Francis Skidmore – the Greatest Metal Craftsman of the Victorian Age

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Francis Alfred Skidmore was born in Birmingham in 1817, the son of a jeweller. His family moved to Coventry in 1822 and Francis learned metal working during a seven year apprenticeship.

In 1845, father and son registered as silversmiths under the name F. Skidmore and son. Their early work as silversmiths consisted primarily of church plate. The earliest known examples of Skidmore’s work includes three silver chalices made for St John the Baptist Church, Coventry (1845), St Giles’ Church, Exhall (1845) and St Alkmund’s Church, Derby (1846).

Skidmore exhibited Church plate at the Great Exhibition of 1851, including a silver gilt and enamelled chalice which is now on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

With the recognition received from the Great Exhibition Skidmore expanded his business to include other Church fittings, including items in iron, brass and wood.
In 1851, he also received a commission to produce gas lighting in St Michael’s Church, Coventry. Skidmore’s firm also installed gas lighting in St Mary’s Guildhall and Holy Trinity Church. At Holy Trinity Church, some of his ironwork, wooden pews and gas lamp standards are still in situ.

It was also in the 1850s that Skidmore met Sir George Gilbert Scott, a prominent architect, designer and proponent of Gothic Revival. Although Skidmore produced works for a variety of people, it was his long lasting, working relationship with Scott which resulted in several notable commissions. Skidmore worked with Scott on the Lichfield, Hereford and Salisbury cathedral screens and the Albert Memorial in London. It is said that Scott refused to use anyone other than Skidmore when he wanted decorative metalwork.

The Hereford Screen, designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott, was made by Skidmore in 1862. Before installation at Hereford Cathedral the screen was shown at the International Exhibition of 1862 where it was hailed as a “masterpiece.”

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In 1967 the screen was dismantled and removed from Hereford Cathedral. The Herbert Art Gallery and Museum bought this magnificent monument, saving it from possible destruction.

Paul Maddocks, our Chairman recalls “When I worked in the design office in the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum there in the corner of the room was an “Angel with a harp”. It stood about a metre high. It had come from the ‘Hereford screen’. The great choir screen made for Hereford Cathedral and one of the monuments of high Victorian art and a masterpiece in the Gothic Revival style. The Museum had bought it in the 1960’s and it had been in many wooden crates in the Museum industrial store in Falkland Close in Till Hill.

“We In the design office had taken the ”Angel’ out of its crate. It was a lucky dip and we had chosen one of the smallest crates to have a look inside to get an impression of what it looked like and to see what condition it was in. We were thinking about where the screen could be put on display.

“In 1980 the Transport Museum opened and the industrial store was emptied of all the transport items, which left only a few other items such as sewing machines, telephones, radios and a few aero engines plus the wooden crates with the Hereford Screen in. The store had to close to save money. The aero engines went to different museums the other things went to the Whitefriars Monastery store and the Hereford Screen was given to the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1983. It has now been restored at a price of about £800,000 and takes pride of place in the V&A.”

During his lifetime, Francis Skidmore created works for 24 cathedrals, over 300 parish churches, 15 colleges and a number of public buildings. The project closest to his heart, the pulpit in St. Michael’s Church, the old Cathedral, was destroyed in the Blitz in November 1940.

 

Skidmore was always revered in Coventry because at the time of the weaving crash in about 1860 he deliberately employed weavers in his art metal company.

However his consummate skill was also his undoing, as his quest for perfection led him to throw away thousands of pounds worth of work he considered sub-standard. His lack of business acumen also contributed to his business failure.

Near the end of his life, Skidmore’s eyesight began to deteriorate and he was disabled after being hit by a carriage in London. Returning to Coventry, and unable to work, Skidmore was forced to rely wholly on his freeman’s pension to support his family. In 1894 the Mayor of Coventry Sir Henry Acland, and several local clergy and gentlemen, formed themselves into a committee to assist Skidmore in his ‘declining years’. Enough money was put together to ensure that, along with the weekly sum he received under the freemen’s pension scheme, he was able to sustain himself and his family, albeit in severely reduced circumstances.

