A History of the County of Warwick: Volume 8, the City of Coventry and Borough of Warwick. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1969.
This free content was digitised by double rekeying. All rights reserved.
The earliest remains of domestic building in Coventry are the stone-vaulted cellars which have survived in several of the principal streets and which formed part of the largely timber-framed houses of the more prosperous citizens. Those found in Much Park Street and Little Park Street may well date from the middle of the 14th century when building plots were leased to merchants and others on part of Cheylesmore Park. (fn. 1) Remains of one house in Much Park Street were laid bare by bomb damage in the Second World War; the shell of the cellar and stonebuilt ground floor remain, although the vault itself is missing. Further south another medieval cellar survives below one side of a court lying behind Nos. 31-32 Much Park Street. (fn. 2) Before the recent clearance on the east side of Little Park Street a two-bay vaulted cellar, probably of the later 14th century, stood below part of a timber-framed range which was set back from the street behind a courtyard. The houses on the street front (Nos. 92-94) had been largely rebuilt in the 18th century but the courtyard layout was almost certainly of medieval origin. (fn. 3) No. 13 Little Park Street has a cellar of two bays, parallel to and partly beneath the street; the vault has been destroyed, but a surviving door-head suggests a 14th- or early15th-century date. (fn. 4) As in most other examples there was direct access from the street. The largest known cellar, below the entrance to the Rose and Crown Yard and Nos. 21-23 High Street, has two aisles, each of four bays, divided by octagonal piers; the vaulting-ribs are chamfered and either die into the walls and piers or spring from moulded corbels. An example with similar ribs and one central pier, formerly in the Old Star Yard in Earl Street, has been incorporated in the basement of the new council offices. (fn. 5) Another was recorded at the junction of Earl Street and Little Park Street. (fn. 6) There was also a cellar on the site of the priory guest house before the construction of Trinity Street in the 1930s. (fn. 7) One on the west side of Bishop Street was destroyed in 1958. (fn. 8) The first systematic attempt to record these domestic crypts was made by W. G. Fretton in 1876. He described as 'the most perfect of all' an example at the junction of Bayley Lane with Priory Street. Before the construction of Priory Street it must have lain parallel to and well behind the north-east frontage of Bayley Lane where this took a sharp bend southwards. (fn. 9) The cellar, which was filled up in 1966, retained access steps on both east and west sides, original pointed doorways, a window at its north end, and a cupboard recess. (fn. 10) There were said to have been ancient vaults below the widened Broadgate (fn. 11) and Fretton indicated the position of several others, some of which were probably post-medieval. They occurred in such streets as Cross Cheaping, Smithford Street, Jordan Well, and Gosford Street. None has been found in the low-lying districts which were liable to floods.
In view of the large area of the city which was already built up by the 15th century it is not surprising that Coventry retained a high proportion of medieval buildings until quite recent times. With few exceptions these were of timber-framed construction. Because of the risk of fire the use of thatched roofs was prohibited in 1474 and the construction of wooden chimneys in 1493. (fn. 12) Many medieval houses can be recognised in the collection of over 1,000 sketches made by Nathaniel Troughton in the mid 19th century. (fn. 13) In the central shopping streets a number of these were destroyed by rebuilding in the later 19th and early 20th centuries, while those in the Great Butchery, the Little Butchery, St. Agnes Lane, and parts of Well Street and Cook Street disappeared in the clearances of 1930-7. The air-raids of the Second World War accounted for many of the survivors. Nevertheless a survey carried out in 1958 revealed a remarkable number of timber-framed houses of medieval origin, particularly in what had been the outlying areas of the old city. (fn. 14)
One such area was Spon Street where ancient houses had been altered or refronted but not completely rebuilt. The majority of these were found to be basically of the so-called 'wealden' type. (fn. 15) In its standard form the wealden house consisted of three units under a single roof - a central open hall flanked by two-storied bays, the latter jettied at first floor level. At the front the projection of the eaves was greater above the recessed wall of the hall than above the jettied side bays; here the structure was stiffened by two curved braces set clear of the hall framing and reaching from the angle posts of the jettied bays to the underside of the roof plate. (fn. 16) In Coventry this type of house, or modifications of it adapted to narrow urban sites, has been found to occur more frequently than in any other town so far investigated. On the north side of Spon Street a continuous terrace of at least five small houses was identified (Nos. 157-162); (fn. 