Interviews in Sherwood

Councillor John Hartshorne
The Sheriff of Nottingham, 2000-2001 and 2003-2004

Interview conducted and transcribed
by Allen W. Wright


Born in Yorkshire, but raised in Nottinghamshire, John Hartshorne was the councillor for the ward of Bestwood and the time of this interview. He has been a councillor since 1979, and is a member of the Labour Party. Councillor Hartshorne served a term as Sheriff of Nottingham in 2000 - 2001. He returned to that position in 2003 - 2004 (the time of this interview), and also served as Lord Deputy Mayor. It was the first time that the two positions had been combined. In 2004, as planned previously, Councillor Hartshorne was installed as the Lord Mayor of Nottingham. In the 2007 county council election, John Hartshorne was elected as councillor to the ward of Bulwell, a position he still holds in 2018.

Link to Councillor Hartshorne's page on the Nottingham City Council website

This interview took place in the sheriff's chambers in the Council House on July 11, 2003, during one of my trips to Nottingham. The councillor presented me a lovely paperweight souvenir and I was given a tour of the Council House.

The discussion began by talking about one of the attractions in Nottingham that I hadn't yet had a chance to visit.

The caves of Nottingham

AWW:   I understand that you had some interesting archaeological developments around the Galleries of Justice attraction in Nottingham and St. Mary's Church. There was a tunnel connecting the two. Could you please tell me a bit about that?

CJH:   We think it was Middle Ages probably. But it had never been found in modern times, not in written history anyway. So it was quite unique.

AWW:   Was it carved out of sandstone like the other caves in the city?

CJH:   Oh yes.

AWW:   Most of the caves in Nottingham are man-made then? I imagined that going around the Caves of Nottingham exhibit [underneath the Broadmarsh shopping centre] that it wouldn't be hard to dig through the sandstone.

CJH:   Yes, that's right. And one of the problems we've got in Nottingham at the present time is that a lot of our old manufacturing industry which used a lot of water, textiles and brewing, they've closed down now. And the water tables rising. It's starting to submerge some of the caves.

AWW:   Oh dear.

CJH:   Well, it is 'oh dear' because water and sandstone are bad news actually.

AWW:   What happens when water and sandstone meet?

CJH:   It breaks the bond up between the individual grains of sand. And it starts dissolving or breaking up.

AWW:   Do you have any plans how to deal with that?

CJH:   Well, it's not crisis point yet. But the danger signs are there. I don't know what we're going to do. But they're going to seal the caves or try and put the water table out.

AWW:   Someone at the Trip [the Trip to Jerusalem pub, claims to be the oldest pub in England and is connected to the Castle Rock] is going to have trouble in the next few years and the sandstone rock the castle is built on might start crumbling.

CJH:   There is erosion all over, yes. But I don't know --- you can put modern resins in and polymers. It spoils that natural look, if you know what I mean.

AWW:   There is something nice about Nottingham being built on sandstone. When I first came here, I amazed to learn that all those stories of caves and digging tunnels into that castle. All that is not that far-fetched. To think of Mortimer's Hole [a tunnel underneath the castle that King Edward III once used] there's a lot of truth.

CJH:   The original settlers of Nottingham, who were Stone Age people, were cave dwellers. They obviously settled here because it was near water and sandstone, which was easily carved. And there was plenty of food.

A bit of history

CJH:   The original settlers of Nottingham, who were Stone Age people, were cave dwellers. They obviously settled here because it was near water and sandstone, which was easily carved. And there was plenty of food.

Below, Councillor Hartshorne offers his thoughts on the history behind the legend.

CJH:   I thought that your website could have had a little bit more real history involved in it. Because Robin Hood is a myth, a legend. But I think he's an icon of what was happening at the time. You must remember, William the Conqueror actually invaded England and conquered us [in 1066]. And he conquered everything in England. And in all the key positions, he put either his relatives or army commanders as surrogate kings. In this area, it was Leicestershire, Derbyshire and Yorkshire - a huge area of land. The sheriff - the shire reeve - was a king's appointment. He was his closest ally. And he had to work for the king. And he wasn't paid a salary for this job. So, how did he live? By thieving off the local population.

