Listing the Firs

The Firs, the former Coventry Preparatory School on Kenilworth Road, is one of the finest Georgian Buildings in Coventry. It is currently the King Henry VIII Preparatory School which is shortly to close. It is architecturally important and has some fascinating historical connections.

Over the last few months the Coventry Society has been working with a group of former pupils of the school to submit a listing application to Historic England. We are seeking to get the main school building and key parts of the site listed as being of special architectural and historic interest.

The current owner, the Coventry Schools Foundation, is ending the use of the site as a school this month and is potentially looking to market the site for alternative uses. This is why we see listing as being vitally important to ensure the key buildings and features of the site are retained.

Research suggests that the principal building on the site was built circa 1720, replacing a 17th century cottage. The house was originally known as Stivichall House. The original house was a simple, small, 3 bayed Georgian villa. The house has been known by various names over the years, being known most recently as The Firs. Little is known of its early history but by the mid19th century it had been enlarged with a fourth bay added to the east side, a single storey veranda to the front and single storey extensions to the west, east and north side of the building. This is evidenced by the house appearing in the background of a painting in the collection of the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry, a painting of “The White House Inn” by Thomas Hough dated c1855 (see below).

Further extensions, additions and alterations have been made to the building since that time, particularly the last 100 years during which time it has been used for educational purposes as the principal building of what was Coventry Preparatory School. Unfortunately many significant internal features have been lost over the years as the use of the house has changed. Original panelling and a fine original staircase have only been removed in fairly recent times as more intensive use has been made of the building. The Victorian Veranda to the front is largely original and includes attractive original stained glass.

However, it is the external appearance of the building which makes it so important. It still is and still clearly looks like one of Coventry’s most impressive Georgian buildings. Coventry has few buildings of this era. There are a handful in the city centre, most of which are listed. However if the 1720 build date of this house is correct, it makes it almost 50 years older than the city centre Georgian buildings. Leamington Spa, just a few miles south of Stivichall House / The Firs is internationally renowned for its Georgian architecture, however, few of its buildings are as old as this.

It is not just the house itself that is of importance. Its setting and the lawns running down to Kenilworth Road are significant features, as are the uniquely designed wrought iron gates to the school, erected by Rev. Kenelm Swallow. The gates include the KS motif (Kenelm Swallow), along with images of Swallows. One of the names by which the site has been known, again in more recent years is “The Swallows”.

The site is also an important feature in terms of its landscape / landmark value within the Kenilworth Road Conservation Area.  Coventry’s Kenilworth Road has frequently been described as the finest approach to any city in the British Isles. The tree lined road stretches for some 3 miles in a south westerly direction from the junction of Kenilworth Road and Leamington Road to the city boundary. The road is at the heart of the Conservation Area. Both sides of the road are tree-lined for virtually its entire length. The one notable exception to this is at Stivichall House / The Firs. The area between the house and the Kenilworth Road has comprised open fields and subsequently lawns for the past 300 years. These lawns, most recently used as playing fields for Coventry Preparatory School and the view across the lawns to the main house from Kenilworth Road and from Coventry War Memorial Park beyond are one of the most notable views of the conservation area. The retention of the views / vista is important.

View of the main house c1920

Once the educational use of the site ceases in July 2021, it is highly likely that proposals will emerge for alternative uses of the site and buildings. We are seeking to get key elements of the site and key buildings listed in order to ensure that the most important features are retained, but also to ensure that whatever use the buildings and site are put to in the future, any changes / renovation is carried out in such a way to enhance what is there already. Particularly, renovation of the original Georgian building should be undertaken in a way which restores it to its former glory. This building has survived and evolved for some 300 years. We would hope that this positive evolution of will continue into the future.

In addition to being important in terms of its architecture and the setting of the Kenilworth Road Conservation Area, the building is historically important because of the people associated with it. Below, we explore some of the more interesting historic links.

In the summer of 1838, the building was tenanted by John Wilkinson, an officer in the 17th Lancers, then garrisoned in Coventry. Staying with his family that summer were two children, Emily and Robert Bulwer Lytton, whose father was the writer Edward Bulwer Lytton. Their parents had gone through a bitter divorce in 1836, and it may be that the Wilkinsons were family friends who’d invited them to stay to give the children some respite from the continuing clashes between their parents. There is some evidence that their father visited them at Stivichall Villa (House) that summer.

Emily died just ten years later, at the age of 20, but Robert became 1st Earl of Lytton. He had a distinguished career as a diplomat which culminated in 1876 with his appointment as Governor General and Viceroy of India. He presided over the great Durbar at which Queen Victoria was declared Empress of India. In his memoirs, Bulwer Lytton recalled that long-ago summer at Stivichall Villa in the company of his beloved older sister.

