The Great Ditch, St. Mary's Hill, Nottingham.
By Mr. W. Stevenson.
My subject is the great ditch which surrounded the pre-historic camp or oppidum of St. Mary's Hill, Nottingham. The site being now built over has made it obscure, but the lines, indicated by the roads or streets, and by the manor, or later parish boundary which it influenced, remain like hieroglyphics on the rock, for modern men to read. I was induced to take up the study of the subject nearly forty years ago by seeing what the late Professor Freeman had done in reconstructing the past of Lincoln city, in his great work on the Norman Conquest, and have often regretted that he did not follow on and explore this hill city of Nottingham.
My first step in trying to make good this deficiency was to note that before the conquest the so called old town, i.e., St. Mary's parish,—was ancient demesne, the new town, (a separate manor, later St. Peter's and St. Nicholas' . . . parishes,) was the property of Tostig, Earl of Northumbria, and also embraced the castle rock.
The old town on the crown of the hill, with the edge of a precipice for a natural defence, on one side only necessitated artificial defences on the land sides — the ground being a soft or yielding rock. I therefore took the precipice on the south as one of the four sides of the square, and the parish boundary between St. Mary's and St. Peter's as the probable line on the west; Middle Hill, Old Market Street, and Fletcher Gate being within the line of the enclosure,—Drury Hill and Bridlesmith Gate without. Two sides being thus won I cast about for evidence of a third one, complementary to the line of the cliff, but further north; this I found in the well-defined parallel lines of streets—Warser Gate and Woolpack Lane within, Carlton Street, Goose Gate and Hockley without the camp line, and mostly at a lower level. I further found that parallel street lines were traceable in a fourth or eastern line of Count Street within and Sneinton Street without; Carter Gate within and Water Lane without—the south cliff, overlooking Fisher Gate, being there joined to the eastern boundary, and thus completing a great rectangular enclosure.
At best it was a theory, a waking dream: but it had the merit of being an original line of thought, one that squared with the town as it first appeared on the page of history, when its works were seized upon by the Danish host in 868 on their march direct from York, to be held against the native kings and their armies for nearly a year,—a host that only withdrew on being bribed with gold.
There is evidence that such an enclosure was the origin of the inhabited town, for within those lines we find the church of the king's manor, his hall, gaol, and original prison of the town and county, the Guild-hall, and the later prison of the community of free burgesses ; the market that contained the old Saxon fleshewers (still recorded in Fletcher Gate), in fact everything that went to make a county town when towns were selected for such purposes ; but over all this proof was wanted ! This came with the first volume of the city records, wherein Warser Gate has the earlier form of Walsete Gate or Wallsete, the seat or place of the wall; and in Byard Lane —the Wooler Lane of Speede, in his town map of 1610, the earliest historic form of which was found to be Walhonin Lane. The old form of wall—a defence, being here associated with the west and north lines of the enclosure. The editor of the Records, hitherto sceptical, wanted no more than this to convince him that I was on he line of an important topographical discovery connected with the old town.
Together with the late John Henry Brown, we set ourselves to watch for the demolition of old properties and the disturbance of the ground on the lines I had laid down. The first opportunity was afforded when clearing the site for new offices for our friend Alderman Robert Mellors, called "King John's Chambers," a site which a few years before had yielded a great find of Norman money of the time of king Stephen. Here, unmistakeable evidence of the old ditch was found, and it gave the builders and all concerned a great amount of trouble before a good foundation for the new building could be reached. This was followed by new works on old sites in Warser Gate, and here again the ditch was found, of great depth, and extending in width under adjoining property not disturbed. The filling-in material was sand, slightly discoloured, with very few foreign substances, showing that it had been filled in and lost at an early age. In this respect it was unlike what we have seen from time to time in the filling-in of the later Edwardian ditches, which consists of black clay loaded with potsherds and oyster shells; but there was nothing approaching to the modern "tin-can-refuse" method of filling-in which marks our present state of civilization. This Warser Gate site yielded two mysterious objects of burnt clay, amphora shaped, now in charge of Mr. Wallis at the Castle Museum. These the late Mr. Franks, of the British Museum, viewed as hand warmers, possibly for ladies, and to all appearance of Roman date. The strange part about them is that although they follow the shape of earthen vessels, they are solid and only vessels in outer appearance.
Last year was fruitful in further proof, for two more old sites were bared, one between Bridlesmith Gate, (outside the ditch), and Fletcher Gate, (inside); the other between Drury Hill, (outside), and Middle Hill, (inside). The former gave a section along the length, from north to south, where the ditch was cleared to half its width, and for its entire depth, to enable the old property adjoining, to be underpinned. This course was necessary as, owing to the property having been built on the loose filling-in it had cracked badly. As usual, the presence of the ditch entailed great cost to the builders of the new property. Nothing beyond discoloured sand was found here. The latter or Postern place site brought to light (x) a stone wall on the old town side—(still the parish boundary),—and (2) the ditch, at this point of enormous size and depth, which gave the builders great trouble, even entailing some wood-piling; here sundry fragments of earthenware were found by one of our members, Mr. F. W. Dobson. These are of great age, and of a kind, I believe, not hitherto found in the midland district. The genuineness of the earthenware has been confirmed by the highest authorities in the country. Part of it has been identified as "hand-made shell pottery of the early Iron age—in use before the Christian era."
Since the above was written other discoveries have been made. Specimens of the so-called "shell-pottery" have been exhumed at "Fidler's Walk," in one of the open corn-fields at Laxton, Notts.; and also on the site of King John's Palace at Clipston, in the heart of the old royal forest of Sherwood, the last on the occasion of a labourer digging a post-hole—in both cases associated fragments of urn-shaped Roman pottery.
The amphora-shaped pottery finds its counterpart in the Sheffield Park Museum, in what I believe is the "Bateman-cellection"; but the question of their being solid or not I have not been able to investigate