Skidmore died on 13 November 1896 and was buried in London Road Cemetery, near to the Anglican Chapel. His grave is today in a rather sorry condition. In 2000, a memorial plaque was installed at the site of Skidmore’s Alma Street factory in Hillfields.

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Francis Skidmore was the greatest craftsman in art metal of his age and we should perhaps do more to keep his name alive in Coventry.

Covsoc 2018-19 – A Look Back on the Year!

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The campaign to save the Coventry Cross

With our Annual General Meeting being held last week we thought that it would be a good time to set out what we have been doing over the past year.

Public Meetings and Visits

We organised a wide range of public meetings and visits during the year. As always we held indoor meetings from September until April and visits over the summer months. During the year:

  • W learned about the artist Herbert Edward Cox who painted fascinating views of old Coventry, courtesy of Les Neil.
  •  We visited the Waste Reduction Unit to see how our city reclaims energy from people’s rubbish and saves it all going to landfill.
  • We met the staff and students of the Warwick Manufacturing Group at Warwick University and learned about ideas for the future.
  • We visited the Watch Museum in Spon Street and learned about this historic industry that the city was famous for.
  • One of our members, Angus Kaye, gave us a tour of Victorian Birmingham.
  • We met the sculptor George Wagstaffe and heard about how art and sculpture suffused the redevelopment of our city.
  • We visited the revived St. Mark’s Church and learned about the painting of the Feibusch mural and met the son of the Priest who commissioned the mural.
  • We learned about the role of women in our city in the century between 1850 and 1950 from Dr Cathy Hunt.
  • We learned about Christmas traditions from our member Brian Stote.
  • We learned from David Walker that they built 3,307,996 tractors at the factory in Banner Lane.
  • We were stimulated by John Prevc to think about how density of development can be used to make cities more vital!
  • We learned about Earlsdon’s lost industrial heritage from John Purcell
  • We supported heritage partners by helping to staff the Old Grammar school for Heritage Open Days in September. We took the opportunity to promote schemes relating to the Sherbourne.
  • We held an event to celebrate Civic Day in June at the Priory Visitors Centre.
  • At our September meeting we honoured Ralph Butcher with life membership of the Society and acknowledged the huge contribution that he has made to the city.
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Chairman, Paul Maddocks, presents Lifetime Membership certificate to Ralph Butcher

Campaigns.

But the society is not just about these public events and a lot goes on behind the scenes with the committee pursuing campaigns and actions to try to improve and conserve our city. In some cases we campaign alone, but in other matters we support the campaigns of others. This is a flavour of some of the things that happened during the year.

