Fifty years ago, Kirby House in Little Park Street Coventry was threatened with demolition. The campaign group that sought to save it became the Coventry Society, enjoying its half centenary this year. As well as saving one of the few high-status town houses of the early Georgian period in the city, they inadvertently saved an important symbol of Coventry’s first steps in its industrial revolution. It is one of the few buildings associated with the origins of Coventry’s silk ribbon weaving industry, together with its near neighbour at 7 Little Park Street, which is still standing.
The traditional history of Coventry states that the silk weaving industry was brought to Coventry by William Bird, Mayor of Coventry in 1705. Whilst recent historians have cast doubt on this assertion, it is indisputable that the Bird family were predominant in the silk and ribbon weaving industry in 18th Century Coventry.
Whilst much remains of the 19th Century weaving history in Coventry, there are very few buildings remaining from the 18th Century. There is the small group of late eighteenth century weavers’ houses in Hill Street, purpose built to house the recently introduced engine loom. All that remains of the hundreds of court houses where most single hand loom weavers would have worked is the short terrace in Spon Street, now occupied by the Watch Museum.
Amazingly, the most impressive buildings representative of Coventry’s first steps into the industrial revolution are still standing in Little Park Street. These two notable early Georgian town houses, 16 Little Park Street (known since the Victorian period as Kirby House) and 7 Little Park Street (converted in the 1990s to a public house, originally The Varsity, now the Castle Grounds) are the most significant examples of silkmen’s houses from the early eighteenth century, built with the profits of the new industry.
Even more exciting is the more recent appreciation that attached to 7 Little Park Street is its contemporary warehouse. This lower status building where the ribbons were stored had an internal door to the house showing how the silkman would have kept a very close eye on his expensive inventory. This ribbon warehouse is not only one of the very earliest in the city, but it is now the only one.
Various historians from Mary Dormer Harris to Nikolas Pevsner quote a ‘legend’ that three brothers competed to build the most beautiful house in the city and the one judged to be the best would be paid for by the other two. Each was supposed to employ a different architect although it was also claimed that each house was designed by the Smith brothers of Warwick. The three houses were supposedly 7 and 16 (Kirby House) Little Park Street and 11 Priory Row, all still standing today.
The identity of the brothers is not given but there is a strong case to be made that they were silkmen of the Bird family.
Of the two Little Park Street properties Kirby House has the best claim to being a Smith building. A recent definitive study of Smith’s work repeats the legend of the brothers’ houses. It broadly supports the idea that Kirby House was designed by Smith, estimating a date of construction of around 1725. It is rather more scathing about the quality of the design of 7 Little Park Street considering it ‘much more provincial’.
Pevsner suggests a similar ‘early Georgian’ date for both Kirby House and 7 Little Park Street but suggests the latter is ‘one of the most splendid in the county’! A plausible explanation of the brothers’ story could be made around the houses being built by William Bird’s two sons, Richard and Thomas. It may even be possible to stretch the facts to suggest the involvement of a third Bird brother, John, in another house in the same street.
If these impressive buildings were all built at the same time, in the same street, and being the first in Coventry to use the new ‘Warwickshire Baroque’ style popularised by Smith of Warwick, it would have made a profound impression on the locals. The houses’ fashionable brick built construction would have provided a stark contrast to the traditional timber framed Elizabethan style most common in the city. This would be a clear demonstration to the city of the commercial success of the family using the most fashionable architecture.
Although the earliest deeds for Kirby House do not survive there is strong evidence that could lead to the conclusion it was built for William Bird’s eldest son Richard. He had been in partnership with his father since 1712 and from his will it is clear his father had passed on much of his property during his lifetime. Richard would have had the wealth to build the house and at the time of his death in 1725, he was living in Little Park Street, leaving the house to his nephew, George Cotton.
It was not stated exactly where in the street the building lay but it is clear that by 1771 when his brother John made his will it had come into his possession. He states, ‘I give and devise that messuage or tenement in Little Park Street aforesaid in the said city of Coventry wherein my late brother Richard formerly dwelt and the gardens thereunto adjoining and belonging, the larger of the said gardens was formerly an orchard which belonged to the messuage or tenement in High Street’. The reference to the garden relating to the building in High Street locates the house on the west side of Little Park Street. Furthermore, the garden was originally part of the building in the High Street belonging to his father and can be seen on the 1851 Board of Health map to connect to 16 Little Park Street. This would suggest the house was built for Richard just before his death in 1725.
The link between 7 Little Park Street and Thomas Bird is much clearer. In his will of 1745 he refers to his ‘dwelling house, lately erected with the warehouses and appurtenances thereto belonging’. ‘Recently erected’ is a rather loose term and its date of construction is generally agreed to be early eighteenth century. He bought the land for £105 in1720 and so it could have been constructed any time after this.
He had also bought a piece of land on the opposite side of the road in 1729. When the whole property passed out of the family in 1763 for £600, a slightly fuller picture is given of a ‘messuage, warehouse etc. on west side of Little Park Street, and coachhouse and stable on the east side of Little Park Street belonging to the messuage. The premises were late newly erected by Thomas Bird who occupied them until he died’. If the brothers’ story has any validity he would have built his house soon after buying the land in 1720, around the time Kirby House was being erected. It also broadly fits the estimated time of construction from those who are judging it purely stylistically.
It may be possible to conclude a more precise year of 1724 for the construction of both Little Park Street properties based on the Great Meeting House account book for 1714-1730. All pew rents were collected half yearly and the council ward noted for each individual. Until that date the only member of the Bird family making payments was William who had a whole pew and was noted as living in Broadgate and Bayley Lane ward which would include his house and business premises in High Street. In March 1724, Richard Bird paid pew rent for the first time and in September 1724, Thomas starts paying for a pew. Both brothers are given as living in Earl Street Ward, which included Little Park Street. If both houses were completed in that year and they were now living independently of their father, having their own pew would confirm their new status as property owners. Independence would be particularly important to Thomas who was recently married.
Who might the third brother be and where was the third house? John Bird was older than Thomas and had a career more prestigious and even more lucrative than any of his brothers, partly due to his longer life, including representing Coventry as an MP in 1734. Such status would have required a prestigious base at the very time his brothers were planning or building their own Little Park Street properties.
Unfortunately, evidence of such a building, if it existed, cannot be found. However, Kirby House did eventually come into John Bird’s hands by the time of his 1771 will leaving it to his grandson, William Wilberforce Bird. William was to become a silkman like his namesake great grandfather, and a Coventry MP like his grandfather, but he also ended the last link of members of the Bird family to Coventry’s silk trade with his bankruptcy in 1805.
It is fortunate, given their close shave with survival in the post-war period that two of the original silkmen’s residences have survived intact, at least in their facades. The presence of these remarkable early Georgian mansions in Little Park Street. should act as a constant reminder of the historical associations they represent.
This article is extracted from “Lies, Damn Lies, and the Eighteenth Century Coventry Ribbon Industry” by Coventry Society member David Fry which is to be published later in the year.