17) this was built as a single unit, perhaps before the middle of the 15th century. The structural evidence suggests that each house was of two bays and consisted of an open hall and a jettied upper room or solar. On the ground floor the hall extended below the solar, occupying the whole width of the frontage (c. 17 ft.) and incorporating a cross-passage at its solar end. Separate kitchens, if such existed, may have stood at the rear of the houses. Other pairs of houses on both sides of Spon Street were found to have been built on the same plan; at one of these (No. 54) the curved brace in front of the recessed hall still survives. The conclusion may be drawn that much of Spon Street was built up, or more probably rebuilt, at a single period to provide compact and comparatively lowcost houses. On the south side a wealden house on a more generous tripartite plan (Nos. 14 and 15) had a central hall which extended on the ground floor beneath both its jettied upper rooms. At No. 67 are the remains of another type of medieval house, roofed at right angles to the street and having an open hall at the rear and a two-storied jettied front originally surmounted by a gable. No. 169 has a crown-post roof of the 14th or 15th century and retains a pointed arch to a cross passage. Beyond Barras Lane a hall house of three bays (Nos. 121-123) dates from c. 1500. Other timber-framed buildings in Spon Street are of the 16th and early 17th centuries or are older houses drastically altered at these periods. Several ancient buildings also survive at Spon End, one (Nos. 97 and 98) being a hall house of the 15th century.
In Far Gosford Street, a comparable area at the east end of the city, a much altered group on the north side includes two tenements which were formerly a single wealden house of three bays. The cross-passage in part of the eastern bay retains its original partitions and doorways. In Gosford Street the many timber-framed buildings which survived in 1958 included one (Nos. 114-115) which had traces of a two-bay hall with smoke-blackened roof timbers of the 14th century. In the redeveloped area round Cox Street many of the houses recorded in 1958 have since been demolished. A row on the north side of Gosford Street (Nos. 1-11) were of various dates ranging from the 15th to the 17th century. The timbers of Nos. 6-7 were preserved in 1965 for possible re-erection elsewhere; this was an early 16th-century three-storied house with a jettied front of two bays and indications of a parallel block at the rear. A similar but much altered house on the north side of Jordan Well (Nos. 20-21) (fn. 18) formed part of a demolished group which also included a rather later frontage (No. 24) with unusual diagonal framing. In Cox Street a house with a crown-post roof (No. 22) was wrecked by bombing, (fn. 19) while further north a pair (Nos. 53 and 55) contained single bay halls of the early 15th century.
The earliest reference to New Street was in 1384 (fn. 20) and this may have been approximately the date of its construction. It has been suggested that the first tenements there were erected for workmen employed on the rebuilding of St. Michael's Church. (fn. 21) Many of the houses were re-fronted in the 18th and early 19th centuries; all had been cleared away by 1960. At least one (Nos. 21-22) was of the wealden type. Another (Nos. 8-10), which was still standing in 1958, was a three-bay hall house of the late 15th century. The north-west corner of the street was occupied by a wealden house of four bays (Nos. 1-3 Priory Street). Its two-bay hall was divided by an open arch-braced collar-beam truss and there were remains of a 'spere' truss between the north end of the hall and what may have been a cross passage in the two-storied service bay. The south or solar bay was jettied on two sides and had a dragon-beam at its south-west angle; below this a carved post was visible externally at the junction of Priory Street and New Street. As in the Spon Street examples the hall appears to have extended beneath the solar.
Bayley Lane, Pepper Lane, Derby Lane, Hay Lane, and Priory Row still contained many medieval and later timber-framed houses in Troughton's time. There was earlier a large block of such buildings at the south-west corner of St. Michael's churchyard which was demolished in 1783-4. (fn. 22) The only survivor in Bayley Lane (No. 22) is a two-storied early-16th-century house with carved buttresses to the vertical timbers, carved barge-boards, and traceried panels to an angle bracket and its supporting post. Other decorative work of this period and quality is now only to be found at Bond's Hospital and Ford's Hospital. (fn. 23) A range of three houses at the west end of Priory Row may have been built soon after the destruction of the priory church in 1539. The plan of the superstructure does not correspond with that of the stone cellars below and it is possible that the latter formed part of some medieval building adjoining the west front of the church. The range is three storied and of four bays, the upper floors having deep jetties with exposed joist-ends and curved brackets. (fn. 24) The Golden Cross Inn at the junction of Hay Lane and Pepper Lane is a jettied timber-framed house probably of early-16th-century date.