  • Copsewood Grange – this year saw the culmination of a long campaign to save this building. We were thrilled to be invited to attend the official opening of the converted building and assist in the erection of a Blue Plaque.
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The redeveloped Copsewood Grange
  • We put forward the Paris Cinema in Far Gosford Street for local listing. This was the first cinema manged by Oscar Deutsch before he established the Odeon chain.
  • Unfortunately our campaign to save the Coventry Cross was not successful. Despite a petition with 900 signatures and support from Historic England the Council went ahead and demolished the cross paying scant regard to its own conditions. We await with some doubt the reconstruction of the Cross for City of Culture year.
  • We supported in principle the plans to improve the Upper Precinct, but together with Historic England we campaigned against some of the details of the scheme which spoil Gibson’s original vision of the Precinct. As this is Coventry the developer’s view prevailed.
  • We sat on the Board of the Heritage Action Zones to support the HAZ programme. We raised our concerns about the Council’s lack of commitment to the programme.
    We continue to support the Historic Coventry Trust promoting their events and activities, especially the work at Charterhouse Priory.
  • We met the team regenerating Draper’s Hall and offered our support for this hugely important project.
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Work begins shortly on the historic Draper’s Hall
  • Throughout the year we took every opportunity that we could to encourage the Council to employ a Conservation and Archaeology Officer (and more recently the Heritage Asset Officer). In a Council so biased towards development the absence of a Conservation Officer is a key weakness.
  • We erected a blue plaque on the birthplace of Delia Derbyshire.
  • We have started discussion with the Canal and Rivers Trust to generate some activity in the Canal Basin.
  • We visited the regeneration scheme at the former Coventry and Warwickshire Hospital Nurses Home and gave support and advice to the developer.
  • We supported the major bid led by Warwickshire Wildlife Trust for funding for a programme of activity and works on the River Sherbourne. We are also active participants in the planning group.
  • We gave assistance to the owner of the Forum Cinema Organ who is seeking a location in Coventry for this historic instrument. Unfortunately no suitable location has yet been found.
  • We have published our views about the need for a change in thinking on the City Centre South scheme. With national changes in retailing there is no hope of this scheme being implemented and we are calling for a new vision for the city centre.
  • We joined with many others in commemorating the end of the first World War. Our Vice Chairman, Vince Hammersley created a new website called ‘Hero in my Street’ where you can find out details of servicemen from your street who died during the First World War. We also supported the restoration of the Triumph and Gloria War Memorial led by the Friends of London Road Cemetery and took part in a number of national and local commemorative events.
  • We joined with other partners to campaign for the restoration and re-use of Park Cottage in Stoke Park.
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Park Cottage – A building at risk
  • We supported one of our members, Alan Griffiths, who is leading on the project to rebuilt Broad Street Meeting Hall. The project started on site at the end of our year. We have also offered support to Foleshill residents to develop a project called Foleshill Golden Mile which we hope to see develop as part of the City of Culture.
    We assisted and promoted Coventry Action for Neighbourhoods in their campaigns, including better control of Houses in Multiple Occupation.
  • We continue to research and promote the City’s Public Art through our website. We would like to see the Naiad statue reinstated in its original setting on the site of Palace Yard.
  • We also support and promote the Medieval Coventry group and their work to research and publicise Coventry’s medieval history. In this regard we follow closely all planning in relation to St. Mary’s Hall.
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Medieval Coventry event at St. Mary’s Hall
  • Every week we go through the list of planning applications in the city. We summarise the significant ones and publish them on our website, so that Coventry citizens don’t have to wade through the masses of information to find out what is going on. Where we feel that an application should be looked at, our Planning Sub Group looks at the details online and we comment where appropriate.

Internal Matters

During the year we completed the restructuring of the society that we started the previous year. We have established three sub groups (Planning, Heritage and Communications) and we have restructured the Chairman’s post to ensure both continuity and succession. The Charity Commission have approved our changes and re-confirmed the objectives of the society.

We have modernised our communications during the year. After 173 editions we have stopped publishing our popular monthly newsletter and instead created a News website with frequent stories published and the links sent weekly to members. We have published over sixty stories since our news site went live in August. We have also adopted e-mailing software to make it easier to mail out to our members and contacts and see who is reading our messages. Whilst many members will regret the loss of the newsletter, the new approach is more flexible and easier to manage and we can monitor who is reading our news stories.

However we have not forgotten our members who do not have Email and internet. We continue to post out monthly a short one-page notification of meetings together with short reports on key changes or happenings in the society for those we can’t contact by email.

We have started to use Eventbrite to market our public meetings and this has proved very successful. We have also created the opportunity for members to pay their subscriptions through Direct Debit.

We have also registered the shorter domain name www.covsoc.org.uk and news.covsoc.org.uk to make it easier for people to find us online.

External Relations

During the year we have been given considerable support by our Umbrella body, Civic Voice. We have also supported Civic Voice campaigns, including a contribution towards the campaign to improve housing design.

We attended the Civic Voice Annual Convention in Birmingham in October and we have offered Coventry as a venue during the City of Culture year.

Looking Ahead

Overall it has been a very busy year and a year of change. We look forward to 2019/20 with new strength and enthusiasm. The committee would like to thank all members and supporters for their contribution during the year.

2020 is the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Coventry Society and we will be developing plans during the year to celebrate that anniversary.

You can read our Chairman’s Report to members at the AGM in full here.

The Mystery of the Egyptian God and the Precinct

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Now that the restoration and re-modelling of the City Precinct is about to start, you might be interested in knowing about a link to ancient Egypt.

On the back of the first pillar column on the corner of Broadgate and the Precinct, the one with the plaque commemorating Princess Elizabeth laying the foundation stone, is the symbol of ‘Aten’.