AWW:   I remember that Philip Mark, Sheriff of Nottinghamshire from 1209 to 1224 was one of the big ones for extortion type rackets. And he was actually French. And he's mentioned in the Magna Carta.

CJH:   His allegiance was to a Norman king, with a local Anglo-Saxon population. Now the population didn't want a fight. All they wanted to do was raise the crops and live a reasonable life. They weren't soldiers, fighting people. But here you have these foreigners who came with new laws, new customs, new demands. And one of the demands through the sheriff was a local tax, which went directly to the king to pay for his army, for his occupation and for his household. Local people resented that. But rather than resorting to arms, as they did in the Civil War, they had a guerrilla warfare. And it was local raids. It was get the dagger into the king's men whenever you could.

AWW:   One of the things I read about Nottingham is how it was actually separated, that there was a divide between Normans and Saxons.

CJH:   That was quite a subtle act on the part of the Normans. When they came to Nottingham, they saw immediately that at that time, the River Trent was navigable to the sea. They saw this as a likely weak spot in England's defenses, militarily. Just in case the Saxons or the Flemish people came across the North Sea, up the rivers and started occupying the hinterland. So, one of the reasons why William settled in Nottingham - he settled in Bristol, London, Nottingham, Newcastle. All the strategic parts of navigable rivers. In order to defend that local area. And that's why in the case of Nottingham, we think that the first sheriff was, in fact, an army commander, one of his high lieutenants. He was appointed here, primarily for defensive purposes. So, one of the first acts he did was to build a fort, to garrison a small army. He had troops in Nottingham. Now that was built separately from the walled town of the Anglo-Saxons. For quite a bit of time, the Normans allowed the Anglo-Saxons to continue looking after themselves. Until we got this insurrection, this guerrilla warfare. And then he started imposing his military might and financial demands, more strongly on the Anglo-Saxons. He had to appoint this lieutenant then as the king's reeve. He became the sheriff of what was originally the Norman bit, the fort or castle as it later became. And the Anglo-Saxons kept their own sheriff in their own walled town. So, there were evolving over the next couple hundred of years, two separate communities. Two separate towns, each with their own ruler. One an Anglo-Saxon and one a Norman. And by Edward I's time, he's had enough of this. He said "I'm not paying for two lots of administration. Nottingham must be amalgamated." And the Normans will rule both cities. But in order to appease those wealthy Anglo-Saxons who were currently administering the law, well they paid them off. But the new ruler appointed, the new sheriff had two maces. Which was the royal seal that he was, in fact, in control of both towns.

       St. Mary's church area and the Galleries of Justice that was the Anglo-Saxon part of the town. And the castle, and Standard Hill and around that area, that was the Norman part of the town. And the wall between the two cities was actually around Chapel Bar and down Maid Marian Way.

A modern-day sheriff

AWW:   So, with modern Nottingham, what is the role of the sheriff?

CJH:   Well, my aim is primarily to promote the city and improve tourism. But I do a lot more than that, actually. I raise the profile of the civic office through schools. I try to raise the profile of local businesses, to think locally rather than nationally or internationally, by giving them a civic endorsement, shall we say.

AWW:   So, when you do promote the tourism, what's the reaction when you say "I'm the Sheriff of Nottingham"?

CJH:   People invariably think of a very important person with specific legal powers. Which I no longer have. I'm a purely ceremonial figure now. Since 1974 and the rights of my position went to the High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire, who is still a royal appointment and is appointed specifically to look after the queen's interests, but also to appoint the magistrates. But since '74, the local sheriff has been extinguished to a purely ceremonial position. But I like to think of myself as a long-serving councillor, as an ambassador for the city. So if I get the opportunity to say nice things about it, I will do.

