George Eliot Bi-Centenary – but not in Coventry!

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As the world celebrates the bi-centenary of the birth of famous novelist George Eliot, the city where she lived and developed her character and critical thinking has not engaged in this at all. This is very disappointing in a city aspiring to be a “city of culture”.

George Eliot was born as Mary Ann Evans on 22 November 1819 in Nuneaton. She was the third child of Robert Evans and Christiana Evans, the daughter of a local mill-owner. Her father was the Land Agent for the Arbury Hall Estate and Mary Ann was born on the estate at South Farm.

In early 1820 the family moved to a house named Griff House, between Nuneaton and Bedworth. It is now a Beefeater restaurant and Premier Inn. She went to school locally but between the ages of thirteen to sixteen she attended Miss Franklin’s school in Coventry, located on Warwick Row.

At the age of 21 she and her father moved to Coventry to Bird Grove in Foleshill. Her father was a sidesman at the nearby St. Paul’s Church. The closeness to Coventry society brought new influences, most notably those of Charles and Cara Bray.

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Charles Bray had become rich as a ribbon manufacturer and had used his wealth in the building of schools and in other philanthropic causes. Evans, who had been struggling with religious doubts for some time, became intimate friends with the radical, free-thinking Brays, whose “Rosehill” home was a haven for people who held and debated radical views.

The people whom the young woman met at the Brays’ house included Robert Owen, Herbert Spencer, Harriet Martineau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Through this society Evans was introduced to more liberal and agnostic theologies and to writers such as David Strauss and Ludwig Feuerbach, who cast doubt on the literal truth of Biblical stories.

In fact, her first major literary work was an English translation of Strauss’s The Life of Jesus (1846), which she completed after it had been left incomplete by another member of the “Rosehill Circle”; later she translated Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity (1854). As a product of their friendship, Bray published some of Evans’s earliest writing, such as reviews, in his newspaper the Coventry Herald and Observer.

Mary Ann stayed in Coventry until she was 30 in 1849 when her father died. After a stay in Switzerland she returned to England to live in London, now becoming known as Marian Evans and taking a job as Assistant Editor of the Westminster Review, a radical journal owned by one of her contacts at Rosehill.

Marian was determined to become a novelist and took the name George Eliot to disguise her identify, as being female was not a passport to serious literary success at that time. Her first writings under the name George Eliot were “Scenes of Clerical Life” published in 1858 and her first complete novel, Adam Bede was published in 1859. She subsequently published six further novels including Mill on the Floss, Silas Marner and Middlemarch.

Middlemarch, a Study in Provincial life, was published in 1872. It describes life in a fictitious Midland town, which is certainly based on Coventry. The weaving village of Tipton is said to have been modelled on Foleshill.

George Eliot died on 22 December 1880 at the age of 61 and is buried in Highgate Cemetery.

George Eliot’s Coventry home, Bird Grove House, still exists in Foleshill but is closed down and boarded up. It is a Grade II* listed building. There is no notice board or plaque showing the significance of the building, a previous plaque being removed by the last occupiers. Despite this it is a building of international significance and you can only imagine the bewilderment of Japanese and American visitors coming to see the building and finding it in the condition it is in.

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The building was previously run as a Bangladeshi Education Centre which fell on hard times and closed. The building is still owned by the charitable trust that ran the building (Coventry Bangladesh Centre Limited), which includes a City Councillor as one of its trustees.

In 2017 the Chairman of the George Eliot Fellowship wrote an open letter to the City asking for it to consider utilising the building as part of City of Culture 2021. The campaign was supported by the Coventry Society and taken up by the Coventry Observer who are campaigning for the building to be opened up to become an international visitors’ centre and cultural resource for generations of future Coventrians. This campaign has been backed by a wide range of national celebrities including Kenilworth screenwriter Andrew Davies who was inspired by George Eliot’s books.

Despite all this campaigning, there has been no change in the status of Bird Grove House and the 2019 bi-centenary of the birth of George Eliot is now upon us. The George Eliot Fellowship has co-ordinated a wide range of events to celebrate this anniversary. Unfortunately only two out of 22 events are being held in Coventry.

