Frederick Douglass – The Man Who Bought Himself

Yes, the famed abolitionist and activist Frederick Douglass raised money to buy himself. He came to Coventry in 1847 as part of a fund raising campaign to end slavery. He was asked to speak at the St. Mary’s Guildhall, Bayley Lane, Coventry. He was supported by the Anti-Slavery League, as well as religious groups such as the Quakers. He was on a mission to this country, on behalf of the slave population of the United States.

Upon the motion of Charles Bray, the Rev. John Sibree took the chair. It was reported in the Coventry Herald & Observer. Coventry had always been a place of liberal thinking and teaching and they could see the parallels with the plight of the negro slaves from the Bible teachings of Moses who forced the Pharaoh to let his people free.

The meeting was on the evening of Tuesday 2nd February 1847. Frederick spoke about the evils of slavery and his life as a slave. He once had been a slave and he had escaped at the age of 20, armed with fake papers, a sailor suit disguise, he escaped to the free Northern states of America with the help of Anna Murray, the free black woman from Baltimore with whom he had fallen in love. They ended up in Rochester, New York. He became a prominent activist, author and public speaker.

The Coventry Society have been actively working to get various blue plaques for historic and famous people around the city and feel that it would be a good idea to have a plaque to commemorate Frederick Douglass’s visit and his lecture within the guildhall in 1847. We feel that it’s not just the many Kings and Queens who have visited St. Mary’s Guildhall that we should recognise, but also other notable people like Frederick Douglass.

He should be remembered as part of the buildings’ long history and part of its interpretation. At the moment the Guildhall is closed to visitors for restoration work. The Coventry Trade Union Council (TUC) Executive have already given their support for a plaque or some kind of memorial to his visit.

Perhaps other Peace and Reconciliation groups, the Coventry Cathedral and the City Council would also support this idea? Do you support it?

In 2017 Frederick Douglass become immortalised by being on the United States currency.

In England, Frederick also delivered what would later be viewed as one of his most famous speeches, the so-called “London Reception Speech.” In the speech, he said, “What is to be thought of a nation boasting of its liberty, boasting of its humanity, boasting of its Christianity, boasting of its love of justice and purity, and yet having within its own borders three millions of persons denied by law the right of marriage?… I need not lift up the veil by giving you any experience of my own. Every one that can put two ideas together, must see the most fearful results from such a state of things…”

He also visited Ireland, at the time the country was just entering the early stages of the Irish Potato Famine. During his time in Ireland, he would meet the Irish nationalist Daniel O’Connell, who would become an inspiration for his later work. While overseas, he was impressed by the relative freedom he had as a man of colour, compared to what he had experienced in the United States.

Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in 1818 on a plantation in Maryland, North America. His mother was a slave, his father was “almost certainly white,” Frederick claimed “it was whispered that my master was my father”. He was born Frederick Bailey (his mother’s name Harriet Bailey), his mother gave him the full grand name at birth of “Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey.” he took the name Douglass only after he escaped.

Frederick secretly, taught himself how to read and write. He later often said, “knowledge is the pathway from slavery to freedom.” He began to read newspapers, pamphlets, political materials, and books of every description, this new realm of thought led him to question and condemn the institution of slavery. He became a leader in the abolitionist movement, which sought to end the practice of slavery, before and during the Civil War.

He continued to push for equality and human rights until his death in 1895. As a symbol of freedom he bought himself from his original masters, really only a legal matter but it was also a great gesture that he had taken control of his own life. It was said “as Frederick Douglass approached the bed of Thomas Auld – his former owner/master tears came to his eyes. He had not seen Auld for years, and now that they were reunited, both men could not stop crying. Frederick Douglass and Thomas Auld clasped hands and spoke of past and future, confronting death and reminiscing over their years of acquaintance and separation. Auld wasn’t an old friend of Frederick’s—he was after all his former owner. But now, the two men stood on different terms”.

Image Created by Paul Maddocks

William Wilberforce MP and his colleagues persisted in campaigning to change the law and in February 1807 Britain at last outlawed the North Atlantic slave trade.

The United States followed suit a month later. But supporters of slavery in both countries were quick to take advantage of the fact that, although importing slaves was now illegal, owning slaves was not. In Britain it took a further Act of Parliament in 1833 to ban slavery itself. In the US the practice continued, sadly, for many more years. In the cotton-growing southern states, the slave population actually increased as the children of slaves were themselves enslaved like breading cattle then taking its babies away at an early age, this had happened to Frederick himself. Many cruel masters, starving and beating their enslaved workers and breaking up their attempts to worship, read or write, stopping any independent spirit with physical and emotional abuse.

