The White Lion Inn, Smithford Street – from murderous deeds to philanthropic endeavour
News was recently revealed that an old pub sign, made of ornamental tiles and bearing the name ‘The White Lion’, has been found by workers engaged in the refurbishment of the Upper Precinct.
The sign belonged to a pub with an interesting history – not least because in 1954 it was one of the last surviving buildings in what was once Smithford Street before being cleared away to complete the construction of Donald’s Gibson’s pioneering post-war Precinct.
Old photographs show the pub surrounded by new buildings as the new and radical plan for the city took shape. One picture shows the actual demolition of the inn, which finally put an end to Smithford Street, once a busy shopping hub of the pre-war city.
Reports suggest that the pub lost its upper storey, where staff lived, during the Blitz of 1940 which severely damaged or destroyed lots of buildings in the immediate vicinity. The pub stood on a site near the current Marks & Spencer store.
The precise age and character of the tiled mosaic pub sign is currently not public knowledge. But the city council has already promised to clean the sign and preserve it.
Councillor Jim O’Boyle, Cabinet Member for Jobs and Regeneration, has been quoted as saying: “Officers are currently working to see if we can lift the mosaic in one piece, and if we can, we want to incorporate it in some way as part of the final design for the Upper Precinct.”
The White Lion itself has inevitably played a key part in the historic life of the city.
Its most notorious entry into the history books came in 1734 when a double murder took place at the pub. A man murdered his aunt, the landlady, and her daughter, but was later apprehended and eventually hanged and then gibbeted on Whitley Common.
The most detailed account of this appalling incident is given by Benjamin Poole in his The History and Antiquities of the City of Coventry (1870), which gives a graphic and shocking description:
“In January, 1734, one Thomas Wildey, a woolcomber, of this City, murdered his aunt, Susannah Wall, and Ann Shenton, her daughter, who kept the White Lion pubic house in Smithford Street, in a most inhuman manner. Wildey, knowing that his aunt had received a considerable sum of money, went to her house at one o’clock in the morning, and knocked at the door: she mistaking him for a customer, arose and opened it, upon which he immediately threw her down and cut her throat. He then went upstairs to Ann Shenton’s room, with a candle, and perceiving that she knew him, he immediately severed her head nearly from her body; he then examined a chest, out of which he took 5 shillings in half-pence, 40 shillings in silver, and about 50 guineas in gold.
“He was soon after apprehended on suspicion; at length he confessed his guilt, and was hanged in chains, on Whitley common, near this city.”
But the White Lion Inn can also claim a more savoury part in the city’s history because it once became the focal point for a huge philanthropic enterprise in Coventry.
It was here in 1854 that Joseph Levi, a businessman, formed the Coventry Philanthropic Institution, an enormously important group which played a crucial role in alleviating poverty in the city.
Levi was born in Coventry in 1797 and died in his adopted city of Liverpool in 1874 at the age of 77. He sold quills for a living and in the 1850s often met other Coventry businessmen at the White Lion Inn in Smithford Street. But Levi and his friends were frequently pestered by beggars as they entered the pub, because there was much hardship and poverty in Coventry.
Levi and his pals decided to help and came up with the idea of dropping a penny in a box every time they entered the pub, using the money to help genuine cases of distress. It is said that the first 24 people paid a penny but Joseph Levi gave two shillings and sixpence.
At the first meeting of the society there were 17 members. By the end of the year they had 150 members and had delivered 5,000 quarts of soup to the poor (about 5,680 litres) and 540 loaves.
Levi’s business took him to many different towns and cities in England and he asked his clients across the country “to assist the deserving poor of his native city”. Soon cash was coming in from London, Manchester, Liverpool and Sheffield, among other places.
Coventry’s leading industries, silk ribbon weaving and clock or watchmaking, suffered a severe economic decline after 1860 and the needs of the poor became ever greater. There was much unemployment and poverty.
Several other charitable groups were formed, inspired by Levi’s example, and soon there were eight philanthropic societies in the city with thousands of members, including the original Coventry Society.
Originally, members donated five shillings a year (worth about £10 now) and they collected donations from workmates and neighbours. They raised more funds by organising dances, football matches and other events, and took part in the annual Lady Godiva pageants.
These societies continued their work for almost 100 years, until the modern Welfare State was established after the Second World War. Such work, absolutely essential for so many years, was a lasting tribute to the initial generosity of those regulars at the White Lion Inn, led by Joseph Levi.
The work of these philanthropic societies was commemorated in 1934 when the Joseph Levi Memorial Clock was erected at Stoke Green.
The clock eventually fell into disrepair but in recent years local residents, with the help of Coventry City Council and the Heritage Lottery Fund, managed to restore the clock which now stands as a magnificent landmark structure at the junction of Stoke Green and Binley Road.
The newly restored Joseph Levi Clockwas unveiled at its current location in March 2016.
Stoke Local History Group and CovSoc Member
The White Lion building that was finally demolished in 1955, with its distinctive mock-Tudor frontage, appears to have been first constructed in 1921. It replaced an older building of the same name, on the same site, which would have been the meeting place of Joseph Levi and his friends. JM