Coventry’s War Memorial Park – the Story!

As preparations continue on events to mark the centenary of Coventry’s War Memorial Park in July 2021, Peter Walters looks back at the beginnings of the park, one hundred years ago…

On 4th December 1919, the Mayor of Coventry, Councillor Joseph Innes Bates, formally launched a public subscription appeal to create a new park for the city.

Earlier in the year a Town Meeting had been convened to decide how Coventry was going to remember the 2600 men it had lost in the Great War – and the idea of a memorial park was born.

The site identified was roughly 120 acres of open farmland running alongside the old Kenilworth Road, described as a ‘well-wooded and beautiful piece of land’ close to what were already many Coventrians’ favourite country walks.

Another 62 acres of ancient woodland, known as Styvechale Common and flanking the farmland on two sides, was to be incorporated, with full public rights to it restored.

At the time, Coventry’s largest park was just 23 acres in size and its sports facilities, for a city growing rapidly in population, were woefully inadequate.

The main area of the new park would be taken up with playing fields, with space too for flower and agricultural shows and for meetings. There would be children’s playgrounds and formal gardens for older folk, and an open air bath, if funds permitted. Old cattle ponds in the fields would be turned into a rock garden.

It had not yet been decided what shape the war memorial would take, but the plan was that an old medieval track, which wandered across the farmland, would form the divide between the formal and sports areas of the park.

The owner of the land, and the manorial rights, the Hon. Alexander Frederick Gregory of nearby Styvechale Hall, agreed to give the city council first option on purchasing it for £31,000, and it was estimated that it might cost another £19,000 to fence, drain and lay out the park, taking the total cost to £50,000.

The immediate priority, however, was to raise the purchase price as Gregory’s option expired on 23rd December. He had himself pledged to return £2000 of the purchase price as a donation.

At the formal launch, the Mayor revealed that he already had pledges of more than £22,000 from just under 140 residents, out of a total population of 135,000. He declared that a War Memorial Week would run from 14th December to raise the rest of the money.

Once that had been achieved, preparations began for a grand opening ceremony, to be held on Saturday, 9th July 1921.

June 1921 had been the driest for a century and the weather was still blazing hot on opening day as the official ceremonies began with a procession from the Barracks Square out to the site, led by city councillors wearing their robes, black ties and white gloves.

The official launch, performed by the Mayor, Councillor William Henry Grant, and the Bishop of Coventry, Huyshe Yeatman-Biggs, was surprisingly perfunctory, but the festivities were on a grand scale.

It was estimated that more than 20,000 people were there to witness the opening of the new park. More than 3000 children took part in a choral concert, there was folk dancing, relay races for youngsters, a physical culture display and later, dancing to the Vauxhall Brass Band.

The park, of course, was still just farmland. The path layout was agreed with the city council the following year and in 1923 it was determined that the main entrance should be at The Grove, where the Kenilworth and Leamington Roads divided. Its ornamental gates should be mounted on pillars of stone from the medieval city wall. Work on the pavilion began in 1924 and tree-planting the following year.

It wasn’t until 1927 that work on the War Memorial itself, an art deco design in concrete, faced with Portland stone, by Coventry architect Thomas Francis Tickner, was completed. A workforce of around 60 unemployed men built it, under the direction of prominent Coventry builder John Gray.
It was inaugurated on 8 October 1927 by Earl Haig, in the presence of Coventry’s only VC winner, Arthur Hutt, and a Mrs Eliza Bench from Foleshill, who had sacrificed four sons to the war.

Arthur Hutt VC

Carrot Gate – The Coventry Connection!

Warning this article contains fake news!

Photo – Smithsonian Magazine

Fake news isn’t actually a new concept. During the Second World War both sides used it intensively.

For an effective fake news campaign you need a number of different elements. Firstly a secret that needs covering-up, secondly an all action hero that people will “follow”, thirdly a plausible story to explain things and fourthly some public good to come out of it all.

During this month of the commemoration of the 80th Anniversary of the Coventry Blitz, our thoughts go to the fighter pilots who took on the thousands of enemy planes on their night time raids. Fighting at night is very challenging. But it was not just the pilots who were involved, there was an infrastructure of support teams, controllers and supply lines that kept the fighters in the air and beyond that a team of scientists and engineers who were developing the weapons needed to fight the enemy.

In 1939 those scientists had developed an early form of radar that was able to pinpoint enemy bombers before they reached the English Channel. This secret technology was known as on-board Airborne Interception Radar (A1). This was the secret that the Government wanted to hide.