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There is no known explanation as to why it is there!

‘Aten’ is the Egyptian Sun God, the favourite God of Pharaoh Akhenatena who built the ancient city of Tell el-Amama. Was this the inspiration for Donald Gibson’s design for Coventry Precinct?

TelelAmama

This is an artist drawing from archaeological digs of the ruined ancient city of Tell el-Amarna, in Upper Egypt. Can you see the similarity with Coventry’s Precinct?

Next time you are in Broadgate take a close look at the back of the column, low down beneath the carvings of a weaving loom part of Coventry’s early industries.

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If you have any further information we would be very pleased to learn more about this unusual symbol and its significance.

Paul Maddocks

 

A Coventry made timepiece fit for a King

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Samual Watson Astronomical Clock in Windsor Castle.

King Charles II didn’t much like Coventry. In 1662 he ordered the demolition of Coventry’s city walls as punishment for the city’s support for Parliament during the Civil War and the humiliation of his father King Charles I.

Charles I had tried to enter Coventry, with the intention of gaining access to the large armoury in the city. But after laying siege to the city with cannon fire he did not manage to gain entry, and had to move on.

So Coventry was in the new king’s bad books and was paying for it. The city even had to pay for every cartload of stone blocks taken away from the city wall.

King Charles II
King Charles II

Despite his dislike of Coventry, the King had a penchant for Coventry workmanship and in particular for clocks made by Coventry born clock maker Samuel Watson. He commissioned Watson to make two of them, the second of which still survives. It is the most amazing timepiece, an astronomical clock incorporating planetary motion.

The clock has four large dials and one small one in the centre. The top left-hand dial is the planetary dial and shows the earth in the centre, and the five known planets at the time and the sun. Each ring revolves around the earth, the planets turning in their own orbits. The top right-hand dial is the lunar dial and shows the sun and the moon revolving around the earth, so the moon keeps her illumination face always towards the sun.

The bottom left-hand dial is the Calendar and Solar Cycle Dial and shows the motion of the nodes, when the earth, the sun and the moon will take place predicting eclipses, the long hand revolves once a year showing the day and month of the year for the first three years on the first outer rings and with the leap year on the fourth outer ring. The bottom right-hand dial, the Dial of the Golden Numbers has a long hand revolving once in nineteen years and indicates the Metonic cycle.

The small dial in the centre tells the day of the week and the time, but with only one single hand!

It took Samuel Watson from 1683 – 1690 to complete the clock but by the time he had finished it King Charles II had died.

Later the clock was bought by Queen Mary II of William and Mary fame for Kensington Palace. But she did not like the wooden long case clock frame that it was in, so another case was made and the original case had a different clock workings put in it and is now part of the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum collection. The royal clock is in the Queens collection in Windsor Castle.

Samuel Watson (1635 – 1710) lived and worked in Coventry and was Sheriff of the city in 1686. In 1690 he moved to Long Acre in London and called himself ‘Mathematician in Ordinary to his Majesty’. He was also an associate of Isaac Newton, for whom he made two other astronomical clocks. His other inventions included the “five minute repeater” (a clock which strikes the hours and then the number of 5 minute periods since the hour) and also the stopwatch.

Samuel Watson made many clocks and watches between about 1640 and 1710 and many survive. We would love to see the city host an exhibition of Watson clocks, bringing together the Herbert longcase and the Windsor clock for the first time in 330 years. This would be a worth event for our City of Culture Year in 2021 and would celebrate a great citizen of Coventry who we have forgotten as well as an industry that the city was famous for.

The Bishop and the Sculptor

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Bishop H. W. Yeatman – Biggs, first post-reformation Bishop of Coventry

2018 was the centenary of the designation of St. Michael’s as a Cathedral. Of course it had been a Church for a lot longer, since the Normans built it as a Chapel to the Castle in the eleventh century.

It’s interesting that as early as 1818 St. Michael’s was regarded as a National Monument which would require extra funds for its upkeep beyond the local parish. This was especially important as it was one of the largest parish churches in the country.

