How Notts Filmmaker Georgianna Scurfield Is Celebrating the City’s Iconic Cattle Market

Photos: Mallory Mercer and Chloe Allen
Interview: Ashley Carter
Tuesday 25 October 2022
reading time: min, words

For 136 years, Nottingham Cattle Market has been a bedrock of the community. As a livestock market and, much later, a home for market stalls and Arthur Johnson & Sons auctioneers, it’s an eclectic ecosystem of stories, experience and big personalities tucked behind Meadow Lane near Trent Bridge. With a view to cataloguing the past and present of the market’s history for future generations, filmmaker Georgianna Scurfield launched The Cattle Market Project, a Heritage Lottery-funded documentary, photography, animation, oral history and historical archive project aimed at celebrating a Nottingham institution…


For those who have never been, can you explain what the Cattle Market is?
The Cattle Market takes place every Saturday morning. It’s a huge mix of loads of different vendors, from flower stalls to astro turf to eggs. It starts early, I’m talking old school early, like 6am and is normally over by about twelve. Whilst the market takes place outside, Arthur Johnson & Sons Auctioneers runs five separate live auctions from nine thirty every week. 

It was established in 1888 and was originally an area designated for selling livestock. People were doing it in the city centre, but the smell and noise was too much, so they pushed it all out and decided to build a designated cattle market that was near main roads and the canal. It was thirty or forty years in the planning, which we've discovered during our archive work. It stayed as a livestock market until the early-nineties.

So what is the Cattle Market Project?
In a nutshell, The Cattle Market Project is a celebration of the past and present of the market and Arthur Johnson & Sons Auctioneers, through a ‘now and then’ style photography project, a series of photography workshops, animations, twenty oral history interviews and a documentary film. We've got an archivist named Chris Weir working on the project who has been digging to find all sorts of interesting things about the history of the market, too. Once it's finished, all of those photos, interviews and the film are going to be put together and left in the Nottinghamshire Archive and the Local Studies library so people can see it and know what the cattle market was and is in two hundred years’ time.

Where did the idea initially come from?
Early in 2020 I read an article in the Nottingham Post that said the Cattle Market was closing down. People had been telling me that I'd love the cattle market for years, and I'd never been. I felt like I really needed to make the most of it while it was still there. So I went a couple of times, and realised that it would make a really cool film, especially if it's going to be ending soon. I set up a meeting with Keith Butler, who does all the marketing, he basically told me that it's not closing down, and the Post runs that sort of story every year, and every year people turn up to the market thinking it's going to be closing down. He set the tone for the whole project right there in that meeting when he said, “We can make a film, but I don't want it to be an obituary. The Cattle Market isn't leaving us.” So I said, “Great, let's make a film celebrating it then!”

The project is funded by a Heritage Lottery grant – how did you find that process?
The Heritage Lottery was an obvious choice because it's looking at the history of the market as a celebration. When I started looking at their requirements, the whole project started coming together. They support projects that help people hone their digital skills, they support young people, they inspire creativity - all really cool things that helped shape it all. I was planning it during the pandemic, so my aim was to include as many creative people in Nottingham as possible, because we were all at a point where all of our work had gone. It was an amalgamation of all of those things.

Did you have any preconceptions about the Cattle Market going in? 
Not really, to be honest. The Market is what it is - you go there and you can immediately get a grasp of the community that exists there. It has an identity - a very specific sense of humour, and doesn't pretend to be anything that it isn't.

Some of the things people sell there is stuff that's been salvaged from the tip. People will go and buy a load of things that others have deemed to be rubbish, and then sell it on. It made me think of the sustainable, upcycling trends, but without the gentrified, hipster-ness, if that makes sense. It's just the same thing, but branded differently. 

The whole auction house has adapted beautifully from killing animals and selling meat to being one of the biggest furniture auctioneers in the UK. It gives me hope for the future!

What new things have you learnt about the Market that people might not know?
One of the most interesting things about the Market is actually what's underneath it, because that area of Nottingham was just marshland before it was built - there was nothing there at all. They filled it with loads of Victorian waste to build up the marshland, so there is this huge array of wonderfully interesting archaeological artefacts just below the surface of the market. We can't exactly go digging, but people walking around have found bottles and clay pipes and things like that, so we've got a few examples to be displayed.  

How has the Cattle Market community reacted to you being there and filming?
This is really hard because whilst the Cattle Market is a wonderful community of people, everyone is so different and individual.  I chose to spend as much time as I could there because I really want to feel a part of the community I‘ve been responsible for documenting, also because it’s a right laugh. There are some people there that I'd consider friends now, some that are indifferent and others that absolutely still ignore me completely! As soon as I stood there with a camera though, people came up to me and just started sharing their opinions about the market, which was really lovely. 

