The Daimler Powerhouse: One of Coventry’s Hidden Industrial Gems

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Daimler Power House

The locally listed Daimler Powerhouse, just north of the canal basin, is a rare survivor of Coventry’s early motor industry. It is also a testament to the quest for perfection that made Daimler one of the industry’s leading motor firms. The building is part of a site that reflects the story of Coventry’s rise from the depths of mid nineteenth century industrial depression to the early twentieth century boom time.

After the collapse of the ribbon weaving industry in the city in 1860, some northern entrepreneurs searched for a site to establish a factory that could make use of the skills of the unemployed weavers. Their cheap labour of Coventry’s unemployed weavers, compared to Lancashire, led to a Cotton Mills being established on Drapers Fields. This latter site was made redundant after a fire in 1890. Despite rebuilding it remained empty for a few years until it was taken up by Harry Lawson in 1896 to establish a number of Coventry’s first car factories on the site. The building was now known as the Motor Mills and amongst the firms established there was the Daimler Motor Company.

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Soon the other motor companies failed or moved out and Daimler took over the whole premises by 1900. They rapidly gained a reputation for quality engineering. Many companies bought in components to simplify their operation, but Daimler was not satisfied with the standard of work outside the factory so gradually expanded the works to make all components themselves.

Such were the standards they achieved in various car trails that the soon to be Edward VII bought a Daimler in 1900. The reputational value of such a customer led to increased production and by 1906 the factory had been completely remodelled and added to.

When ‘The Engineer’ visited in May 1906 they published an extensive article praising the methods used in the factory and its facilities. The only hint of criticism came toward the end of the article when they stated “To make the works complete requires the addition of its own power station and foundries”.

The requirement of a power station may seem a bit bizarre as next door to the factory was the Electricity Power Station for the whole of Coventry. Like the car factory it bordered onto the canal offering a supplementary transport route apart from the nearby rail sidings. However, the rapid growth of Coventry and its industry, at the time, had caused power outages that interrupted production and could damage the machining of components. An independent power source would overcome this obstacle.

And so it was, just a year after The Engineer’s visit that Daimler submitted for approval a plan for Powerhouse. Although this 1907 plan is essentially the building you see today, in 1911 a small extension was made at the western end.

The Daimler factory continued to flourish until it was largely destroyed in the 1940 Blitz with the exception of the office block on Sandy Lane and the Powerhouse. The factory site was cleared and given over to other uses but the Powerhouse survived the redevelopment. With the power generating machinery removed, the building was used by its new owner, Coventry Climax, for testing its latest product –forklift trucks. They had designed the UK’s first forklift truck in 1946 and its carrying capacity was tested to its limit in the building. A set of measurements up its inside wall, can still be seen today. They gave an indication of how high a fixed load could be lifted before the truck would begin to tip over.

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The UK’s first forklift truck: The Coventry Climax ET199. Tested in the Powerhouse

Today the building is occupied by Imagineers Productions who fittingly bring the world of arts and engineering together. Their Godiva project for the London Olympics and the annual festival they organise in Coventry has brought quality and innovation to a Coventry product just as Daimler did in the past. Their successful grant application for the redevelopment of the building as a modern arts space will see yet another important chapter in the life of the old Powerhouse.

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David Fry

The Imagination of Architects

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Matthew Chamberlain an MA student from the University of Westminster has designed a sustainable treehouse to provide starter homes on London’s streets.

CovSoc Chairman, Paul Maddocks, writes “I would have loved to live in a ‘Tree pod’ like this when I was younger, but not so sure about ladders and with my luck I can see me falling out of the tree, it would work great in large gardens, parks or woodlands, but not so sure on noisy traffic streets.”

The ‘Street Tree Pods’ are teardrop-shaped structures made from wood, designed to merge with existing or new trees.

Taking up the same amount of space as a single car-parking bay, each structure would offer short-term accommodation to a single occupant. Matthew sees them being occupied by students, young professionals and first-time buyers, or to people who are homeless or in the process of being rehoused.

Tree trunks would run through the core of each structure, providing structural stability and ensuring no weight is placed on the branches.

