The lost origins of Nottingham’s Rock City – from royal visits to an ice rink
It may be covered in black paint, but you can see familiar Victorian shapes all over the Rock City venue on Talbot Street in Nottingham city centre. If it really is as old as it looks, what was the building used for before it became a successful indie venue?
People who have lived here for a long time may remember Heart Of The Midlands, the first attempt to turn the building into a place of entertainment in the 1970s. But before that, within living memory, you might have been completely oblivious – it was just a storage unit.
To understand the origins of Rock City, we go back nearly 150 years, when people traveled by horse and carriage. In November 1876 the Nottingham Journal ran an advertisement – ”Rink! Rink! Rink!” – announcing the opening of a roller skating rink on Talbot Street.
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It was the brainchild of Edward Cox, a hotel owner in the city, who had moved his previous ice rink here from Market Street. Skating was still very new to the city and country – the ad promises that “no accidents have happened” at the old rink, to allay the concerns of worried parents.
Fancy a job at Mr. Cox’s new entertainment complex? A “respectable young woman, about 19 years old” was wanted for the box office, and among the first hires were said to be “respectable 15-year-old boys” to help run the place.
It was a large square and was used for balls, dances, circus performances, etc. Prime Minister William Gladstone even gave a speech here during a tour of Nottinghamshire in 1877.
By all accounts at the time, a busy day at the Alexandra was a joy to behold. It became the talk of the town when an aquarium was set up, with a pair of seals as the star attraction – most people will never have seen a seal outside of a picture book, or maybe be a traveling menagerie.
Roll, roll, to see the circus of Keith, Allen and Quaglieni in 1887! See the “frogmen” leap high in the air, the monkeys on horseback and Elwell the clown with his “mystifying hats”!
As the building’s entertainment became increasingly diverse, the ice rink changed its name to Victoria Hall in honor of the Queen. In the 1900s there were big concerts, charity balls featuring members of the royal family – and suddenly, in 1915, the army moved in to use the building as their quarters.
Years of brutal warfare followed, with little reason for dancing and festivities. But when the country came out the other side, Victoria Hall was finally able to hold a victory ball, raising money for crippled soldiers.
The party would end in 1928, when commercial development in the city claimed the building. For the next 45 years it was a storage building, and the only people going in and out were staff and transporters.
Heart Of The Midlands opened in 1973 as an exclusive nightclub, but it was a difficult time economically and it quickly declined. You may recall that darts and basketball were held at the site towards the end of its life in the late 70s.
Soon after came Rock City, and The Undertones played the first gig in a long line of legendary acts to grace the venue to this day. You have to wonder what a Rock City circus would look like…
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