A £1.4 million lottery grant has restored the oldest saloon-style music hall outside London back to its glorious best.
Located in the heart of the city, people head for the hustle and bustle of the adjoining Market Square while a little exploration will lead to the discovery of one of the city’s hidden treasures.
The Malt Cross, built in 1877, is the UK’s oldest existing saloon music hall outside of London and is steeped in a wealth of rich, local history. Thanks to £1.4m of Heritage Lottery funding, the venue re-opened its doors last October after a major five-month revamp. The renovation has also revived two floors beneath the café bar.
Once occupied by an Indian restaurant, the new space has enabled The Malt Cross to educate residents about the origins of this iconic venue. They do this through a range of heritage-centric workshops, tours and exhibitions.
Thriving entertainment centre
Dr Rebecca Wood is the Heritage Engagement Worker for Education and Outreach at The Malt Cross. She believes it’s pivotal in re-telling the story of how the venue was once the centre of the city’s thriving entertainment industry in the late Victorian era.
We strive to be good custodians of that knowledge and help more people appreciate how the hall influenced culture and society in Nottingham.
The Grade 2 listed venue was built in the 19th century for a local man named Charles Weldon by architect Edwin Hill. It soon became a hub of entertainment – notorious for the racy atmosphere that sometimes bordered on debauchery.
Since becoming involved with the project, Dr Wood has enjoyed peeling back the layers of history and unearthing more of the saloon’s past.
“It’s been fantastic finding out about the social history behind these people and the roles they played in setting up the music hall. It’s been great delving back into newspaper records and finding past performers who worked here.”
Video: Dr Rebecca Wood talks about musical performer Sam Torr
Some of the artefacts conserved in the exhibition space were uncovered whilst renovation was in progress, including an intricate, hand-printed wallpaper, which experts are currently trying to date. Also on show are the original architectural drawings that reveal how little the front façade of the building has changed in over 137 years.
Dr Wood hopes these antiquities, as well as a range of archive images and music-related paraphernalia, will illuminate every visitor’s experience and preserve the venue’s history for coming generations.
Dr Wood’s role at Malt Cross includes running a set of educational workshops – open to people of all ages and walks of life. She finds that using arts and crafts is an effective method of depicting the venue’s heritage.
We’ve got things like lino-cutting and Victorian-styled photography going on downstairs.The craft related projects like these really help to bring the history of the site alive.
Video: The building’s original architectural drawings
The venue welcomes school groups and a host of tourists who are looking to explore the secrets of the prestigious music hall. According to Dr Wood, the public response has been overwhelming – particularly on the heritage tours which run every day. However, one of the main attractions born out of the revamp digs a little deeper underground.
For the first time in over 100 years, access has been given to a network of caves situated below the saloon. These date back to around the 1200s and are connected to a Carmelite monastery that once stood on the same site. Forty feet below street level, the caves reveal a hidden history of Nottingham that isn’t told elsewhere.
“There are over 500 caves beneath the streets of Nottingham – one of the biggest cities for caves in the world. Unfortunately, many of them are private and not open to the public. So we’re just one of a very small number that are in a position to open a space like this which is safe for public access,” explains Dr Wood.
It’s evident that the historic music hall isn’t just dwelling on the past, however, as they place a firm emphasis on feeding local creativity and caring for the community. Traipse along to the Malt Cross and you’ll not only find a selection of award-winning ales and a welcoming atmosphere but also a love for arts and performance.
The Malt Cross is now using this passion by giving a platform to the current generation of artists and musicians in the city. Sitting proudly alongside their contemporary heritage space is a brand new rehearsal room and recording studio – allowing young bands in the city to showcase their work. An art gallery has also been installed where the venue can collaborate with budding artists and teach them about curating exhibitions and selling their own work.
Jo Cox-Brown is the Chief executive of the Malt Cross Trust – a charity that works in conjunction with the venue to serve and care for the people of Nottingham through a range of initiatives and projects. The charity is owned by a number of Nottingham churches.
Jo, who calls herself “the servant of Malt Cross”, oversees the cafe bar, a team that works with young musicians and the charity’s outreach work within Nottingham. For her, it’s crucial to celebrate creativity in Nottingham.
The city has been a creative hub for hundreds of years and the music hall was the birth of the city’s creative side that we know today.
“We want people to express themselves and recognise their value through creativity. Many young people are taught that if you’re not academic in school then you’re not really worth anything, but we disagree.”
The Trust is perennially motivated by their mantra of “loving people and serving Nottingham.” In addition to working with young artists, the Malt Cross Trust also does a great deal of outreach work. Their biggest initiative, Street Pastors, is multi-church response to urban issues – with around 100 volunteers taking to the city centre on Friday and Saturday nights and doing anything from helping a vulnerable, drunk person to administering first aid. Tentative plans are also in place for an ‘SOS bus’ which could alleviate pressure on A&E services.
Jo Cox-Brown was first inspired to form the project after the city began to develop a misinformed infamy. She explained: “I realised about six years ago that Nottingham was getting a really bad reputation and that is not the city I know and love, so I’ve got up and tried to make a difference.” As it stands, there are now around 100 volunteers for the Street Pastors.
Video: Jo Cox-Brown on Street Pastors
The Trust also has another project which heads out to estates in Bulwell, Sneinton and St Ann’s, working with communities and schools in those localities to prevent issues such as bullying. At Malt Cross, it’s always been about instilling a warm and enriching sense of community. Jo said: “For us as a charity owned by the churches of Nottingham, it’s vital for us to reach out and to care for people without any real faith agenda, but just to show how fantastic this city is.”
A lot of the Trust’s fantastic achievements could not have been made possible without the altruistic work of their volunteers – around 200 of them. They help out with everything, from managing finances to heading out on the streets. Jo now wants even more people to get involved. “Anyone can help out at the venue – our youngest volunteer is 13 and our eldest is 78!
People from all walks of life can come together and reach out in a creative way.
Whether it’s bringing the city’s next Jake Bugg to the fore, tackling a big issue in your local community or educating forthcoming generations, The Malt Cross is constantly working to make Nottingham a better place. Thanks to the efforts of people like Dr Rebbeca Wood, Jo Cox-Brown and their hundreds of volunteers, a forgotten legacy is being retold while a new one is also being created.
So next time you take a stroll down an unassuming road, take a closer look and you might just unearth a hidden gem.
Slideshow: Exploring Malt Cross