The county formed part of the territory of the Coritani, and was afterwards included in the Roman district called Flavia Cæsariensis. On the establishment of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia, about the year 560, the greater portion of it, namely, that on the north-western side of the Trent, was comprised in North Mercia, and the portion on the other side of the river in South Mercia. In nearly all the civil wars of the middle ages, the central situation of the county, and the circumstance of its being intersected by the large river Trent, which in those times was an important barrier defended by the strong fortresses of Nottingham and Newark, rendered it the scene of numerous military movements, and consequently of many ravages. It was long included in the diocese and province of York, but now, under the arrangements provided by the 6th and 7th of William IV., cap. 77, is part of the diocese of Lincoln and province of Canterbury; it forms an archdeaconry, comprising the deaneries of Bingham, Newark, Nottingham, Southwell, and Retford, which contain 205 parishes. For purposes of civil government it is divided into six wapentakes, or hundreds, viz., Bassetlaw (which is subdivided into North Clay, South Clay, and Hatfield divisions), Bingham (North and South), Broxtow (North and South), Newark (North and South), Rushcliffe (North and South), and Thurgarton (North and South). It contains the borough and market-towns of Nottingham, Newark, and East Retford; and the market-towns of Bingham, Mansfield, Ollerton, Southwell, Tuxford, and Worksop. Under the act 2nd of William IV., cap. 45, the county was divided into the Northern and Southern divisions, each sending two members to parliament; two representatives are returned for each of the boroughs of Nottingham and Newark, and two by the burgesses of East Retford conjointly with the freeholders of the hundred of Bassetlaw. The county is included in the Midland circuit: the assizes are held at Nottingham; and the quarter-sessions at Nottingham, Newark, and East Retford. The county gaol is at Nottingham, and the county house of correction, or bridewell, at Southwell. The counties of Nottingham and Derby were under the same shrievalty until the 10th year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth.
The shape of the county is elliptical. Its surface is for the most part uneven, but none of the hills are of great elevation: those of the sandy district, which formed a considerable part of the Forest of Sherwood, are chiefly long ridges of gentle acclivity, running from west to east, and forming narrow valleys, along the principal of which run fine streams of water. The noble river Trent, in the whole of its course through Nottinghamshire, is bordered by a level fertile tract varying in breadth; many parts of the vale are bounded by high woody cliffs, and the greater portion, particularly in the immediate vicinity of the river, is rich grass-land. The district lying south of the Trent, and forming the three hundreds of Bingham, Rushcliffe, and Newark, comprises, besides the lower and more extensive part of the Vale of Belvoir, and the fertile levels in the vicinity of the Soar, at the south-western extremity of the county, the range of high bleak country called the Nottinghamshire Wolds, lying to the south and south-east of Bunny. The soils may be classed under three heads; sand or gravel, clay, and limestone and coal land. The crops usually cultivated are wheat, rye, barley, oats, beans, and peas; and an inferior species of oats called "skegs," almost peculiar to the county, is grown in different parts, chiefly on the forest land: this, however, is seldom brought to market, being frequently given as fodder in the straw. The common artificial grasses, namely, red and white clover, trefoil, rye-grass, and rib-grass, are cultivated, as is also lucerne; burnet grows naturally and plentifully in the Trent meadows. Hops form a considerable article of produce in the clay districts north-west of the Trent, in the vicinities of Ollerton, Tuxford, and East Retford; they are generally known by the name of North Clay hops, and are much stronger than the Kentish. Woad is cultivated on the light soils near Scrooby, Ranskill, and Torworth. The excellent grass-land bordering on the Trent and the Soar is appropriated more for feeding than the dairy, except along the course of the Soar and in the vale of the Trent above Nottingham, where are large dairies, the chief produce of which is cheese. By far the greater part of the forest having been inclosed, there is now comparatively little waste land: the parts which remain are mostly about the centre of that district, in the space between the towns of Mansfield, Southwell, and Ollerton, and consist in a great measure of rabbit-warrens. On the tongue of sandy land east of the Trent, between Newark and Gainsborough, are some low, flat, barren commons, almost constantly under water in the winter. The Wolds, properly so called, consist of waste in the open parishes, affording a stinted pasture for young cattle and horses.