It is perhaps disappointing that in a city aspiring to be a city of culture that there is so little attention given to one of its most important literary characters. Stratford has managed to create a multi-million pound industry celebrating the Bard and even tiny Nuneaton has managed to create a George Eliot “industry”, most recently with a half hour Radio 4 appearance on Open Country. But Coventry, the city where she developed her personality and character appears to have turned a blind eye to one of the country’s greatest novelists and a feminist hero.

 

A Tale of Two Streets Hits the Road

Tale of Two Streets
Niall McDiarmid. Far Gosford Street

Our friends at Photo Archive Miners launched their first major citywide exhibition on Wednesday as part of Coventry’s Great Place Scheme for the build up to City of Culture 2021.

“Tale of Two Streets presents the people and places of Coventry, asking you to be curious about who we are as a city and to join a conversation about who we should become.”

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Launch of Tale of Two Streets Exhibition – 1/5/2019

The two streets in question are Far Gosford Street and Foleshill Road.

During 2018 nationally famous street artist, Niall McDiarmid, photographed the people of Far Gosford Street. In parallel a team of ten graduates of the photography course at Coventry University immersed themselves in life along the Foleshill Road.

The brief for both elements was the exploration of Private Spaces / Public Spaces and Private Lives / Public Lives.

The exhibition is displayed at eight locations around the city between 1st May and 2nd June 2019. They form a trail around the city.

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Photo Archive Miners is a Community Interest Company founded in 2016. Its role is “to work with public and institutions to re-purpose photographic collections to create new stories about people and place.” There is more about them on their website here.

Big Plans for the Cathedral

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In March plans were approved for the first significant extension to Sir Basil Spence’s “new” Cathedral. As part of a big plan to make the Cathedral fit to host events during the City of Culture 2021 celebrations it is planned to erect a temporary pavilion to the North West of the Coventry Cathedral Precinct as well as alterations to the Cathedral in the area of the Swedish Windows.

The plans include:

  • Erection of a temporary pavilion extension, constructed to span above the existing Refectory, Song School and into the Vergers Lodge.
  • Access improvements including a new passenger lift along the visitor route, to connect the Nave and Undercroft levels at the east end of the Cathedral.
  • New accessible toilets and baby changing facilities.
  • A new Education Room for school visits. This is designed to cope with visits of up to 90 children and will have a separate entrance and cloakroom.
  • A Multi-purpose space to support events in the Nave. This will include a “Green Room” for events and special services, a Kitchen area for outside caterers, furniture storage, a meeting space for Cathedral staff and commercial lets.
  • Replacing the existing temporary ramp in the north nave aisle with a new stone ramp.

 

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Interestingly the new extension is sited in an area omitted from the original plans for the Cathedral. When the reconstruction of Coventry Cathedral was completed in 1962, there was one component of the original competition brief for the project which remained unfulfilled: plans for the Christian Service Centre were shelved to achieve cost savings. The consequence of this decision was the loss of essential support accommodation to the New Cathedral, and since then, those who use and administer the Cathedral have been acutely aware of the need for these facilities which were never constructed.

The Cathedral and the Ruins are the largest events spaces within Coventry City Centre and will host a busy calendar of cultural events in 2021. An additional 2.4 million visitors to Coventry are anticipated during that year and most will visit the Cathedral precinct.

The plans have surprisingly little impact on the Grade 1 Listed building. One area of change will be that a new opening will be formed in the external wall of the New Cathedral in the location of the Swedish Windows, to provide access to the extension. The Swedish Windows will be removed to a conservator’s workshop for essential conservation work and then returned to a similar position, slightly westward of their present location.

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The new extension is designed as a low, modest building which sits sympathetically adjacent to the New Cathedral. Its form is set-back from the external envelope of the existing Refectory, Verger’s Lodge and also the later addition of the Song School. It rises less than 500mm above the highest point of the Verger’s Lodge parapet and sits below the height of the parapet to the flat roof of the Swedish Staircase.

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As the cathedral has Ecclesiastical Exemption, Listed Building Consent is not required, although planning permission was required for some of the changes and this was granted in March.

The Coventry Society fully supports the proposed development and wishes the Cathedral well in its efforts to upgrade the building. The only thing we don’t understand is why it is regarded as a temporary development.

Coventry Society members will have the chance to learn about the recent archaeological discoveries in the Cathedral quarter when George Demidowitz speak to the society in November.

Follow this link to see the planning application for the Cathedral development.

 

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?

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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.

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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.