A New Historical Map of Coventry

As Coventry celebrates as UK City of Culture, a new map of the city sheds light on its fascinating past.

Few cities have been altered over the centuries as Coventry, known as a hub of Britain’s motor vehicle industries, for its Second World War destruction and its bold post-war reconstruction programme. Yet Coventry was also an important medieval city — fourth largest and wealthiest in the 14th and 15th centuries — with some of the most significant architecture, art and cultural achievements outside London. From 1451 it was awarded the status of a county, separate from the rest of Warwickshire, and for a while was the headquarters of the Lancastrian royal family during the Wars of the Roses, thus becoming the de-facto capital of England.

The early history of Coventry, from a medieval wool-producing town to the largest provincial cloth and cloth-finishing market with some of the wealthiest merchants in England, is written in the pattern of its streets. A surprising number of both monumental and minor domestic buildings survive in Coventry from its late medieval heyday and the new historical map, together with a gazetteer, puts these buildings in context. All were protected by strong defensive walls and towers, plotted on the map using evidence from recent archaeology and from old maps.

Uniquely, Coventry had three cathedrals in its history, including the current one consecrated in 1962. The exact positions of the previous two are identified on the map: St Mary’s Priory Cathedral, destroyed in the Reformation, and St Michael’s Church (cathedral from 1918 but destroyed in the war). Coventry’s Charterhouse and its boundaries are shown on the map outside the walls, taking account of recent archaeological discoveries during restoration work in 2021.

The map shows how the city looked just before the First World War and captures the moment when the city was changing rapidly from a town with a still-medieval streetscape to a modern, industrial city. Large parts of the central area of the city were given over to the manufacture of bicycles and motor vehicles, and the making of machine tools and components.

The map shows the locations of these factories, often positioned right next to ancient buildings and streets in the heart of the city. Many of these industrial premises, as well as many medieval buildings, have long since been demolished and their precise locations unknown except to a small number of experts. The map allows the reader to trace Coventry’s fascinating topography over time and there will be many long-gone names that Coventrians recognise.

The Historical Map of Coventry is the work of the Historic Towns Trust and the Medieval Coventry charity, published to coincide with the city’s status as UK City of Culture 2021. The historical information on the map has been researched by CovSoc member Dr Mark Webb, with input from a number of experts on the medieval and modern city, together with Professor Keith Lilley, Chair of the Historic Towns Trust, and cartographer Giles Darkes, all Coventry-born.

‘The map will be of interest to anyone wishes to understand Coventry’s history,’ says Mark Webb. ‘It’s aimed at a wide public and includes attractive colour illustrations and a gazetteer packed with interesting detail about the city’s buildings and streets.’

‘Working on the map has been a fascinating journey for me,’ says Giles Darkes. ‘We took an Ordnance Survey map of 1913 to create the basis for the historical map and then added the historical features. What is striking is the street pattern of the medieval city which was about to be changed for ever, and the remarkable jumble of industrial premises next to domestic and commercial buildings in the heart of the city.’

An Historical Map of Coventry was launched on Friday 12th November at Holy Trinity Church in the heart of the city. The event included talks from Professor Peter Coss on the early history of Coventry and Dr Miriam Gill on Holy Trinity’s magnificent Doom Painting.

The map, in full colour throughout, is priced at £9.99 and available from bookshops. ISBN 978-0-9934698-6-2

Did Handel Play the Organ in Old St. Michael’s?

CovSoc member James Rose tells us the the results of his fascinating research…

In Ships of Heaven, an entertaining book about British cathedrals, Christopher Somerville’s list of what was lost in the destruction of Coventry’s old cathedral concludes with ‘the organ that Handel played.’ Surprised not to have heard about this and as no further evidence was provided, I thought the story worth pursuing. I soon found that the organ in the church in Handel’s day had been decommissioned and replaced over a hundred years before the Blitz but whether Handel had played it remained unresolved.

 Handel travelled extensively in Europe as a young man but once he came to England, unless it was to go to the Continent, it appears from his biographies that he rarely ventured outside the capital with one major exception: his 1741 journey to Dublin to give a series of concerts that included the premiere of the recently completed Messiah.

The only way for Handel to travel was by stagecoach. Road strip maps of 1719 and 1765 for the route from London to the ports for Dublin,  Holyhead and Chester, show the southern part of the route as High Barnet, St. Albans, Dunstable, Towcester, Daventry and Coventry, whose main roads in and out of the city were the London Road and the Holyhead Road.

Contemporary accounts indicate that Handel was at the opera in London on October 31st, which was a Saturday, and left ‘some days later’. The stagecoach for Coventry left on Thursdays from The George Inn, West Smithfield, meaning his departure was not until November 5th. In 1740 by a “wondrous effort” it could take just three days to reach Coventry. So Handel could have arrived in Coventry late on November 7th but more likely a day later.

Although goods waggons went all the way to Chester, stagecoaches on the route from London only went as far as Coventry. Handel must have changed coach in the city and must have stayed at least overnight or longer on the outward and on the return journey in August 1742. He eventually arrived in Dublin on November 18th, wind and weather having prevented him from sailing from Parkgate on the Dee by Chester, where he was delayed for some days until he eventually could sail from Holyhead.  