It took the American Civil War and President Abraham Lincoln issuing the ‘Emancipation Proclamation’ on January 1, 1863, as the nation approached its third year of bloody civil war. The proclamation declared “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.”

Frederick was an advocate for all human rights, especially women’s rights, and specifically the right of women to vote. Frederick’s legacy as an author and leader lives on. His work served as an inspiration to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and his name even became part of 21st-century political debate.

Many people made a lot of money including upper class, middle class and even some working class, so they were not very happy to give it all up. After slavery was banned great amounts of money were paid to the owners of slaves as compensation, but not one slave got any money compensation.

Unfortunately slavery has not gone away, today it just takes a different form; the Morecombe Bay Cockling disaster of 2004 is just one of many examples that came to light due to tragic circumstances.

There is a recent video about Frederick Douglass created by Coventry University History Department here:

A petition has been launched on 38 Degrees calling on Coventry City Council to install a plaque in acknowledgement: You can sign it here:

The Forgotten Elephant!

Elephants have amazing memories, but have we forgotten our own elephant? Paul Maddocks tells us about his memories of the Elephant and his dreams for its future.

At the beginning of the 1970’s there was demand for a City Centre based Sports Centre. The council had opened the Coventry Swimming Baths in Fairfax Street in 1966 which had been a great success.

The Coventry Ring-Road had only just been completed in 1972 and there was a small plot of land both sides of the Cox Street at the end of the Swimming baths before the ring road. Any building of great size would have to straddle the road. The Coventry city council’s own architects department set up a working group to design the new sports centre.

The team led by Rex Chell had just worked on the new Civic CentreTthree building which was the City Council’s committee rooms opposite the Old Council House. It too was a building that also straddling both a road and pathways and was built on a small plot of land (now demolished.

The work on the building started only a few weeks after the country had gone through the tough time of the Three-Day Week in May 1974. The following year I started working at the Herbert Museum and got married at the same time. We moved into Winchester Street in Hillfields which meant every day I would pass by the construction site, and slowly saw its unusual shape take form.  over the next year until it opened in the summer of 1976. I was able to have a good look around it when it first opened and was amazed how big it was inside with so many different sports activities going on.

Until the Sport Centre was built the City Council had to hold its election counts in four different buildings – St. Mary’s Hall, Drapers Hall, the police ballroom and the city council staff canteen in Pepper Lane. But how with this large building all the votes could be counted in the same place.

My job over the years was working for the City Council’ Leisure Services, which meant I did a lot of work for the Sports Centre especially the Summer Active Zone advertising and promotion. The building has had various events, shows and rallies. It had famous basketball teams, like the Coventry Crusaders. My children and their cousins would go almost every day in the summer to roller disco or some other activity.

The building was closed a year ago and moth-balled. We understand there will be an announcement about its future soon.  it’s now been a year since Rainier, the preferred developer, was appointed. We don’t know what they will propose but the Coventry Society would like to see it remain in the public domain.

It was payed for by the citizens of Coventry and should stay as a leisure or a cultural centre, following examples such as the Tate Gallery or the V&A Dundee or even like the Guggenheim in Bilbao (which does have a similar look especially covered in sheet metal). A cultural centre could have art, film, light, dance, music, performances, exhibitions, rallies and conferences. After all it’s a giant black box on legs and it lends itself to creative ideas within it.

The Coventry Elephant could be a culture hub located at the heart of a new, city centre creative and cultural quarter. There are already plans in place to improve Cox Street. Attractions within 1000m include: The Herbert, Coventry Cathedral, St Mary’s Guildhall, Coventry University Faculty of Arts and Humanities, Ellen Terry Building, Coventry University Hub Venue, the Empire, Drapers Bar, Drapers Hall Concert Venue, Cathedral Quarter, Coventry Transport Museum, the Old Grammar School and Fargo Village.

There could be bright lighting under the building, a new entrance and public realm improvements on the Cox Street level, a new foyer with access to the lifts.

By twining up with a mayor cultural player this would be a landmark building brought back to life.

The Coventry Society tried to get the building listed but was un-successful. But we hope after some research and work with the Twentieth Society we might get the rejection reconsidered. C20 Conservation Adviser, Henrietta Billings, said: “The Elephant is undoubtedly a much loved and striking landmark”, ‘It is a beautiful and carefully thought through design’.

