Coventry Society Annual Report 2019 – 2020

Chair’s report

It’s a strange and difficult time we find ourselves in at the moment with Covid19. I am writing my second Chairperson’s report knowing that the AGM will not happen this April. It seems that this year has flown by, it has been especially pleasurable working with the committee and all the members of the Society in my final year in office. Our new chair will be Vincent Hammersly who I am sure you will know as our current vice chair and he will be a good replacement.

I would like to thank all the committee and the sub committees members for their great help especially John Payne who has helped me greatly as secretary and also keeps the website interesting and up to date, Les Fawcett and his team for ploughing through all the planning applications each week, Peter Walters for heading up the Heritage subgroup and his team of knowledgable helpers, Terry Kenny who takes down all the minutes, and Colin Walker who said last year he was standing down as Treasurer but has worked on. Thank you, we will try and let you go this year. If I go on naming everyone it will take up all the pages. I would just like to say ‘thank you’ to you all.

I look forward to our future especially with the City of Culture next year and all the developments around heritage buildings with millions being spent. You will see in the rest of this publication all the good works we have been involved with and what the future will be. I will be Deputy Chair during the next year and still be around to help Vincent and you all.

Yours sincerely, Paul Maddocks


‘Future of Coventry’s Past’ Conference

The Coventry Society’s first Heritage Conference took place on Saturday 19th October 2019 at the Old Grammar School in Bishop Street. It was attended by representatives of more than fifty Coventry historical, preservation, amenity and local interest groups and organisations.

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Councillor Jim O’Boyle, City Council Cabinet Member for Jobs and Regeneration, gave the Keynote Address, “New City, Old Faces”, describing how many of our much-loved City Centre buildings and facades have been saved by creatively re-purposing them to be fit for the requirements of the twenty first century.

Next Ian Harrabin, Chairman of Historic Coventry Trust, gave an overview of the future of Coventry Buildings in the care of the Trust. He explained that the trust began with The Charterhouse and had expanded to include a number of other historic buildings in the City. He informed the conference that all of the buildings in the care of the Trust must be self-sustaining with any income that they generated needing to be enough to cover staff salary and maintenance etc. His presentation included an insight into plans and work being carried out to enhance and bring back into use many of our historic buildings and environments.

Cheneine Bhathena, Creative Director of the Coventry City of Culture Trust, was the last speaker before lunch and her presentation was entitled “The Role of Heritage in the City of Culture”. She introduced the theme, City of Spires, City of Industry, City of Dreams. She pointed out that 40 million people live within a two hour drive of Coventry and the aim was to inform people from all over the country, and the world, about the identity of the City and its people.

Other speakers were: Victor Riley – Riley Archive; Gabrielle Edmonds Baker – Stoney Road allotments; Iris Weir – Willenhall History Group; Victoria Northridge – Archives at the Herbert; Mike Polanyk – St John’s Church; Tim Claye – restoration of historic walled gardens in Allesley Park.


Talks and Tours

The Coventry Society has had many interesting talks and tours over the last year, here are some of them:

Meetings and Talks

September – Ben Flippance – Design Director of IDP Architects, challenged the Coventry Society to think about the impact of autonomous vehicles on the future environment.

October – Brian Stote – showed a series of images, mainly photographs, showing how Broadgate and the roads which have radiated from it have changed over time.

November – George Demidowitz renowned archaeologist and historian ‘What Lies Beneath’ a talk on the discoveries about the development of the old cathedral as a result of the 2015 excavations.

December – Peter James talked about Sydney Bunney famous Coventry artist and his watercolour drawing of old Coventry and Warwickshire views.

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January – Nigel Page talked about archaeological finds from Baginton, amazing Prehistoric, Roman and Anglo-Saxon cremation cemetery remains, before the new Jaguar Land Rover facility moves on the site.

January – Roger Bailey – ‘Aten’ the Egyptian Sun God. Pharaoh Akhenatena built the ancient city of Amarna. Was this the inspiration for Donald Gibson’s design for Coventry Precinct?

February – Aidan Ridyard Coventry’s postwar suburban Churches, focused our attention on St. Nicholas Church in Radford. Plus other example of post-war Church building in the city.

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March – Lesley Durbin talked on the subject of restoration of the Cullen Tile Mural, plus architectural tiles their conservation and restoration.