Step forward the All Action Hero – John ‘Cats Eyes’ Cunningham! Or to give him his proper title Wing Commander John Cunningham CBE, DSO & Two Bars, DFC & Bar, AE. He lived from 27 July 1917 – 21 July 2002. In September 1940 he was promoted to Squadron Leader of a specialist night fighter unit with converted Bristol Beaufighters that included the new AI equipment.

Bristol Beaufighter: World War Photos

Eighty years ago, on the night of the 19 November 1940, Cunningham claimed his first victory using the new technology. The first German aircraft he brought down was a Luftwaffe – Junkers JU88. Flying from his base at RAF Middle Wallop in Hampshire he was sent to intercept bombers on their way to bomb Birmingham. Only a few nights before they had bombed Coventry but not one bomber was brought down.

This time with radar he was able to track down a bomber and getting under the aircraft he was able to get in closer and hit the Junkers with all four cannons. The plane came down in Wittering, Cambridgeshire.

By the end of the War “Cats Eyes” had twenty “kills” to his name, nineteen of them at night.

To cover up the reason for this success the Ministry put into place a misinformation campaign, claiming that the pilot got his superpowers from eating carrots. Whilst this was not true it did have a strong element of plausibility.

Carrots are rich in Beta-carotene which is an essential precursor for vitamin A, and without it, it can lead to cataracts, muscular degeneration and xerophthalmia – dry eyes, swollen eyelids and corneal ulcers. So carrots help to protect vision, but there is no evidence that eating more will improve your eyesight or that quote ‘Carrots help you see in the dark’. At that time there was a nightly black-out so people wanted to be able to see in the dark better!

Photo – Smithsonian Magazine

The carrot campaign was heavily promoted in Britain, with a lot of spin off benefits. Carrots are easy to grow and eating fresh vegetables is beneficial for health. At a time of sugar rationing a carrot on a stick was even marketed as the modern version of an ice lolly.

Photo – Smithsonian Magazine

It is not known whether the Germans believed any of this propaganda, but the English certainly did and there was a community benefit from this mis-information campaign.

…. and the Coventry connection? John Cunningham’s mother came from Coventry. Born Evelyn Mary Spencer, she was a member of a family that owned an engineering company in Coventry which supplied heavy machinery to the fabric and textiles company Courtaulds. Her grandfather was Mayor of Coventry in the 1920s.

Queen’s visit to Working Men’s Club is Catalyst for Transport Museum

Our Deputy Chair, Paul Maddocks, tells us the back-story about the Transport Museum, which celebrates its 40th birthday this year. Paul writes….

In 1977 it was the Queen’s Silver Jubilee and everyone was encouraged to join in the celebrations.

Coventry Working Men’s Club in Cox Street, Coventry, had just opened their re-built new club and asked if the Queen would like to visit?

This must have caught the imagination of the staff at Buckingham Palace and the Queen accepted the invitation. It would be the first time the Queen would set foot into a Working Men’s club.

But it would be the only visit to Coventry that was planned for that year. When the Lord Mayor, Councillor Ralph Clews, found out what was planned he wanted to be part of it and to meet the Queen. He wanted Coventry to give her a good welcome and for him to give her a present that was truly representative of the city.

Cllr. Clews called a group of council officers, who he thought might have some good ideas, to a meeting in his office. One of the officers was Peter Mitchell, Keeper of Industry at the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum. At the meeting Peter Mitchell suggested that a special leather bound book of Coventry’s Motoring Heritage should be presented to the Queen by the Lord Major.

In addition all the vehicles in the book should be on display in the city on that day. His idea was that the Royal car and convoy would go on a route past the Council house then into Bayley Lane and past the New Cathedral.

Opposite the Cathedral would be a line of 50 vintage vehicles from the Museum’s collection. The Royal car was to travel slowly, so that the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh could see both the Cathedral on one side and the line of old vehicles on the other. Afterwards the Royal car would go down Priory Street, turn right into Fairfax Street and then right into Cox Street to the Club.

The Queen and Prince Philip at the Cox Street Club

 The Lord Major liked the idea and gave the go-ahead. However the problem was that the Queen was due to visit in only six weeks time! This problem was left for Peter Mitchell to sort out.

I first met Peter when he joined the Herbert Museum in the mid 1960’s. He had moved from the London Science Museum to take over looking after Coventry’s collection of industrial items. But he had a problem and that was that nearly all his collection was in store and no one knew about it, with the exception of just a few cars and cycles in the Herbert Museum main gallery.

