Coventry

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Coventry (/ˈkɒvəntri/) is a city and metropolitan borough in the county of West Midlands in England. Coventry is the 9th largest city in England and the 11th largest in the United Kingdom. It is also the second largest city in the English Midlands, after Birmingham, with a population of 300,848, although Stoke-on-Trent, Leicester and Nottingham have larger urban areas. The population of Coventry has risen to 309,800 as of 2008.

Historically within Warwickshire, Coventry is situated 95 miles (153 km) northwest of central London and 19 miles (31 km) east-southeast of Birmingham, and is further from the coast than any other city in Britain. Although harbouring a population of almost a third of a million inhabitants, Coventry is not amongst the English Core Cities Group due to its proximity to Birmingham.

Coventry was the world’s first twin city when it formed a twinning relationship with the Russian city of Stalingrad (now Volgograd) during World War II. The relationship developed through ordinary people in Coventry who wanted to show their support for the Soviet Red Army during the Battle of Stalingrad. The city is now also twinned with Dresden, Lidice and 23 other cities around the world.

Coventry Cathedral is one of the newer cathedrals in the world, having been built following the World War II bombing of the ancient cathedral by the Luftwaffe. Coventry motor companies have contributed significantly to the British motor industry, and it has two universities, the city centre-based Coventry University and the University of Warwick on the southern outskirts.

Coventry is an ancient city which predates many of the large cities around it including Birmingham and Leicester. It is likely that Coventry grew from a settlement of the Bronze Age near the present-day city centre where Coventry’s bowl shape and, at that time large flowing river and lakes, created the ideal settlement area, with mild weather and thick woods: food, water and shelter would have been easily provided. The people of the Coventry area may have been the Corieltauvi, a largely agricultural people who had few strongly defended sites and signs of centralised government.

The Romans settling in Baginton founded another settlement and another formed around a Saxon nunnery, founded ca. AD 700 by St Osburga, that was later left in ruins by King Canute’s invading Danish army in 1016. Leofric, Earl of Mercia and his wife Lady Godiva built on the remains of the nunnery and founded a Benedictine monastery in 1043 dedicated to St Mary. In time, a market was established at the abbey gates and the settlement expanded.

By the 14th century, Coventry had become an important centre of the cloth trade, and throughout the Middle Ages was one of the largest and most important cities in England. The bishops of Lichfield were often referred to as bishops of Coventry and Lichfield, or Lichfield and Coventry (from 1102 to 1541). Coventry claimed the status of a city by ancient prescriptive usage, was granted a charter of incorporation in 1345, and in 1451 became a county in its own right.

Hostile attitudes of the cityfolk towards Royalist prisoners held in Coventry during the English Civil War are believedto have been the origin of the phrase “to be sent to Coventry”, which in Britain means “to be ostracised”; although their physical needs were catered for, the Royalist prisoners were literally never spoken to by anybody.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Coventry became one of the three main British centres of watch and clock manufacture and ranked alongside Prescot, near Liverpool and Clerkenwell in London. As the industry declined, due mainly to competition from Swiss made clock and watch manufacturers, the skilled pool of workers proved crucial to the setting up of bicycle manufacture and eventually the motorbike, car, machine tool and aircraft industries.

In the late 19th century, Coventry became a major centre of bicycle manufacture. The industry being energised by the invention by James Starley and his nephew John Kemp Starley of the Rover Safety Bicycle, which was much safer and more popular than the pioneering Penny Farthing. The company later became Rover. By the early 20th century, bicycle manufacture had evolved into motor manufacture, and Coventry became a major centre of the British motor industry. The design headquarters of Jaguar Cars is still in the city at their Whitley plant and although they ceased vehicle assembly at their Browns Lane plant in 2004, they still continue some operations from there. However, the headquarters moved to India, and Tata Motors owns Jaguar now.

Coventry became home to one of Britain’s first local ambulance services in 1902. The local entertainment business received a boost in 1910 when the city’s first cinema opened. Public transport was enhanced in 1914 when motorbuses took to local roads.