Visits and Tours

May – ‘Phoenix Walking Tour’ with Dr Eleanor Nesbit discovering part of the city centre.

June – Visit to Amazon Warehouse tour exploring this vast site on what used to be Jaguar Browns Lane, factory.

June – Civic Day tour of Post War Architecture by Paul Maddocks.

July – Tour of Earlsdon with historian Peter Walters.

August – Visit to Tamworth hosted by the Tamworth Society.

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Cllr Kingstone, Tamworth Mayor, and Paul Maddocks, Chair of the Coventry Society

September Heritage Open Days – plans for the area of Burges and a tour by Paul Maddocks

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Other Involvement

The Coventry Society has been involved with many other interesting projects –

Coventry’s Heritage Action Zone – Peter Walters and Paul Maddocks represent the Coventry Society and attend the HAZ meetings. The initiative is to unleash the power in Coventry’s historic buildings to breathe new life into old places that are rich in heritage, working with Historic Coventry and the City Council. Historic England through, the Heritage Lottery Fund, is helping to making them attractive to residents, businesses, tourists and investors. They are doing this through joint-working, grant funding and sharing their skills.

The building and places that are involved are –

Charterhouse Priory and the grounds, Historic Coventry Trust has been awarded a National Lottery Heritage Fund grant of £4.3 million to restore Charterhouse Priory and the adjoining land. Restoration work has started on the main building and wall murals.

London Road Cemetery The restoration of the Grade II* listed cemetery, its Anglican chapel and the Non-conformist chapel that the Historic Coventry Trust will be restoring. The cemetery is run by the Council’s Bereavement Services. The cemetery has many interesting buildings including the Entrance Lodge, Prospect Tower and the memorial for Sir Joseph Paxton.

Much Park St. Gate, Cook St. Gate and Swanswell Gate are the three remaining gatehouses of Coventry’s medieval times. They will provide studio units, including kitchen, bedroom and bathroom facilities accessed by new stairs etc.

Burges – One of the most prominent routes into the City centre which is now sadly neglected but still has a large number of historical buildings mainly used as shops. The River Sherbourne, that flows behind the shops in Burges, has been covered over and unseen by the public for many years. The Historic Coventry Trust is bring back the charm of the area and upgrading the shopping experience. There are plans to re-open the River as much as possible and bring in new buildings in line with those already present.

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Drapers’ Hall. Historic Coventry Trust is working in partnership with The Princes Foundation and Coventry Music Service to restore this beautiful building which will be open in time for UK City of Culture 2021. Prince Charles visited the building before work started.

St. Mary’s Guildhall The committee was able to see the progress of the major plans to make St. Mary’s Guildhall fit for the 21st Century. A total of £5.5 million is to be spent on the building. restoration of the medieval kitchen (see photo) plus conservation and showcasing of the tapestry, a City Council lead project.

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Lychgate Cottages. 3-5 Priory Row are three remarkable close-studded timber frame properties dating from around 1415 and the only upstanding buildings surviving from the 12th century St Mary’s Priory complex. Historic Coventry Trust will revive and provide much needed visitor accommodation in the lead up to City of Culture 2021.

The concept for reusing and saving old building was a Coventry Society idea many years ago when Keith Draper and David Tittle from the Society organised a conference in the Coventry University Architect’s Department. Many different people from the City Council and other organisations attended to discuss the five major empty building at the time – Old Grammar School, County Court, Drapers’ Hall, Charterhouse and Whitefriars Monastery. From this the Coventry Society launched a ‘Save the Big Five’ Campaign.

The Coventry Society is always interested in plans and projects for the future:

Abbotts Lane. The Coventry Society committee were consulted on the plans and walked the site. We welcome the proposed provision of high quality residential flats and welcome the return of a residential population into the city centre rather than just more student accommodation. There will be new access from Naul’s Mill Park into Belgrade Square with a park area under the ring road, plus the opening up the Radford Brook.

Cov. & Warwick Hospital old site development. Again the Coventry Society was consulted on the plans and pleased with the re-use of the old Nurses Home and the hexagonal out patients building, the committee had a visit there.

Old Civic Centre Two site. The Coventry Society was consulted on the Coventry University proposals and felt too much of the original old Architects and Planning Offices would be lost. We put our objection to the loss of the listed building. The city Council will make the decision based on the advice of Historic England. We now await the decision on this.

