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

Cathedral Choir Reunion

Reunion of Cathedral Choir in 2012

Coventry Cathedral are searching for former choristers who might be interested in attending a reunion at the Cathedral over the weekend of 21st / 22nd May 2022, commemorating the end of the City of Culture year, which started at the Cathedral this May.

The reunion is part of a major weekend event at the Cathedral, which will include a dinner with guest speakers; a showing of the BBC TV recording of the Consecration and a focus on the choir David Lepine came to Coventry to create which he succeeded in doing between  1966-71, producing several gifted and prominent musicians. 

The last reunion in 2012 showcased the consecration choir and their tours to Berlin and Ottobeuren, which resulted in the gathering of Richard Sadlers photos of the Ottobeuren tour, which were then used to create the book ‘Following the Cross of Nails’.  It is hoped that this event might lead to other former choristers recording their memories of notable occasions in the cathedral’s life.

Mike Smith who is co-ordinating the reunion said “I was one of the Consecration Choristers and tracked down all my fellow choristers bar two, for the 2012 Golden anniversary.

“For 2022 we want to contact and welcome all who have sung in the Cathedral Choir in its 60 years, and indeed I have been approached by one of the pre cathedral choristers who sang at the laying of the Foundation Stone.

“The Cathedral have never kept records of its choristers but I hope to be able to help the Cathedral develop long lasting contacts between the Cathedral and its former choristers.”

If you were a chorister at the Cathedral or know someone who was, then Mike Smith would love to hear from you. Mike can be contacted by email at mailto:mikesmith.rww@outlook.com

Grotesque Walk

Photo – Mary Courtney

On an evening in early July, twenty or so of us went for a walk on the dark side of welcome! Seeking out the gargoyles, grotesques, green-men, lizard-women, tongue-pokers, face-pullers, demons, dragons, skulls, wounded statues and fantastical and monstrous beasts… half-hidden in Coventry city centre.

Local artist and grotesque hunter Mary Courtney, led us on this walk with a difference, with historian and trail-mapper Dr Daniel Reed, and Warwick University academic of Applied Imagination, Naomi de la Tour.

Mary said, “Grotesques often escape our notice. To spot them, you need to look in a different way. Look up, look behind, look closely, look under, or peer through the gloom. They seem to play hide and seek with us, which makes it so much fun to find them”.

Our tour started at the ancient St. John’s Church, courtesy of Father Dexter Bracey and Mike Polanyk. We found grotesques both inside and outside the church. The door at the back revealed a startling collection of carved faces, including green men with their foliage features, grotesques, faces that were part-man-part-beast, tongue-pokers, face-pullers and even men in clerical garb.

On seeing the church door, CovSoc member John Greatrex, who describes himself as a “would-be poet and playwright”, recited from memory a poem that he had written about green men.

We spoke of the mysteries of green men, how their meaning eludes us, and why they are so often found in medieval churches. They are said to be connected to rebirth and regeneration, fertility, or even to death and decay, creativity, our pagan past and the frightening off of evil spirits. Some say they are the luggage of our unconscious, our unfettered feelings, or that they are “a thing of sorrow”. Many of them do look sinister. John Piper, of the beautiful stained glass Coventry Cathedral fame, was fascinated with them, and made many green-men himself. (The conversation did veer away from the Church at one point, into naming where we could find pubs called “The Green Man”. One is in Dunchurch, another in Kenilworth by the way. It could be a whole new line of research!)

Back inside the church we found grotesques high up in the crevices and corners. It’s amazing what you see when you look up!

Photo – John Payne

Many of us also did something we wouldn’t do normally: a one-line drawing. Naomi said, “Drawing is another way of looking: a way of paying close attention”.  Here are some of our one-line one-minute grotesques.

One line drawings of some of the St. John’s Grotesques. (Photo Mary Courtney)

One fascinating fact was that virtually all of the figures are male, although the entrance to St. Mary’s Guildhall has one of the few green women in the country. On our tour however, we discovered a brand new green woman in Pepper Lane, created recently by Coventry artist Matt Chu.

Photo – John Payne

The tour also took in Spon Street and parts of the Precinct, including the Cullen mural. Do the dinosaurs and the benign looking dragon count as grotesque? Views differed. We stopped by the Dun Cow, again looking up, to spot its lolling tongue and rolling eyes. Verdict. Definitely grotesque!

Close up of the Dun Cow by Alma Ramsey in Shelton Square (photo Danny Reed)

Peering through the dim, some of us spotted the two grotesques at Ford’s Hospital. They do look creepy.

Grotesque at Ford’s Hospital (photo John Payne)

We passed the place on Cuckoo Lane that marked the spot where Mary Ball was hanged. She was the last person to be hanged in Coventry. Her death mask is in the Police Museum in Hertford Street. 

Then onto the bounty of grotesques high up on the outside of the old cathedral. So many marvels here. Mary Courtney says, “The lizard-woman scratching her head, bat-boy and the winged, smiling skull with missing teeth and paw-bones, are my favourites!”

We finished the tour by the big devil himself, the creation by Jacob Epstein on the New Cathedral, said to be modelled on his own face. But this is only the beginning. There is so much more to see. Plenty of grotesques in St Mary’s Guildhall when it opens again, and in Holy Trinity Church and outside Old Bluecoat School and so much more in other parts of the city that are just waiting for you to find them.

Geraldine said, “It’s incredible how many times I’ve walked past the cathedral and not noticed all the grotesques”.

