History of a City: Coventry

By Dr Charles Insley
Join Charles Insley in Coventry for a walk through time. Although each town or city is different, they share many common themes. Discover how to read the history of your town from the buildings around you.
St Mary's Hall, Coventry 


Every town or city carries at least some of its past into the present. Local architecture, street names and churches all stand testimony to the passage of time. Just walking around any town - it could be your town - can become a walk into the past made visible by the buildings around you.

'We can see the remains of its medieval past ... the beginnings of its industrial greatness.'

Of course, the history of every town or city is different but most share common aspects and themes. Many began as medieval market centres, grew during the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th and 19th centuries and have expanded and developed and expanded again since the World War Two.

All of these changes can be seen in the towns and cities around us. If we take Coventry as an example, we can see the remains of its medieval past in St Mary's Hall, the beginnings of its industrial greatness in the working class terraces of Chapelfields, or the triumph of the motor car in the semi-detached suburbs such as Earlsdon.

Taking an even closer look at Coventry can illustrate just how much of the past can be seen when you are looking with the eyes of an historian.

Opening themes

Image of the ruins of St Michael's cathedral
The gothic shell of St Michael's cathedral
The most obvious place to start is in the gutted shell of the Cathedral Church of St Michael. These Gothic ruins hint at Coventry's medieval past.

Although, like many places, very little of medieval Coventry is still standing, there is enough to give us a flavour of the bustling cloth centre that was the medieval city.

The historical records tell us that as a settlement, Coventry may date back to the 10th century, while the building, which was to become the priory, was founded in the mid-11th century by Leofric, Earl of Mercia and his notorious wife, Godgifu, or Godiva. Many of the place-names of the villages around Coventry, places that have ultimately become its suburbs, are also Anglo-Saxon in origin.

'... the ghost of medieval Coventry remains in some of the street names ...'

Despite the loss of most of Coventry's surviving medieval buildings during the Blitz, the street plan of central Coventry was essentially that of the medieval city. Even now, after the complete rebuilding of the city centre, the ghost of medieval Coventry remains in some of the street names, such as Pool Meadow, Broadgate, Cross Cheaping, Earl Street, Jordan Well, Fleet Street, Spon Street and Greyfriars Green.

Image of Spon Street, Coventry
Medieval houses on Spon Street, Coventry
Documentary evidence tells us that Coventry was a booming wool and cloth centre in the Middle Ages and one of the wealthiest cities in medieval England. Evidence of this wealth is hard to find, but it is there.

If we walk across the city centre from the old cathedral, we can see one of the most remarkable survivors of the destruction of 1940: the magnificent St Mary's Hall. This is one of the most impressive guildhalls surviving in England and was the seat of the city's medieval corporation, its government. Even now, this is an impressive building and tells us something about the wealth of the city in the medieval period.

'... on New Union Street we can see the remains of the once-majestic Cheylesmore manor ...'

Across the 1960s pedestrian shopping precinct, and just inside the ring road, is Spon Street where with its surviving medieval shops and houses. These impressive half-timbered buildings, with their jettied upper storeys (where the first floor sticks out beyond the ground floor) give some indication of the economic standing of the city towards the end of the Middle Ages when these houses were built. Behind the 1960s shops on New Union Street we can see the remains of the once-majestic Cheylesmore manor, the Coventry palace of the Earls of Warwick.

Coventry differs from many other towns and cities in that there was no period of rebuilding and redevelopment in the 16th, 17th and early 18th centuries. Although the city had been a booming wool town in the Middle Ages, its economic fortunes had plummeted towards the end of the 15th century, to the extent that it was not sufficiently prosperous in the next 200 to 300 years to be substantially rebuilt or expanded.

The city walls, for instance, were not finally removed until the 18th century, although traces of this, such as Cork Street Gate, still remain. The result was that much of medieval Coventry was still standing in the first half of the 20th century, cheek by jowl with the town houses of the 18th century and the terraces of the 19th century, only to be destroyed in the disastrous air raid of November 1940.

The Industrial Revolution

Image of Watchmakers' workshops on Craven Street in Coventry
Watchmakers' workshops, Coventry
The Industrial Revolution changed the face of Britain and the period from the middle of the 18th century to the end of the 19th is one of the most interesting in urban history.

As in many other towns and cities, the Industrial Revolution has left its thumbprint on Coventry. Almost overnight, many towns and cities dramatically increased in size as people moved to the towns to take up jobs in the new industries.

'... Coventry's expansion in the 18th and 19th centuries was not just about the working class.'

This period saw a sustained campaign of building and rebuilding in many towns and cities: working class housing for the tens of thousands of industrial labourers and improved housing for the middle classes who began to move away from the often crowded town and city centres and into the newly expanding suburbs.

Leaving the city centre, you come to parts of Coventry that were fields until well into the 18th century. Again, many towns and cities, where we can see 18th and 19th century development of areas once very rural, mirror Coventry's experience.

Chapelfields was one of these new suburbs: its name highlights its rural origins. The houses in Chapelfields were built to house workers in the watch industry and some of these watchmakers' terraces are still standing. These are highly distinctive buildings: their large attic windows provided light for the watchmakers who used these attics as workshops.