He was a very enthusiastic and persuasive man. It seemed like he hovered two inches above the ground, always very busy but infectious with his ideas and vision. He came to the Art College and asked us students if we would like to draw some of the items in the collection?

There were only eight of us on the Technical illustration course but we were all very keen. The industrial collection was not far away in an old ribbon weaving factory in Much Park Street, known as ‘Franklin and Sons. The offices faced onto Much Park Street through a wooden gate and arch into a cobbled courtyard and standing there was the wonderful ribbon factory just like the one by the Priory Ruins (now Nando’s). Inside this factory was an amazing collection of everything you could think of – weaving looms, cars, motorcycles, bicycles, sewing machines, telephones, radios, engines and machinery of all sorts – a true Aladdin’s Cave!

Not long after this photograph was taken most of the street was knocked down and the museum collection in the Franklin building was moved to an industrial estate in Till Hill.

So when Peter came with his idea of writing a book, having it printed and bound all in six weeks and to be self-financing it was a proper challenge. A special plan had to be developed as a one off book would cost a fortune. The idea was to produce a fact sheet for each of the 50 vehicles. The fact sheet would have two sides; on each sheet would be a space for a colour postcard of the vehicle which would be pasted into a space, a bit like a stamp album. So the book contained 50 pages, each on a different vehicle starting from the 1897 Daimler and ending with a 1976 ‘E’ type Jaguar.

The book had other pages: an introduction, note from the Lord Major and other information. A total of 500 copies were printed. In addition a large number of colour postcards were printed to sell separately to help keep the overall cost down. After taking one sheet each to make up the Queen’s book the rest of the sheets had holes punched in the side and were put into a clip folder which was sold to the general public.

We had to take each vehicle out of store, clean it and photograph it so that the colour postcards could be made for them. I had to draw interesting features from each vehicle and each sheet had a copy of the vehicles badge which I also had to draw.

The job was a rush but it was all completed in time for the Royal Visit. The fifty vehicles lined up opposite the Cathedral caused quite a lot of interest as they were put out very early in the morning and there was plenty of time for people to see them while waiting for the Queen’s visit.

It did catch the eye of the Coventry and Warwickshire Chamber of Commerce who said that they did not realise that the Herbert Museum had so many vehicles. When they were told that it was only half of the collection, they were really surprised and suggested they could help and open a special museum for the collection.

So over the next few years the Chamber of Commerce members raised a lot of money for a building in the city centre. One was found; the building that used to be the steel fabrication part of Matterson’s, Huxley & Watson’s and it was at the back of the Coventry Theatre in Cook Street.

A dodgy business plan was written that said if the museum was to charge for admission it could be self-funding! This was based on a few facts like the Coventry Cathedral was having around two million visitors a year. If the new Transport Museum was to get just 5% of that number it would still get around 75,000 to 100,000 visitors a year. What had not been taken into account was the fact that visitors to the Cathedral did not pay to get in and most were only visiting for an hour before moving on to Warwick and Stratford. 

Work started on restoring the Cook Street building and making ready the new museum to be opened in 1980. Things got difficult and Peter Mitchell was offered a better job working for British Leyland Heritage to set up a new Museum for them and their collection of vehicles. This later became the British Motor Industry Heritage Trust and the British Motor Museum at Gaydon. Peter left about a year before the Transport Museum opened.

It was fortunate that Barry Littlewood the Administrator of the Libraries, Arts and Museum Department was able to take over from Peter. Barry turned out to be the best boss I ever worked with. He gave me support and flexibility and in return I worked evenings and weekends constantly.

It was not all plain sailing. The City Council Committee for Libraries, Arts and Museums who were responsible for the museum had a problem with the Museum’s name. They felt that people would think the museum would only display Coventry Transport items like buses! City Councillors were used to Coventry Transport being about public transport and you know what it’s like working with a committee – it can be very difficult stopping them from over-thinking everything.

The Committee wanted a name that told you what the museum was about. So some Member said the collection does not have any boats, planes or trains so you cannot call it the “transport museum” on its own. So ‘road’ had to be added. Some transport museum had foreign vehicles and Coventry had mainly Coventry made and British made vehicles so ‘British’ was added. The name they came up with was ‘Museum of British Road Transport, Coventry’.

We tried to get them to change it to Museum of Transport of the Road so the anagram would spell out ‘MOTOR’. But the Committee got their way. Next the Committee picked an admission price for the Museum. They found out that London Transport Museum that had just moved to Covent Garden and was charging a £1 for adults 50p for children and the National Transport Museum at Beaulieu were charging £1.20 for adults and 60p for children. Don’t forget this was 1980.