The walk taught us the great value of looking up!

The tour is part of a wider creative project that the Coventry Society is undertaking in partnership with Mary Courtney and the University of Warwick. It will lead to the creation of an artistic map of the grotesques in the city centre and an online trail around the city.

Want more?

You can see some photos of our tour on the Coventry Society flickr site at https://www.flickr.com/photos/coventrysociety/sets/72157719501772954

Mary and Danny’s Instagram gallery of over 220 Coventry Grotesques can be found here – https://www.instagram.com/coventrygrotesque/

Green Man background information (Thanks to Philip Tutchings for the link): http://greenmanenigma.com

A short video from the BBC about the green man can be viewed at: https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20190104-the-surprising-roots-of-the-mysterious-green-man

Historic UK blog about the green man https://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/The-Green-Man/

To get involved with the Grotesque Project (High resolution photographs, finding grotesques) contact marycourtneyart@gmail.com

Opening up the Sherbourne

The plans for opening up the Sherbourne have now been finally been released to the public as part of the planning application for the £1.9m scheme on Palmer Lane. Members of CovSoc who visited the site in May were shown preliminary drawings which have now been finalised.

The plans, if approved, would see more of the river uncovered and a new public space created with steps down to the river, green landscaping, improvements to biodiversity from new planting, and installation of art and new lighting.

The Palmer Lane project is a partnership between Coventry City Council and Historic Coventry Trust and forms part of the wider High Street Heritage Action Zone.  Funding of £2m from Historic England has already helped to regenerate the Burges and Hales Street and the proposals for Palmer Lane are the next step.

Carol Pyrah, Executive Director of Historic Coventry Trust said: “The River Sherbourne has a special place in the hearts and imagination of Coventry people and this scheme is an opportunity to experience the river right in the heart of the city.  Palmer Lane is a forgotten backland which we want to bring back to life.

“The proposals are part of a wider partnership with Coventry City Council and Historic England to regenerate this historic high street area”.

Palmer Lane’s history dates back as far as 1225 and is thought to be where pilgrims lodged when visiting St Mary’s Priory. The ‘Palmer’ name comes from the palms (Christian symbols) that pilgrims used to carry.

The concepts for the area have been developed by Civic Engineers and Barton Willmore, following pre-application discussions with the Environment Agency, Coventry BID, Warwickshire Wildlife Trust and many of the local businesses.

Eilis Scott, acting Regional Director, Midlands, Historic England, said: “We welcome plans to continue the transformation of this part of the city centre to support economic recovery. Bringing this riverside area back to life will make it an attractive place for locals and visitors.” 

The Coventry Society are partners in the Coventry River Cultural Programme which is complementing this scheme with a programme of cultural activity.

The Naiad finds a new home

CovSoc Chair, Vince Hammersley, tells us the story of one of Coventry’s most famous sculptures.

The Naiad sculpture by internationally famous Coventry artist George Wagstaffe stood in the Earl Street Courtyard, opposite the Council House for around fifty years. This courtyard was granted grade 2 listed status but has now been destroyed by Coventry University. This artwork won the ICA Young Contemporary Sculpture prize in the late 1950s and was one of the first to receive this prestigious recognition.

Naiad in the setting for which she was commissioned

The sculpture stood on a rock which was specifically quarried and sculpted to fit by the artist but was unfortunately destroyed when the sculpture was removed.

The sculpture was then installed in Lady Herberts Garden as part of the millennium garden, without thought or due diligence to the security and safety of this important public artwork. Within a short time there was an attempt to steal it. It was hacked from the studs which held it in place and hidden in a hedge ready to be carted away and presumably melted down. Fortunately, it was spotted by ground staff who arrived early in the morning before it could be taken.

It was removed into a gardeners’ store (Swanswell gate house) for its “protection” and ignored for many years where it suffered further damage requiring expensive repairs and renovation as this is a nationally acclaimed artwork and it is part of the post war heritage of this City.

Naiad and George when she was discovered in the gatehouse

The Naiad was the first major work by George Wagstaffe an internationally renowned artist from Coventry still living and working in the city and who has contributed to the arts and artistic community in this city for over sixty years.

The Naiad was originally purchased for the City by City Architect Arthur Ling. Significantly it was the first major piece of Coventry public art commissioned following WW2.

Rare photograph of George and the Naiad model Doreen

After a great deal of lobbying, George Wagstaffe and I, together with the Coventry Council Conservation officer, were granted permission to view Naiad where she has been stored for ten years(see picture ).

The statue has suffered damage from a form of corrosion due to the conditions in which it has been kept and required urgent remedial work which the sculptor himself offered to facilitate. With the help of Cllr Jayne Innes funds were found and the remedial work carried out.

Following its conservation, it was delivered to the Council house for safe keeping by George (see picture).

Naiad being delivered to council house after repairs and renovation

It was then moved to Friargate where it has been displayed in the reception lobby. This is not the ideal setting as it is a water sculpture – the Naiad being a water nymph.

Finally, after many years of neglect and abuse and lobbying by myself and others, Naiad is to be returned to a setting which befits its importance, second only to the Godiva statue. She is currently being installed as part of a water feature at the top of the Upper Precinct. This is indeed good news but many feel that our public art deserves greater respect and there are still around a dozen “missing” public artworks in this City.

George Wagstaffe and Cllr Welsh at the unveiling of the Naiad in the Upper Precinct – 5/7/2021photo Vincent Hammersley