Our Deputy Chair, Paul Maddocks, tells us the back-story about the Transport Museum, which celebrates its 40th birthday this year. Paul writes….
In 1977 it was the Queen’s Silver Jubilee and everyone was encouraged to join in the celebrations.
Coventry Working Men’s Club in Cox Street, Coventry, had just opened their re-built new club and asked if the Queen would like to visit?
This must have caught the imagination of the staff at Buckingham Palace and the Queen accepted the invitation. It would be the first time the Queen would set foot into a Working Men’s club.
But it would be the only visit to Coventry that was planned for that year. When the Lord Mayor, Councillor Ralph Clews, found out what was planned he wanted to be part of it and to meet the Queen. He wanted Coventry to give her a good welcome and for him to give her a present that was truly representative of the city.
Cllr. Clews called a group of council officers, who he thought might have some good ideas, to a meeting in his office. One of the officers was Peter Mitchell, Keeper of Industry at the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum. At the meeting Peter Mitchell suggested that a special leather bound book of Coventry’s Motoring Heritage should be presented to the Queen by the Lord Major.
In addition all the vehicles in the book should be on display in the city on that day. His idea was that the Royal car and convoy would go on a route past the Council house then into Bayley Lane and past the New Cathedral.
Opposite the Cathedral would be a line of 50 vintage vehicles from the Museum’s collection. The Royal car was to travel slowly, so that the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh could see both the Cathedral on one side and the line of old vehicles on the other. Afterwards the Royal car would go down Priory Street, turn right into Fairfax Street and then right into Cox Street to the Club.
The Lord Major liked the idea and gave the go-ahead. However the problem was that the Queen was due to visit in only six weeks time! This problem was left for Peter Mitchell to sort out.
I first met Peter when he joined the Herbert Museum in the mid 1960’s. He had moved from the London Science Museum to take over looking after Coventry’s collection of industrial items. But he had a problem and that was that nearly all his collection was in store and no one knew about it, with the exception of just a few cars and cycles in the Herbert Museum main gallery.
He was a very enthusiastic and persuasive man. It seemed like he hovered two inches above the ground, always very busy but infectious with his ideas and vision. He came to the Art College and asked us students if we would like to draw some of the items in the collection?
There were only eight of us on the Technical illustration course but we were all very keen. The industrial collection was not far away in an old ribbon weaving factory in Much Park Street, known as ‘Franklin and Sons. The offices faced onto Much Park Street through a wooden gate and arch into a cobbled courtyard and standing there was the wonderful ribbon factory just like the one by the Priory Ruins (now Nando’s). Inside this factory was an amazing collection of everything you could think of – weaving looms, cars, motorcycles, bicycles, sewing machines, telephones, radios, engines and machinery of all sorts – a true Aladdin’s Cave!
Not long after this photograph was taken most of the street was knocked down and the museum collection in the Franklin building was moved to an industrial estate in Till Hill.
So when Peter came with his idea of writing a book, having it printed and bound all in six weeks and to be self-financing it was a proper challenge. A special plan had to be developed as a one off book would cost a fortune. The idea was to produce a fact sheet for each of the 50 vehicles. The fact sheet would have two sides; on each sheet would be a space for a colour postcard of the vehicle which would be pasted into a space, a bit like a stamp album. So the book contained 50 pages, each on a different vehicle starting from the 1897 Daimler and ending with a 1976 ‘E’ type Jaguar.
The book had other pages: an introduction, note from the Lord Major and other information. A total of 500 copies were printed. In addition a large number of colour postcards were printed to sell separately to help keep the overall cost down. After taking one sheet each to make up the Queen’s book the rest of the sheets had holes punched in the side and were put into a clip folder which was sold to the general public.
We had to take each vehicle out of store, clean it and photograph it so that the colour postcards could be made for them. I had to draw interesting features from each vehicle and each sheet had a copy of the vehicles badge which I also had to draw.
The job was a rush but it was all completed in time for the Royal Visit. The fifty vehicles lined up opposite the Cathedral caused quite a lot of interest as they were put out very early in the morning and there was plenty of time for people to see them while waiting for the Queen’s visit.
It did catch the eye of the Coventry and Warwickshire Chamber of Commerce who said that they did not realise that the Herbert Museum had so many vehicles. When they were told that it was only half of the collection, they were really surprised and suggested they could help and open a special museum for the collection.
