Footpads, Kings and Highwaymen — Ian Morgan — 29th January 2018

This was local his­tor­ian Ian Morgan’s third visit to us in con­sec­ut­ive years and, as some­body who was born and raised vir­tu­ally on the Great North Road, I had a cer­tain affin­ity with his latest offer­ing.

Ian spe­cial­ises in crimes and pun­ish­ments from times past – most of us will remem­ber his talk entitled Inspector Hopkinson’s Discovery – and Footpads, Kings and Highwaymen gave us an insight into darker times on the Great North Road over its 34-mile jour­ney through Nottinghamshire.

The first ques­tion Ian had anti­cip­ated was, what was a foot­pad? It was, simply, a high­way­man oper­at­ing on foot rather than on horse­back.

The basic prob­lem facing trav­el­lers on what has become the A1 – Britain’s longest trunk road from London to Edinburgh – was one of nav­ig­a­tion. Ian showed us a fine John Speed map of the county of Nottinghamshire dated 1610, which would look attract­ive enough in a frame but was of lim­ited use for some­body trying to make their way from one town to another. The idea of join­ing up these places with lines of vary­ing thick­ness to por­tray roads or even dirt tracks as they would have been at the time had not struck Britain’s lead­ing car­to­grapher of the day as import­ant, apart from a few street plan inserts of major towns.

John Speed’s 1610 map of Nottinghamshire

Next came the so-called strip map – we were shown one from London to Dover — in which con­sec­ut­ive stretches of the road one was trav­el­ling would be laid out ver­tic­ally, across a page, with vari­ous vil­lages and local fea­tures illus­trated – not unlike an RAC route plan­ner of more recent times.

A later strip map, show­ing con­sec­ut­ive sec­tions of the same road


In stage coach days, just ven­tur­ing out even on what was to become Britain’s best known trunk road, then often axle deep in mud, was a haz­ard­ous occu­pa­tion, and an altern­at­ive route appar­ently took trav­el­lers by way of Nottingham during the winter months. But Grantham, though in Lincolnshire, estab­lished itself as the main East Midlands town on the road and, from the south, Nottinghamshire is entered just after Long Bennington, and a couple of miles before the start of the Newark-on-Trent bypass.

Although the Great North Road con­tin­ues through the centre of Newark, it is nowadays des­ig­nated the A6065. Newark remained Royalist through­out the Civil War, and the town was often dubbed ‘the key of the North’ because of its stra­tegic pos­i­tion. To this day, Newark is per­haps best known for its castle, the Civil War and its market.

Newark Castle

King John breathed his last in the castle in 1216. It was sus­pec­ted at the time that his food or drink had been poisoned, but dys­en­tery seems the most likely cause and, after suf­fer­ing for two or three days, he died. A tower still stand­ing at one end of the castle ruins is where his death was affirmed, and this is still known as King John’s Tower.

Just north of Newark, Smeaton’s Viaduct car­ries the A616, part of the ori­ginal Great North Road, over the River Trent in 125 arches near South Muskham. John Smeaton, often regarded as the father of civil engin­eer­ing, is better known as the designer of the third Eddystone Lighthouse.

John Smeaton’s 125-arch via­duct

Toilet waste from Newark castle would drain straight into the River Trent, which is why most people in those days would drink beer rather than water, and our next stop-off of Tuxford seems to have had a sim­ilar repu­ta­tion, having once been described as a ‘stink­ing, rancid hole.’

Tuxford was at one time known as Tuxford in the Clays, One trav­el­ler speaks of the ‘clayey grounds’ in this vicin­ity, over which his steed could not travel more than two miles an hour. ‘

At West Markham we passed The Milton Mausoleum, a Grade I listed redund­ant Anglican church built by the fourth Duke of Newcastle in memory of his wife and two daugh­ters. It was con­sec­rated by the Archbishop of York in 1833 and closed as a parish church in the 1950s.

The Milton Mausoleum at West Markham

The A1 now takes a route to the west of Retford, but we fol­lowed the Great North Road straight through the town which takes its name from the sand­stone on which it is built – Red Ford.

The Scrooby con­greg­a­tion were Protestant sep­ar­at­ists who lived in the vil­lage of Scrooby, close to where we end our jour­ney. In 1607-08 the con­greg­a­tion emig­rated to Leiden, in the Netherlands, to seek the free­dom to wor­ship as they chose. William Brewster Jnr, one of the lead­ers of the move­ment, even­tu­ally sailed to New England on the Mayflower as one of the so-called Pilgrim Fathers.

Ian didn’t have a par­tic­u­larly old shot of Scrooby, so here’s one of today’s blog­ger and club sec­ret­ary Graham Snowdon, taken in around 1953! Drop handle­bars to boot!

Just north of Scrooby is Gibbet Hill Lane, named after a brutal murder that took place in July 1779 when John Spencer killed the Scrooby toll-bar keeper William Yeadon and his mother. He was executed after a trial at Nottingham Assizes and his body hung in a gibbet cage on a slope south of the River Ryton.

Continuing north into Bawtry it is clear to see we have left Nottinghamshire behind us because the first house on the right hand side as one enters the town, which is offi­cially 1 South Parade, Bawtry, has long been known simply as “No 1 Yorkshire.”

The house in Bawtry known as No 1 Yorkshire

So our jour­ney was over, and so was another enter­tain­ing present­a­tion by Ian Morgan.