You could not step twice into the same river.
I’m fascinated by Nottingham’s history, and I’m always extremely annoyed when a building is demolished that I feel is an important part of the city’s built environment. However, as the years pass by, I’m trying to avoid falling into the trap of disapproving of virtually every change that happens and viewing the past through rose-tinted spectacles. Yes, there were many great things in the past that no longer exist, but often they were a function or product of their time, and it just wasn’t possible to stop the clock.
Many people will have their own favourite buildings from the past that are no longer around. My own – the Players Horizon factory on Thane Road – disappeared relatively recently. I liked it because I find myself drawn towards, and fascinated by, large-scale industrial architecture, and because it provided a tangible link to an important (albeit controversial) strand of Nottingham’s industrial and social history. Many people were glad to see the back of it, partly because of how it looked and partly because of what it represented. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen or heard it referred to as ‘ugly’ or ‘an eyesore’.
At the other end of the spectrum, one building in Nottingham that has become something of a sacred cow in people’s memories is the Black Boy Hotel, which was demolished in 1970. Anyone wishing to raise the ire of Nottinghamians of a certain age simply has to post an image of the Black Boy online and the same old comments are guaranteed to pour forth. ‘It’s absolutely disgusting that it was demolished‘…’It was vandalism‘…’They should have been strung up‘…’Nottingham used to be such a lovely place‘…etc., etc., ad nauseam.
The Black Boy was rebuilt and enlarged in the late nineteenth century to designs by Watson Fothergill (or Fothergill Watson as he was known when he first became involved with the site). At the time of the outbreak of the Second World War, it had 90 bedrooms. It appears to have had a certain amount of glamour attached to it, because there are records of the likes of film stars and touring cricket teams staying there. How they managed to sleep while Little John was bonging away in the background is a mystery to me.
The site on which the Black Boy stood formed part of the estate of Samuel Brunts of Mansfield, who left bequests to benefit various groups of people in and around his home town. Amongst other things, this led to the foundation of a school whose present day incarnation is The Brunts Academy. Littlewoods acquired the lease of the Black Boy site in the early 1960s and later gained permission to demolish the hotel.
I’m not old enough to have any memories of the Black Boy Hotel. I would have been around four years old when it was demolished. I’m pretty sure my dad would have had some tales to tell (he seemed to have some personal knowledge of most Nottingham places), but sadly he passed away last year. I miss being able to ask him about these things. But what I really want to say is that, regardless of my feelings about whether or not I would like the Black Boy Hotel to still be standing, I’m not really best placed to say whether it should be or not.
The late 1960s/early 1970s were, unsurprisingly, a very different time in Nottingham and many other cities. The front cover of a City of Nottingham Official Handbook c.1970 features an illustration that incorporates, amongst other things, the Broad Marsh shopping centre, the Victoria Centre flats, the Horizon Factory, a flyover and some tower blocks. This was the future. But a moribund hotel in a style of architecture that was less valued than it is today? Not so much. Remember that, incredible as it seems to us now, the magnificent St Pancras came close to being demolished in the 1960s.
Even setting all of this aside, my personal opinion is that the Black Boy Hotel isn’t one of Watson Fothergill’s finest moments. Now, hold back that knee-jerk reaction for a moment, have a look at some old photographs of the hotel and formulate your own opinion rather than simply allowing the idea of the Black Boy to become a convenient repository for thoughts about everything that is wrong with the city (or even the world) today and everything good that we have lost. The frontage was actually a bit of a mess, if truth be told, and even, arguably, somewhat incongruous by the 1960s, given some of its more contemporary surroundings.
That said, one of the reasons I love Nottingham city centre is because it’s a fascinating patchwork quilt of buildings from different eras, but that patchwork quilt, with all of the many and varied experiences that it offers, would never have been possible if the city had failed to adapt over time.
If the Black Boy Hotel was still in existence today, I dare say that I would nip in for the occasional pint or meal, purely to soak up the history, and inevitably I would make new memories as a result of that. But actually, I have fond memories of its immediate successor, Littlewoods – mainly from meals that I had in the restaurant there, but also because places like Littlewoods, C&A, British Home Stores and the like were a fundamental part of the experience of growing up in the 1970s, before they, too, eventually became anachronistic and were replaced by businesses such as Primark, the present occupant of the site . And incidentally, let’s not kid ourselves, no matter how sniffy we might be about Primark, its popularity speaks for itself. You might not like it, but there are plenty of people out there who do, and if there was ever a referendum that offered a choice between retaining a branch of Primark in Nottingham and rebuilding the Black Boy Hotel, I suspect that the former option would emerge victorious.
How often did people passing the Black Boy Hotel back in the day actually pause to look up and take in its supposed splendour? How many people in the city centre these days take the time to look up at the splendour of the many old buildings that are still in existence? Actually, it’s even worse than that. Whenever I stand looking up at a building, a lot of people either look at me as if I’ve lost my senses or glare at me for being in the way. As for taking photographs – well, if you want people to be suspicious of you, that’s an easy way to accomplish it.
The frontage of the building that replaced the Black Boy isn’t ugly, it’s just bland. Functional. Unassuming.
A city centre isn’t a museum – it’s a living organism.
Although it will be scant consolation for some, there are still ways in which we can connect with the memory of the Black Boy. Memorabilia occasionally appear on sites such as ebay, stone lions from the hotel’s tower can be seen in the Castle grounds and a statue of Samuel Brunts that was on the frontage of the hotel is now at the Brunts Academy. A Nottingham Post article from 2017, meanwhile, states that, ‘The small statue of a black boy, in the foyer of the hotel, was also saved, but a similar statue of a black girl appears to have been lost…‘ The current whereabouts of the statue of the black boy are unclear.
In 2011, a plaque was placed on the site formerly occupied by the hotel.
Brunts Academy was kind enough to let me inspect the Samuel Brunts statue recently. It’s in reasonable condition, considering everything that it’s been through, though part of one of its hands is missing. It was great to be able to experience this close-up encounter with the past. It’s a shame, in a way, that the statue couldn’t be restored and placed in the city centre, but its current location is entirely appropriate.
The last paragraph of an information board above the statue reads, ‘This statue, a replica of the one on Brunts Charity Buildings on Leeming Street, was formerly on the front of the Black Boy Hotel in Nottingham’s City Market Square where Littlewood’s shop stands today.‘ As I walked back into Mansfield town centre, I was able to locate the other statue referred to, which can be seen at the junction of Leeming Street and Toothill Lane on the building in which the Brunts Charity is still based.
Who knows what other weird and wonderful Black Boy Hotel-related artefacts may yet resurface.
The life of this unique hotel remains an important part of Nottingham’s history, but it also seems to act as a powerful lightning rod for our anxieties about lost years, lost innocence and changes yet to come.
Time, perhaps, for acceptance.