When the new plans are announced we will publish them on our website for your review.

Paul Maddocks, Deputy Chair of the Coventry Society

Captain Smith-Clarke

George Thomas Smith-Clarke

As the world pins its hopes on a new vaccine to counter Covid 19, Peter Walters tells the story of an earlier technological breakthrough that helped patients suffering in another epidemic almost seventy years ago.

In late 1953, in the midst of Britain’s terrifying polio epidemic, a new breathing machine was unveiled that made life much more bearable for patients struggling with the bulky and intimidating ‘iron lung’.

Its inventor was a member of Coventry’s engineering aristocracy, a man who insisted on using his First World War military rank of Captain, but whose compassion turned his agile and inventive mind to medical matters and in particular to a modified and re-designed artificial ventilator.

A new biography of Captain George Smith-Clarke, Coventry, Alvis and the Iron Lung, has just been published, and its author, retired anaesthetist Adrian Padfield, is convinced that more should be done to recognise his achievements.

“His modest and retiring manner endeared him to his friends but may account for the fact that he received no national recognition for his major contributions to innovative engineering designs in both world wars and the automobile industry, let alone his medical modifications and inventions that extended and enriched the lives of thousands.”

Born in Bewdley, Worcestershire in 1884, the son of a brass finisher, George Thomas Smith-Clarke showed an extraordinary inventive streak from the beginning and by the age of sixteen had designed his own tri-car.

He joined the Great Western Railway as an engineer in 1902 and soon after the outbreak of the First World War was sent to Coventry as a member of the Aeronautics Inspection Department, responsible for inspecting aero engines produced in the city by companies like Standard and Daimler.

After the war he joined Daimler as assistant works manager and in 1922 moved to Alvis, TG Johns’ new luxury car company, to become Chief Engineer.

Over the next decade he designed some of the company’s most successful cars, but his fertile mind was already ranging over medical matters as well. In 1926 he took out a patent for a loud-speaking telephone and tried to devise ways of helping children with hearing problems.

Alvis cars at the 1928 Le Mans

His interest in health led to his appointment as Chairman of the Coventry and Warwickshire Hospital in 1935 and he led the emergency committee trying to put the hospital back on its feet after the destructive wartime air raids.

He retired from Alvis in 1950 and during the polio outbreak of the early 1950s was co-opted on to the Birmingham regional committee studying breathing machines.

After witnessing a woman patient in distress while having to undergo nursing care inside a conventional iron lung, he set up a Coventry team to make modifications to the wooden iron lung, resulting in orders from the Ministry of Health to modify all the machines in Britain.

Later he designed a radically new version, the Coventry/Alligator iron lung, which was manufactured by Cape Engineering in Warwick, a company set up by former Alvis employees that he supported.

An Iron Lung

For his work on the artificial respirator he was awarded the Institution of Mechanical Engineering’s James Clayton prize in 1956, but was too ill to attend the awards ceremony. He died at his home at Gibbet Hill in Coventry in 1960.

Coventry, Alvis and the Iron Lung is published by Hughes & Company of Pershore, Worcestershire at £20 (

Is Coventry ready for electric vehicle revolution?

As part of the 10-point plan for a Green Industrial Revolution the Government has announced an investment of £500m for the development and mass production of electric vehicle batteries.

Coventry and Warwickshire has welcomed further investment in battery technology and electric vehicles, as part of the Government’s 10-point plan for a Green Industrial Revolution.

The Plan, which sets out a range of investments in energy and green technology, identifies electric vehicles as a core plank of the Government’s strategy.

Alongside investment in charging infrastructure, and new grants for low-emission vehicles, the Government will spend nearly £500 million on the development and mass-scale production of electric vehicle batteries. The West Midlands has been identified as a key area for this investment.

Cllr Jim O’Boyle, Cabinet Member for Jobs & Regeneration at Coventry City Council, said: “Coventry is at the heart of the green industrial revolution and I have no doubt that we have the pedigree, skills, location and partnerships to take advantage of further investment in the sector. This must also include a Gigafactory to secure the production and manufacture of batteries at scale in our region.

“The private sector is already playing its part. Jaguar Land Rover is investing heavily in electric vehicles, whilst Geely has already invested £320m in Coventry & Warwickshire to create the UK’s first purpose-built factory for electric vehicles.