In Much Park Street there were many timberframed buildings and the presence of former open halls could in some cases be inferred from their construction, notably at Nos. 63-64 and the Admiral Lord Romney Inn (Nos. 88-89). These houses, which were probably of the wealden type, were demolished with the whole south end of the street in 1960. Little Park Street once contained a number of substantial medieval houses, including those built above the stone cellars already described. In Bishop Street bomb damage and subsequent demolition have removed all traces of the old buildings which formerly stood there. At least two near the upper end were large houses, one having a vaulted cellar and the other being built on the courtyard plan. (fn. 25)
In the rebuilt shopping streets at the city centre evidence of medieval work was scanty even before the Second World War. There is little doubt, however, that some of Coventry's finest houses stood along the south sides of High Street, Earl Street, and Jordan Well. The documentary evidence, at least for the 13th century, supports this view. (fn. 26) Troughton's sketches show many timber-framed exteriors in Earl Street, some having arched entrances with carved spandrels. Among them Palace Yard (see below) was partly of medieval origin. The adjoining house, demolished in 1863, had 15th-century traceried windows and an archbraced collar-beam roof. Drawings of Old Star Yard further east and of other properties show roof trusses which suggest the presence of open halls of at least two bays. (fn. 27) A similar truss, probably of early-15th-century date, was found at the Dun Cow public house on the south side of Jordan Well in 1958.
Later 16th- and early-17th-century timber-framed buildings must have been fairly numerous in Coventry and many of the alterations to earlier houses, such as the division of halls and the insertion of chimneys, took place at this period. There is little evidence, however, of the wholesale rebuilding which was carried out in many other towns between about 1570 and 1640. The only important early-17thcentury town house of which views survive was the so-called Bridgeman mansion on the west side of Little Park Street, demolished in 1817. It is said to have been built by Simon Norton in 1610 and was later occupied by members of the Bridgeman family, including Sir Orlando Bridgeman (d. 1674). (fn. 28) In the 18th century it was the home of the Bird family, one of whom is thought to have introduced ribbon weaving to Coventry. (fn. 29) The building was of three stories and attics, the front having two projecting bay windows to the principal floors surmounted by twin gables. The timbering was close-studded except in the front and side gables which had square panels with quarter-round struts. No examples of this type of decorative framing, which was common in 17thcentury 'black-and-white' houses in Warwickshire, now survive in Coventry. Barge-boards, angle posts, brackets, and doorways were elaborately carved. The principal first-floor room had magnificent fittings including carved panelling, an enriched frieze, and a ceiling with a geometrical pattern of moulded ribs. Window lights flanking the central oriel gave the room an almost continuously glazed front wall. After the house was demolished one of its carved chimneypieces was installed at Bablake School. (fn. 30)
Palace Yard in Earl Street, which was built on the courtyard plan, was destroyed by bombing in 1940. Sampson Hopkins sheltered Princess Elizabeth (later Queen of Bohemia) at the house in 1605. Between 1687 and 1690 James II, Princess (later Queen) Anne, and her husband were entertained there by Sir Richard Hopkins. Parts of the refronted north range, through which a carriageway led from the street to the courtyard, were thought to date from the 15th century. Other parts of the house were rebuilt or remodelled by Sir Richard Hopkins in 1655-6, dates which appeared with his initials and arms on the lead rainwater heads. The plaster which covered the timbering and the mullioned and transomed windows were of this period. The socalled 'state room', which had a carved stone fireplace and wreath ornament to the ceiling, occupied the first floor at the south end of the courtyard. Below it was an open colonnade leading to the garden. (fn. 31) The principal staircase had ball-capped newels and a pierced balustrade with panels of carved foliage and scroll-work - a fine and early example of this type of ornament. (fn. 32) Palace Yard was sold in 1822 after which the house was divided up, used for various purposes, and gradually fell into decay. (fn. 33) In 1921 an appeal was launched for its restoration and after repair it was used as a centre for the work of the Coventry diocese. (fn. 34)
