In the summer of 1895, the Midland Daily Telegraph published a lavish set of drawings illustrating the winning design for Coventry’s new municipal offices.
Fashioned in Tudor style, with stone facings and a whole tracery of turrets and crenellations, oriel windows and arched doorways, the complex, so impressive on paper, would include police and fire stations as well as a council chamber and offices, built on a large but awkward site bounded by Earl Street, St Mary’s Street and Bayley Lane.
It earned its architect, 37-year-old Harry Quick, a handsome first prize of £150, and it even had a motto attached to it, ‘Leofric the Saxon.’
Yet there was to be no Harry Quick municipal cathedral. The plans were set aside, due to pressure from the city’s ‘shopocracy’, who objected to the colonisation of a large site they regarded as central to Coventry’s shopping offer. And when, fifteen years later, another competition was held to design the city’s new Council House, Harry Quick’s name was nowhere near it.
It was a rare and no doubt chastening rejection for the man who was arguably the most prominent and prolific architect working in Coventry at the dawn of the twentieth century.
Born in Pontefract in Yorkshire, the son of a Surveyor of Taxes, Harry Quick arrived in Coventry as a child and was sent to a school run by Unitarian minister the Rev. George Heaviside in Much Park Street. He was later articled to Coventry church architect Thomas Richmond Donnelly but by 1883 had set up in business on his own, with offices in Hertford Street.
Three years later he was appointed Surveyor to the fledgling Coventry Permanent Economic Building Society, a post he held for nearly fifty years and one that gave him an influential voice in property values and development in the growing city.
Later in his career he was responsible for the development of the Coventry Park estate, laying out Park Road and Manor Road and designing some of the houses that were built there. He did the same in St Nicholas Street in Radford, described at the time, in 1902, in promotional material that bore his name, as an ‘elevated, quiet and much-favoured residential part of the city.’
Pevsner characterises Quick as ‘the factory architect’, and so he was, but there was much more to him than that. One of his first commissions, in 1888, was to design the new Liberal Club on Warwick Row, a lavish entertainment centre complete with skittle alley in the basement, card room, billiard room and smoking room, as well as offices for the committee and a reading room.
Two years later came his first factory commission – designing the offices for George Singer’s new industrial complex in Canterbury Street. In the year of his competition-winning Council House design, 1895, he did the same for William Herbert’s Premier Cycle Company and in the early years of the new century was also involved in the design of Courtaulds’ bold new Coventry headquarters on the Foleshill Road.
Harry Quick’s private life was nothing if not quiet and respectable. In October 1888, at Holy Trinity Church in Coventry, he had married Staffordshire-born Eliza Ellen Adams and the pair set up home in a rented house on St Nicholas Street.
In 1898, the couple bought ‘Belmont’ a substantial house at 16 Abbey Hill in Kenilworth, which was to remain their home for the rest of their lives. The Quicks were childless but shared their home with Harry’s neice Emily Quick, who was later to marry one of the sons of automotive and aviation pioneer John Siddeley.
In 1896, perhaps as consolation for the rejection of his council house plans, Harry had been awarded the design for the new police station and magistrates’ court in St Mary’s Street. But as the new century dawned, he increasingly turned his attention to houses.
The most important was his design, in 1909, for Allesley Hall, a new house in Arts and Crafts style for the printer and newspaper proprietor William Iliffe.
Although his practice was still based in Coventry, he completed a number of Kenilworth projects in the years leading up to the First World War, including the landmark clock tower in 1907, a Parochial Hall (1911) and Post Office (1913).
During the war, Harry’s talents were once more put to use as a factory architect. In 1915 he designed a new factory for the Hotchkiss company in Gosford street, a building that went up so fast that its workforce liked to joke that the management added a new storey every night.
He was also responsible for the huge complex of factories created for the munitions firm of White & Poppe in Holbrooks, later adapting part of the sprawling site for William Lyons, when he brought his motorcycle sidecar business to Coventry in the late 1920s.
During the Great War, the Quicks also involved themselves in the welfare of veterans and their families. Indeed, Eliza was awarded an MBE for her work as Secretary of the Warwickshire War Pensions Committee.
She died in 1929 and Harry followed in August 1935, leaving a substantial estate that in today’s money would be worth over £2 million.
As for the project that got away? The next design for the new Council House, drawn up in 1906, envisaged municipal shops on the ground floor with offices above, just as the ‘shopocracy’ wanted.
The scheme required a loan from the Local Government Board to go ahead but was rejected by the radical trade unionist and Liberal MP John Burns, then serving in Campbell-Bannerman’s government as President of the Local Government Board. Burns, who as a young man had worked as an engineer in Coventry, decided that the idea of ground-floor shops was not worthy of the city and turned it down flat.
The next plan, submitted in 1910, was for the building we see today. Harry Quick must have felt somewhat vindicated by that.