The Telegraph Hotel. The old Coventry Telegraph building is being converted to become a new boutique hotel. The Coventry Society was consulted on the plans and welcomes the proposed new hotel and attached Digital Art Gallery.

England’s Favourite Conservation Area. By a public vote and confirmation from our members ‘Hill Top’ conservation area, which includes the two Cathedrals, Holy Trinity Church, St. Mary’s Guildhall, Drapers Hall, old County Court and the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum. ‘Hill Top’, was voted the favourite. It was entered into Civic Voice’s England’s Favourite Conservation Area competition. We await the decision.

Coventry Society publication of brochures – ‘Postwar Architecture’, ‘Public Art’, and ‘Heritage’ tours are the first of many new publications for the Coventry Society which should be helpful for people who are visiting the city in 2021 UK City of Culture.

The Future

The Coventry Society is very interested to know what is going to happen to the now closed Sports Centre, Swimming Baths, Priory Visitor Centre and the Whitefriars’ Monastery. We would also like to know what is happening to the old Paris Cinema (now the Empire) which is moving to Hertford Street. Also what is happening to the Coventry Canal Basin & Spon Street (which seems to be failing)? Where will the Police Museum be located and where will the Naiad be placed? What will happen to the City Centre South Scheme re development? Where and when is the Coventry Cross to be re-erected? The Society will be following all these issues keenly and scrutinising any developments.

The committee of the Coventry Society has had various one to one meetings with different people including Cllr. McNicholas, Cllr. Jim O’Boyle, Cllr. Ed Ruane. Colin Knight, Director of Transportation & Highways, plus Carol Pyrah, Executive Director and Ian Harrabin Chair of Historic Coventry Trust and discussing many different topics which all help to keep in touch with what the future of the city could be. We also hope to have talks with people from UK City of Culture 2021 soon.

This year is the Coventry Society’s 50th anniversary 1970 – 2020. Because of the developing Covid-19 crisis, we will have some difficult decisions to make on our future programme of meetings and activities, so please look on our website for ongoing details.

Going Smokeless in Coventry

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Photo courtesy of Coventry Telegraph

It was 69 years ago that Coventry became the first UK city to go smokeless. March 1st, 1951 became ‘No Smoke Day’, heralding Coventry city centre as the UK’s first smokeless zone – and attracting national and international interest.

Coventry became the UK’s first smokeless zone in a bid to tackle smog caused by smoke from both domestic or commercial buildings burning coal. When Public Health inspector Donald Norcliffe proposed the establishment of a smokeless zone it sparked a heated debate over the logic of rebuilding the city after the War but failing to clean up its air quality.

A vociferous town meeting was held to discuss the proposition of going smoke-free and a referendum saw the motion passed, with 28,000 votes for and 11,000 against.

The need for going smokeless was highlighted tragically a year later with London’s Great Smog of 1952, when the capital was brought to a standstill.

On December 4th 1952, an anticyclone settled over London. The wind dropped and the air grew damp; a thick fog began to form. The great London smog lasted for five days and led to around four thousand more deaths than usual and 100,000 people were made ill.

Cattle in Smithfield Market were asphyxiated after breathing in the acidic smoke and a performance at Sadler’s Wells Ballet had to be abandoned because the audience couldn’t see the dancers.

The Coventry Corporation Act 1948 covered 35 acres, and outlawed the emission of any smoke from either domestic or commercial buildings. It ruled that people could only burn higher grade smokeless fuels, mainly coke. Anyone found flouting the ban risked a fine of up to £10 – equivalent to around £320 today.

Following in Coventry’s footsteps, other cities and towns, including Manchester, Preston, Wolverhampton and eventually London created smokeless zones. In 1956 the Government enacted the Clean Air Act which introduced the concept of Smokeless Zones across the country without the need for specific legislation.

The 1956 Act was superseded by the 1993 Clean Air Act which is still the relevant legislation. These days the rules are called Smoke Control Orders and the current fine for breaking the rules is up to £1000.

Today most homes and businesses in the city are heated by either gas or electricity, which is much cleaner than coal or coke. Also we have lost a lot of polluting industry from the city. However there has been a recent increase in the use of wood fires and the Government has introduced further controls on the use of un-dried wood, because of its particulate emissions.