With many of the city’s older properties becoming increasingly unfit for habitation, the first council houses were let to their tenants in 1917. With Coventry’s industrial base continuing to soar after the end of World War I a year later, numerous private and council housing developments took place across the city in the 1920s and 1930s. The development of a southern by-pass around the city, starting in the 1930s and being completed in 1940, helped deliver more urban areas to the city on previously rural land.

Coventry suffered severe bomb damage during World War II, most notoriously from a massive Luftwaffe air raid known as the “Coventry Blitz” on 14 November 1940. Firebombing on this date led to severe damage to large areas of the city centre and to Coventry’s historic cathedral, leaving only a shell and the spire. More than 4,000 houses were damaged or destroyed, along with around three-quarters of the city’s industrial plants. More than 800 people were killed, with thousands injured and homeless. The Germans coined the term “Coventrate” to describe the tactics of complete urban devastation developed for the raid.

Aside from London, Hull and Plymouth, Coventry suffered more damage than any other British city during the Luftwaffe attacks, with huge firestorms devastating most of the city centre. The city was probably targeted due to its high concentration of armaments, munitions, aircraft and aero-engine plants which contributed greatly to the British war effort, although there have been claims that Hitler launched the attack as revenge for the bombing of Munich by the RAF six days before the Coventry Blitz and chose the Midlands city because its medieval heart was regarded as one of the finest in Britain. Following the raids, the majority of Coventry’s historic buildings could not be saved as they were in ruinous states or were deemed unsafe for any future use, although several were later demolished simply to make way for modern developments which saw the city centre’s buildings and road infrastructure almost completely altered by 1970.

Further housing developments in the private and public sector took place after World War II, partly to accommodate the growing population of the city and also to replace condemned and bomb damaged properties.

In the postwar years Coventry was largely rebuilt under the general direction of the Gibson Plan, gaining a new pedestrianised shopping precinct (the first of its kind in Europe on such a scale) and in 1962 Sir Basil Spence’s much-celebrated new St Michael’s Cathedral (incorporating one of the world’s largest tapestries) was consecrated. Its prefabricated steel spire was lowered into place by helicopter. In 1967, the Eagle Street Mosque opened as Coventry’s first mosque.

Major expansion to Coventry had taken place previously, in the 1920s and 1930s, to provide housing for the large influx of workers who came to work in the city’s booming factories. The areas which were expanded or created in this development included Radford, Coundon, Canley, Cheylesmore and Stoke Heath.

Coventry’s motor industry boomed during the 1950s and 1960s and Coventry enjoyed a ‘golden age’. During this period the disposable income of Coventrians was one of the highest in the country and both the sports and the arts benefited. A new sports centre, with one of the few Olympic standard swimming pools in the UK, was constructed and Coventry City Football Club reached the First Division of English Football. The Belgrade Theatre was also constructed along with the Herbert Art Gallery. Coventry’s pedestrianised Precinct shopping area came into its own and was considered one of the finest retail experiences outside of London. In 1965 the new University of Warwick campus was opened to students, and rapidly became one of the country’s leading higher-education institutions.

Coventry’s large industrial base made it attract to the wave of Asian and Caribbean immigrants who arrived from Commonwealth colonies after 1948. In 1960, one of Britain’s first mosques – and the very first in Coventry – was opened on Eagle Street to serve the city’s growing Islamic community. The 1970s, however, saw a decline in the British motor industry and Coventry suffered particularly badly. Coal mining at the city’s Keresley colliery also ceased during this period. By the early 1980s, Coventry had one of the highest unemployment rates in the country and crime rates rose well above the national average.Some 30 years later, Coventry is now considered as one of the UK’s safer major cities and has gradually recovered economically with newer industries locating there, although the motor industry continues to decline. By 2008, only one motor manufacturing plant was operational, that of LTI Ltd, producing the popular TX4 taxi cabs. On 17 March 2010 LTI announced they would no longer be producing bodies and chassis in Coventry, instead producing them in China and shipping them in for assembly in Coventry.

