A new chapter in Trent Basin’s rich history

Trent Basin has a rich history and is now embarking on the next chapter. The industrial land and heritage of the site has purposefully been embraced into the contemporary development to create a new sustainable neighbourhood fit for the 21st century.

A place’s history is a valuable asset. The social and industrial history around this once bustling cargo hub is part of the fabric of what Trent Basin is all about. It’s about creating a community which appreciates its past and is forward thinking to meet the demands of the future.

It’s important to have a record of this history, and it is now being captured in a new book which is due to be printed as the first residents move in.  Mark Patterson, author of the book, outlines how Trent Basin’s history is being brought to life.

When asked to write a history of the Trent Basin site I knew there would be a lot of reading and research to do – but also some old fashioned journalistic door-stepping of the kind I had been trained to do over several years working on newspapers.

The research was essential because, basically, there was no written history of the Trent Basin site in existence – not in one place anyway. Instead, the social and industrial story of the Trent Basin Depot, which was what used to occupy Trent Basin, was scattered all over the place – city council handbooks published in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, council committee minutes, waterways brochures, histories of trade on the Trent going back to the medieval period, books of photographs of barges and waterways, academic papers, planning consultants’ reports, newspaper articles stored on microfiche, old maps kept by local libraries, and accounts of Nottingham in the Second World War.

Thanks to such diverse sources I was able to piece together a continuous narrative which traced the history of the site from the completion of Trent Basin Depot in 1933 up to its closure as an inland port and its later twilight years as a decaying post-industrial site which provided a dramatic setting for TV drama and public art.

Yet the story was not really a story if it did not include the voices of the people who had known the port in its working heyday – chiefly, the barge skippers and crewmen who had spent years transporting cargo up and down the Trent from Hull to Nottingham and points between. But how would I get hold of such people?

I began by appealing for their help. An article about Blueprint’s transformation of the Trent Basin site included a request for anybody who had worked at Trent Lane Depot to contact me. The article appeared in local newspapers, a canals and riverside newsletter and a local history website which prompted many emails and phone calls from men and women who had worked at Trent Lane Depot in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s.

Getting face to face accounts was important. I arranged to visit and interview everybody who had got in touch. All were keen to talk at length about a period of their lives which had meant a lot to them, and was now gone.

Thankfully bundles of personal photographs by some of the Trent’s  ‘dumbboat’ crewmen, who worked on the River, were presented, which brought their stories to life.  Local man Barrie Taylor had gone straight into the ‘Hull Trade’ from school.  Others, such as David Burton, from Mapperley, had visited Trent Lane Depot as a school boy in the 1950s and some of his happiest memories were of trips from there to Hull, and back, during his school holidays.

During this research I learned something of the lore of the Trent and the problems it posed – tides, sandbanks, freezing weather in winter, strong currents at the confluence with the Humber which threatened to swamp and sink the heavy cargo boats.

My last interview was with a sailor. Les Reid, who runs and maintains a rare surviving Trent dumbboat (see picture 1 above) at Newark-on-Trent had had been a sailor all of his life; he seems to have Trent water in his veins, not blood. He gave more photographs, more stories, more Trent lore for the book, and I got a taste of what it was like when he gave me a guided tour inside and outside of the kind of boat which used to deliver huge loads of cement and paper to Trent Lane Depot.

The port has closed, and the Trent cargo trade has almost gone, but without recording the experiences of people I met, and others who are in the book, the story of Trent Basin would be as dry as a sack of grain. Researching and writing books, like building houses, is a people business.

Picture caption 1: Gersham Teal barge – the first ‘dumb boat’ to dock at the Trent Basin in 1933 – on its way to Nottingham (Credit to Les Reid – Newark Heritage Barge)

Picture caption 2: Trent Lane Depot crane (Credit to Canal and River Trust)