The trunks would be enclosed in an ETFE shell (Ethylene tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE) is a fluorine-based plastic. It was designed to have high corrosion resistance and strength over a wide temperature range) – a system that would allow water to reach the tree and run through to the ground – while a rubber gasket between them will allow the tree to expand whilst remaining sealed.

Outside, the leaves of the trees would be used as a natural shading device.

Each pod also incorporates rainwater collection, natural air ventilation, and air-source heat pumps, helping them to function sustainably, while cycle storage and a car parking space sit below.

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Read more about Mathew’s ideas here.

What do you think? Whatever you think about the practicalities you have to admit that its imaginative!

Coventry’s Architecture Students will be putting on their own Degree Show from Saturday 18th May – Saturday 25th May from 10.00 a.m. – 4 p.m. in Room GS 402 in the Graham Sutherland Building at Coventry University. Why not pay a visit and get some inspiration?

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Continued Concern about the Mitchell Friezes

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William George Mitchell working on one of his major sculptures.

As neighbouring Solihull Council gives permission for the destruction of an important 20th Century sculpture, concerns have been raised about the future of a mural in Coventry by the same sculptor.

The Solihull frieze adorns the entrance hall of the former Lucas building in Shirley and was created by the celebrated sculptor and designer William George Mitchell. Mitchell’s artwork also adorns the walls of Harrods department store, Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral and several sites in Coventry City Centre.

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The frieze by William George Mitchell at the former Lucas Building in Shirley, Solihull

Solihull Council has given permission for the demolition of the Lucas Building, despite objections from the 20th Century Society. The Council only requires the photographing of the building and the mural. The developers however are considering whether the frieze can be removed and relocated but they are not obliged to do so.

In Coventry William George Mitchell’s concrete panels and friezes are located in a number of areas, including Hertford Street and Bull Yard.

It is the mural in the foyer of Hertford House which is considered to be most at risk as the foyer is now boarded up with steel shutters.

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The Mural has a Lady Godiva on the left and shows various scenes from Coventry’s history. It includes the old St. Michael’s Cathedral on fire in the blitz, together with a woman riding a Jaguar at the other end.

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The television series Tomorrow’s World did a feature about it when it was being made. The film showed William Mitchell cutting onto the wet plaster and he was following after the workman who applied the final scrim of plaster on to the wall. It had to be done in a day before it dried out or it was too hard to cut or mould.

Another William Mitchell frieze that might be at risk is the frontage of the Three Tuns pub in Bull Yard. This is affected by the City Centre South scheme but no plans have yet been revealed about what will happen to it.

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Unfortunately Coventry’s leadership has a reputation for not valuing its post-war architecture and design and in the absence of a Conservation Officer, a post vacant now for more than a year, we have serious concerns about the future of these important sculptural features.

You can see a video of William Mitchell at work in the 1960s here. There is a story about the demolition of the Lucas Building in Solihull here. CovSoc has featured the Mitchell friezes previously in 2016 and as part of its Public Arts trail featuring Hertford Street and  The Three Tuns. 

David Danskin – from the cradle to the grave

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Dedication of the grave of David Danskin at London Road Cemetery

Football fans may have heard of David Danskin, the founder of Arsenal Football Club. But did you know that he is buried in Coventry’s London Road Cemetery? It is perhaps not surprising that people don’t know because for 70 years the grave has been unmarked.

This was put right last week when a new headstone was dedicated at the Cemetery. CovSoc Chair, Paul Maddocks, attended the ceremony and writes:

“The installation of the headstone came about as a result of action by Ian Woolley, Chair of Friends of London Road Cemetery. Ian spotted that the Arsenal Scotland supports club had put up a blue plaque at the birth site of David Danskin. He got in touch with them to tell them about the grave, which did not have a headstone or any indication of who was buried there. ”

The Arsenal Scotland Supporters Club write:

“As all Gooners should know, David Danskin was the man who is recognised as having been the man to lead a group of fifteen men, mostly Scottish engineering workers, who first formed a football team in Woolwich in October 1886 and he was also the first Captain of the club.

“In 2007, we at Arsenal Scotland Supporters Club arranged to have a blue plaque put up near where he born in the Fife Town of Burntisland. Our Honorary Club President and Arsenal legend Bob Wilson unveiled the plaque along with Danskin’s grandson Richard Wyatt.

