I only knew two things about Nottinghamshire before the Shitron, Nelson and I swanned in. First, that it was the location for England’s most gravest personal insult, although in order to keep it suitable for the children, it was best disguised in anagram form.
And as for the other fact: it was the birthplace of England’s most tenacious, most virtuous paragon. The one who had taken on power in all of its corrupted forms: exposing the cruelty of churches some of our national charities as well as the establishment itself. A pertinacious seeker of redress on behalf of their victims. The true hero of Nottinghamshire needs no epithet, of course.
Margaret Humphreys, who is the real-life legend of the county, says of the City of the Snots, “My home town boasts many attractive features, but the evening rush-hour traffic is not one of them.” I was inclined to agree with her as I skirted around what may well be Britain’s most iconic council house.
I have never lived in one myself, being a child of two stately homes*, and a myriad of rentals, one can, no doubt with ease, imagine the sort of contempt we held for them. In my defence, I maintain this isn’t exclusive to the elite nor the fellow boarding school pseudos: the media of all classes loves to portray council estates as squalid, crime-ridden ghettoes, suitable for only the most despairing of people. Most typically, these agglomerates are denounced as nothing but havens for the work shy, those whose efforts to obtain fulfilling employment is depicted as little more than a sop for continuing their benefit claims rather, those who shirk any sincere willingness to contribute to society.
It is an oft-held myth that one doesn’t leave a sink estate, one escapes. It is also the classic example of she who controls the rhetoric, controls the mind. Conversely, Teresa May MP, former British Prime Minister, called our national social housing schemes, “the biggest collective leap in living standards in British History,” and it is hard to debate that assertion when one contemplates the squalor that was Nottingham’s slums in the 1920s.
Families, penurious and enervated after the First World War, and their menfolk having been compulsorily enlisted into combat, were out of ideas, innovation and options. By mid-1916, nearly twenty-five thousand men, a fifth of Nottingham’s entire male stock old or young, had volunteered for battle but it was insufficient to meet the burden of war. Following the introduction of conscription, a further twenty-five thousand, the bulk of Nottingham’s eligible men aged between 18 and 51, were dragooned into military service despite over fifteen thousand actively demurring the mandate. Their wishes and feelings were first ridiculed, then overruled by martial courts, and any conscientious objectors subsequently shunned for cowardice.
By 1918, nearly five and a half thousand of Nottingham’s menfolk, over ten percent of those called to fight for His Majesty, had perished. It is telling that three years after the ceasefire, Nottingham’s General Hospital was still treating in excess of eighteen thousand permanently disabled former servicemen: one third of those who either volunteered or were called.
Whilst war is held as the ultimate failure of social and political responsibility, from the adult woman’s perspective, conscription was the state-sanctioned abandonment of family life. The passing of The Military Service Act in 1916 forced children to grow up with fathers and mothers to supply for them without their primary providers. It almost goes without saying this was the era that induced the belief that the woman’s role was in the home and to aspire otherwise was unnatural, or the fanciful chatter of the free radical suffragette. Only men could be lionhearts, and only men were placed in a position that recognised their sacrifice in the fields of Flanders and beyond. And it is almost always men’s names that are listed on the monuments erected in almost every hamlet, town and village, lest we forget.
The women’s job was to put up, shut up and get on with it. For the designated heroes fortunate to be reinstated back to civilian life, they returned to decimated cities struggling to accommodate them, let alone cope with the trauma that war had inflicted upon the psyche. The women’s mental health goes unrecorded, of course. Much lamented, however, was the men’s lack of employability and resettlement. It was a national scandal in the brewing, and radical shifts in public policy are only convened under the threat of revolution.
Perhaps, in this instance, a more kindly view is required. In the race to care for the survivors, prefabricated high-rises of concrete and steel were thrown up. In reality, they were nothing short of brutal, sunshine-occluding eyesores. Nonetheless, the tower blocks were a means for Nottingham’s councillors to resolve the pressures besetting the city’s boundary, brimming as it was with impoverishment, sickness and degradation. Their legacy, though, sees them portrayed as concrete boxes infested with crime, vandalism and piss-soaked stairwells. Consequently, any city of tall buildings, like that of Nottingham, is portrayed as a modern-day…
…much in need of a Batman to save the day.
Enter the Chairman of the Housing Committee who conceived of the archetypal council house following a trip to Scotland. What is less well known to the world at large is, snobbery aside, England’s clay-riven lands make for a weak base, requiring more concrete reinforcement than would be needed in the rock-basins than underpin the larger continents.
That is the practical explanation as to why, despite our population density, we do not typically build upwards, and subsequently it has to be the planners' preference to build terraces and semi-detached lodgings of basic brick, standing line astern in crescents and rows. Back in the time between the wars, most homes came with outdoor privies in small courtyards, suitable for keeping one or two pieces of livestock or for storing coal. Identikit front doors opened straight onto the narrow streets, across which Monday’s laundry hung weather-permitting. But such idylls were hampered by a shortage of skilled labour, building materials and time.
It was the Leader of the Housing Committee, and construction company owner, William Crane, who brought into being the concrete-walled, metal A-framed, prefabricated home. In Nottinghamshire, such structures are forever immortalised as “Crane Houses” in recognition of the esteemed Chairman.
Within twenty years of the ending of the first world war, Nottinghamshire became the county most lauded for having the swiftest, most effective builders of state-subsidised living quarters. Many of the much-maligned, pebble-dashed prefabs are still standing today, having outlasted their ten-year life expectancy by one hundred years and counting. What also endures is the debate on whether some stratas should continue to be housed for below-market rates, when other citizens are confined to a choice between a lifetime’s debt or leasing from a private second-home owner. Is the taxman just a modern day Robin Hood, taking from the wealthy to re-allocate to the poor, or are the poor simply too workshy to pay their fair way in society?