In the 18th century Little Park Street continued to be a favourite site for the town houses of the gentry. Two fine brick fronts with stone dressings, dating from c. 1725, still survived in 1966. No. 7 is of three stories and five bays, having applied Corinthian pilasters to the two lower floors, surmounted by an entablature. The central doorway has a segmental pediment and the window above it is flanked by enriched volutes. Kirby House (No. 16) is set back from the street and also has a three-storied front of five bays divided by pilasters. The carved Ionic capitals and the paterae above them, however, appear to be late-18th-century additions. Both houses contain contemporary staircases. No. 11 Priory Row is of the same type and of equally high quality; it was reduced to a shell by bombing and has since been restored. The front, of five bays, has fluted Ionic pilasters supporting an entablature at second floor level; above the cornice is an attic story with plain stone pilasters between the windows. The first floor windows have brick aprons and all are enclosed by stone architraves with prominent key-blocks. The central pedimented doorway has a 'Gibbs' surround. The house is set back behind a forecourt enclosed by railings with, in the centre, wroughtiron gates surmounted by an overthrow and a lamp. These three houses have features in common with the west range at Stoneleigh Abbey, designed by Francis Smith of Warwick in 1714-26. (fn. 35)
The late 18th and early 19th centuries are not well represented by surviving domestic buildings in Coventry. The best examples are four houses with dignified three-storied brick fronts in Priory Row (Nos. 7-10); others further east were damaged by bombing and disappeared when the new cathedral was built. To the west of Greyfriars Green some new development took place c. 1800 on the site of an earlier row of houses which had probably been demolished during the Civil War because they stood outside Greyfriars Gate. (fn. 36) No. 5 Warwick Row is a large brick house with a three-storied front, an arched carriage entrance, and a central Roman Doric doorway flanked by paired columns. A much-altered three-storied brick terrace further south has a moulded eaves cornice, pedimented doorways, and stone voussoirs to the window heads. Beyond this are the remains of early-19th-century terrace houses with stucco fronts and some contemporary ironwork; at one of them (No. 29) George Eliot was at school from about 1832 to 1835. (fn. 37) On the north side of Queen's Road and the Butts (formerly Summerland Butts Lane), which was built up after 1820, a few frontages with architectural pretensions still survived in 1966. At its east end, houses in Hertford Place, demolished c. 1960, included Hertford House, a substantial stucco residence in its own grounds which had an entrance flanked by Doric pilasters and a garden front with a central pediment and a trellis verandah. It may have been built by John Ryley (d. 1825) whose gravestone in St. Michael's churchyard described him as 'of Hertford House'. (fn. 38) The adjoining house in Hertford Place was smaller but of similar architectural character. In the city itself a certain amount of rebuilding and refronting took place in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, particularly as a result of street alterations. The construction of Hertford Street in 1812 and the widening of Broadgate in 1820 entailed rebuilding at the main cross-roads in the centre of the city. The new houses were three-storied and stucco-fronted, some having shop windows below and canopied balconies above. At the junction of Hertford Street and Smithford Street a niche was provided at second-floor level for the carved figure of Peeping Tom. (fn. 39)
In the middle of the 19th century well-to-do manufacturers and professional families were still occupying the older town houses in Little Park Street and elsewhere, (fn. 40) but residential suburbs containing brick or stucco houses in their own gardens had already developed in three districts on the outskirts of the city. The superior character of the suburb at Stoke Green and that on the high ground towards Radford barely survived the expansion of industrial Coventry in the later 19th century. (fn. 41) To the south of the city, however, the Warwick Road area continued to be the favourite site for middle-class terraces and for detached and semi-detached houses. The most impressive terrace is the Quadrant, dating from c. 1860, which consists of ten large three-storied stucco houses built on a curved frontage in a still Classical style. Of slightly later date is Stoneleigh Terrace in Queens Road to the south of Greyfriars Green which was designed by James Murray. (fn. 42) Nos. 1-5 are of variegated brick with stone dressings, having Gothic porches with polished marble shafts and carved stonework in the gables and to the window-heads of the second floor. Nos. 6-9 and 10-13 are blocks in a similar but less elaborate style. The house called the Towers at the junction of Queen's Road and Warwick Road has an ornate Gothic front and is part of the same group.