On the sporting scene, Coventry Rugby Football Club has consistently been among the nation’s leading rugby football sides since the early 20th century, peaking in the 1970s and 1980s with a host of major honours. Association football, on the other hand, was scarcely a claim to fame until 1967, when Coventry City F.C. finally won promotion to the top flight of English football as champions of the Football League Second Division. They would stay among the elite for the next 34 years, reaching their pinnacle with FA Cup glory in 1987 – the first and to date only major trophy in the club’s history. Their long stay in the top flight of English football ended in relegation in 2001, and they have yet to regain their status among the elite. Highfield Road, to the east of the city centre, was Coventry City’s home for 106 years from 1899. They finally departed from the stadium in 2005 on their relocation to the 32,600-seat Ricoh Arena some three miles to the north of the city centre, in the Rowleys Green district.

Unlike other major UK cities, Coventry does not have an extensive ‘greater’ urban area. This is partly because the city boundaries were drawn so as to include practically all of its suburbs, and partly because Coventry has comparatively little in the way of contiguous satellite towns and dormitory settlements.

The M6 motorway directly to the north of Coventry acts as an artificial boundary which precludes expansion into the Bedworth-Nuneaton urban area, as does the protected West Midlands Green Belt which surrounds the city on all sides. This has circumvented the expansion of the city into both the administrative county of Warwickshire and the metropolitan borough of Solihull (the ‘Meriden Gap’), and has helped to prevent the coalescence of the city with surrounding towns such as Kenilworth, Leamington Spa, Warwick, Rugby and Balsall Common.

St. Michael’s Cathedral is Coventry’s best-known landmark and visitor attraction. The 14th century church was largely destroyed by German bombing during World War II, leaving only the outer walls and spire. At 303 feet (92 metres) high, the spire of St. Michael’s is claimed to be the third tallest cathedral spire in England, after Salisbury and Norwich. Due to the architectural design (in 1940 the tower had no internal wooden floors and a stone vault below the belfry) it survived the destruction of the rest of the cathedral. The new Coventry Cathedral was opened in 1962 next to the ruins of the old. It was designed by Sir Basil Spence. The cathedral contains the tapestry Christ in Glory by Graham Sutherland. The bronze statue St Michael’s Victory over the Devil by Jacob Epstein is mounted on the exterior of the new cathedral near the entrance. Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, regarded by some as his masterpiece, was written for the opening of the new cathedral.

The spire of the ruined cathedral forms one of the “three spires” which have dominated the city skyline since the 14th century, the others being those of Christ Church (of which only the spire survives) and Holy Trinity Church (which is still in use).

The Herbert Art Gallery and Museum is a major art gallery in the city centre. About four miles from the city centre and just outside Coventry in Baginton is the Lunt Fort, a reconstructed Roman fort. The Midland Air Museum is situated just within the perimeter of Coventry on land adjacent to Coventry Airport and near Baginton.

Another major visitor attraction in Coventry city centre is the free-to-enter Coventry Transport Museum, which has the largest collection of British-made road vehicles in the world. The most notable exhibits are the world speed record-breaking cars, Thrust2 and ThrustSSC. The museum received a major refurbishment in 2004 which included the creation of a striking new entrance as part of the city’s Phoenix Initiative project. The revamp saw the museum exceed its projected five-year visitor numbers within the first year alone, and it was a finalist for the 2005 Gulbenkian Prize.

Coventry was one of the main centres of watchmaking during the 18th and 19th centuries and as the industry declined the skilled workers were key to setting up the cycle trade. A group of local enthusiasts are in the process of setting up a museum in Spon Street.

The city’s main police station in Little Park Street also hosts a museum of Coventry’s police force. The museum, based underground, is split into two sections – one representing the history of the city’s police force, and the other compiling some of the more unusual, interesting and grisly cases from the force’s history. The museum is funded from charity donations – viewings can be made by appointment.