We continue to have a serious air quality problem in the city, but these days the main cause is vehicular traffic, with Nitrogen Dioxide(NO2) and particulate matter being the main pollutants. Older engines, particularly diesels, generate particles which cause asthma and breathing difficulties. In addition, the generation of Carbon Dioxide (CO2) is a major contributor to global warming. The Council recently launched a consultation on proposals to improve the city’s traffic caused pollution.

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Photo courtesy of Coventry Telegraph

A Half Century of Earth Day

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Today, 22nd April 2020, marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. A global event in more than 193 countries.

In 1969, at a UNESCO Conference in San Francisco, peace activist John McConnell proposed a day to honour the Earth and the concept of peace, to first be celebrated on March 21, 1970, the first day of spring in the northern hemisphere. This day of nature’s equipoise was later sanctioned in a proclamation written by McConnell and signed by Secretary General U Thant at the United Nations. A month later a separate Earth Day was founded by United States Senator Gaylord Nelson as an environmental teach-in first held on April 22, 1970.

Earth Day was a unified response to an environment in crisis — oil spills, smog, rivers so polluted they literally caught fire. On April 22, 1970, 20 million Americans — 10% of the U.S. population at the time — took to the streets, college campuses and hundreds of cities to protest environmental ignorance and demand a new way forward for our planet.

The first Earth Day is credited with launching the modern environmental movement, and is now recognised as the planet’s largest civic event.

The theme for Earth Day 2020 is climate action. The enormous challenge, but also the vast opportunities of action on climate change have distinguished the issue as the most pressing topic for the 50th anniversary.

Climate change represents the biggest challenge to the future of humanity and the life-support systems that make our world habitable.

The first Earth Day in 1970 launched a wave of action, including the passage of landmark environmental laws in the United States. The Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts were created in response to the first Earth Day in 1970, as well as the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Many countries soon adopted similar laws.

Earth Day continues to hold major international significance: In 2016, the United Nations chose Earth Day as the day when the historic Paris Agreement on climate change was signed into force.

Coincidentally 22 April 1970, was the 100th anniversary of the birth of Vladimir Lenin, when translated to the Gregorian calendar (which the Soviets adopted in 1918). It was reported that some suspected the date was not a coincidence, but a clue that the event was “a Communist trick”. J Edgar Hoover, director of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, may have found the Lenin connection intriguing; it was alleged the FBI conducted surveillance at the 1970 demonstrations. Perhaps not so different to today where Extinction Rebellion is being treated as a terrorist organisation in the UK.

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The White Lion Inn, Smithford Street

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Recently revealed Tile Floor from the White Lion Inn

The White Lion Inn, Smithford Street – from murderous deeds to philanthropic endeavour

News was recently revealed that an old pub sign, made of ornamental tiles and bearing the name ‘The White Lion’, has been found by workers engaged in the refurbishment of the Upper Precinct.

The sign belonged to a pub with an interesting history – not least because in 1954 it was one of the last surviving buildings in what was once Smithford Street before being cleared away to complete the construction of Donald’s Gibson’s pioneering post-war Precinct.

Old photographs show the pub surrounded by new buildings as the new and radical plan for the city took shape. One picture shows the actual demolition of the inn, which finally put an end to Smithford Street, once a busy shopping hub of the pre-war city.

Reports suggest that the pub lost its upper storey, where staff lived, during the Blitz of 1940 which severely damaged or destroyed lots of buildings in the immediate vicinity. The pub stood on a site near the current Marks & Spencer store.

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Final days of The White Lion. Photograph above from Coventry Live, below from Historic Coventry website, courtesy of David McGrory, A Century of Coventry

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The precise age and character of the tiled mosaic pub sign is currently not public knowledge. But the city council has already promised to clean the sign and preserve it.

Councillor Jim O’Boyle, Cabinet Member for Jobs and Regeneration, has been quoted as saying: “Officers are currently working to see if we can lift the mosaic in one piece, and if we can, we want to incorporate it in some way as part of the final design for the Upper Precinct.”

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Demolition of the White Lion, 1955: photograph from Coventry Live

The White Lion itself has inevitably played a key part in the historic life of the city.

Its most notorious entry into the history books came in 1734 when a double murder took place at the pub. A man murdered his aunt, the landlady, and her daughter, but was later apprehended and eventually hanged and then gibbeted on Whitley Common.