Handel was probably the most famous organist in Europe and even had his own organ transported to Dublin for the concert series. He was also known to play the organ in places that he visited, such as when he was delayed in Chester, when he played The Great Organ at Adlington Hall, the home of his friend Charles Legh.

Moreover, St Michael’s had a fine, new organ built in 1733 by Thomas Schwarbrick (Swarbrook or Swarbrick), a German organ builder living in Warwick. It was said to be a noble instrument and his finest with a number of unusual stops for mechanical instruments such as the harp, lute and dulcimer, features which Handel later incorporated into his own design for organs.

So far, the evidence is that Handel could have played the organ in Coventry’s parish church by virtue of his having stayed in the city en route elsewhere but details as to how the story arose are lacking.

In Organa Britannica: Organs in Britain 1660-1860, based on the notebooks and drawings made by the Anglican clergyman and antiquary, the Reverend John Hanson Sperling from 1782 to 1813, it says of the Swarbrick organ that ‘Handel apparently played the organ frequently’. He is said to have ‘commended the Vox Humana, Double Diapason and the bassoon,’ remarkably specific observations. Inquiries made at the Cadbury Special Collections of Birmingham University Library, which holds the original notebooks and drawings on microfiche, revealed that Sperling made no mention of Handel in relation to St. Michael’s.

However, the Organs in Britain entry indicates that it derived its description from additional sources, a pamphlet of 1912 and a book by the Director of Music at the new cathedral, David Lepine, bearing the promising title of The music and organs of the cathedral and Parish Church of Saint Michael in Coventry. Members of the Coventry and Warwickshire Organists’ Association told me that Lepine did not mention Handel either, which left a 17-page unnamed pamphlet of 1912 as a possible source.

The archivists from the Cadbury Library identified the pamphlet of 1912 as

Collegiate Church of St. Michael, Coventry.

An Appeal for the Restoration and Completion of the ORGAN with Historical Notes on the Organs and Organists from 1505 to 1912.

The Historical Notes section by Frederick John Harker (1867-1952), Assistant organist in 1912says:

‘Handel frequently performed upon the Schwarbrick organ in St. Michael’s and was much pleased with it, especially commending the Double Diapason, Bassoon and Vox Humana. The swell was much admired for its sweetness of tone, compass and admirable effect, and the Choir Organ (which) was a very unusual feature in those days.’

The Double diapason is a stop on the Great organ that links certain keys together; the swell organ has pipes enclosed behind louvres that can be gradually opened to produce a crescendo and the Choir organ is a softer, quieter organ suitable for accompanying the choir. Each of these was controlled from a separate manual, meaning that the organ had the ‘very unusual feature’ of three manuals.

Frederick Harker became the cathedral organist in 1928 and in the pamphlet lists his predecessors in unbroken succession back to Thomas Deane who played the first organ in 1733. On hearing that Handel was in town, Dr Deane would surely pay his respects and invite him to play the organ, committing his revered words to memory to be passed down from organist to organist, accounting for the interesting and specific details.

Staying overnight or a little longer on the way to and from Dublin, however, hardly amounts to frequently. Paul Maddocks informs me that there is a local oral tradition supporting the idea of more frequent visits and relates these to a friend of Handel’s who lived in or near Coventry. While Handel may have formed a friendship with Dr. Deane, a more likely candidate is Charles Jennens, the librettist of several oratorios including Messiah, which Handel had finished only days before leaving for Dublin.

Having unsuccessfully scoured the usual Handel biographies for any mention of Coventry, I searched for references to Jennens and Gopsall Hall, the family seat to the north of Coventry. Otto Erich Deutsch’s documentary biography of 1955 says that Handel tried to meet Jennens at Gopsall on his way back from Dublin and an article in Musical Times of 1902 says that Handel ‘often visited Gopsall’. Neither mentions their sources.

Whether his destination was Chester or Gopsall, Handel’s road lay through Coventry with its mighty Swarbrick organ. It remains  unclear if Handel’s visits to Coventry began when he first collaborated with Jennens in 1735 or after 1747 when Jennens inherited Gopsall Hall. In either case, we are entitled to believe that Handel did perform on Swarbrick’s great organ in old St. Michael’s – frequently as local oral tradition has it.

Help Us Save St. Columba’s

St. Columba’s United Reformed Church opened 90 years ago on 10th October 1931. The church is located near to the Canal Basin and the old Admiral Codrington Pub.

In January 1926 various Scottish and Irish people who had moved to the city called for a Preaching Station in Coventry. The group was inaugurated in May 1927 and monthly services were held in St Mary’s Guildhall until they moved into St. Columba’s.

The building was until recently an overnight homeless sleepers shelter, run by a local charity. The church building consists of a main church hall, meeting room, kitchen and prayer room, together with a number of additional ground and first floor rooms. 

This year the Church closed and is now up for sale at £500,000.