So over the next few years the Chamber of Commerce members raised a lot of money for a building in the city centre. One was found; the building that used to be the steel fabrication part of Matterson’s, Huxley & Watson’s and it was at the back of the Coventry Theatre in Cook Street.
A dodgy business plan was written that said if the museum was to charge for admission it could be self-funding! This was based on a few facts like the Coventry Cathedral was having around two million visitors a year. If the new Transport Museum was to get just 5% of that number it would still get around 75,000 to 100,000 visitors a year. What had not been taken into account was the fact that visitors to the Cathedral did not pay to get in and most were only visiting for an hour before moving on to Warwick and Stratford.
Work started on restoring the Cook Street building and making ready the new museum to be opened in 1980. Things got difficult and Peter Mitchell was offered a better job working for British Leyland Heritage to set up a new Museum for them and their collection of vehicles. This later became the British Motor Industry Heritage Trust and the British Motor Museum at Gaydon. Peter left about a year before the Transport Museum opened.
It was fortunate that Barry Littlewood the Administrator of the Libraries, Arts and Museum Department was able to take over from Peter. Barry turned out to be the best boss I ever worked with. He gave me support and flexibility and in return I worked evenings and weekends constantly.
It was not all plain sailing. The City Council Committee for Libraries, Arts and Museums who were responsible for the museum had a problem with the Museum’s name. They felt that people would think the museum would only display Coventry Transport items like buses! City Councillors were used to Coventry Transport being about public transport and you know what it’s like working with a committee – it can be very difficult stopping them from over-thinking everything.
The Committee wanted a name that told you what the museum was about. So some Member said the collection does not have any boats, planes or trains so you cannot call it the “transport museum” on its own. So ‘road’ had to be added. Some transport museum had foreign vehicles and Coventry had mainly Coventry made and British made vehicles so ‘British’ was added. The name they came up with was ‘Museum of British Road Transport, Coventry’.
We tried to get them to change it to Museum of Transport of the Road so the anagram would spell out ‘MOTOR’. But the Committee got their way. Next the Committee picked an admission price for the Museum. They found out that London Transport Museum that had just moved to Covent Garden and was charging a £1 for adults 50p for children and the National Transport Museum at Beaulieu were charging £1.20 for adults and 60p for children. Don’t forget this was 1980.
The Committee did not take into account that the Glasgow Transport Museum and the Birmingham Industrial Museum were free. The Coventry price was going to be £1.10p for adults and 55p for children. We asked them to lower it; Coventry is not London and people are not used to paying to get into museums. But they were not moved.
The next headache was we wanted a famous person to open the museum to get as much publicity as we could, but the Committee said it should be the Lord Major. The Museum was going to be opened on the first Saturday in September. So the opportunity of getting visitors over the summer holidays was missed because the councillors wanted to be at the opening but they would be on holiday so things had to be put back.
Posters had been printed, then the Lord Major said he would not be able to make that Saturday so it was quickly changed it to Sunday afternoon. You can imagine what a damp squib the Museum’s opening was like.
To begin with the Transport Museum was not a big success. People did not flock to its doors because they could not find them, hidden as they were on Cook Street, and the admission price put them off. The manager of the De Vere Hotel said American visitor would love to come and visit but they would not walk up Chantry Place or around the back by the Parson’s Nose chip shop, both dark and dirty narrow accesses to Cook Street. It was not until 1986 when a new entrance was opened onto Hales Street did thing started to pick up.
But it was great that it was all came out of the Queen’s visit to a Working Men’s Club. Sadly the club is now closed and gone and there are no old style working men’s clubs left in the city centre. However the vehicles created by those working men are still on display in the Coventry Transport Museum which is still going from strength to strength. We finally got the name we wanted and the free museum entrance in 1998.
Paul Maddocks, Deputy Chair of the Coventry Society
Since this article was written, charges have been re-introduced for access to the Transport Museum. The current charges are: Adults £14, Concession (Senior & students) £10.50p, Junior (5-16 years) £7. Children 4 years or under free. Family Ticket (2 adults + 2 children) £35 or Small family (1 adult 3 children) £28. If you live in the city and have a ‘Go CV’ card you can get in for free.