The most detailed account of this appalling incident is given by Benjamin Poole in his The History and Antiquities of the City of Coventry (1870), which gives a graphic and shocking description:

“In January, 1734, one Thomas Wildey, a woolcomber, of this City, murdered his aunt, Susannah Wall, and Ann Shenton, her daughter, who kept the White Lion pubic house in Smithford Street, in a most inhuman manner. Wildey, knowing that his aunt had received a considerable sum of money, went to her house at one o’clock in the morning, and knocked at the door: she mistaking him for a customer, arose and opened it, upon which he immediately threw her down and cut her throat. He then went upstairs to Ann Shenton’s room, with a candle, and perceiving that she knew him, he immediately severed her head nearly from her body; he then examined a chest, out of which he took 5 shillings in half-pence, 40 shillings in silver, and about 50 guineas in gold.

“He was soon after apprehended on suspicion; at length he confessed his guilt, and was hanged in chains, on Whitley common, near this city.”

But the White Lion Inn can also claim a more savoury part in the city’s history because it once became the focal point for a huge philanthropic enterprise in Coventry.

It was here in 1854 that Joseph Levi, a businessman, formed the Coventry Philanthropic Institution, an enormously important group which played a crucial role in alleviating poverty in the city.

Levi was born in Coventry in 1797 and died in his adopted city of Liverpool in 1874 at the age of 77. He sold quills for a living and in the 1850s often met other Coventry businessmen at the White Lion Inn in Smithford Street. But Levi and his friends were frequently pestered by beggars as they entered the pub, because there was much hardship and poverty in Coventry.

Levi and his pals decided to help and came up with the idea of dropping a penny in a box every time they entered the pub, using the money to help genuine cases of distress. It is said that the first 24 people paid a penny but Joseph Levi gave two shillings and sixpence.

At the first meeting of the society there were 17 members. By the end of the year they had 150 members and had delivered 5,000 quarts of soup to the poor (about 5,680 litres) and 540 loaves.

Levi’s business took him to many different towns and cities in England and he asked his clients across the country “to assist the deserving poor of his native city”. Soon cash was coming in from London, Manchester, Liverpool and Sheffield, among other places.

Coventry’s leading industries, silk ribbon weaving and clock or watchmaking, suffered a severe economic decline after 1860 and the needs of the poor became ever greater. There was much unemployment and poverty.

Several other charitable groups were formed, inspired by Levi’s example, and soon there were eight philanthropic societies in the city with thousands of members, including the original Coventry Society.

Originally, members donated five shillings a year (worth about £10 now) and they collected donations from workmates and neighbours. They raised more funds by organising dances, football matches and other events, and took part in the annual Lady Godiva pageants.

These societies continued their work for almost 100 years, until the modern Welfare State was established after the Second World War. Such work, absolutely essential for so many years, was a lasting tribute to the initial generosity of those regulars at the White Lion Inn, led by Joseph Levi.

The work of these philanthropic societies was commemorated in 1934 when the Joseph Levi Memorial Clock was erected at Stoke Green.

The clock eventually fell into disrepair but in recent years local residents, with the help of Coventry City Council and the Heritage Lottery Fund, managed to restore the clock which now stands as a magnificent landmark structure at the junction of Stoke Green and Binley Road.

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The restored Joseph Levi Clock

The newly restored Joseph Levi Clockwas unveiled at its current location in March 2016.

John Marshall
Stoke Local History Group and CovSoc Member

Postscript

The White Lion building that was finally demolished in 1955, with its distinctive mock-Tudor frontage, appears to have been first constructed in 1921. It replaced an older building of the same name, on the same site, which would have been the meeting place of Joseph Levi and his friends. JM

Profile of our new Chair – Vincent Hammersley

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On Monday 20th April 2020, what would have been the date of our AGM, a new person takes on the leadership of the Coventry Society. Our existing Chair, Paul Maddocks, stands down and becomes Deputy Chair and our existing Vice Chair, Vincent Hammersley takes on the mantle of Chair.

Vincent was born in Coventry in 1950 and attended Frederick Bird, Holy Family and Bishop Ulathorne Grammar School. This was followed By Wolverhampton Polytechnic and Warwick Business School. Vince worked in the Motor industry as Corporate Communications Manager and finally as Director of Communications and press relations at Warwick Business School.