“We were all together in a lovely house,” he recalled, “as I remember it, within walking distance of Coventry. I think Emily must have been ten that summer. My association of wild roses, with her birthday, which lasts with me still as Junes come round, dates from that time. There was a large room at the top of the house which was called ‘The Children’s Room’ where we used to spend hours and hours in the most untroubled enjoyment.”

Around 1907, the house was acquired by Ernest Instone, a pioneer of the British motor industry. Instone was General Manager at Daimler in Coventry before, during and after WW1. He played a central role in the development of Daimler. He also played a vital role in adapting Daimler to support the British war effort during WW1. Daimler under Instone’s management provided a wide range of military vehicles, diversified into aircraft production and was a key player in the development of the Tank, which was instrumental in bringing the war to a conclusion.

Instone was also a pioneer of motor sport, helping to initiate the first London to Brighton Run. He won the first hill climb event at the famous Shelsley Walsh track in Worcestershire and the first ever race at the renowned Brooklands circuit, all in Coventry built Daimlers.

On leaving Daimler, he was co-founder of the Stratton Instone motor dealership, a company which exists today as Stratstone Ltd. One of the country’s most prestigious motor dealerships. Instone was also a City Councillor and Justice of the Peace. He lived at the Firs between approximately 1907 and 1920.  

In 1920, the house, Stivichall Villa, as it was known at the time, was purchased by the Rev. Kenelm Swallow MC, a war hero whose experience of the horrors of the Western Front, including the loss of his brother, made him determined to create a school where children would be happy and inspired. He founded Coventry Preparatory School. Rev. Swallow was awarded the Military Cross for tending wounded soldiers whilst under fire. Sale details of the house at the time Rev. Swallow acquired it are below.

Rev. Swallow established the school and was its head between 1920 and 1952.  His successor, Mr. John Sykes was in post between 1952 and 1966 when he was succeeded by Mr. John Phipps, who joined the school as assistant master in 1957 becoming headmaster in 1966, the position that he held until his retirement in 1992. In 1992 the school was sold to the Coventry Schools Foundation which has owned it and continued to operate it as a preparatory school since that time.

In summary, Stivichall House / The Firs is an imposing Georgian building, unique in the Coventry area. Internal features have been lost over time, but it remains a fine building. There is scope for high quality restoration / renovation of the building which would be enhanced were the building to be listed. Not only is the building of architectural / landmark importance, it is also historically important with links to numerous people who have played a significant role in the life of Coventry and others who have been of national / international significance. The Coventry Society, working with former pupils of the school are determined to push for listed status to preserve and enhance this important part of the city’s history.

A view of the Firs from the 1930s courtesy of David Fry

3 thoughts on “Listing the Firs

  1. Here’s some information about one of the occupants at the turn of the 20th century. Thomas Goodhead Pegg was born in Lenton, Nottingham in 1839, the son of Joseph Pegg, a proprietor of houses, and Sarah. In 1861 he was working as an Ironmonger’s assistant at the Market Place in Retford, Nottinghamshire, In the mid 1860s he married Emma Greenway and moved to Coventry. He set up his Ironmongery business and home at 33 High Street Coventry and by 1871, he is described as an Ironmonger, Tinman and Brazier, employing 3 men and 5 apprentices and he has a 5 month old son John Henry (who went on to be a Surgeon in Reigate, Surrey). Thomas appears to have benefited massively from the housing boom in Coventry and the 1881 census also describes him as a Coppersmith. Newspaper adverts show he was also supplying lead and zinc – it would appear he was one of the the main plumbing suppliers to the city. In the mid 1880s he moved to “The Firs”. I am not sure what happened to Emma but in 1899 he married Bertha Edkins. The marriage certificate shows he was 58 (although from his birth record he was 59) and she was 24. In the mid 1890s Charles Gray Hill who was a prominent builder, built “Broadwater” next door to The Firs”. Both Thomas and Charles were Freemasons in Coventry at the time. Thomas died in 1906. In the report of his will it states that as well as “The Firs” and 33 High Street he owned extensive housing around the city particularly in the Stoke area as well as a number of houses and shops in Nottingham. His estate was valued at £34,051 (about £4 million today). The 1911 census shows his wife Bertha living at “The Cottage”, Kenilworth Road. She died in 1920 and “The Firs” was sold for building development. The land to the rear became the Firs Estate, with building starting in 1924, along with the Grange Estate next door, whilst the house itself became Cov Prep/KHVIII Prep opening on that site in 1920. The school, although officially called Coventry Preparatory School was known as Swallow’s Prep School, after the first headmaster, the Rev. Kenelm Swallow.

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  2. When I worked at the Prep from 2000 to 2006, there was a peripatetic music teach called Patricia Holden, and she was writing a history of the building. I know Mrs Holden died some time ago but I often wonder what happened to her writings.

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