The Coventry Society would like to see this building saved for the city. We are planning to raise awareness of the building and to put in an application to have it locally listed. To do this we need to know more information about the building, the people involved with it and its architect and builder. 

Can you help?

We would be happy for the building to be used for residential apartments, offices, children’s nursery or even student accommodation if it could be sympathetically converted! Its in a mixed-use area, benefits from road frontages to both St Columba’s Close and St Nicholas Street and is only a short walk from Coventry City Centre.

Help us save this building. If you have any information, documents or old photos, please send them to us at info@coventrysociety.org.uk

Antiques – Dusty, Smelly, Haunted and Expensive?

The next monthly lecture presented by the Arts Society Coventry brings a familiar face to Coventry.

Mark Hill, well known from ‘the Antiques Roadshow’, presents a persuasive introduction to buying antiques and integrating and using them in today’s homes. The state of the antiques market and the different meanings of the word value are considered, and he looks at what current and future generations of collectors are buying, why they are buying it and how they are displaying it.

Tuesday 23rd November 2021 at 7.00 p.m. at the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum. Doors open at 6.30 p.m. Complementary glass of wine or soft drink for early attendees.

Free for members of The Arts Society Coventry – £10 for visitors, £5 for students. Book tickets here.

Heritage at Risk

St. Mark’s Church is still on the At Risk Register

Historic England has published its latest register of Heritage at Risk. The Register identifies sites most at risk of being lost as a result of neglect, decay or inappropriate development.

The publication reveals that no new heritage assets in Coventry have been added since last year’s list was published and a number of buildings have been removed from the list.

This year, the surviving length of the medieval city wall and one of the gate houses, Cook Street Gate, have been removed from the Heritage at Risk Register following the completion of repair works to the scheduled monuments, funded by a grant of £142,106 by Historic England.

The report acknowledges the work undertaken through the Coventry High Street Heritage Action Zone, based around The Burges. “Special focus has been given to Lady Herbert’s Garden and The Burges Conservation Area, which is the National Demonstrator for the High Street Heritage Action Zone scheme – under which Historic England has provided £2 million to the Historic Coventry Trust. The result has been transformative with shop fronts sensitively restored; breathing new life back into what had been a forgotten corner of the city centre”. However Lady Herbert’s Garden remains on the Heritage at Risk register.

The other building removed from the list is Holy Trinity Church. A National Lottery Heritage Fund Grant for Places of Worship was awarded in 2017 to assist repairs and re-roofing works were completed in August 2019.

There are eleven sites still included on the Register. These include a number of buildings that are currently being restored but are not yet been complete. For this reason the Grade I Listed Charterhouse is still shown as “poor condition” although work in the building is scheduled to be completed this year.

The Grade II*Listed Nonconformist Chapel at London Road Cemetery is also includes despite approved plans to convert the chapel for office use. A grant application has been made to Historic England to assist with repair works.

The Grade II* Listed Basement of the Old Star Inn, Earl Street, is awaiting redevelopment as part of the new Coventry University building.

Other sites in Coventry that remain on the Register include the Grade II* Listed Whitefriars Gatehouse (36 and 37 Much Park Street and archway in between), which is described as being in poor condition. The continuing threat of heritage crime, assorted masonry repairs and renewal of defective floor timbers above the archway are all issues to be addressed. A grant application has been made to Historic England by the historic Coventry Trust to assist with repairs to convert the Gatehouse for use as holiday accommodation.

The Grade II Listed St Mark’s Church and boundary walls to Stoney Stanton Road and Bird Street – are described as being in poor condition. Now relicensed and re-ordered for public worship, it has a catalogue of building fabric defects that require urgent attention including reroofing works, the renewal of rainwater goods, drainage and assorted high-level masonry repairs.

The Grade I Listed St John the Baptist Church on Fleet Street is described as being in poor condition – The red sandstone used in its construction is of variable quality and its repair and maintenance is an on-going issue, in particular, the condition of the nave clerestory. Transept roof coverings will shortly require renewal due to material failure.

St. John the Baptist Church is in “poor condition”

Allesley Castle, which is a Scheduled Monument, is in generally unsatisfactory condition with major localised problems.

Stoney Road Allotments, which is a Grade II* Registered Park and Garden grade II*which includes five listed buildings continues to be in a generally unsatisfactory condition, with major localised problems. The summer houses are the principal elements at risk, and have not been maintained since listing in 2001. A conservation management plan has been produced (2018) for the gardens but not yet formally adopted. The SRGA are currently preparing a grant application to the National Lottery Heritage Fund to repair the summerhouse.

Stoney Road Allotments is still awaiting restoration.

There are three Conservation Areas that remain on the At Risk Register.

  • Lady Herbert’s Garden – Conservation area with listed buildings and scheduled monuments – condition Very Bad – Deteriorating significantly.
  • London Road Conservation Area – Conservation Area with listed buildings and part of scheduled monument – condition Very Bad but improving.
  • Naul’s Mill Conservation Area – Conservation Area with listed buildings – condition poor but improving.