Vince says “I am interested in archaeology and the history of Coventry, particularly with reference to the contribution made by this City since the 17th century, particularly the bravery, resilience and innovation shown by Coventrians during two World wars and the rebuilding of the City after WW2.

“I am also interested in researching and promoting the work and achievements of the many artists who have worked in Coventry whose work, in many cases has been overlooked, undervalued and in some cases largely forgotten.

“The post war regeneration of Coventry was an incredible effort, but the City architects displayed a real vision and a desire to rebuild a city that would work for the citizens of Coventry. The work of the architects attracted interest and acclaim from around the World and I know that us young kids at the time, watching the City being rebuilt were very proud that we were from Coventry, this shining example of modern innovative and people friendly design.

“Heritage is something which we inherit from the past and Coventry has so much to offer from significant medieval remains from St Catherine’s Well to the Old Cathedral to the finest example of a post war city centre in the World. Legacy is what we leave behind us for future generations and I am unclear just how proud we should be of many of the recent developments in our City.”

St. Nicholas Church, Radford – soon to be demolished!

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In his talk to the Coventry Society in February 2020, architect Aidan Ridyard, focused our attention on St. Nicholas Church in Radford. It is an interesting example of post-war Church building in the city and has been referred to by Pevsner and in the book “Sixty Postwar Churches” published by the Incorporated Church Building Society.

The Church was designed by Lavender, Twentyman and Percy and was completed between 1955-57. The building was locally listed in 1992. The description below is taken from the Coventry Historic Environment Record.

The previous church of St. Nicholas was of red sandstone, designed in 1874 in the Early English style by G. Taylor of Coventry. It stood on a site further to the north of the churchyard and was destroyed by bombing during the blitz on 14th November 1940.

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A landmine, a large metal box suspended by a parachute, descended slowly and silently, exploding above ground with a deafening roar, flattening the church. Just one course of stones was left standing.

The new church was built close to the site during 1955-57. The brief for the new church was to accommodate 436, including a choir of 48 with a Lady Chapel to seat 54. The design brief called for an unobstructed view of the alter for all the congregation and so the choir was made the same width as the nave.

The commission was awarded to Lavender, Twentyman and Percy with R.H. Fellows as executant architect. The foundation stone was laid in 1953 and building work continued over the period 1954-5. The church was built for a sum of almost £31,000.

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A church hall connected to the south of the building was planned from the start, but erected at a slightly later date. Its proposed stage and dressing rooms were never built.

The orientation of the church is north-east to south-west, with ritual east being south-west. Ritual compass directions are used throughout this description. The building is constructed around rigid, reinforced concrete portal frames with splayed legs. These are set at intervals of 12ft and give the building the appearance of an aircraft hangar, as Pevsner noted.

The walls are of concrete membrane, faced externally with buff yellow brick, which divides the structure into bays and gives the impression of buttresses. The frames also support the curved roof of shell concrete which is covered externally with copper sheeting. Flat roofs above the north aisle and vestibule/narthex have been re-clad with corrugated metal roofs.

Other materials used included Westmorland green slate panels and window surrounds to the exterior of the chancel and around the eastern entrance, and Doulting stone cladding attached with bronze clamps to the ritual east end. Cast stone was used for the window surrounds on the nave and other dressings.

The plan consists of a nave and choir with chancel, all set under one continuous roof. The north aisle has a baptistery to its western end including the sandstone font set from the former church, and a Lady Chapel with altar to the east. The equivalent space to the south is screened off from the nave and forms a long vestibule which connects the entrance lobby and the bell tower, which are both set at its east end, to the church hall as well as to lavatories and a kitchen at its western end.

To the north-east of the church is a projecting wing which contains three separate vestries for the choir, servers and clergy as well as a lavatory.

The eastern gable end of the building has inscribed diamond patterns and a large cross to the upper body of Doulting stone. To the left of this is the entrance lobby, approached by a flight of steps and with ribbed wooden doors set in a flared surround of cast stone against a background walling of green slate.

To left again is the tower, which has a tapered outline and a copper cap. The tower contains the flue from the boiler room and two bells set in a rectangular opening with rounded corners. To its lower body on the west side are steps leading to the basement boiler room and on the south side, below a stone cross, is a carved stone plaque showing St. Nicholas calming the storm.