‘Davie’ Danskin was just 22 when he moved from Kirkcaldy to work as a qualified mechanical fitter at the Royal Arsenal munitions factory in Woolwich, specifically as a bench fitter in the gun machining workshops in the Dial Square complex.

“Having played for Kirkcaldy Wanderers at Starks Park (where Raith Rovers play now) Davie had no problem finding enough workmates to form a new football team. There were many teams formed by the Armoury workforce but Danskin’s team became a permanent club that has lasted to this day.

“”Ye ken, does onybody fancy a game o’ fitba?”

“He captained the new team for the first game, played against Eastern Wanderers on the Isle of Dogs (where Tiller Road is now) on 11th December 1886, winning 6-0. If the team had a formal name at all it was probably ‘Dial Square’ where they were mostly all employed. Later on Christmas Day, after their morning shift, the team sat in the Royal Oak pub (where the Woolwich Arsenal DLR station sits now) and after some discussion and no doubt a few beers, named the new club ‘Royal Arsenal’.

“It is amazing to note that in just three years after being formed, Royal Arsenal won the London Senior Cup Final in front of 10,000 supporters and regularly played at The Manor Ground in front of 4,000 to 6,000 home supporters.

“Three Years!

“Danskin was still involved in the club when they were renamed Woolwich Arsenal just as the club turned professional in 1891. After giving up playing in 1890 following a leg injury, Davie left the Armoury and started a nearby business building and selling bicycles from his own shop in Plumstead. He qualified as a referee in London. He later sold the business and moved to Coventry where his engineering skills were put to good use at the Standard Motor Company and the Maudsley Motor Company.

“He continued his love of ‘fitba’ in Coventry and was chairman of Stoke Albions FC. In 1936 he was admitted to hospital following an accident which aggravated his old footballing injury. He was told he may need to have the leg amputated, but firmly declined. From his hospital bed the matron allowed him to listen to the radio commentary when Arsenal beat Sheffield United 1-0 in the FA Cup Final at Wembley attended by 93,000 spectators. He spent the rest of his life in the Warwickshire area at Coventry, Kenilworth and at Warwick Hospital where he died in 1948 aged 85. He was buried in London Road Cemetery in Coventry.

“Local historians from Coventry, Lionel Bird and Ian Woolley were searching for the burial place of Willie Stanley who was the founder of the Singer Football Club (later Coventry City) and by chance found the burial plot of David Danskin. There was no headstone or any marker but the location was identified on the cemetery map and verified by the ‘Friends of London Road Cemetery. Lionel, also being a football fan recognised who David Danskin was and in September 2018 the story found its way to the Coventry Telegraph and in a matter of hours surfaced on Twitter. That’s when we spotted it. Having marked the spot where David Danskin was born, it just seemed that marking his resting place would complete the journey from the cradle to the grave.

“Why no grave marker? Well you need to consider that Danskin died just a few years after the Second World War, during which Coventry had suffered horrendous heavy bombing by the Luftwaffe. So as the good folk of Coventry had to rebuild their City, spending cash on headstones was not a priority for many families. As time passed, things were less important and eventually the headstone matter was forgotten. No drama, nothing sinister, just normal life.

“So, Arsenal Scotland Chairman Mike Buchanan, Club Secretary Caz Moir, Treasurer Alan Speed and the club committee agreed that we should arrange for a headstone.

“We made contact again with Danskin’s grandson Richard Wyatt in Canada and with Arsenal FC and we got approval to have a memorial designed for the Danskin family and by Arsenal to have the club badge engraved on the cover stone.

“On Monday 29th April 2019 The Sub Dean of Coventry Cathedral, the Reverend Canon David Stone led a short service in Coventry, to dedicate the new memorial to David Danskin and his family, in the presence of his descendant family, local friends from Coventry, Friends of London Road Cemetery, officials of Arsenal FC, Coventry City FC, Arsenal Scotland and several other Arsenal Supporters Club and Arsenal fans.

“What is very interesting is Davie Danskin’s grave has next to it and in front of it graves of men who were in the Royal Artillery and have the Regimental shields on them which feature a artillery gun, so he is surrounded by ‘Gunners’.

Location of the Grave:

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George Eliot Bi-Centenary – but not in Coventry!