Until the early 19th century most of the poorer inhabitants of the city were living in the ancient timber-framed houses in the less prosperous streets; these had often been divided up, each bay of a building forming a separate tenement. After c. 1800 dwellings were rapidly erected in yards, gardens, and patches of open ground to house the growing population of ribbon-weavers and others. (fn. 43) The smaller cottages were of a low standard, frequently built back to back in courts or terraces and having little or no sanitation. The small streets in the area south of Dog Lane (later Leicester Street and Swanswell Terrace) had a particularly bad reputation. (fn. 44) The land between the Butts and Spon Street, built up in the 1820s and 1830s, contained many rows of watchmakers' or weavers' houses as well as courts of two-storied cottages with double rows of back-to-back dwellings along the frontages of Moat Street and Thomas Street. (fn. 45) This area, like that near Leicester Street, had been largely cleared for redevelopment by 1966. The Hillfields district to the north-east of the city was laid out on open ground between 1828 and about 1860; here the houses were occupied almost entirely by ribbon weavers and were of gradually improving standards. None was built back to back and it is doubtful if this arrangement had ever been found possible for weavers' dwellings which required well-lighted workshops. Chapel Fields in the west, built up after 1846, was an almost self-contained community of watchmakers and the lay-out included larger houses for the masters of the trade (see below). When land in the Hales StreetWhite Street area was sold for building in 1848 it was stipulated by the trustees of Sir Thomas White's estates that the houses, which were evidently not intended for the very poor, must have uniform elevations and must each cost not less than £300. (fn. 46)
The rows of weavers' houses with their large 'topshop' windows were one of the most characteristic features of the Coventry scene until the drastic clearance which took place after the Second World War. These were the dwellings of the outdoor ribbon weavers who worked at home and owned their own looms. Although some were shoddily built, others in the central area had distinct architectural character and provided good accommodation by contemporary standards. The southern half of Whitefriars Street, constructed in 1820, was built up on both sides with uniform three-storied houses with workshop windows on the top floors; below there were stone voussoirs to the heads of the sash windows and well-designed wood door-cases flanked by fluted pilasters. Near Cheylesmore manor-house a terrace of twelve houses, demolished in 1966, was probably of the same date. Here the doorways, yard entries, and windows on the street frontage were so grouped that two units gave the impression of one larger house. (fn. 47) At Hillfields the new streets were built up with both two- and three-storied weavers' houses. (fn. 48) A typical two-storied example of the 1830s had a front and a back room on the ground floor with a scullery built out at the rear; above were two bedrooms facing the street and, behind them, the workshop with its large window. A three-storied house had a narrower frontage but greater depth; the ground floor was similarly arranged but the first floor had a front and back bedroom, while the whole of the top floor was occupied by the workshop which had windows at both ends. In each type there was usually an individual privy and a small back garden. There were a few slightly larger houses at Hillfields occupied by small ribbon masters, but the principal manufacturers were people of substance who lived outside the area. (fn. 49) The last phase of the ribbon industry, before its collapse in the 1860s, was marked by the building of cottage factories - rows of threestoried houses in which the looms were supplied with steam power by means of shafting carried through the workshops on the top floor. The largest scheme of this kind, built in 1858-9, was at Hillfields within the triangle formed by Berry Street, Brook Street, and Vernon Street. Except that the workshops were more lofty, the houses were almost indistinguishable from the earlier weavers' dwellings. At Kingfield the cottage factory begun by the brothers Cash in 1857 was never completed. (fn. 50) Here the houses had front gardens and a definite attempt was made to give the buildings some architectural quality. (fn. 51)
The suburb of Chapel Fields consisted of houses built for the needs of watchmakers, together with a Baptist chapel, a school, and public houses. Most of the masters' houses were facing what is now Allesley Old Road; these were the conventional middle-class terraced dwellings of the period, having bay windows at the front, three bedrooms on the first floor and servants' rooms in the attics. The workshops were in two-storied wings built out into the back gardens, their length increasing as trade prospered. The three cross-streets, Duke Street, Lord Street, and Mount Street, contained terraces of smaller watchmakers' houses set behind small front gardens. Each dwelling had a front and a back room on the ground floor and two bedrooms; it was two-storied at the front but at the rear a shallower roof-pitch gave room for an extra story. The workshop, smaller than that needed by the weaver, occupied the back room on the first floor and its large window overlooked the back garden. In Craven Street, on the south side of the suburb, the houses were essentially the same but had no front gardens. It is significant, in view of the social superiority attributed to the watchmakers, that in none of the houses were workshop windows visible from the street. (fn. 52) From 1860 onwards, when first ribbonweaving and then watchmaking declined as staple trades, specialised houses for outdoor workers ceased to be built and new working-class housing in Coventry followed the same standard pattern as elsewhere.