The western end has double doors with a cast stone surround, but otherwise the walling is of buff bricks laid in Sussex bond with a cross of raised bricks to the top. To either side are dressings of cast stone which mark the juncture with the tumbled brick to the flanking walls of the nave. The north and south sides of the nave are abutted to their lower bodies by the north aisle and narthex. These both have plinths of buff bricks but panels of red brickwork above replacing the original full-height glazing with two-light casements of safety glass. Above these are set the seven bays of the nave clerestory windows, each of three over two large panes. The western-most bay is blank. To each side of the chancel is a grid of windows formed of five bays set at four levels and divided by brick mullions and Westmorland slate transoms.

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Although the nave and chancel are externally of the same width they are differentiated internally by a concrete vault to the chancel, set with rows of recessed lights to either side and a very slight thickening of the walls. The concrete of the walls and frame is softened by the extensive use of wood to the interior. This includes block flooring throughout the building.

The tunnel vault of the nave is lined with strips of African Walnut and the east wall of the chancel is panelled in block board veneered in Walnut overlaid with raised diamond-shaped panels in grey Sycamore. The cross to the upper body of the wall is of solid walnut. Wooden screens are set behind the font on the west wall of the north aisle and to the west end of the vestibule. These are ribbed, as is the pulpit which is set on a concrete base and has projecting fins to its circular body.

The choir stalls, alter rails and organ console are all original, purpose-designed for the church and also of wood. The octagonal font, salvaged from the Victorian church, is of sandstone with recessed panels to the bowl and has a new cover, made in the 1950s, of mahogany, sycamore and brass.

The distinctive light fittings along both sides of the nave were adapted, according to the Architects’ Journal of 1957, which says ‘the architect selected a standard fitting to which was added a polished copper tube to form a cantilever arm to house the wiring, whilst additional support was considered necessary and provided by piano wire stretched from the fitting to a fixing on the ceiling above. The bowl of the fitting is of a highly-polished and lacquered copper with translucent glass cut-out set within its base’.

The Church is currently vacant and boarded up and the congregation use the adjoining Church Hall for worship. It is said that the building is suffering from “concrete cancer”, the damage possibly due to the sloping walls being constantly wet from rain. Coventry Diocese has recently given the go-ahead for demolition.

The Coventry Society is disappointed to hear of the demolition of another important post-war building in the city. However we understand the pressure to do this, considering the cost of repairing it. We wonder whether retaining the tower might be a suitable compromise.

We would welcome your views on this.

The Knights Templar

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One of our planned Summer visits was to Temple Balsall in Solihull to learn something of the Knights Templar and their connection with the area. Sadly, because of the ongoing situation, the visit had to be cancelled, or at least postponed until 2021. However, members might like to know something of this ancient and sometimes mysterious order.

Who were the knights Templar? To give them their full name they were ‘The Poor Fellow Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon’, a Catholic military order (not to be confused with either the Knights Hospitaller of St. John or the Teutonic Order of Knights which existed about the same time). They were founded by Hughes de Payens in 1119. Their patron and supporter was Bernard of Clairvaux (later St. Bernard of dog fame). St. Bernard founded the Cistercian Order and indeed the Knights Templar were organised as a monastic order similar to the Cistercians.

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Emblem of the Knight’s Templar

In the C12th Christian forces held Jerusalem and the Holy Lands. Pilgrims from the Christian world were keen to visit the sites associated with Christ but, when making their way through territory under Muslim rule, they were subject to marauders and highwaymen, who stripped them of their valuables and often ended up killing them.

Hughes de Payens approached Baldwin II, King of Jerusalem with a plan to protect the pilgrims. This was accepted and de Payens established his headquarters in a wing of the King’s palace on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Hughes de Payens gathered a small force of Knights together to escort the pilgrims on their way. One of the ways in which they aided the pilgrims and make them less attractive to attackers, was to allow those setting out to deposit their valuables with the Knights Templars, receive a promissory note which they could exchange for an equivalent sum when they reached their destination. Thus an early form of banking was established.

So successful was the enterprise that the order came to be recognised throughout Christendom and eventually Pope Innocent III endorsed them with the issue of a Papal Bull in 1139. This Bull exempted the Knights from obedience to local laws so that they paid no taxes to individual states and were subject only to the authority of the Pope himself. In effect they became one of the first multinational organisations.

