In 1043 Leofric, the local Earl and his wife Godiva founded a Benedictine monastery at Coventry (Coffas Tree). Godiva was later commemorated by Thomas Stevens with Bookmarkers and Stevengraphs. Leofric granted the monks land in order to graze their sheep and in the Middle Ages, Coventry became famous for its wool industry and its weavers.
From the early 12th century Coventry was divided into 2 halves. The north was governed by the Prior, the head of the monastery and the south by the Earl. The Prior slowly lost his power and after 1265 rented his half back to
the earl. Then in 1345 Coventry was given a Royal Charter and in 1355 the Prior gave up all his claims on the town.
At the time of the Domesday Book in 1086 Coventry had a population of about 350. By the late 14th century it was 4,817 and by the end of the Middle Ages it reached 6,500.
The main industry in Coventry was weaving and dyeing wool. There were many workers in the cloth trade such as drapers, tailors, dyers and weavers. Also fullers who cleaned and thickened cloth by pounding it in a mixture of clay and water. There were also many saddlers, shoemakers and glovers as well as millers, bakers, butchers, blacksmiths, carpenters, coopers, cutlers and goldsmiths. In 1340 the merchants of Coventry were formed into a guild which looked after their interests. A meeting hall, St. Mary's hall, was built for the guild in 1340. Fraternal trade organizations such as The Foresters were formed and Thomes Stevens later made their sashes and banners etc.
After 1335 a stone wall was built around Coventry. The wall was built in stages and most of it was finished by the early 15th century but it was not totally complete until 1538.
The 16th and 17th Century
In the 13th century friars came to Coventry. The friars were like monks but instead of withdrawing from the world they went out to help the poor and to preach. Fransiscan friars arrived in Coventry about 1234. They were known as Greyfriars because of their grey costumes. Thomas Stevens commemorated them when he produced one of his largest Stevengraphs of 'Greyfriars Green'.
In 1538 Henry VIII closed the friaries in Coventry and the priory closed the next year. Bablake free school for boys was founded there in 1567 where I went to High School under a Govenors Scholarship. Like all towns in those days Coventry suffered from outbreaks of plague. One severe outbreak was in 1603.
In 1642 the civil war between king and parliament began. Charles I attempted to enter Coventry with an army but he was refused entry and Coventry remained in parliaments hands for the whole of the war. During the war, prisoners were held in the Church of St John. In 1647 a writer said that prisoners were "sent to Coventry". The phrase came to mean excluded from polite society. Facing the Church at the bottom of The Holyhead Road, a row of 'top shops' existed where large families carried on the weaving trade. These were the forerunners of Thomas Stevens. The 3rd floor had a glass shed roof under which the looms were made to work as many hours as the light would permit. The children of large families helped secure a tenant as they would work the looms along with the adults.
In 1662 Charles II ordered the townspeople to destroy the walls around city (perhaps remembering how his father had been refused admission in 1642). Only the gates remained.
The traditional industry of Coventry, weaving and dyeing wool declined as the new industry of silk weaving appeared. As early as 1627 silk was woven in Coventry and by the end of the 17th century silk weaving was an important industry. At the end of the 17th century the travel writer Celia Fiennes described Coventry:-
"Coventry stands on the side of a pretty high hill. The spire and steeple of one of the churches is very high and is thought the third highest in England. In the same churchyard stands another large church which is something unusual, two such great churches together. Their towers and the rest of the churches and high buildings make the town appear very fine. The streets are broad and well paved with small stones."
The 18th Century
The traditional wool industry continued to decline as the silk ribbon weaving boomed. From the mid 18th century watch making also became an important industry.
In the later 18th century most of the town gates were demolished as they impeded the flow of traffic. New Gate went in 1762. Gosford Gate and Bishop Street Gate in 1765. Spon Gate went in 1771 and Greyfriars Gate was demolished in 1781. Bastille Gate survived until 1849 but today there are only 2 surviving gates, Swanswell and Cook Street. The 18th century industry in the town was dominated by silk ribbon weaving and watch making.
The first stretch of Coventry canal was built in 1769. I belonged to the Coventry Canal Society and began converting a horsedrawn canal barge into a houseboat in 1960. By 1790 the canals connected Coventry to the Trent and the Mersey rivers and canals.
The 19th Century
In 1801 the population of Coventry was 16,000. By the standards of the time it was quite a large town. By 1851 it had reached 37,000 and by 1900 about 62,000.
There were many improvements in Coventry in the 19th century. A gasworks opened in Coventry in 1820 and the town soon had gas street lighting. In 1836 the first real police force was formed. In 1847 a cemetery was opened. Since 1541 Coventry had been a county on its own. In 1842 it was made part of Warwickshire again. The railway reached Coventry in 1838.
In a smallpox epidemic in 1871, 166 people died. As a result a fever hospital was built in 1874. Late in the 19th century the council built sewers.
The Technical Institute was founded in 1887 where I would later attend Engineering classes. Coventry City Football Club was founded in 1889. The first telephone exchange opened in 1889 and the first electricity generating station in 1895. Steam driven trams began running in Coventry in 1884. They were replaced by electric ones after 1895.
