The Forgotten Elephant!

Elephants have amazing memories, but have we forgotten our own elephant? Paul Maddocks tells us about his memories of the Elephant and his dreams for its future.

At the beginning of the 1970’s there was demand for a City Centre based Sports Centre. The council had opened the Coventry Swimming Baths in Fairfax Street in 1966 which had been a great success.

The Coventry Ring-Road had only just been completed in 1972 and there was a small plot of land both sides of the Cox Street at the end of the Swimming baths before the ring road. Any building of great size would have to straddle the road. The Coventry city council’s own architects department set up a working group to design the new sports centre.

The team led by Rex Chell had just worked on the new Civic CentreTthree building which was the City Council’s committee rooms opposite the Old Council House. It too was a building that also straddling both a road and pathways and was built on a small plot of land (now demolished.

The work on the building started only a few weeks after the country had gone through the tough time of the Three-Day Week in May 1974. The following year I started working at the Herbert Museum and got married at the same time. We moved into Winchester Street in Hillfields which meant every day I would pass by the construction site, and slowly saw its unusual shape take form.  over the next year until it opened in the summer of 1976. I was able to have a good look around it when it first opened and was amazed how big it was inside with so many different sports activities going on.

Until the Sport Centre was built the City Council had to hold its election counts in four different buildings – St. Mary’s Hall, Drapers Hall, the police ballroom and the city council staff canteen in Pepper Lane. But how with this large building all the votes could be counted in the same place.

My job over the years was working for the City Council’ Leisure Services, which meant I did a lot of work for the Sports Centre especially the Summer Active Zone advertising and promotion. The building has had various events, shows and rallies. It had famous basketball teams, like the Coventry Crusaders. My children and their cousins would go almost every day in the summer to roller disco or some other activity.

The building was closed a year ago and moth-balled. We understand there will be an announcement about its future soon.  it’s now been a year since Rainier, the preferred developer, was appointed. We don’t know what they will propose but the Coventry Society would like to see it remain in the public domain.

It was payed for by the citizens of Coventry and should stay as a leisure or a cultural centre, following examples such as the Tate Gallery or the V&A Dundee or even like the Guggenheim in Bilbao (which does have a similar look especially covered in sheet metal). A cultural centre could have art, film, light, dance, music, performances, exhibitions, rallies and conferences. After all it’s a giant black box on legs and it lends itself to creative ideas within it.

The Coventry Elephant could be a culture hub located at the heart of a new, city centre creative and cultural quarter. There are already plans in place to improve Cox Street. Attractions within 1000m include: The Herbert, Coventry Cathedral, St Mary’s Guildhall, Coventry University Faculty of Arts and Humanities, Ellen Terry Building, Coventry University Hub Venue, the Empire, Drapers Bar, Drapers Hall Concert Venue, Cathedral Quarter, Coventry Transport Museum, the Old Grammar School and Fargo Village.

There could be bright lighting under the building, a new entrance and public realm improvements on the Cox Street level, a new foyer with access to the lifts.

By twining up with a mayor cultural player this would be a landmark building brought back to life.

The Coventry Society tried to get the building listed but was un-successful. But we hope after some research and work with the Twentieth Society we might get the rejection reconsidered. C20 Conservation Adviser, Henrietta Billings, said: “The Elephant is undoubtedly a much loved and striking landmark”, ‘It is a beautiful and carefully thought through design’.

When the new plans are announced we will publish them on our website for your review.

Paul Maddocks, Deputy Chair of the Coventry Society

Captain Smith-Clarke

George Thomas Smith-Clarke

As the world pins its hopes on a new vaccine to counter Covid 19, Peter Walters tells the story of an earlier technological breakthrough that helped patients suffering in another epidemic almost seventy years ago.

In late 1953, in the midst of Britain’s terrifying polio epidemic, a new breathing machine was unveiled that made life much more bearable for patients struggling with the bulky and intimidating ‘iron lung’.

Its inventor was a member of Coventry’s engineering aristocracy, a man who insisted on using his First World War military rank of Captain, but whose compassion turned his agile and inventive mind to medical matters and in particular to a modified and re-designed artificial ventilator.

A new biography of Captain George Smith-Clarke, Coventry, Alvis and the Iron Lung, has just been published, and its author, retired anaesthetist Adrian Padfield, is convinced that more should be done to recognise his achievements.

“His modest and retiring manner endeared him to his friends but may account for the fact that he received no national recognition for his major contributions to innovative engineering designs in both world wars and the automobile industry, let alone his medical modifications and inventions that extended and enriched the lives of thousands.”

Born in Bewdley, Worcestershire in 1884, the son of a brass finisher, George Thomas Smith-Clarke showed an extraordinary inventive streak from the beginning and by the age of sixteen had designed his own tri-car.

He joined the Great Western Railway as an engineer in 1902 and soon after the outbreak of the First World War was sent to Coventry as a member of the Aeronautics Inspection Department, responsible for inspecting aero engines produced in the city by companies like Standard and Daimler.