The ancient royal Forest of Sherwood, noted for the fabled exploits of Robin Hood and his band of outlaws, extends from Nottingham to the vicinity of Worksop, in length about 25 miles, and varies in breadth from seven to upwards of nine miles. Several smaller tracts of land, particularly in the northern part of the county, as far as Rossington bridge, have been usually called forest; but from the survey made in 1609, they appear either not to have belonged to the forest, or to have been disafforested before that period. Within its limits are included several large parks which have been taken in at different times, namely, Welbeck, Clumber, Thoresby, Beskwood, Newstead, and Clipstone; with several villages, or lands, belonging to them. The forest is the only one that remains under the superintendence of the lord chief justice in Eyre, north of the Trent, or which now belongs to the crown in that portion of England. The officers are, the lord-warden, at present the Duke of Newcastle, who holds his office by letters-patent from the crown, during pleasure; the bow-bearer and ranger, who is appointed by the lord-warden, and holds his office also during pleasure; four verderers, elected for life by the freeholders of the county; a steward; nine keepers, appointed by the verderers during pleasure, for so many different walks; and two sworn wood-wards for Sutton and Charlton. Thorneywood Chase comprises a great part of the southern division of the forest lying on the eastern side: the Earl of Chesterfield is hereditary keeper of it, by grant of the 42nd of Queen Elizabeth to J. Stanhope, Esq.
The principal remains of ancient woods are the hays of Birkland and Bilhagh, situated to the north of Ollerton and Edwinstow, and which form an open wood of large old oaks, most of them in decay: the wood occupies about 1400 acres, and is destitute of underwood, except some birch in a certain part, which has given name to one of its divisions. A portion of the tract has been taken, by grant, into Thoresby Park. Harlow wood, Thieves' wood, and the scattered remains of Mansfield woods, are of small extent, and contain only timber of an inferior size. Tracts of plantations, consisting principally of firs of various kinds, occupy many miles of country to the south and south-east of Mansfield; and there is a vast extent of the same kind of woods, in a similar direction from Worksop, chiefly on the estates of the Dukes of Portland and Newcastle, and Earl Manvers. Numerous large plantations have been made also still further north in the county, and some close upon its western border. In Clumber Park alone, are about 1850 acres of plantation. In the clay districts are considerable tracts of wood, mostly sprung, the principal value of which, in common with all other spring woods in the county, arises from the ash hop-poles, and the stakes and bindings, &c., for the farmers' use, which they produce. In the limestone and coal district, and in the sandy tongue of land east of the Trent, are also broad woods and plantations.
The chief Minerals are coal, gypsum, and stone of various kinds. Coal is procured on the western border of the county; and gypsum of excellent quality is dug on Beacon Hill, near Newark: it is much used for plastering floors; a considerable quantity is sent in lumps to the colourmen in London, and some of the white kind, ground and packed in hogsheads, is likewise forwarded to the metropolis. At Red Hill, at the junction of the Trent and the Soar, is a quarry of the same mineral; it is also found at Great Markham, the Wheatleys, and many other places in the red-clay districts. Lime is burned at various places in the limestone tract. At Mansfield a very fine freestone is quarried for building, and a coarser red kind for cisterns and troughs. At Maplebeck is a blueish building-stone which, by continued exposure to the air, bleaches to nearly a clear white. At Beacon Hill is obtained a blue stone for hearths, approaching to a marble in texture, and which also burns to lime. At Linby, a few miles to the southwest of Mansfield, a coarse paving-stone is raised, much used at Nottingham.
