Don’t Call them Top Shops!

Historian and CovSoc member David Fry tries to tell us not to call them Top Shops – and explains why!

I suppose I had better be realistic regarding my request and accept that it’s too late and that horse has truly bolted from the stable. But for those fellow pedants amongst you, the term applied to the weaving room of Coventry’s old silk ribbon housing (such as these in Whitefriars Street) is an anachronism.

The terms top shop/topshop/top-shop were originally applied to Coventry factories, not domestic premises. They described the top floor of the factory alongside terms such as bottom shop and middle shop (like the surviving factory in New Buildings). In northern England the term flat was often used instead of shop. Any reference to even the use of these terms was very rare before the middle of the nineteenth century as Coventry was rather late in adopting factory production.

The first use I can find that links it to a domestic building was in a report of a court case in the Coventry Times of October 1859. The following year was the introduction of the Cobden-Chevalier Treaty with France that precipitated the collapse of the ribbon weaving industry in Coventry. As it was marked by mass emigration from the city, leaving many empty houses, it is doubtful that any more houses with ribbon weaving top shops were built after this. Certainly no applications for planning permission that can be interpreted as such buildings were made.

The frequency of the newspaper use ‘top shop’ give a rough approximation of the popularity of its use in Coventry. The forty years from 1860 to 1900 averages at roughly one reference a year. From 1900-1950 it is used about four times a year and then in the following thirty years, sixteen times a year. Clearly we see the popularity of the term having become established in the post-war period.

So how were the domestic rooms where ribbon weaving was conducted described by Coventrians for most of the nineteenth century? Weaver’s shop/weaving shop even simply ‘with a shop’ were almost exclusively the descriptions used in auction advertisements for such housing rather than top shops, well into the 1880s.

We are left with the puzzle as to why the term top shop replaced weaving shop. This could be because of the development in Coventry of that strange hybrid, the cottage factory. Evidence indicates they first appeared in the city in the 1850s. Rows of weavers’ cottages with their shops on the top floor, containing the looms could be seen across Coventry from the last quarter of the eighteenth century, built to house the new engine looms. Despite the name, these were hand powered but unlike the old single hand loom could weave multiple ribbons at once. They were, however, much bigger than the single hand loom and as well as needing more space they needed better light. Weavers moved out of the multi-use ground floor of court cottages into these purpose built weaving cottages with a top floor dedicated to the new loom boasting their distinctive large windows.

In the 1850s some of these groups of cottages were provided with steam power from a small engine house, as well as many more being purpose built to enjoy the benefits of steam power. The first of the latter was constructed by Eli Green with eleven houses and an engine house in East Street (see above, and later example of Taylor’s buildings on the corner of Freehold Street and Harnall Lane, below). This was the same Green who was responsible for the famous Vernon Street triangle constructed at the end of this decade. Together with the iconic Cashs’ brothers’ factory in Foleshill, built about the same time, they marked the high point of the cottage factory movement. Unfortunately they have also become the ‘typical’ Coventry ‘top shops’ in modern accounts of this period when they are anything but.

This blurring of the divide between Coventry’s steam powered factories and its blocks of steam powered cottage factories may have given rise to the application of the factory terminology for a top shop to the row of third floor domestic weaving shops. Why it should have taken so long to be widely adopted is not clear. Answers on a postcard please.

While we are on the topic of top shops it is perhaps useful to puncture another myth regarding the uniqueness of Coventry’s ribbon weaving industry’s built environment. Although it is true that domestic weaving shops survived longer in Coventry than most other parts of Britain that was mainly due to the delicate nature of silk and the difficulty of adapting the material to powered machinery. But variations in the weaving shop theme can be seen all over Britain from the seventeenth century on, though some wool weavers had to work in cellars because the thread reqired damp conditions. Silk weaving and silk ribbon weaving cottages can be found in a number of northern towns, such as Macclesfield, seen here in a view of Paradise Street, built about 1840. The more common term for weaving shops in this part of the world was loom shop or loom loft.

Some of the earliest silk weaver’s shops can still be seen in Spitalfields like this one, below, built in 1778 on Brick Lane. Each area had its own style depending on the period and the wealth of the weaver. Spitalfields set the silk weaving trends for the rest of the country in the eighteenth century and was where many Coventry silkmen kept a warehouse and some employed the local designers. But Coventry ribbon weavers were much cheaper to employ and flourished in the nineteenth century as Spitalfields went into decline.

One other interesting ‘top shop’ puzzle remains. These buildings in Hill Street are claimed to be from the eighteenth century and if that is true they are the oldest weavers’ cottages in Coventry, but there is little documentation to back up the date.

They are a quite different configuration to all other Coventry weavers cottages either surviving or in old photographs or drawings. As well as having large windows on the middle floor they also seem to have intended to have looms on the ground floor as well, given the size of the windows. No advantage has been taken of the top floor. Were these typical of weaver’s cottages from the late eighteenth century? Unfortunately we have little evidence of any buildings in Coventry of this period let alone workers cottages. A similar approach to the design of the buildings in Hill Street has been taken the silk weaver’s cottages in Cross Street Sudbury, below, but these date from the mid nineteenth century.

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