Leisure in Old Mansfield
Many sports were conducted on an amateur basis in old Mansfield. For example, there was a bowling alley in Elizabethan times, and the present Leeming Street bowling green was probably created in the late 17th century. Football has a very long history in the Mansfield area, if not always a glorious one. It is first mentioned in 17th century court records, for the playing of football on a Sunday was against the law in Puritan times.
The game did not become properly organised until the 19th century, when a large number of amateur soccer teams were formed in the town. One of these was called Mansfield Town, but it was not the ancestor of the later professional club.
Cricket also has long associations with the town: the Nottingham Journal records a match in 1792 between “the Gentlemen of Retford” and “the Mansfield Cricket Players” which was of course easily won by Mansfield. Golf was introduced more recently; the local club celebrated its centenary in 1995. Local tennis is 6 years older!
Until the late 19th century there was actually a street called ‘Cock-pit Street’ (now Albert Street) marking where the bloody contests had been held until they were made illegal. Moving from sport to indoor entertainment – by 1800 the Bowling Green Inn on Leeming Street had a billiard room, and a large hall where dances were often held.
Hunting in Sherwood Forest had of course been an important leisure activity for centuries (at least for those in the King’s favour) and after the forest lands passed into private ownership, several packs of hounds and harriers operated around the town. Horse racing became popular in the 18th century and a course with tight bends and a classic finishing straight was developed on forest land by the Southwell road. Sadly this did not survive the increasing commercialisation of the sport, and closed in the 1870s. A popular spectator sport over many centuries has been boxing. In 1773 a fight between local hero “Bandox” and a Nottingham challenger had to be stopped after an hour when the crowd broke into the ring while in 1830, a better-organised bout at Nottingham resulted in defeat for the Mansfield champion John Day. More brutal but equally popular were the cock-fights.
Earlier in the 18th century regular “assemblies” for dancing and card playing were held at the Crown Inn, but in the 1770s these were transferred to the Moot Hall, where they continued to be held (at full moon, so people could find their way home in an age before street lighting) for many decades. Several of the town’s private schools offered dancing classes.
The Moot Hall, and the later Town Hall at the opposite corner of the Market Place, were also the most regular venues for what we now call “entertainment”, such as scientific lectures featuring spectacular (or frequently gruesome) demonstrations, and panoramic displays depicting great events such as battles and volcanic eruptions. The great composer Franz Liszt performed at the Town Hall (to a sadly small audience) during his tour of Britain in the 1840s. Other musical performances were given at the parish church (Handel’s “Messiah” being a regular favourite), and the peal of bells was much in demand by change-ringers. The continuing tradition of amateur musical performance in the town goes back at least to the 1850s when a “Mansfield Harmonic Society” was formed.
Theatrical performances were held originally in any large room, but in the 1780s a local joiner built The Theatre. This though small, did good service until Victorian times, when plays began to be performed in the Town Hall. For these with less refined tastes in drama, traveling troupes would also set up in large tents which, despite their nickname of “rag and stick theatres” were versatile enough to put on some spectacular shows. At the end of Victoria’s reign more permanent theatres began to be built catering for a variety of tastes from straight drama to circus. Many of these also began to show moving pictures, and in 1910 a purpose-built cinema, the Palace Electric Theatre was opened opposite the Old Bowling Green on Leeming Street (where the 18th-century hall had been replaced in 1901 by the Victoria Hall, originally used for theatrical spectaculars, but later fittingly, as a dance-hall).
The town also has a long tradition in the quietest leisure pursuits. There was a Society of Florists here by the 1770s holding annual carnation shows and there have been several horticultural societies in Mansfield since, producing remarkable displays of flowers and vegetables each year. The present public library can trace its ancestry back to a subscription library and coffee-room established in the 18th century at the Swan Inn, later moved to the Town Hall.