The oldest branch of Manufacture is that of cotton and silk stockings, which is carried on to a vast extent at Nottingham and for some miles round it, and in Mansfield and its neighbourhood; and the very high state of improvement to which the machinery for manufacturing British lace was here brought, some years since, and the great demand for the superior article thus produced, have rendered the manufacture of "bobbin-net," and the embroidering of machine lace, a source of employment to a large portion of the inhabitants of the same district. The cotton and silk mills for the supply of these manufactures are exceedingly numerous. The bleaching-trade in the vicinity of Nottingham is very extensive; there are several large starch-mills and some paper-mills in different parts of the county. The malting business is carried on to a great extent, particularly at Nottingham, Newark, Mansfield, Worksop, and Retford; a considerable quantity of malt being sent up the Trent and the canals into Derbyshire, Cheshire, and Lancashire. At Newark are breweries which rival those of Burton in their trade to the Baltic and other quarters; and there are likewise large breweries at Nottingham.
The principal rivers are, the Trent, the Soar, the Erewash, and the Idle. Of English rivers, the Trent ranks next after the Thames and the Severn; it is navigable for ships of considerable burthen up to Gainsborough, and for barges during the rest of its course in this county. To facilitate the navigation, there is a side cut ten miles in length, sometimes called the Trent canal, avoiding the numerous shallows which occur in about thirteen miles of its course, between the Trent bridge, at the commencement of the Nottingham canal, and Sawley ferry in Derbyshire, at the commencement of the Trent and Mersey canal. The Soar is navigable for the Trent barges. The Idle, formed by the junction of the Maun and the Meaden, has been rendered navigable from Bawtry to the Trent: at its mouth are gates, sixteen feet high, to prevent the tide from overflowing the low lands which border on the latter part of its course. This channel, in one part, bears the name of Bycar Dyke, and about half a mile from Stockwith assumes that of Misterton Sluice. The Nottingham canal was completed in 1802. The Grantham canal, in its course into Leicestershire, has a branch upwards of three miles in length, to the town of Bingham. The Chesterfield canal, at a little distance below Worksop, passes over the small river Ryton by an aqueduct; and having crossed the Idle at Retford, takes a northern direction to Drakelow, where its course is through a tunnel 250 yards in length. The Pinxton railway, from Mansfield to Pinxton basin, where it communicates with the Cromford canal, was constructed under an act of parliament passed in 1817, and at once caused a considerable reduction in the price of coal obtained from the pits at Pinxton and Kirkby. The Midland railway is noticed under the head of Nottingham.
There are comparatively few monuments of remote antiquity. The most remarkable British remains are the caves in the sand rock near Nottingham. At Barton, four miles south-west of Nottingham, is Brent's Hill, considered by Aubrey to have been a fortified place of the Britons; and at Oxton are three large tumuli, supposed by Major Rooke to be of equal antiquity. Brass celts have been found between Hexgrove and the little stream called Rainworth water. Of Roman antiquities, the camp on Solly-hill, near Arnold, is thought by Dr. Gale to have been the important station Causennis; about two miles from Mansfield are the remains of a Roman villa, and in various other parts have been found spears, fibulæ, and brass keys, of Roman workmanship. The principal vestiges of Roman roads are those of the Fosse-way, which entered the county near Willoughby-on-the-Wolds, proceeded to Newark, and, crossing the line of the Ermin-street, quitted for Lincolnshire: it may be traced for many miles across the Wolds, being literally a fosse, dug to a great depth, so as to form a spacious covered way. Another ancient road, formerly called "the Street," commenced at Newark, and proceeded through part of Southwell to Mansfield; it is still discernible between the two former towns. The Religious houses, including colleges and hospitals, were about thirty-nine; the chief remains are those of the abbeys of Newstead and Worksop, and of the college of Southwell. There are considerable remains of the once important castle of Newark, and some interesting relics of that of Nottingham: Bunny Park, the seat of Viscount Rancliffe, is one of the most curious specimens of ancient mansions. Among the most distinguished of the numerous modern seats which adorn the county, more especially the northern part of its once dreary forest district, may be enumerated Welbeck Abbey, the residence of the Duke of Portland; Clumber Park; Thoresby Park, the property of Earl Manvers; Wollaton Hall, that of Lord Middleton; and Newstead Abbey, lately that of the poet Byron.
Transcribed from A Topographical Dictionary of England, by Samuel Lewis, seventh edition, published 1858.