that the plaster pillars in the basement were actually hiding the original cast iron columns that extend from the ground floor all the way down. They’ve also unearthed an original Victorian glazed archway, a Victorian safe, traditional barrel holders, and more. The really exciting bit has been the hidden room they found behind a fake fireplace, plus hidden passageways and concealed rooms elsewhere in the basement levels. It’s like something out of an Edwardian mystery story. Going deeper underground, the caves below the sub-basement date back to the Carmelite monks, and the herringbone brick floor is pretty fancy for a cave. The space would have been used to store food and drink, so they’re not quite sure why someone has made such an effort when the cave floor itself would have been adequate. Answers on a postcard...
The well in the cave under the Malt Cross' sub-basement. photo: David Severn
And all that money being spent means that we the public can now see the entire building. The basement levels have a swanky new sound-proof recording studio, a meeting room, a workshop, a gallery and there will be tours around the caves, and, fingers crossed, some whisky tasting.
So there you have it, ladies and gentlemen, the Malt Cross. Despite it all, it’s still standing after 127 years, but we’d not be lying saying it doesn’t look a day over seventeen.
The Malt Cross re-opened on Wednesday 29 October 2014. Tours are available, £3, St James's Street, NG1 6FG.