AWW:   Are you ever made to dress up as your medieval counterpart at the Robin Hood Festivals and Pageants in Nottingham and Sherwood?

CJH:   No, I don't do that. It's strange that, because the county runs both of those shows in Sherwood Forest. And they hire actors to do the show. And don't get me wrong, it's a very good show, entertaining. But there's nothing authentic about it at all. Just showmanship.

AWW:   Do you meet with a lot of people coming through the city?

CJH:   Oh yes. My guestbook is quite well full now of all sorts of people from all over the world that have visited since I've been installed in May.

AWW:   And you were sheriff a few years ago as well?

CJH:   Three years ago, yes. I was sheriff then. But I'm sheriff and Deputy Lord Mayor now. So when I finish my sheriff's year of office, I'll automatically be the Lord Mayor.

AWW:   Are you looking forward to that?

CJH:   Oh yeah. Past people have said that "you'll be absolutely shattered, you'll be tired out, you ought to have had a rest." But I enjoy doing the job, actually. It's a wonderful position, the Sheriff of Nottingham. Because it is ceremonial. You've got no responsibilities. You can go anywhere. There are doors open for you which would never be open for me as an ordinary councillor. But with that, a person can go anywhere, talk to anybody. And they're pleased to see you. They're smiling; they're not normally complaining. It's lovely.

History and good outlaw

The historical discussion resumed at this point.

CJH:   I was going to finish off my little piece of historical interest for you. Because at that time, Normans were really stamping their culture on Britain. And what they were doing was deposing a lot of the landowners and a lot of the barons, who were loyal to the past king. Stripping them of all their inheritance, land, title, everything. And they were being given away to the family and friends of the Norman king. That built a lot of resentment up. Now, we think Earl of Loxley [Locksley] was sort of stripped of his inheritance and lands. He probably protested at the time, which got him outlawed. That wasn't unusual. They were either killed or outlawed. The legend has it that he sought refuge in the forest and carried out guerrilla warfare on the Normans. Much to the delight and pleasure of the local population who got some of their taxes back. But everybody was doing that, to be honest. It really was an internal civil war on guerrilla lines. And I think Robin Hood is just a popular icon for what was happening in a lot of places at the time.

AWW:   What do you think of the icon of Robin Hood and its relevance to today?

CJH:   Well, I think the way - especially Hollywood's treatment of it - as a popular hero. Good overcoming evil. It's not quite that black and white. It's not quite that straightforward, I don't think. He's never all good or all evil. I tried to explain why I thought the sheriff wasn't all bad. He was good in that he was obeying the king's orders and bringing the king's law to a strange and foreign land. He was bad from the local population's view in that he was milking them dry, taxing them to starvation. So, in that respect, it was bad that he was obeying orders and also pocketing a little bit for himself along the way. Again, the king whether it was the Anglo-Saxon king or the new Norman king had the rights to all forests and animals. He had all grazing rights. There were only small pockets of land where the commoners, the ordinary people, could actually graze livestock. So, where do you go as an outlaw? So, you've got to live it rough in the wilds. So you go into the Royal Forest where there's food, where there's game. It's better to kill a deer than a rabbit, I suppose. You live longer, don't you? But that was a capital offence. So, in order to survive, you've got to be a criminal. So, that's the range of the icon as I see it. Both have got good and bad in their total picture.

Favourite Sheriffs and new robes

AWW:   Do you have a favourite Robin in all the ones you've seen and a favourite sheriff?

CJH:   I certainly have a favourite sheriff and that's Basil Rathbone [who played a sheriff-like Sir Guy of Gisbourne, not the sheriff, in the 1938 The Adventures of Robin Hood starring Errol Flynn] and I try and emulate him in my portrayal. I thought he was wonderful. I thought he projected the epitome of evil. And power. So, in terms of Hollywood icons, Basil Rathbone is my sheriff. Robin Hood? Richard Greene, I think, is my favourite one. Anglicized, rather than Errol Flynn.

