Thurgarton Priory
Nottingham Elites and Civil Society 1900-1950
Status, Engagement & Lifestyle

Companies and a Business Presence

This portfolio is based on a snap shot survey of Nottingham’s leading joint stock companies (220 in number), and the directors who ran them. It was taken in 1902. It lists company size (measured by share capital), and the name their solicitors, bank and auditors. It also places each company by commercial sector. To cross-tabulate company directories with voluntary organisational membership, or holders of other civil society offices, or with party political affiliation, users should go to the individuals’ page, and select using the appropriate drop down boxes.

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Business Involvement

The value of business involvement in urban political and voluntary activity has always held to be of great importance because of the acumen, connections and prestige/wealth that many such individuals had within the local community and externally (Nenadic, 1991; Garratt, 1995). Major industrialists also carried significant symbolic power that stretched beyond their importance as large employers of local labour (Shapely, 1998). Reminiscing, the author Cecil Roberts recalled of his childhood in Nottingham:

As a small boy I knew of Sir Jesse [Boot], one of the gods of the city’s industries, powerful, rich and benevolent. Daily as I walked with my father to his business I would see the magnate’s car going to the Boots’ office by the Midland Station. The car had been constructed to take an invalid’s chair, and there, high up and visible, he rode down the street from his house in The Park.

Sir Jesse Boot’s mansion - St Helliers - was one of the largest houses in Nottingham, situated in the city’s prestigious Park Estate. Roberts thought this an area ‘inhabited by millionaire industrial tycoons and others’ (Roberts, 1967). Boot’s soon to be expanded factory at Ireland Street occupied some 6,000 square yards, his newly constructed emporium covered almost all the High Street; adverts for his goods were everywhere in the local and national press. He bought briefly a controlling interest of the Liberal supporting Nottingham Journal when it ran into financial difficulties. His status, his wealth, his visibility found expression in the numerous honorary posts on local charitable associations. On his death he left some £350,000 to charity, a fraction of that already donated to the city’s fledgling university, for parks, and to its hospitals.

Boot never stood for the city council. But some of his wealthy compatriots did: for example, Lieut. Colonel William Blackburn, a prominent engineering and machine manufacturer. As the leader of Nottingham’s Conservative group proclaimed, ‘they were fortunate to persuade’ him to ‘come forward as a candidate.’ What surprised him was that ‘he never expected that he would be called upon to face a [electoral] conflict (Nottingham Guardian, 1905).’ Blackburn’s merits - ‘large employer’, ‘large ratepayer’, an imposing factory in the ward, and his business expertise and connections – were thought simply to be self-evident. And subsequently Blackburn was indeed returned unopposed: his election seen as a ‘forgone conclusion’ (Daily Express, 1905). He conformed to the ‘ideal’: he was a man of station, of substance and intelligence (Hennock, 1973).

Indeed, the absence of industrialists particularly drew sharp criticism from contemporary commentators, and has underpinned academic assertions of urban (Hennock, 1973; Rubenstein, 1998). Writing in 1964 Donald Read identified of the twentieth century the ‘widespread decline of interest in local government by men who ought to have been its leaders’ (Read, 1964). Yet as the same time ‘employers and managers, and farmers and professional workers’ continued to ‘occupy a larger proportion of the seats in councils than their proportion in the general adult male population (Maude, 1969). As Trainor notes, if our definition of elites is broadened to encompass those of ‘social substance’, those respected moderately affluent men and women who held ‘influential leadership within the towns’, then the argument for ‘decline is not strong’ (Trainor, 2000).

The cross tabulation of the directorships of Nottingham’s 220 leading joint stock companies (c. 1902) reveals that some quarter were involved in some capacity with one or more of the 34 voluntary associations in the data set. The median age when each first participated in associational activity was 50. The high age profile reflected the value placed by associations on experience and a networked presence, and on the lifecycle of the individuals concerned, where the early years were more heavily geared to career development (Hayes, 2103). Bibliographic detail was tracked for 100 of the directors involved in this voluntary work. Some one third listed other charitable activity outside and beyond the 34 core associations, but primarily these were minor organisation or the linkage was financial rather participatory. This confirms the sample’s robustness as an indicator of the degree of overall business volunteering. A lesser number, around ten per cent, of directors in the sample were involved in local politics, and some eight per cent were also Justices of the Peace.


J. Garrard, ‘Urban elites, 1850-1914: the rule and decline of a new squireachy?’, Albion 27 (1995), 583-621.

N. Hayes, ‘Counting civil society: deconstructing elite participation in the provincial English city, 1900-1950’, Urban History 40 (2103), 287-314.

E.P. Hennock, Fit and Proper Persons: Ideal and Reality in Nineteenth-Century Urban Government (London, 1973).

Royal Commission on Local Government in England 1966-1969: Volume III (Maude Report: Cmnd. 4040), (London, 1969).

S. Nenadic, ‘Businessmen, the urban middle classes, and the “dominance” of manufacturers in nineteenth-century Britain’, Economic History Review, XLIV (1991), 66-85.

D. Read, The English Provinces c.1760-1960: A Study in Influence (London, 1964).

C. Roberts, The Growing Boy: Being the First Book of an Autobiography 1892-1908 (London, 1967), W. Rubinstein, ‘Britain’s elites in the inter-war period, 1918-39’, in A. Kidd and Nicholls (eds), The Making of the British Middle Class? Studies of Regional and Cultural Diversity since the Eighteenth Century (Stroud, 1998), 186-202.

P. Shapely, ‘Charity, status and leadership: charitable image and the Manchester man’, Journal of Social History, 32 (1998), 157-77.

R. Trainor, ‘The “decline” of British urban governance since 1850: a reassessment’, in R J. Morris and R. Trainor (eds.), Urban Governance: Britain and Beyond Since 1750 (Aldershot, 2000), 28-46.