What sort of characters have you encountered there?
It’s saturated with big characters. The very first time I went there I was feeling all nervous and unsure of myself, and people kept telling me that I needed to speak to Alan. I was trying to ask people about their experiences, and they just kept telling me to talk to Alan because he'd been there for ages. I heard “Just talk to Alan with the orange van” over and over again. I saw an orange van with an elderly looking chap sitting next to it, and I asked if he was Alan. He said yes, and spent the next half an hour talking about all sorts of different things, not answering a single question I'd asked. Everything from how he nearly set his kitchen on fire, how he was part of the IRA, how his daughter was a pilot that flew upside down. Then at the end of the conversation I said, “Thanks Alan, it's been really nice to talk to you,” at which point he said, “Oh, I'm not Alan - I'm Ignacius.” I just thought, 'What the hell am I doing here? What is this place?' I see Ignacius a lot now, and I still don't know when he's lying. I'm not even convinced Ignacius is his name. Who's called Ignacius?

Then there's Tony the egg man. He lost a lot during the fire [in November 2018, a fire caused by a stray firework caused over £1million of damage to the Market]. It really affected the market traders - it just wiped out so much stock. It's still really raw, and you get the impression that people are still trying to recover from it. Tony was hit pretty badly. He explained that he doesn't make any money from the market, he only goes - during rain, shine or snow - because there are elderly people that have been buying their eggs and other groceries from him every Saturday for years. He just goes there to serve the community. He really embodies the social aspect of the Market. 

And you can't talk about the Cattle Market without talking about Neil the flower man. He sets his stall up in prime position next to the entrance and just performs. He gets there at 5am, so from then until 11am it's just the Neil show. He really embodies the sense of humour and attitude of the stall holders, and the market in general. He's a proper geezer. 

The Market is what it is - you go there and you can immediately get a grasp of the community that exists there. It has an identity - a very specific sense of humour, and doesn't pretend to be anything that it isn't

4am is a rough time to start working – were you ever there filming that early?
I went down once at 4.30am, and if you thought there were some characters at 9am, the people there at 4.30am put them to shame. One guy was just walking around with a speaker blasting out Mariah Carey, using a loudspeaker to order his burger from the food van. I was asking who the hell he was, and everyone was just like, ‘Oh don't worry, that's just Mad Mick.’

It sounds like a really interesting network of people…
It's been really wonderful to see the network of farmers that used to be a community in the area. While doing the oral histories, one person would lead me to another, like ‘Oh, you need to talk to this person next,’ or ‘You have to speak to Robin Tuxford, the butcher from Netherfield.’ It's taken me on this trail of finding people who used to spend every week at the Cattle Market. It's also given me the chance to show them photos they've never seen before. There was one gent who was a farmer who lives near Lambley. During the interview I showed him some photos to see if he recognised any of the people or locations, and he immediately said “That's my dad!” He thinks it may have been the last photo that was ever taken of his father shortly before he died, and he'd never seen it before. After that interview I realised that's exactly what this project is all about. 

After having spent so much time there, do you get the sense that the Cattle Market is thriving or coming to the end of its life?
There's a sense from the market stall traders that things aren't as good as they used to be, but I think that's also a post-COVID thing. Less people are out and about, so it's difficult to judge. The auction house has really adapted during COVID and has moved its sales online, it feels like it's going from strength to strength. When you talk to people, there are a lot of 'I’ve been coming here since I was young, and back in my day this place was heaving' type of comments. There's definitely a sense that we’re in a transition, but only time will tell where that transition will lead.

It’s wonderful, because it’s an area that hasn’t been gentrified yet and it still serves the community that is within walking distance. It feels refreshing that in a world of overpriced second hand clothes, artisan chocolates, and grilled sandwiches that cost twenty quid,  there’s still a place someone will try and flog you a pallet of apples for a pound. Honestly, it’s mad to me that it’s not heaving every Saturday, you can get some proper bargains.

It is an odd thing to see an area used for something so grim repurposed as something positive…
It's really wonderful, and I think it's quite important. When you see people talk about veganism, and the 'but what will the farmers do?' argument comes up, the Cattle Market gives you a really good example of how people adapt. The whole auction house has adapted beautifully from killing animals and selling meat to being one of the biggest furniture auctioneers in the UK. It gives me hope for the future! 

On the other hand though, animals are still being slaughtered, probably more of them nowadays. It’s just being done even further from where we can see it happening. So instead of walking away from the Cattle Market with a turkey slung over your shoulder to pluck and butcher when you get home, you leave Tesco with a couple of perfectly sliced turkey breasts in a plastic container. What’s better? 

How can people get involved?
We're having a celebration afternoon on Saturday 29 October. That's going to be at the auction house. It will be an exhibition of all the photos, some of the archive material we've found, the premiere of the documentary and three wonderful short animations from Sophie Johnson of Sojo Animation that she did while working with children from Sneinton St Stephen's CofE Primary School. The kids listened to audio stories of people's time at the market, then drew what they heard and Sophie animated their drawings to the audio. The results are so cute, and I can't wait to share them.

If you would like to get involved with The Cattle Market Project and share your experiences, whether it’s as a regular visitor or a one-off, you can get in touch with Georgianna through the Cattle Market Nottingham website or social media pages

The Celebration of Nottingham Cattle Market takes place on Saturday 29 October at 3.30pm

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