Major improvements continue to regenerate the city centre. The Phoenix Initiative, which was designed by MJP Architects, reached the final shortlist for the 2004 RIBA Stirling Prize and has now won a total of 16 separate awards. It was published in the book ‘Phoenix : Architecture/Art/Regeneration’ in 2004. Further major developments are potentially afoot, particularly the Swanswell Project, which is intended to deepen Swanswell Pool and link it to Coventry Canal Basin, coupled with the creation of an urban marina and a wide Parisian-style boulevard. A possible second phase of the Phoenix Initiative is also in the offing, although both of these plans are still on the drawing-board. The redevelopment of the Belgrade Theatre is currently in progress, and the building of IKEA’s first city centre multi-storey store has recently been completed and was opened to the public on 16 December 2007.

The River Sherbourne runs under Coventry’s city centre; the river was paved over during the rebuilding after World War II and is not commonly known. When the new rebuild of Coventry city centre takes place 2009 onwards, it is planned that river will be re-opened, and a river walk way will be placed along side it in parts of the city centre.

Coventry and Stalingrad (now Volgograd) were the world’s first ‘twin’ cities when they established a twinning relationship during World War II. The relationship developed through ordinary people in Coventry who wanted to show their support for the Soviet Red Army during the Battle of Stalingrad. The city was also subsequently twinned with Dresden, as a gesture of peace and reconciliation following World War II. Coventry is now twinned with 27 other cities around the world.

Coventry Cathedral is notable for being one of the newest cathedrals in the world, having been built following the World War II bombing of the ancient cathedral by the Luftwaffe. Coventry has since developed an international reputation as one of Europe’s major cities of peace and reconciliation, centred around its cathedral, and holds an annual Peace Month.

Coventry is well known for the legendary 11th century exploits of Lady Godiva who, according to legend, rode through the city naked on horseback in protest at high taxes being levied on the cityfolk by her husband Leofric, Earl of Mercia.

According to the legend the residents of the city were commanded to look away as she rode, but one man did not and was allegedly struck blind. He became known as Peeping Tom thus originating a new idiom, or metonym, in English.

There is a Grade II* listed statue of her in the city centre, which for 18 years had been underneath a much-maligned Cathedral Lanes shopping centre canopy, removed in October 2008.

There is also a bust of Peeping Tom looking out across Hertford Street shopping precinct, and overlooking Broadgate and the statue of Godiva is a clock where, at every hour, Lady Godiva appears on her horse while being watched by Peeping Tom.

Historically Coventry was the most important seat of ribbon-making in the UK. In this industry it competed locally with Norwich and Leicester and internationally with St Etienne in France.

Coventry has long been a centre of motor and cycle manufacturing, dating from 1896. Starting out with some less familiar names such as Coventry Motette, Great Horseless Carriage Co, Swift Motor Company and more familiar names like Humber, Riley, Francis-Barnett and Daimler and the Triumph motorcycle having its origins in 1902 in a Coventry factory. The Massey-Ferguson tractor factory was situated on Banner Lane, Tile Hill, until it closed in the late 1990s. Although the motor industry has declined almost to the point of extinction, the Jaguar company has retained its corporate and research headquarters in the city (at Allesley and Whitley), and Peugeot still have a large parts centre in Humber Road. The famous London black cab taxis are produced in Coventry by LTI and these are now the only vehicles still wholly built in Coventry.

The manufacture of machine tools was once a major industry in Coventry. Alfred Herbert Ltd became one of the largest machine tool companies in the world. Unfortunately in later years the company faced tough competition from foreign machine tool builders and ceased trading in 1983. Another famous Coventry machine tool manufacturer was the A. C. Wickman company. The last Coventry machine tool manufacturer was Matrix Churchill which was forced to close in the wake of the Iraqi Supergun (Project Babylon) scandal. It had been owned by the Saddam Hussein government, via front companies, and closed amidst much controversy and bad feeling.