Back in the city of Nottingham, on March 17th, 1927, eight years after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, which formally ended the first world war, the Chairman of the Estates Committee, Alderman Herbert Bowles, laid the foundation stone of the grandest state building to be commissioned in the UK in the twentieth century. Costing in the region of £500,000 (a cool £40 million in 2023’s money), the controversy was smoothed over by the City Councillor’s very public assurance that business taxes would keep it solvent rather than any increase in housing rates. Quite what the entrepreneurs of Nottingham had to say about that is anyone’s guess. Nonetheless, Nottingham Council House was erected in three short years. The final stage of construction was commemorated by the placement of a little john within its striking dome.
I was somewhat dispirited to find that Little John was not a public convenience, but rather England’s fifth-biggest bell. Weighing in at ten and a half tonnes, it was quickly, with typical English wryness, dubbed Little John after Robin Hood’s most favoured and somewhat over-sized lieutenant. With deep resonance, Little John reminds the city-dwelling denizens of its existence every fifteen minutes, and sometimes when the technology fails, all through the night too.
Nottingham’s Council House, like those of most boarding schools, is now a grade II listed baroque edifice and envy of many a market square. The centrepiece is its eight portland stone columns, holding aloft a facade depicting the town councils’ twenty-one divisions who had pledged to serve the merry folk of Nottinghamshire. Quite what those twenty-one faculties were remains a mystery to me, but typically a town council’s duties are restricted to the power to provide and manage public amenities such as parks, washhouses, cemeteries, bridleways, bus shelters, rubbish bins, village halls and war memorials. These days most of the departments have been relocated for reasons of fiscal matters to Loxley House, clearly the businessfolk of Nottinghamshire failed to keep up with the councillors’ aspirations!
County Councils, on the other hand, tackle the wide-ranging social issues and needs affecting a region and devise policies for addressing them. They are funded both through local taxation (council tax) and government grants for which they must compete. Thus, they are less concerned with the management of amenities, but instead concentrate on the provision of services such as housing & highways, environmental protection, the promotion of arts & culture, planning & development, as well as, of course, the facilitation of children’s and adults’ services.
The latter assignment is collectively lumped together by most as “social services”. It was they who employed the Nottingham born and bred, Margaret Humphries. Her role required her to interact with parents who, for various reasons, were not well equipped to raise their own children. No doubt it is a thankless task that most would baulk at if given the responsibility. In her spare time, she voluntarily ran a group helping adult adoptees and looked-after children talk about their experiences and world-view, helping them to make sense of their lives.
Life is full of remarkable, upending events and then there are those moments that are so unremarkable, one doesn’t realise the significance until later. Just before I departed for Nottinghamshire, I enjoyed a coffee with a friend in one of those fancy boutique places. The kind that set themselves apart with Farrow and Ball paintwork; a hotch-potch of antique chairs and tables, all with wobbly legs; faux-stained vintage pictures and a feature wall in which to contrast the rest of the decor. This particular one had opted to re-home the unwanted, oft-rotated books found gathering dust in high-street charity shops. Several hundred examples of such fodder had been recycled to create a feature wall. One of the books, a hardback, screamed out “Empty Cradles” in bright red capital letters. It caught my eye. For a quick donation to charity it was mine.
Nobody just puts children on a boat and sends them halfway across the world without their parents - that was Margaret’s initial disbelieving initial reaction to meeting a woman who claimed her brother had been sent to Australia when she was aged just four.
As a social worker, Margaret’s role was to make decisions on behalf of children. “What will she think years from now,” she asked herself in the opening chapter, having just removed someone’s daughter from the family home, “What will she think about the decisions being made for her? What will she think about being separated from her mother and father?” at the behest of the county?
“Empty Cradles” tells the stories of children being shipped overseas. She, and they, went on to discover that almost everything one was told as a child was a lie. Not all were born in Nottingham, but many were told their parents had died, or hadn’t wanted them, before being transported to Australia, Rhodesia and Canada. Their role? To populate it for the purposes of protecting England’s former colonies against the threat of multiculturalism, for the expressed purpose of keeping those countries white. Those children grew up, and yet were never offered citizenship of the host country and had seemingly no ties to this one. A lifelong legacy of asking themselves, “Who are you? Where are you from? What’s your heritage?”
England’s taken children were, at the request of the Australian and Canadian governments, and complicit with ours were removed from their country of birth, to be assigned to charity-run Christian institutions - to go on to serve the commonwealth as farmhands, domestic workers and breeders of the next generations. Only those relocated to
spoke positively about their experiences - little wonder given they were to join the white ruling ranks of the colony, and largely were adopted into host families. The remainder of the migrant children talk about hellish institutional life, without reprieve, at the mercy of cruel or cold caretakers, far from anything familiar.
“How could they? How could they?” It is a common refrain. How could the boarding school elite, many themselves abandoned to an institution as children, go on to put in place such a devastating policy?
Margeret Humpreys, Nottingham’s most authentic hero, went on to set up the Child Migrants Trust and write the book “Empty Cradles” . Later, the essence of the book was fictionalised into “Oranges and Sunshine”; the royalties from which fund the charity. Like many, it struggles to get sufficient income to complete its primary objective of tracking down surviving relatives for the discarded, abandoned children who forever will ask “How could they?”
Many boarding school children, at the polar end of the scale, having survived similar institutional abuse, ask the same very same question of their own parents.
A wise woman recently told me, "there has to be a pre-existing dysfunction within the family to force the conclusion that boarding school is a viable option for bringing up children.” To extrapolate that outwards: there had to be pre-existing dysfunction in our public school-abandoned leaders for them to have rationalised robbing the children of the poor, to serve the rich far from home.