As a charity they became much favoured wherever they had a presence, building up an economic infrastructure as their wealth grew. They bought and managed farms and vineyards, built cathedrals and castles and were involved in manufacture, importing and exporting goods. They ran a fleet of ships and at one time owned the island of Cyprus.

At the height of their power they had nearly 1000 Commanderies and fortifications covering Europe and the Holy Land. They were also a fighting order, taking part in Crusades with their distinctive red crosses embossed on white mantles. Their greatest feat was at the Battle of Montgisard in 1177 when 500 Knights Templar helped to defeat the 26,000 strong army of Saladin.

At its peak it is thought the organisation may have consisted of up to 20,000 men. However, 90% of the Order consisted of non-combatants who managed the vast holdings on its behalf. The other 10% were the Knights who were in the frontline. There were three main ranks in the Knights Templar, the Noble Knights, the fighters and the Non-Noble Sergeants who brought vital skills to the organisation such as blacksmiths, builders and administrators but who could also fight alongside the knights if the need arose. Finally there were the Chaplains who cared for the spiritual needs of the Knights.

Anyone who wanted to be a Knight had to be one already as the order did not create its own. Each province of the Order, usually a specific country, was run by a Master of the Order. They were subject to the Grand Master who oversaw military matters in the East and financial holdings in the West. The Grand Master appointed the Visitors-General of the Order who had the power to remove Knights from office and to suspend the Master of the Province concerned. Indeed they wielded considerable power to intervene if they thought malpractices had occurred. One post reserved for a Sergeant was that of Commander of the Vault of Acre, in effect the commander of the fleet.

When the Order began to decline, particularly after the Battle of Hattin in 1187, the Knights Templar began to lose ground in the Holy Land and after the conquest of Jerusalem by the Muslims, they set up their headquarters in Acre were they remained for a century until 1291. After that they had to retreat to Limassol in Cyprus.

As their influence waned and the Christian states were no longer occupied by Crusades to the Holy Lands, nationalist forces in various European states grew and became resentful of the power, wealth and privileged position of the Order, which was, of course, not subject to any national laws. Rumours began to spread about secret initiation rites and tales of corruption. Philip IV of France, who was deeply in debt to the Knights and reluctant to repay them, saw this fall in their prestige as an opportunity. In 1307 he ordered the arrest of the Knights in his Kingdom and had them tortured to make them confess to their wrongdoings, confessions that were used in their subsequent trials.

He pressured the Pope, Clement V to disband the Order. Although the Pope initially tried to reach some kind of compromise, he was in a difficult position. He was a kinsman of the King and this was a time when the Popes were resident in Avignon, so prey to pressure from the French King. Finally in 1312 the Pope gave way and issued a Papal Bull permanently suppressing the Order. As a result its last Grand Master, Jacques de Molay was burned at the stake. The various possessions, lands and buildings were handed over to the Knights Hospitallers of St. John in France and England. In Arragon and Castile and in Portugal this was not done. Indeed in Portugal, the King, Denis I, treated the Knights sympathetically, allowing them to retain their holdings but eventually persuading them to combine with the Knights Hospitallers.

What then is the connection with Temple Balsall? The Knights Templar farmed 650 acres in the area and built the Church [C13th] and the Balsall Preceptory which was occupied by a group of monks of the Order who ran the farm. Following the suppression of the Order, the property was handed over to the Knights Hospitaller who remained there until Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries.

The land then became the property of the crown. Elizabeth I gave the property to Robert Dudley and it passed through him to his granddaughter Lady Katharine Levinson. On her death in 1674 she bequeathed endowments for the Almshouses, built in the C17th, the Church and the Lady Levinson school. The Old Hall, the former headquarters of the resident monks/Knights, along with the Church and the Almshouses still survive.

Connections with the Knights Templar abound throughout England today and this can be recognised in the Inns of Court in London with the Inner and Middle Temples, to St. Michael’s Mount in Cornwall, Temple Sowerby in Cumbria and Temple Cowton in North Yorkshire to name only a few. Look out for locations with the name Temple or a Preceptory building, the Knights Templar were there.

Terry Kenny, Coventry Society Committee Member