“That investment is happening in Coventry & Warwickshire, so we need to maximise the opportunity and take advantage of our proximity to these global leaders in automotive technology. As a result, we are ready to support the sector and work with Government to both protect the future of the automotive sector and position the UK at the heart of the electric vehicle revolution.”

Coventry, and surrounding Warwickshire, has already emerged as a leader in battery technology. In 2017, a team led by Coventry & Warwickshire Local Enterprise Partnership (CWLEP), Coventry City Council, and Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG) won, as part of the Government’s Faraday Challenge, the UK Battery Industrialisation Centre (UKBIC) which is soon to be fully operational and is based just outside the city.

The Advanced Propulsion Centre (APC) is also located at the University of Warwick, alongside the National Automotive Innovation Centre – part of WMG – with Lotus, Aston Martin Lagonda, LEVC, Tata Motors, PSA Peugeot Citroen Vauxhall, and BMW all represented within the area.

Coventry is home to Jaguar Land Rover’s global headquarters while the company has a production plant at Gaydon in Warwickshire. Other car makers, including LEVC, Geely, and Lotus have also announced major investments in Coventry and Warwickshire as part of their electrification strategies.

This article is an edited version of a Coventry City Council Press Release.

More tales from Jabet’s Ash

John Marshall goes in search of more stories about an ancient ash tree in Stoke, situated alongside Binley Road and close to the junction of present day Marlborough Road

In early October the Coventry Society featured an article about Stoke’s most famous tree, Jabet’s Ash, which marked an ancient city boundary and was often a place where important visitors to the city were met, including royalty.

A recent inspection of Blyth’s book The History ofStoke (published in 1897) has unearthed a graphic example: a description of the visit of Princess Elizabeth Stuart in 1603. She later married Frederick of the Palatinate and briefly became Queen of Bohemia.

April 3rd 1603

“On this day the Princess Elizabeth, eldest daughter of James I, came into this City, from Coombe Abbey, with Lord and Lady Harrington, and many other Ladies of distinction. To shew that due deference which the respectability of the party demanded, the Mayor and the Alderman, with the rest of the livery, rode out of the town, in their scarlet gowns, as far as Jabet’s Ash on Stoke Green, where they met the Princess.

“The Mayor alighted from his horse, kissed her hand, and then rode before her into the City, with the Aldermen, etc. Lord Harrington went bare-headed before the coach along the streets (which were lined with the different companies of the City, standing in their gowns and their hoods) from Gosford-gate to the Drapery door, near St Michael’s Church, where having arrived, and heard a sermon, the Princess went from thence to St Mary’s Hall, attended by her train; a chair of state was placed at the upper end of the room, in which her Highness dined; from whence, having finished her repast, she adjourned to the Mayoress’s Parlour, which was fitted up in a most sumptuous manner for her reception. Lord Harrington, the Mayor, with the rest of the Ladies and Gentlemen, then dined.

“The Mayor afterwards presented to the Princess a silver cup, double gilt, which cost the City £29 16s 8d. She then left the Hall, and rode down Cross Cheaping, attended by the Mayor, etc., to Bishop-gate, Spon-end, Spon-street, Gosford-gate and Jabet’s Ash, where the Mayor left her with Lord Harrington and his train, who re-convened her to Coombe.”

Who drowned at Jabet’s Pit?

Photo – John Marshall

Coventry Society’s article in October said that a pool once existed opposite Jabet’s Ash. It was called Jabet’s Pit and was drained after an unfortunate man walked into the pit and drowned. An area of hollow ground (pictured above) still exists in what is now called Gosford Park and this is probably the site of the old pool. But who was the man who drowned? The following account of an inquest has been found in Blyth’s book. It does not mention Jabet’s Pit by name but – could this be a reference to the curious incident of the man in the night-time who drowned at Jabet’s Pit?

Oct 14th 1861

“Inquest at the Bull’s Head, Stoke, on the body of Joseph George, 61 years of age, who was found drowned in a pit on Gosford Green, on the previous Sunday morning. It appears that on Oct 5, he had left the Hertford Arms, in a state of intoxication, and was on his way to Stoke. The jury returned a verdict of ‘Accidental Death’, but expressed an opinion that the authorities ought to better fence the pit, which was considered to be very dangerous.”

This report originally appeared in the November newsletter of Stoke Local History Group. John Marshall is chair of the group and a member of Coventry Society.