Coventry’s main industries include: cars, electronic equipment, machine tools, agricultural machinery, man-made fibres, aerospace components and telecommunications equipment. In recent years, the city has moved away from manufacturing industries towards business services, finance, research, design and development, creative industries as well as logistics and leisure.

Coventry motor companies once contributed significantly to the British motor industry but that role is now much diminished.

Coventry is near the M6, M69, M45 and M40 motorways. It is also served by the A45 and A46 dual carriageways. Coventry has a much used inner ring road opened in the 1960s (approx.). Phoenix Way, a dual carriageway running north – south opened 1998 (approx.), has improved traffic flows through the city.

For rail, Coventry railway station is served by the West Coast Main Line, and has regular rail services between London and Birmingham (and stations beyond). It is also served by railway lines to Nuneaton via Bedworth. There is a line linking it to Leamington Spa and onwards to the south coast. Coventry also has two Suburban Rail stations in Canley and in Tile Hill.

The Coventry Canal terminates near the city centre at Coventry Canal Basin and is navigable for 38 miles (61 km) to Fradley Junction in Staffordshire.

Traditionally a part of Warwickshire (although it was a county in its own right for 400 years), Coventry became an independent county borough in 1889. It later became a metropolitan district of the West Midlands county under the Local Government Act (1974), even though it was entirely separate to the Birmingham conurbation area (this is why Coventry appears to unnaturally “jut out” into Warwickshire on political maps of the UK). In 1986, the West Midlands County Council was abolished and Coventry became administered as an effective unitary authority in its own right.

Coventry is still strongly associated with its traditional county, Warwickshire. This may be because of its geographical location, forming a large protrusion into the county.

Year and Current Total Population

  • 1801 – 21,853
  • 1851 – 48,120
  • 1901 – 88,107
  • 1911 – 117,958
  • 1921 – 144,197
  • 1931 – 176,303
  • 1941 – 214,380
  • 1951 – 260,685
  • 1961 – 296,016
  • 1971 – 336,136
  • 1981 – 310,223
  • 1991 – 305,342
  • 2001 – 300,844
  • 2007 – 306,700
  • 2009 – 309,800
  • 2010 – 310,500

Coventry in a linguistic sense looks both ways, towards both the ‘West’ and ‘East’ Midlands. One thousand years ago, the extreme west of Warwickshire, what today we would designate Birmingham and the Black Country was then separated from Coventry and east Warwickshire by the forest of Arden, with resulting inferior means of communication. The west Warwickshire settlements too were smaller in comparison to Coventry which, by the 14th century, was England’s third city. Even as far back as Anglo-Saxon times Coventry, situated as it was along Watling Street was a trading and market post between King Alfred’s Saxon Mercia and Danelaw England with a consequent merging of dialects.

Phonetically the accent of Coventry is similar to Northern English in that it eliminates the long a /ɑː/, so cast is pronounced /kæst/ rather than /kɑːst/. Yet the clipped, flatter vowels in the accent also contain traces of Estuary English (T-glottaling), increasingly so amongst the young since 1950. One notable feature which television producers have been apt to overlook is the distinction between Coventry and Birmingham accents. In Birmingham and the Black Country ‘Old’ and ‘cold’ may be pronounced as “owd” and “cowd”, this linguistic feature stops starkly as one moves beyond Solihull in the general direction of Coventry, a possible approximation of the ‘Arden Forest’ divide perhaps. Yet accents alter briskly in this particular part of the Midlands, North Warwickshire (Bedworth & Nuneaton) displays increased East Midlands dialect features. Then again, just to the south, the general Southern English feature of the longer ‘a’ in words such as “bath” and “path” (becoming like the nonce words “barth” and “parth” as pronounced in a non-rhotic accent) starts to occur regardless of class or geodemographic grouping across an east to west band of settlements somewhere between Southam and Banbury, positioning Coventry right at the edge of England’s phonetic crossroads.

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