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As the world celebrates the bi-centenary of the birth of famous novelist George Eliot, the city where she lived and developed her character and critical thinking has not engaged in this at all. This is very disappointing in a city aspiring to be a “city of culture”.

George Eliot was born as Mary Ann Evans on 22 November 1819 in Nuneaton. She was the third child of Robert Evans and Christiana Evans, the daughter of a local mill-owner. Her father was the Land Agent for the Arbury Hall Estate and Mary Ann was born on the estate at South Farm.

In early 1820 the family moved to a house named Griff House, between Nuneaton and Bedworth. It is now a Beefeater restaurant and Premier Inn. She went to school locally but between the ages of thirteen to sixteen she attended Miss Franklin’s school in Coventry, located on Warwick Row.

At the age of 21 she and her father moved to Coventry to Bird Grove in Foleshill. Her father was a sidesman at the nearby St. Paul’s Church. The closeness to Coventry society brought new influences, most notably those of Charles and Cara Bray.

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Charles Bray had become rich as a ribbon manufacturer and had used his wealth in the building of schools and in other philanthropic causes. Evans, who had been struggling with religious doubts for some time, became intimate friends with the radical, free-thinking Brays, whose “Rosehill” home was a haven for people who held and debated radical views.

The people whom the young woman met at the Brays’ house included Robert Owen, Herbert Spencer, Harriet Martineau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Through this society Evans was introduced to more liberal and agnostic theologies and to writers such as David Strauss and Ludwig Feuerbach, who cast doubt on the literal truth of Biblical stories.

In fact, her first major literary work was an English translation of Strauss’s The Life of Jesus (1846), which she completed after it had been left incomplete by another member of the “Rosehill Circle”; later she translated Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity (1854). As a product of their friendship, Bray published some of Evans’s earliest writing, such as reviews, in his newspaper the Coventry Herald and Observer.

Mary Ann stayed in Coventry until she was 30 in 1849 when her father died. After a stay in Switzerland she returned to England to live in London, now becoming known as Marian Evans and taking a job as Assistant Editor of the Westminster Review, a radical journal owned by one of her contacts at Rosehill.

Marian was determined to become a novelist and took the name George Eliot to disguise her identify, as being female was not a passport to serious literary success at that time. Her first writings under the name George Eliot were “Scenes of Clerical Life” published in 1858 and her first complete novel, Adam Bede was published in 1859. She subsequently published six further novels including Mill on the Floss, Silas Marner and Middlemarch.

Middlemarch, a Study in Provincial life, was published in 1872. It describes life in a fictitious Midland town, which is certainly based on Coventry. The weaving village of Tipton is said to have been modelled on Foleshill.

George Eliot died on 22 December 1880 at the age of 61 and is buried in Highgate Cemetery.

George Eliot’s Coventry home, Bird Grove House, still exists in Foleshill but is closed down and boarded up. It is a Grade II* listed building. There is no notice board or plaque showing the significance of the building, a previous plaque being removed by the last occupiers. Despite this it is a building of international significance and you can only imagine the bewilderment of Japanese and American visitors coming to see the building and finding it in the condition it is in.

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The building was previously run as a Bangladeshi Education Centre which fell on hard times and closed. The building is still owned by the charitable trust that ran the building (Coventry Bangladesh Centre Limited), which includes a City Councillor as one of its trustees.

In 2017 the Chairman of the George Eliot Fellowship wrote an open letter to the City asking for it to consider utilising the building as part of City of Culture 2021. The campaign was supported by the Coventry Society and taken up by the Coventry Observer who are campaigning for the building to be opened up to become an international visitors’ centre and cultural resource for generations of future Coventrians. This campaign has been backed by a wide range of national celebrities including Kenilworth screenwriter Andrew Davies who was inspired by George Eliot’s books.

Despite all this campaigning, there has been no change in the status of Bird Grove House and the 2019 bi-centenary of the birth of George Eliot is now upon us. The George Eliot Fellowship has co-ordinated a wide range of events to celebrate this anniversary. Unfortunately only two out of 22 events are being held in Coventry.