After the war he joined Daimler as assistant works manager and in 1922 moved to Alvis, TG Johns’ new luxury car company, to become Chief Engineer.

Over the next decade he designed some of the company’s most successful cars, but his fertile mind was already ranging over medical matters as well. In 1926 he took out a patent for a loud-speaking telephone and tried to devise ways of helping children with hearing problems.

Alvis cars at the 1928 Le Mans

His interest in health led to his appointment as Chairman of the Coventry and Warwickshire Hospital in 1935 and he led the emergency committee trying to put the hospital back on its feet after the destructive wartime air raids.

He retired from Alvis in 1950 and during the polio outbreak of the early 1950s was co-opted on to the Birmingham regional committee studying breathing machines.

After witnessing a woman patient in distress while having to undergo nursing care inside a conventional iron lung, he set up a Coventry team to make modifications to the wooden iron lung, resulting in orders from the Ministry of Health to modify all the machines in Britain.

Later he designed a radically new version, the Coventry/Alligator iron lung, which was manufactured by Cape Engineering in Warwick, a company set up by former Alvis employees that he supported.

An Iron Lung

For his work on the artificial respirator he was awarded the Institution of Mechanical Engineering’s James Clayton prize in 1956, but was too ill to attend the awards ceremony. He died at his home at Gibbet Hill in Coventry in 1960.

Coventry, Alvis and the Iron Lung is published by Hughes & Company of Pershore, Worcestershire at £20 (www.hughesprinters.co.uk).

Is Coventry ready for electric vehicle revolution?

As part of the 10-point plan for a Green Industrial Revolution the Government has announced an investment of £500m for the development and mass production of electric vehicle batteries.

Coventry and Warwickshire has welcomed further investment in battery technology and electric vehicles, as part of the Government’s 10-point plan for a Green Industrial Revolution.

The Plan, which sets out a range of investments in energy and green technology, identifies electric vehicles as a core plank of the Government’s strategy.

Alongside investment in charging infrastructure, and new grants for low-emission vehicles, the Government will spend nearly £500 million on the development and mass-scale production of electric vehicle batteries. The West Midlands has been identified as a key area for this investment.

Cllr Jim O’Boyle, Cabinet Member for Jobs & Regeneration at Coventry City Council, said: “Coventry is at the heart of the green industrial revolution and I have no doubt that we have the pedigree, skills, location and partnerships to take advantage of further investment in the sector. This must also include a Gigafactory to secure the production and manufacture of batteries at scale in our region.

“The private sector is already playing its part. Jaguar Land Rover is investing heavily in electric vehicles, whilst Geely has already invested £320m in Coventry & Warwickshire to create the UK’s first purpose-built factory for electric vehicles.

“That investment is happening in Coventry & Warwickshire, so we need to maximise the opportunity and take advantage of our proximity to these global leaders in automotive technology. As a result, we are ready to support the sector and work with Government to both protect the future of the automotive sector and position the UK at the heart of the electric vehicle revolution.”

Coventry, and surrounding Warwickshire, has already emerged as a leader in battery technology. In 2017, a team led by Coventry & Warwickshire Local Enterprise Partnership (CWLEP), Coventry City Council, and Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG) won, as part of the Government’s Faraday Challenge, the UK Battery Industrialisation Centre (UKBIC) which is soon to be fully operational and is based just outside the city.

The Advanced Propulsion Centre (APC) is also located at the University of Warwick, alongside the National Automotive Innovation Centre – part of WMG – with Lotus, Aston Martin Lagonda, LEVC, Tata Motors, PSA Peugeot Citroen Vauxhall, and BMW all represented within the area.

Coventry is home to Jaguar Land Rover’s global headquarters while the company has a production plant at Gaydon in Warwickshire. Other car makers, including LEVC, Geely, and Lotus have also announced major investments in Coventry and Warwickshire as part of their electrification strategies.

This article is an edited version of a Coventry City Council Press Release.

More tales from Jabet’s Ash

John Marshall goes in search of more stories about an ancient ash tree in Stoke, situated alongside Binley Road and close to the junction of present day Marlborough Road

In early October the Coventry Society featured an article about Stoke’s most famous tree, Jabet’s Ash, which marked an ancient city boundary and was often a place where important visitors to the city were met, including royalty.

A recent inspection of Blyth’s book The History ofStoke (published in 1897) has unearthed a graphic example: a description of the visit of Princess Elizabeth Stuart in 1603. She later married Frederick of the Palatinate and briefly became Queen of Bohemia.

April 3rd 1603

“On this day the Princess Elizabeth, eldest daughter of James I, came into this City, from Coombe Abbey, with Lord and Lady Harrington, and many other Ladies of distinction. To shew that due deference which the respectability of the party demanded, the Mayor and the Alderman, with the rest of the livery, rode out of the town, in their scarlet gowns, as far as Jabet’s Ash on Stoke Green, where they met the Princess.