AWW:   I've always liked Robert Shaw's sheriff in Robin and Marian.

CJH:   He didn't seem real to me. I've been asking for a new robe for the sheriff. When you interviewed Joan Casson, I don't know if she said, but there were plans then to make her a new robe. They were going to make it out of leather chamois, and I said that's totally out of context. That's wrong. The sheriff would not have been wearing leather. That was the commoner's material. He would have worn the finest furs, skill maybe. Certainly velvet. It would not have been coarse leather or coarse cloth.

AWW:   So, are you getting a new robe?

CJH:   I don't know. I've suddenly doubled the cost. [Laughs] One of the edicts of this authority, and many others in England, is that we don't use real fur. It's got to be synthetic fur.

Love of the city

AWW:   Turning to the city itself, what do you love the most about Nottingham?

CJH:   Firstly, it's the people - who I think are genuine human beings. They're not stuck up. They've no airs and graces. They are welcoming, they are usually friendly and helpful. And I think that's the biggest asset in the city we've got. Following that up, I suppose economy is the next important thing. Because we're not a single commercial operation in Nottingham. It's many, many, different, diverse enterprises. You know the big names: Boots, Raleigh, Imperial Tobacco, coal mining, textiles. They've all gone now. But it's been replaced by hundreds of thousands of small businesses, usually computer-orientated or high-tech. Even boots now are diversifying.

      The other good thing about the city are the two universities. Said to be the most popular in Great Britain. There are about 15,000 students and rising all the time. You've only got to spend one night in Nottingham - especially on the weekend - to know that this city is built for, staffed for, and certainly engineered for youth. It's the youngsters, not necessarily university students, but youngsters in the city that are its future. They have the ideas, the energy and the spending power to bring some of these things to fruition.

      Another good thing is that -- well, just let me add a line on that economic phase, because while other cities like Birmingham, Leeds and Sheffield, for example, suffered a major economic downturn when the recession came, Nottingham suffered but not to that extent, because we diversified our economy so much. We weren't reliant on one major industry. So, we've survived the bad times. I'd like to think we have that innovation, bravery and skill to manage new developments.

AWW:   On the tourism of the city, what would you say the biggest attractions are?

CJH:   Well, if I were a stranger, and I find it hard to think of myself as a stranger, but I am a global traveller like yourself and I do compare everywhere I go with what I know here. The biggest advantage to a visitor to Nottingham is that it's reasonably flat in the central core, where all the visitor attractions are. We're a very compact city and all of the attractions can be accessed by foot. [We were interrupted at this point and informed that the sheriff's next appointment was looming.] We've got a clean and green environment. There's always activity on the street. There are always people no matter what time of the day or what time of the year. So it's always seemed busy. And I think we've already got a very good transportation system but that's being upgraded with this new tram. Also since you last visited [1999], even in that short time, you must notice the changes. A lot of new buildings have gone up in that time. A lot of new restaurants have opened - quality restaurants. Our bottom-line policy is that we have quality buildings giving quality goods and services.

AWW:   Do you have a specific favourite attraction?

CJH:   Well, I don't. But if I were 20 or 30 years younger, my favourite place would be the Corner House, opposite the Theatre Royal. Because it's got everything in there. Good restaurants, good food, good cinema. A close second to that is the Canal Basin on Canal Street, where there are a lot of night spots, drinking places and restaurants.

AWW:   Just to wrap up the interview, I know that the city has occasionally had an ambiguous relationship with its most famous icon. How do you feel about that?

CJH:   Well, I've been a member of the council since 1979, and I know that a lot of my colleagues over that time want to project the image of a young, aggressive European city rather than an old, medieval, embattled legendary city. A lot have wanted to ditch Robin Hood in favour of new modern style. But I've always argued that you would ditch the legend at your peril, because to be honest, I don't know what other thing Nottingham could do that would outclass or outstrip the Robin Hood legend.

AWW:   That's a very nice thing to conclude on. Thank you for your time.

CJH:   It's been a pleasure.

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