Our Deputy Chair, Paul Maddocks, reflects on the history of Whitefriars Gatehouse and its most notable occupant.
The recent article and photograph of Whitefriars Gatehouse in Much Park Street and the story about Charles Dickens sparked me off thinking about the building that most people know as the “Old Toy Museum”.
The building dates back to 1352 and was built as the main entrance to serve the huge Carmelite Whitefriars Friary on a site specially purchased for the purpose from John Box. The gateway was the only way in and out of the walled grounds. The narrow lane through the gatehouse used to run to the inner gate of the friary. Originally taller than the present gatehouse, it had two statues above the entrance, probably the Virgin and St. Peter. It faced onto Much Park Street, which at that time was the main road into the city from London, having come through the City Wall at New Gate.
The friary and gatehouse escaped the destruction associated with King Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. They became the property of John Hales, whose responsibility it was to knock down the Priory of St. Mary’s and all the other monasteries in the city. The Hales family lived here for almost two hundred years.
While the main Whitefriars building was the property of John Hales, Queen Elizabeth I and her royal party would have had to pass through this gateway when she visited Hales in August 1565.
After 1722 the building changed hands several times until, in 1801, the Directors of the Poor for Coventry acquired the remainder of the Whitefriars buildings for a workhouse and the gatehouse was converted it into two houses. As was normal at that time, the occupants used their house for their business and the gatehouse was used for many purposes including weavers, butchers, drapers and coal merchants.
At the beginning of the 1900s, it came into the hands of a well-known Coventry character, Zakariah Peach, who used it as a second hand clothes shop specialising in boots. After his death in 1936 the buildings stood empty and after the war it was in a bad state. The gatehouse had survived the bombing in the war but it was boarded up with corrugated tin and had deteriorated so much that it was in danger of collapsing. Ron Morgan found out that the gatehouse was the property of the City Council and they gave him permission to live and work there on the condition that he restored it. He carried out renovation work himself and moved in during 1962.
The Gatehouse escaped most of the bombing during the war – sometimes only narrowly
Ron Morgan had come to Coventry after the war from Liverpool to work in Coventry’s growing car industry, He took up lodgings in the Chace Hostel, along the London Road. It was here that he joined the local Willenhall Labour Party who met at the hostel’s canteen. This is where he met my wife’s family and especially my mother-in-law Betty Healey, who was the election agent for Richard Crossman M.P. and Health Minister. Ron worked for Rootes Car Company but his main passion was to become an artist potter. So when he saw that the Whitefriars gatehouse was run down he enquired about ‘doing it up’ and using it for a studio and workshops on the ground floor and for him and his wife Murial to live upstairs.
This lovely 16mm silent film shows Ron and Murial entertaining friends inside the Whitefriars Gatehouse. There are also views the outside the building showing how many buildings there were still standing in Much Park Street at that time. We think that the film is the 1960s and not 1957.
I first got to know Ron through my friend and neighbour Barry Bowerman. One day he took me to see his sister Sonia who was working as a sales assistant at Ron’s studio in Much Park Street gate. Barry was always very excited about things and wanted to show me the amazing gatehouse and its history and how Ron had put new life into it.
Ron and his first wife Murial separated and got divorced. Ron then married Sonia and they had two sons – Jan and Luke. My girlfriend Sara (now my wife) and I would babysit for them in the comfortable living quarter above the workshop, while Ron and Sonia would go to council civic events and dinners.
Ron was very interested in Coventry’s heritage and campaigned for many old buildings to be saved, The first success was the campaign to save Kirby House in Little Park Street in 1970 and Ron set up the Coventry Civic Amenity Society. My wife and I were two of the first people to join. Much later the name was shortened to the Coventry Society.
Ron was always a campaigner. He became a Labour councillor for Binley and Willenhall ward in 1971 and was a councillor during all of the 1970s and 80s. At the same time he was still working as a potter making various pots and sculptures. He even set up a small sales booth to sell his pots and other Coventry souvenirs. This was next to the Old Gulson Library, by the open air Festival Cafe, opposite Holy Trinity Church. Ron has many Pots and other exhibits in the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum. He was Chairman of Libraries, Arts and Museums Committee in the 1970s.
When Much Park Street was being knocked down, Ron managed to save the building next to the gatehouse. This was a shop with a workshop behind, that would have once been a weavers or watch maker workshop. Ron was able to add it to his property as an exhibition studio. A doorway was knocked through from the Gatehouse spiral stairs into the workshop area at a height that allowed a short flight of stairs to go up to the first floor and one down to the ground.