“The Mayor alighted from his horse, kissed her hand, and then rode before her into the City, with the Aldermen, etc. Lord Harrington went bare-headed before the coach along the streets (which were lined with the different companies of the City, standing in their gowns and their hoods) from Gosford-gate to the Drapery door, near St Michael’s Church, where having arrived, and heard a sermon, the Princess went from thence to St Mary’s Hall, attended by her train; a chair of state was placed at the upper end of the room, in which her Highness dined; from whence, having finished her repast, she adjourned to the Mayoress’s Parlour, which was fitted up in a most sumptuous manner for her reception. Lord Harrington, the Mayor, with the rest of the Ladies and Gentlemen, then dined.

“The Mayor afterwards presented to the Princess a silver cup, double gilt, which cost the City £29 16s 8d. She then left the Hall, and rode down Cross Cheaping, attended by the Mayor, etc., to Bishop-gate, Spon-end, Spon-street, Gosford-gate and Jabet’s Ash, where the Mayor left her with Lord Harrington and his train, who re-convened her to Coombe.”

Who drowned at Jabet’s Pit?

Photo – John Marshall

Coventry Society’s article in October said that a pool once existed opposite Jabet’s Ash. It was called Jabet’s Pit and was drained after an unfortunate man walked into the pit and drowned. An area of hollow ground (pictured above) still exists in what is now called Gosford Park and this is probably the site of the old pool. But who was the man who drowned? The following account of an inquest has been found in Blyth’s book. It does not mention Jabet’s Pit by name but – could this be a reference to the curious incident of the man in the night-time who drowned at Jabet’s Pit?

Oct 14th 1861

“Inquest at the Bull’s Head, Stoke, on the body of Joseph George, 61 years of age, who was found drowned in a pit on Gosford Green, on the previous Sunday morning. It appears that on Oct 5, he had left the Hertford Arms, in a state of intoxication, and was on his way to Stoke. The jury returned a verdict of ‘Accidental Death’, but expressed an opinion that the authorities ought to better fence the pit, which was considered to be very dangerous.”

This report originally appeared in the November newsletter of Stoke Local History Group. John Marshall is chair of the group and a member of Coventry Society.

The Eagle and the Phoenix

Coventry Society member, Sheila Woolf, has published a new book about the history of Coventry aimed at young people.

The book is aimed at children between about nine to twelve years old, telling stories based on episodes in the rich history of Coventry. It begins with the Romans at the Lunt Fort in Baginton, moves through medieval times, goes on to include weavers’ riots and hangings at Gibbet Hill, and concludes with the Sky Blues’ FA Cup win of 1987! Each story is told by an imaginary child, so that the events appear from a young person’s perspective.

This book is a fantastic addition to the City of Culture Year and fills in some of the gaps in the programme for the year.

With Christmas on the horizon, perhaps it could be a stocking-filler for your children or grandchildren?

The book is priced £6.95 and can be ordered via Amazon, Coventry and Nuneaton branches of Waterstones, or directly from the author (which would incur £2 p&p). It has been published by a local firm in Earlsdon, Takahe Publishing.

The press release from the publisher states:

“HISTORY OF COVENTRY – IT’S CHILD’S PLAY!

“Coventry has a fascinating history, whether we consider its folk lore, its buildings or its people and their achievements. Few of us perhaps have the time or inclination to delve into the numerous text books on this subject, so how do you make it interesting – especially to children? Well, Sheila Woolf certainly succeeds in her new book: The Eagle and the Phoenix:

“Coventry Stories for Young People. A selection of events from Coventry’s past is presented in a collection of nine short stories, told through the perspective of young people who experienced them.

“The youngsters in the stories are fictional but the historical background is real, giving the reader a chance to view past events through the eyes of the children and their families.

“The stories start with a young lad at the Lunt Fort in Roman times who has a natural affinity with horses but who yearns for his native country. We then move on to Lady Godiva and her famous ride through the streets of Coventry. Other stories include the imprisonment of Mary Queen of Scots in Saint Mary’s Hall in the late 16th  century, riots of the weavers in the 1830s, the destruction of the cathedral during World War II, and the great success of the Sky Blues in winning the 1987 FA Cup.

“The introduction to each chapter is accompanied by an evocative line-art drawing by the talented Earlsdon artist David R. Clarke who captures the mood of the story. The book will appeal to a wide range of ages from 9-12.

“Sheila Woolf was Head of English at King Henry VIII School in Coventry until her retirement. Since then she has written extensively on aspects of Warwickshire history and regularly lectures on local subjects. In this book she wanted to present aspects of Coventry’s history to young people in an interesting and inspiring way. She has certainly succeeded and you don’t have to be a history buff to enjoy these stories … but beware you might want to find out more!

“The Eagle and the Phoenix : Coventry Stories for Young People (ISBN 978-1-908837-17-2) is published by Earlsdon’s Takahe Publishing Ltd and is available from amazon.co.uk and local bookshops price £6.95.”

CovSoc Member Sheila Woolf with her new book