CovSoc member John Marshall investigages…..
We’ve heard a whisper that Michael Portillo was in Coventry during April – apparently filming a new episode for his popular television series Great British Railway Journeys, usually a well-informed and amiably presented snapshot of Britain, with a colourfully clad host as guide.
Classified by the BBC in both the travel and history genres, the programmes feature Portillo exploring Britain by rail, using a much-thumbed Victorian guidebook, Bradshaw’s Guide, the first comprehensive travel guide to the railway system in Britain.
Coventry was featured in the very first series of Great British Railway Journeys in 2010, with Portillo asking about the impact of the Blitz in 1940 and finding out how trains helped to evacuate millions of children in Britain during World War Two. His latest visit to the city, sources say, will look at Coventry’s development in the post-war years.
But what did Bradshaw’s Guide have to say about Coventry in 1863? We obtained a copy of the book and discovered that Bradshaw begins this section with a description of the railway approach from Rugby to Coventry:
“After passing through a cutting we enter a wide extent of open country, and catch the first glimpse of the magnificent Coventry spires. From the embankment along which we proceed we can also see on the right, Stoke, Ernesford Grange… and the woods surrounding Coombe Abbey. The line crosses the Sowe by a beautiful viaduct of seven arches, and soon after the spires of Coventry rise distinctly above the intervening woods. We pass Whitley Abbey, which stands conspicuously on the left, cross a seven-arched viaduct over the Sherbourne Valley, enter a deep cutting, and shortly after we reach the station at Coventry.”
And what happens when Bradshaw reaches Coventry itself? The principal hotel for visitors, it says, is the King’s Head in Broadgate and Market Day is on Friday. The guide continues:
“The fine steeples of St Michael’s and Trinity are the first to strike one in this old city, which is the seat of the ribbon trade, and a parliamentary borough, 94 miles from London. It returns two members [MPs}, and has a population of 41,647.
“Woollens and blue thread were formerly the staple manufactures; but they are now superseded by ribbons and watches, two branches introduced by the French refugees of the 17th century. About 2,000 hands are employed in the latter, and upwards of 30,000 on silk weaving, throwing, and the weaving and dyeing of ribbons. Alabar and power looms are chiefly used in the manufacture. This trade in late years has greatly increased; many steam factories having been erected: one just completed for Mr Hart is capable of holding about 300 large looms, and will give employment to 1,000 hands, producing as many ribbons as the whole town could make in 1830. Many women and children are employed. French ribbons are imported by the dealers; but in point of taste as well as cheapness, English productions are now a fair rival to foreign ones.
“Coventry (like Covent Garden in London) takes its name from a monastery, founded in the 11th century by Leofric, the Saxon, and his wife Godiva, whose memory is honoured by an occasional procession. According to the well known story, she obtained a grant of privileges to the town by consenting to ride naked through the streets. To save her delicacy, the people closed their windows and abstained from looking, except Peeping Tom, whose bust, adorned with a pigtail, stands at the corner of Hertford Street.
“Many old fashioned gable houses are to be seen here in the narrow back streets. The Guildhall is a fine middle-age building, with a timbered hall, adorned with escutcheons and stained windows. Another old pile is the House of Industry, near some remains of a priory.
“Three gates, and fragments of the town walls, with the Free Grammar School, Bablake’s old hospital (1350), the church, and the Exchange, a handsome building containing a noble hall, recently erected from designs by Mr James Murray, deserve notice.
“The beautiful steeple of St Michael’s on the Gothic church, is about 300 feet high; it was built by the two Botoners, mayors of the town, between 1373 and ’95; near it stands part of a palace belonging to the bishops, when Coventry was a diocese with Lichfield.
“The Cathedral, dissolved by Henry VIII, stood at Hill Close. Trinity, or the priory church, is also Gothic, with a steeple 237 feet high, of a later date. Here the Grey Friars acted their miracle plays at the feast of Corpus Christi – a series of Bible dramas, from the Creation to Doomsday. Henry VI came to see them.”
Observations on Bradshaw’s account
● Bradshaw refers to Mr Hart having opened a large weaving mill. This is James Hart, the first owner of Copsewood Grange. Unfortunately the opening of the new factory, Victoria Mills, coincided with a sharp decline in the ribbon trade and his new enterprise became known as “Hart’s Folly”.
● The House of Industry is a reference to the Workhouse, based at the old Whitefriars Monastery.
● Bradshaw’s Guide states confidently that Coventry acquired its name because it was a settlement next to a convent. This was the favoured view at that time. But other theories later became popular, especially the view that the name derives from Cofa’s Tree, a tree belonging to Cofa. Local historian David McGrory queries both explanations. He says the earliest known spelling is ‘Couaentree’ – the first part of the name being a reference to the Cune (an ancient name of the River Sherbourne) and the second part (‘tree’) meaning a farmed village. So, the name might mean a farmed village by the River Cune, or perhaps a settlement where waters meet.
This article was first published in the newsletter of the Stoke Local History Group in June 2020