Ron first exhibited his pots, then he had touring art exhibitions in this studio, but the sad fact was that though the Whitefriars gallery was only just down the road from the Herbert Art Gallery it did not get enough visitors for the touring artists who were exhibiting and hoping to sell their paintings.
Later, in 2001, Ron agreed with the city council that his old downdraft stoneware kiln at the back of the gatehouse could be demolished, so that the site could be made into a landscaped garden and park. Ron said “It breaks my heart to see it go – a potter without a kiln is like a baker without an oven. It gave me a good living for many years.”
Ron’s lifelong love of children’s toys led to him opening the property as a Toy Museum and over the years he proudly showed off his collection to thousands of schoolchildren. He began his collection after realising how many handcrafted castles and dolls’ prams were being lost in an emerging world of plastic. He used to tell me “I’ve been lucky; I have been able to be a kid all my life. Every week I go out and buy a new toy.”
His greatest find was while on holiday with Sonia and the two boys. It was a rainy day and they were in a seaside town. They called into an old toy shop off the beaten track. Ron said it was amazing he noticed some old toys on sale and got talking to the shop owner and asked if they had any other old type toys? He was taken into the back store room which was full of amazing old toys still in their boxes, but that no one wanted any more. But Ron did. He spent all the rest of the holiday money and they went home early with a camper van loaded with toys. He visited this old toy shop many times but would not let people know where it was; he always kept it a secret.
Ron’s two sons both became artists and went to Coventry University. Jan worked as a designer for a toy manufacturer but later he and his wife made hand puppets and sold them in Covent Garden, mainly to rich American tourists. They both gave up their jobs and produced as many as they could. The first hand puppet was based on Zakariah Peach, who had lived in Whitefriars Gatehouse. He looked very scary. Jan when selling them would have a large jacket on with one arm not down the sleeve and a false hand at the bottom. When he was calling to the passing people he would pop the Zakariah Peach puppet character out of his jacket by his head or neck. Pretending not to notice he would carry on talking and when anyone tried to tell him about the puppet it would hide and pop out in a different place. This would draw a small crowd and they would sell loads of them.
The puppets were presented in nice cardboard boxes with a short history of Zakariah and how he lived in Medieval Coventry and would look after the city gate. Jan designed another four characters each with their own names and made up medieval jobs for them; they all looked scary like church gargoyles. Because they were making them and then selling them cutting out the middle man, they made a lot of money and were able to buy a house with cash.
His other son Luke and his wife both taught art to school teachers at the Coventry Teaching College, Luke became a very popular artist and sold works in America. They live in France now near his mother. Ron’s marriage to Sonia had ended in the 80s and she later went to live in France.
Ron carried on living in the gatehouse on his own. Due to ill health he had to have his right leg amputated below the knee; his doctors said it was due to his lifelong smoking. As a wheelchair user, he was passionate about disabled access. He had asked many time for dropped kerbs to be put around the city but the city council did not respond. So in 2003, he was so fed up with having to struggle up pavements in the city centre that he created his own ramps at kerbs he needed to climb. Ron armed himself with bags of molten asphalt from a DIY store, set out in his wheelchair and dumped them unceremoniously in the offending kerbs then damping them down with a makeshift thumper. Amazingly he did this while in his wheel chair; this is what you call direct action and it soon got the city council to install dropped kerbs around the city. His guerrilla action earned him a few dire warnings but it shamed the council into action.
In 2006 he had to have his other leg amputated, but he still kept the museum open from noon till 5pm daily. Entrance was free with only a donation box. That year Coventry Art students created a short video showing the museum and interviewing its curator Ron Morgan.
Ron only leased the museum building, which was also his home, but personally owned the vast collection of old toys. He offered the entire museum to the Council but they were turned it down as it would cost too much to look after the museum. The Council had estimated what it would require a staff of three people to run the Toy Museum, when Ron was able to run it himself – and he had no legs!
Ron died in 2007, aged 82. For 45 years of his life he had lived in this medieval gatehouse and he was still running the Toy Museum. His two sons were given two weeks to get all the toys and furniture out of the gatehouse. They tried to give them to the Herbert but were turned down. Some of the toys and furniture was sold but most of it is now in France with his family.
The building was boarded up. Two years later the back part of the museum was set on fire. It has since been repaired but the first floor has not been replaced, it used to have two rows of north lit windows but an entrance doorway with a shutter has been added – maybe they were hoping to make this area into a cafe or restaurant?
So what is it future? It has been handed over to the Historic Coventry Trust who are also looking after the Charterhouse, Draper’s Hall and many other historic building in the city. The plan is to make it into two holiday lets for visiting tourists with other studio flats next to it on both sides. The back of the building is to be commercial lets for a catering business.
Paul Maddocks, Deputy Chair of the Coventry Society