A few streets over from Chapelfields are the narrow terraces built in Earlsdon during the 19th century for workers in Coventry's other industry, ribbon weaving and making. But Coventry's expansion in the 18th and 19th centuries was not just about the working class.

Go back into the city centre and you will find the houses built for Coventry's more prosperous 18th-century inhabitants in the fine Georgian town houses of The Quadrant and Warwick Road and the handful of surviving 18th-century houses on Little Park Street.

Urban growth and industry

Image of suburban street in Coventry
1930s housing in the Coventry suburbs
Like many cities and towns, much of Coventry's building environment dates from the 20th century and can be seen anywhere you choose to stand in Coventry.

In the 19th century, Earlsdon was very much a working class suburb full of terraces built for ribbon weavers and watchmakers. But by the 20th century, Earlsdon was rapidly becoming an affluent middle class suburb, with streets of detached and semi-detached houses being built during the 1920s and 1930s on what had once been open fields.

'... the Luftwaffe's industrial targets were right in the middle of the city.'

As in many towns, the 20th century saw not only a massive increase in population but also the urban middle classes moving out from the town or city centre into these newly developed suburbs and commuting to work by bus, tram or even car.

Coventry's car industry grew out of light engineering, especially sewing machine and bicycle manufacture. Paradoxically, it is much harder to find the physical evidence of these early, small factories than it is for earlier industry. Many of these factories were built only just outside the city centre, cheek by jowl, with terraced housing built at the same time.

Even during the expansion of the motor industry in the 1920s and 1930s, the factories of firms such as Standard-Triumph, Lea Francis and Alvis were still only just outside the city centre. Part of the reason why so much of Coventry was destroyed or badly damaged during 1940 was that the Luftwaffe's industrial targets were right in the middle of the city.

It is only since the 1960s that Coventry's car industry and its surviving car factories (Jaguar, Peugeot-Citröen, along with Alvis, makers of military vehicles, and Rolls-Royce Aero-engines) have moved to the outskirts of the city.

Redevelopment in the 20th century

Image of the 1960s shopping centre in Coventry
The 1960s shopping centre in Coventry
If you were to stand in Broadgate, in the city centre, almost everything in sight dates from the 1950s or later. You can still see the highly innovative pedestrian shopping precinct built during the 1950s and 1960s.

On the horizon are the tower blocks from the 1960s and 1970s and the final phase of the expansion of suburban Coventry. Places such as Allesley Park, with its modern semi-detached houses, also date from the post-war period.

'... Coventry's post-war experience is shared by many other towns and cities.'

Yet the view from Broadgate has also been one of continuous change since the war. Large parts of the 1960s precincts have been demolished to make way for more recent shopping centres, while those factories which were still centrally located in the 1980s, such as the Alvis works, have now moved out beyond the edges of the city and been replaced with retail parks.

Although the damage done by the Luftwaffe in 1940 was considerable, Coventry's post-war experience is shared by many other towns and cities. As with most towns and cities, the arrival of the motor vehicle has meant that narrow streets built in the medieval or early modern periods were simply inadequate to cope with ever increasing levels of traffic. This has led to the replanning of city centre road systems to cope with this traffic, and in many cases, the building of ring-roads and bypasses.

Where to go next

Image of Medieval building in Spon Street, Coventry
Medieval building in Spon Street, Coventry
Although there is no such thing as a typical British town or city, many aspects of Coventry's history are mirrored in other urban centres: its medieval origins; its expansion as an industrial centre in the 19th and 20th centuries; and its redevelopment since the war, with traditional industries giving way to new technology-based industries and retail complexes.

For anyone interested in looking at their town or city, it is these themes that may provide a way into urban history - perhaps the history of the suburb in which you live, an industry associated with your family or the town's social infrastructure, such as its schools or hospitals.

'... there are a vast array of documentary sources to look at ...'

In addition to the physical record, there are a vast array of documentary sources to look at: school log-books, medieval court records, monastic records, probate records (wills), company accounts, Ordnance Survey maps, deposited plans, diaries and antiquarian papers, as well as the records produced by central and local government.

As with any research, rather than just plunging in, read what other historians have said about your topic and get some sense of the things to look at and the sources to use. Most modern histories of towns and cities, such as those produced by the Victoria County History, will have a detailed list of the sources used and where they can be found.

You will have to visit a number of different places to search for sources, although your first port of call is likely to be the local city or county record office.

The disappearing past

Image of street sign in Coventry
Streetnames can be clues to the past
In any town or city, the old and the new stand next to each other. As towns and cities continually evolve and are developed, the old, sadly, often makes way for the new.

Much of the Victorian terraced housing in the city centre survived the bombing of 1940, only to be demolished afterwards to make way for the replanning of the city centre. Now only one street of Victorian terraces, Starley Road, remains within the ring road and only a long campaign by its residents prevented its demolition in the 1980s.

Much of the urban history we can see today will eventually be lost, so get out now and take advantage of it and explore the buildings of your town or city. Next time you walk to the shops, or to the bus stop, or to work, look up and around.

Published on BBC History: 2005-03-07
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