The story of Mansfield Museum is quite bizarre: W.E.Baily, heir to a brewing fortune showed his collection to the public at a house on Westgate until he had to move to Cornwall for his health. There he housed it ever-growing in a metal building formerly used as a chapel in London. In 1904, after Baily’s death the collection and building were moved to Leeming Street in Mansfield, and a sturdier museum still stands on the same site today.
A Short guide to some old Mansfield inns
Mansfield Inns, the first Directory of the small market town of Mansfield was published in 1792, and thirty-nine inns were listed. Some of these are still open for business today on the same sites, if not in the ancient buildings they once occupied.
The Swan on Church Street, formerly Kirk Gate, was already more than two centuries old when it was rebuilt in 1586 after one of the fires which ravaged the timber and thatched cottages of Medieval and Tudor Mansfield. Then known as “at the sign of the White Swan”, it was the foremost hostelry in the town. In the 18th and part of the 19th centuries, the Swan was a transport centre, with mail coaches and carriers’ carts coming and going from Swan Yard. Prominent visitors to the town usually stayed here, including in 1862, Mr and Mrs Charles Stratton (General Tom Thumb) of Barnums’ Circus.The present day visitor enters the Swan through the main door, which was formerly the coach entrance to the Swan Yard. In this roofed over corridor, the dates tone of 1586 can still be seen. The interior has recently been refurbished. Whilst it is no longer possible to stay the night here regrettably, since some four poster beds were once available, meals and drinks may be enjoyed. Continuing down towards the parish church, the White Hart stands on the right. This tall building dates from 1873, built to replace a 16th century building, once the home of Dame Cecily Flogan, a local benefactress who died in 1521 and used as an inn until it was demolished when the railway viaduct was under construction in 1872.
Lower down the street is the Old Eight Bells, a 1925 building which replaced a 17th century house of Samuel Brunts, who founded the local charity which bears his name. The inn was opened as a beer house in 1832.
A subsequent owner of this house was Robert Watson, a carpenter, who built some local windmills. He generously completed the peal of 8 bells in 1762. Opposite to St Peter’s Church is Ye Olde Ramme. Don’t be deceived by the black and white timbered facade. This was applied in the 1920s when the inn was refurbished. Hidden inside the premises are genuine Tudor period timbers be seen on the outside in Malt Kiln Yard, leading from Church Street to the old Maltings, now a night club.
Rumours persist of tunnels which led from premises in this part of the town to the church. Certainly most have large cellars and Mansfield was built on porous stone with natural caves beneath it. Returning up Church Street on the opposite side, note the e doorway, usually closed, next to the China Basket shop. This led into White Lion Yard and to an inn excavated entirely from the natural rock cliff which backs up to all the premises on this side. This old inn closed in 1904. Recent investigations have revealed roof timbers dating from the early 16th century in this yard.
On reaching the Market Place, turn right up Leeming Street. Opposite to the Museum and the Civic Theatre is the Bowl-in-Hand. This building dates from 1899, and replaced an old stone and pantiled inn on the site. At the back is the Bowling Green, in use two hundred years ago and still played on today. Returning to the Market Place, only the Dial and the Market Tavern remain of the several inns which were here earlier. Many old inns were lost from the Stockwell Gate area when the Four Seasons Shopping Centre was built.
The Crown and the Wheatsheaf remain, both listed in 1792. Turn left at the end of Stockwell Gate into Belvedere Street and take the: first road left to the Midland Hotel, which stands opposite to the old disused railway station and near the new station due for re-opening in 1995. The Midland Hotel was originally built in 1805 in a Georgian style. It was then a private house set in extensive gardens, known as Broom House. The Midland Railway Company bought it in 1862 and converted it for use as an hotel . Within recent years, extensions have been built to give overnight accommodation.
A brief guide can do no more than mention a few of the many inns and pubs in Mansfield, both those long-established and others recently opened, some in buildings previously used for different businesses. Perhaps visitors to the town will feel that the traditional pub or inn in Mansfield provides a link with people in past times.