It is perhaps disappointing that in a city aspiring to be a city of culture that there is so little attention given to one of its most important literary characters. Stratford has managed to create a multi-million pound industry celebrating the Bard and even tiny Nuneaton has managed to create a George Eliot “industry”, most recently with a half hour Radio 4 appearance on Open Country. But Coventry, the city where she developed her personality and character appears to have turned a blind eye to one of the country’s greatest novelists and a feminist hero.

 

A Tale of Two Streets Hits the Road

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Niall McDiarmid. Far Gosford Street

Our friends at Photo Archive Miners launched their first major citywide exhibition on Wednesday as part of Coventry’s Great Place Scheme for the build up to City of Culture 2021.

“Tale of Two Streets presents the people and places of Coventry, asking you to be curious about who we are as a city and to join a conversation about who we should become.”

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Launch of Tale of Two Streets Exhibition – 1/5/2019

The two streets in question are Far Gosford Street and Foleshill Road.

During 2018 nationally famous street artist, Niall McDiarmid, photographed the people of Far Gosford Street. In parallel a team of ten graduates of the photography course at Coventry University immersed themselves in life along the Foleshill Road.

The brief for both elements was the exploration of Private Spaces / Public Spaces and Private Lives / Public Lives.

The exhibition is displayed at eight locations around the city between 1st May and 2nd June 2019. They form a trail around the city.

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Photo Archive Miners is a Community Interest Company founded in 2016. Its role is “to work with public and institutions to re-purpose photographic collections to create new stories about people and place.” There is more about them on their website here.

Big Plans for the Cathedral

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In March plans were approved for the first significant extension to Sir Basil Spence’s “new” Cathedral. As part of a big plan to make the Cathedral fit to host events during the City of Culture 2021 celebrations it is planned to erect a temporary pavilion to the North West of the Coventry Cathedral Precinct as well as alterations to the Cathedral in the area of the Swedish Windows.

The plans include:

  • Erection of a temporary pavilion extension, constructed to span above the existing Refectory, Song School and into the Vergers Lodge.
  • Access improvements including a new passenger lift along the visitor route, to connect the Nave and Undercroft levels at the east end of the Cathedral.
  • New accessible toilets and baby changing facilities.
  • A new Education Room for school visits. This is designed to cope with visits of up to 90 children and will have a separate entrance and cloakroom.
  • A Multi-purpose space to support events in the Nave. This will include a “Green Room” for events and special services, a Kitchen area for outside caterers, furniture storage, a meeting space for Cathedral staff and commercial lets.
  • Replacing the existing temporary ramp in the north nave aisle with a new stone ramp.

 

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Interestingly the new extension is sited in an area omitted from the original plans for the Cathedral. When the reconstruction of Coventry Cathedral was completed in 1962, there was one component of the original competition brief for the project which remained unfulfilled: plans for the Christian Service Centre were shelved to achieve cost savings. The consequence of this decision was the loss of essential support accommodation to the New Cathedral, and since then, those who use and administer the Cathedral have been acutely aware of the need for these facilities which were never constructed.

The Cathedral and the Ruins are the largest events spaces within Coventry City Centre and will host a busy calendar of cultural events in 2021. An additional 2.4 million visitors to Coventry are anticipated during that year and most will visit the Cathedral precinct.

The plans have surprisingly little impact on the Grade 1 Listed building. One area of change will be that a new opening will be formed in the external wall of the New Cathedral in the location of the Swedish Windows, to provide access to the extension. The Swedish Windows will be removed to a conservator’s workshop for essential conservation work and then returned to a similar position, slightly westward of their present location.

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The new extension is designed as a low, modest building which sits sympathetically adjacent to the New Cathedral. Its form is set-back from the external envelope of the existing Refectory, Verger’s Lodge and also the later addition of the Song School. It rises less than 500mm above the highest point of the Verger’s Lodge parapet and sits below the height of the parapet to the flat roof of the Swedish Staircase.

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As the cathedral has Ecclesiastical Exemption, Listed Building Consent is not required, although planning permission was required for some of the changes and this was granted in March.

The Coventry Society fully supports the proposed development and wishes the Cathedral well in its efforts to upgrade the building. The only thing we don’t understand is why it is regarded as a temporary development.

Coventry Society members will have the chance to learn about the recent archaeological discoveries in the Cathedral quarter when George Demidowitz speak to the society in November.

Follow this link to see the planning application for the Cathedral development.