Silk weaving was booming in the early 19th century but it declined rapidly after 1860. This is when Thomas Stevens was beginning his business. He would later revive the industry with his marketing techniques and his new Stevengraphs. New industries appeared. The first bicycles were made in Coventry as early as the 1860s and Stevens made favours for them and also a Stevengraph depicting a bicycle race. In the late 19th century cycling became very popular and the bike making industry boomed. The worlds largest machine tool company, Alfred Herbert Ltd had its roots in making bicycle wheel rims and I later served a Scholarship Apprenticeship with them and later, produced their lathes in Mexico City in the 1960's. In 1897 the first cars were made in Coventry.
The 20th Century
An ambulance service began in 1902. Coventry gained its first cinemas in 1910. The first motor buses in Coventry ran in 1914. The first council houses were built in 1917. The parish church of St Michael was made a cathedral in 1919. The War Memorial Park was opened in 1921.
In the early 20th century Stevengraphs as well as watchmaking and bicycle making declined. On the other hand car manufacture and machine tools boomed along with The G.E.C. company making electrical products until after the 1950s. The main industries in Coventry are now engineering and making electronic equipment and the ingenious mechanisms that were developed by Thomas Stevens and the Coventry Weavers played an important part in developing the types of craftsmen that built modern Coventry.
In the 1920's and 1930's the council began slum clearance in the town centre and began building council houses to replace them.
Coventry suffered severely in the blitz of 1940-41. The two most severe bombing raids were on the night of 14-15 November 1940 and 8-9 April 1941. The city centre was completely devastated by the bombing. St. Michael's Cathedral was destroyed apart from its spire and outer walls. These attacks hit the Thomas Stevens factories and brought about the end of this great company.
In 1948 Princess Elizabeth laid the foundation stone of the new city centre. A statue of Lady Godiva as seen in the Stevengraph, was unveiled in 1949. In the 1950s and 1960's, council houses were built at Tile Hill and Whitmore. In the early 1970s council flats were built at Hillfields and one of them was called "Stevens House". They are about to be demolished in favor of a new development. Let's hope a new Stevens house will evolve.
The first mosque in Coventry was built in Eagle street in 1960. The same year Lanchester College of Technology was built and I also attended there for Mechanical and Production Engineering courses.
In 1960 the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum was built, so named after Sir Alfred Herbert. They now own a tremendous inventory of Thomas Stevens items and documents and it is recommended that you make an appointment ahead of a visit inorder to see much of the collection.
A school of music was built in 1964. Also in 1964 the University of Warwick was founded. Coventry Polytechnic was founded in 1970. It was made a university in 1992. A toy museum opened in 1970. Midland Air museum opened in 1975. The canal basin where I built my houseboat was also refurbished and turned into a shopping area. Today the population of Coventry is 295,000.
Credits to Tim Lambert
William Burbury left the army and returned to Coventry, where he resumed his trade as a silk weaver.
Coventry was an important manufacturing centre noted for its watchmaking and textile industries, in
particular fine ribbons and laces. Although the city walls and many of the old gates were long gone,
it was still surrounded by common land controlled by the freemen of the city. An act of Parliament
was required to enclose this land; only a very brave politician would move to curtail his voters' grazing
rights, with the result that building was restricted to a well-defined area.
By 1829 more than 29,000
people lived within a two-and-a-half mile circuit. Cottages were built in what had been the gardens of
larger houses, forming enclosed courts of up to fifteen small, crowded dwellings with only one entrance
from the street. Ribbon manufacturers, slaughterhouses, shops, hotels, warehouses, public buildings and
stables were built right up to the walls of Holy Trinity and St Michael's churches. Dyeworks bubbled
away at Spon End, where the river entered the city and was as yet unpolluted.
Just outside the city of Coventry to the West and North are two 19th century areas of development. Looking at the
back of houses on Mount Street we can see 3 storey houses with glass roofs called top shops, which
were built for the weavers of the city when the centre became too crowded. Later in the 19th century
the same idea was used to provide accommodation for watchmakers.
Top shops were houses with a workshop at the top with a long window to let as much light in as
possible. In the census of 1851, entries for Mount Street in Chapelfields give the names and
occupations of the people there, for example, a George Atkins who was a watch case maker. The
watch makers needed to be close to one another because each worked on specialist bits of the
watch - one would make the case - another would finish the watch.
Hillfields was the first area to be built for silk weavers. There was a great demand for intricate silk
ribbons. They used a new technique - the jacquard loom - to create the designs. This industry called
for skills in precision engineering and the same skills would be used in making watches and later in
making cycles, motor cycles and ultimately cars.
The silk trade declined in the middle of the 19th Century because of competition from France . One
very successful offshoot, however, was the production of small detailed woven silk pictures and
bookmarks called Stevengraphs. They are still made in Coventry by Cash's Limited.
You can click on most images to see larger images or more information.
We wish to buy Stevengraphs. One at a time or collections. We also seek photos, brochures or any
item of related history.
- Malcolm J Roebuck,
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