The Committee did not take into account that the Glasgow Transport Museum and the Birmingham Industrial Museum were free. The Coventry price was going to be £1.10p for adults and 55p for children. We asked them to lower it; Coventry is not London and people are not used to paying to get into museums. But they were not moved.

Me in the museum just before it opened in 1980, in front of each vehicle was the two fact sheet pages from the Queen’s book.

The next headache was we wanted a famous person to open the museum to get as much publicity as we could, but the Committee said it should be the Lord Major. The Museum was going to be opened on the first Saturday in September. So the opportunity of getting visitors over the summer holidays was missed because the councillors wanted to be at the opening but they would be on holiday so things had to be put back.

Posters had been printed, then the Lord Major said he would not be able to make that Saturday so it was quickly changed it to Sunday afternoon. You can imagine what a damp squib the Museum’s opening was like.

To begin with the Transport Museum was not a big success. People did not flock to its doors because they could not find them, hidden as they were on Cook Street, and the admission price put them off. The manager of the De Vere Hotel said American visitor would love to come and visit but they would not walk up Chantry Place or around the back by the Parson’s Nose chip shop, both dark and dirty narrow accesses to Cook Street. It was not until 1986 when a new entrance was opened onto Hales Street did thing started to pick up.

But it was great that it was all came out of the Queen’s visit to a Working Men’s Club. Sadly the club is now closed and gone and there are no old style working men’s clubs left in the city centre.  However the vehicles created by those working men are still on display in the Coventry Transport Museum which is still going from strength to strength. We finally got the name we wanted and the free museum entrance in 1998.

Paul Maddocks, Deputy Chair of the Coventry Society

Since this article was written, charges have been re-introduced for access to the Transport Museum. The current charges are: Adults £14, Concession (Senior & students) £10.50p, Junior (5-16 years) £7. Children 4 years or under free. Family Ticket (2 adults + 2 children) £35 or Small family (1 adult 3 children) £28. If you live in the city and have a ‘Go CV’ card you can get in for free.

Skating in the Cathedral

Coventry’s Cathedral ruins are to be transformed into a winter wonderland for the first time, creating one of the most spectacular festive ice-skating rinks in the UK.

​The magical new ice rink will see people in Coventry come together safely and have some winter fun when ‘Coventry Glides’ is launched at the Coventry Cathedral Ruins after the “lock-down” ends from 4th December to 10th January.

The ice-skating rink, which is the first event to be announced as part of Coventry City of Culture Trust’s winter programme for 2020, has been created in partnership with Coventry Business Improvement District (BID), Coventry Cathedral and with support from Coventry City Council

It will be open daily (excluding Christmas Day), with socially-distanced skating sessions held from morning to evening.

A number of Covid safety measures will be put in place to ensure guests can stay safe and still have fun, including timed slots for skaters, reduced skater capacity, mandatory facemasks for all skaters – except for those who are exempt – and cleaning in between skating session.

Tickets go on sale today and are priced from £5. You can purchase tickerts from the Trust’s website.

Holy Trinity Receives Heritage Grant

Holy Trinity Church in Broadgate has received a grant of £65,530 from the Government’s Culture Recovery Fund for Heritage.

This funding of over sixty five thousand pounds will help Holy Trinity carry out urgent repairs to stonework around the building. Originally identified as urgent by Architects in 2017, these repairs had to be put on hold when a significant Death Watch Beetle attack had to be dealt with in the Nave roof.

Holy Trinityis one of 445 heritage organisations across the country that will share £103 million, to help restart vital reconstruction work and maintenance on cherished heritage sites, keeping venues open and supporting those working in the sector.

The Revd. Graeme Anderson, Vicar of Holy Trinity, said “This grant of £65,350 is truly wonderful. We can now carry out urgently needed work to repair our stonework and keep the church building safe from wind and rain and even more importantly keep our congregations and visitors safe from any danger of falling masonry.

“Our beautiful church has provided a place of peace and prayer for the people of Coventry for a thousand years and through the generosity of our many volunteers and grant funding bodies, we pray that it will continue to be a place of peace and prayer for another thousand years.”

Holy Trinity Church is known to date back to 1113. Its beginnings are tied in to the history of the Benedictine Priory of St Mary which was associated with Earl Leofric and Lady Godiva. The church appears to have originally been established next door to the Priory to act as a “side chapel” to the priory church and for the use of the priory’s tenants.