There had been some local pressure for a separate Coventry diocese beginning in 1860 and in 1908 the Bishop of Worcester, H. W. Yeatman – Biggs, constituted St. Michael’s as a collegiate church or ‘pro-cathedral. But the First World War interrupted the process, and it was not until 1918 that the Bishopric of Coventry was formally created by Act of Parliament and St. Michael’s Church was elevated to Cathedral status. Bishop H. W. Yeatman – Biggs himself became Coventry’s first Bishop since the Reformation.

But unfortunately Bishop Yeatman – Biggs was only Bishop of Coventry for four years and died at the age of 77 in 1922.

Huyshe Wolcott Yeatman was born in 1845. He added the name Biggs by Royal License when he inherited the family estate via his mother when his elder brother died in 1898.

After his death he was buried in the Cathedral and a bronze effigy was commissioned. It was made by Hamo Thornycroft a very famous sculptor of his time.

Thornycroft had creaated many famous memorials, including one of the British statesmen W. E. Gladstone, a bronze made in 1905. Other public statues around the country including Alfred the Great, Oliver Cromwell, General Gordon, Alfred Lord Tennyson and a Sower in Kew Gardens.

Hamo studied with his parents and learned a lot about classical sculpture before going to the Royal Academy of Arts. He won the Gold Medal of the Royal Academy in 1876 with his statue ‘Warrior Bearing a wounded youth’ when he was 26 years old.

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Hamo Thornycroft

Hamo with knighted in 1917 aged 67 and he spent the following five years working on Bishop Yeatman-Biggs’ effigy. He died in 1925 aged 75.

The bronze of H. W. Yeatman – Biggs was pretty much the only surviving Cathedral artefact after the firebombing of the Coventry Blitz of 1940.

Harry Quick – Coventry Architect 1858-1935

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Harry Quick – standing

In the summer of 1895, the Midland Daily Telegraph published a lavish set of drawings illustrating the winning design for Coventry’s new municipal offices.

Fashioned in Tudor style, with stone facings and a whole tracery of turrets and crenellations, oriel windows and arched doorways, the complex, so impressive on paper, would include police and fire stations as well as a council chamber and offices, built on a large but awkward site bounded by Earl Street, St Mary’s Street and Bayley Lane.

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Quick’s design for the Council House, which was never built

It earned its architect, 37-year-old Harry Quick, a handsome first prize of £150, and it even had a motto attached to it, ‘Leofric the Saxon.’

Yet there was to be no Harry Quick municipal cathedral. The plans were set aside, due to pressure from the city’s ‘shopocracy’, who objected to the colonisation of a large site they regarded as central to Coventry’s shopping offer. And when, fifteen years later, another competition was held to design the city’s new Council House, Harry Quick’s name was nowhere near it.

It was a rare and no doubt chastening rejection for the man who was arguably the most prominent and prolific architect working in Coventry at the dawn of the twentieth century.

Born in Pontefract in Yorkshire, the son of a Surveyor of Taxes, Harry Quick arrived in Coventry as a child and was sent to a school run by Unitarian minister the Rev. George Heaviside in Much Park Street. He was later articled to Coventry church architect Thomas Richmond Donnelly but by 1883 had set up in business on his own, with offices in Hertford Street.

Three years later he was appointed Surveyor to the fledgling Coventry Permanent Economic Building Society, a post he held for nearly fifty years and one that gave him an influential voice in property values and development in the growing city.

Later in his career he was responsible for the development of the Coventry Park estate, laying out Park Road and Manor Road and designing some of the houses that were built there. He did the same in St Nicholas Street in Radford, described at the time, in 1902, in promotional material that bore his name, as an ‘elevated, quiet and much-favoured residential part of the city.’

Pevsner characterises Quick as ‘the factory architect’, and so he was, but there was much more to him than that. One of his first commissions, in 1888, was to design the new Liberal Club on Warwick Row, a lavish entertainment centre complete with skittle alley in the basement, card room, billiard room and smoking room, as well as offices for the committee and a reading room.

Two years later came his first factory commission – designing the offices for George Singer’s new industrial complex in Canterbury Street. In the year of his competition-winning Council House design, 1895, he did the same for William Herbert’s Premier Cycle Company and in the early years of the new century was also involved in the design of Courtaulds’ bold new Coventry headquarters on the Foleshill Road.

Harry Quick’s private life was nothing if not quiet and respectable. In October 1888, at Holy Trinity Church in Coventry, he had married Staffordshire-born Eliza Ellen Adams and the pair set up home in a rented house on St Nicholas Street.

In 1898, the couple bought ‘Belmont’ a substantial house at 16 Abbey Hill in Kenilworth, which was to remain their home for the rest of their lives. The Quicks were childless but shared their home with Harry’s neice Emily Quick, who was later to marry one of the sons of automotive and aviation pioneer John Siddeley.

In 1896, perhaps as consolation for the rejection of his council house plans, Harry had been awarded the design for the new police station and magistrates’ court in St Mary’s Street. But as the new century dawned, he increasingly turned his attention to houses.

The most important was his design, in 1909, for Allesley Hall, a new house in Arts and Crafts style for the printer and newspaper proprietor William Iliffe.

Although his practice was still based in Coventry, he completed a number of Kenilworth projects in the years leading up to the First World War, including the landmark clock tower in 1907, a Parochial Hall (1911) and Post Office (1913).

During the war, Harry’s talents were once more put to use as a factory architect. In 1915 he designed a new factory for the Hotchkiss company in Gosford street, a building that went up so fast that its workforce liked to joke that the management added a new storey every night.

Hotchkiss Factory Construction 1915
Hotchkiss Factory under construction 1915

He was also responsible for the huge complex of factories created for the munitions firm of White & Poppe in Holbrooks, later adapting part of the sprawling site for William Lyons, when he brought his motorcycle sidecar business to Coventry in the late 1920s.

During the Great War, the Quicks also involved themselves in the welfare of veterans and their families. Indeed, Eliza was awarded an MBE for her work as Secretary of the Warwickshire War Pensions Committee.

She died in 1929 and Harry followed in August 1935, leaving a substantial estate that in today’s money would be worth over £2 million.

As for the project that got away? The next design for the new Council House, drawn up in 1906, envisaged municipal shops on the ground floor with offices above, just as the ‘shopocracy’ wanted.

The scheme required a loan from the Local Government Board to go ahead but was rejected by the radical trade unionist and Liberal MP John Burns, then serving in Campbell-Bannerman’s government as President of the Local Government Board. Burns, who as a young man had worked as an engineer in Coventry, decided that the idea of ground-floor shops was not worthy of the city and turned it down flat.

The next plan, submitted in 1910, was for the building we see today. Harry Quick must have felt somewhat vindicated by that.

Peter Walters

Where should the Cross go?

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On 15th November 2018, contrary to the recommendation of Historic England, the Council granted planning permission to relocate the replica Coventry Cross from its current location next to Holy Trinity Church to Ironmonger Row in order to create more outdoor space for the Slug and Lettuce and a restaurant in  Cathedral Lanes.

However at the same meeting that the decision was made, Cllr Jim O’Boyle, the Cabinet Member for Regeneration said that in response to the opposition to the relocation, an alternative option was “to place it adjacent to Primark, overlooking Holy Trinity Church.”

The Coventry Society still believes that the Cross, once demolished, will never be rebuilt because of the costs involved. Some council officers are already talking about putting up a cheaper piece of modern art instead.

However we are happy to be proved wrong about this and our Chairman, Paul Maddocks, has been investigating the original location of the cross. By superimposing historic maps and aerial photos of the city, Paul has identified the original location of the cross, which is not far away from the location proposed by Cllr O’Boyle.

CovCross1CovCross2CovCross3CovCross4CovCross5 The replica cross was erected in 1976 and represents the long lost mid-16th century cross which stood in the Cross Cheaping until its destruction in the 18th century. It is also believed that the original cross replaced an ever earlier medieval Eleanor Cross.

The historic location of the cross is now part of Broadgate, between Primark and Cathedral Lanes.

The Coventry Society would like to Council to carry out a public consultation about the future location of the rebuilt Coventry Cross and we would like to see the historic location included in the options given to the public.