It is a particularly happy thought that a section of Coventry’s old City wall, built nearly 600 years ago in order to ensure the safety of the inhabitants in those troublous days, should now become the central feature of “A Place of Rest and Refreshment from the Growing Turmoil of the Streets”.
Sir Alfred Herbert has made himself responsible for a scheme whereby the most complete remaining section of the city wall, stretching between Cook Street gate and the Swanswell Gate in Hale Street will be cleared of its unsightly surroundings, the old stonework restored, and the vicinity laid out with beautiful gardens in memory of Lady Herbert, who’s death took place on Sunday. Coventry has had other reasons for appreciating the civic generosity of Sir Alfred and Lady Herbert, who were jointly interested in demonstrating their devotion to their own work people as well as to the city at large, and it is tragic to realise that Lady Herbert will be unable to see the culmination of a scheme with which she had been so closely concerned.
Some time must obviously elapse before the reconstructed ‘Rope Walk’ – the site of the scheme – is named, but in response to Sir Alfred Herbert’s wish, the memory of his wife will be perpetuated though the medium of this flowery oasis in embryo, with the massive city walls and gates as a reminder of the civic grandeur associated with the spot.
The Midland Daily Telegraph 30 May 1930
Lady Herbert’s Garden was developed in the 1930s by Sir Alfred Herbert. Sir Alfred named the garden in memory of his late wife Florence who passed away in 1930 just one day before the land was officially acquired for the project. He began purchasing properties to the north of the city centre in 1930, to create ‘a haven of peace and floral beauty’ for the community to enjoy, away from the hustle and bustle of the surrounding streets. Lady Herbert’s Garden first opened to the public in April 1931.
In 1935, Sir Alfred Herbert purchased more land to the west of the medieval city wall to extend the garden and build almshouses, to be named ‘Lady Herbert’s Homes’. The properties were to be used by widows of men who had worked at Alfred Herbert Ltd. For the extension, more slum housing in the area was acquired and cleared in the years 1935-37, and the neighbouring Coventry Hippodrome was demolished in 1937-38. The garden was completed in 1938. During the bombings of April 1941, the garden suffered a direct hit which destroyed a section of city wall and a set of stone steps. Neither gatehouse was effected, but the newly built almshouses were badly damaged and needed to be largely rebuilt.
Whilst the development of the garden was spearheaded and funded by Sir Alfred Herbert, there were others involved in bringing his vision to fruition. Albert Herbert, Alfred’s cousin, was the architect for the gardens, Lady Herbert’s Homes and the restoration of the gates. His name is inscribed on a ceiling beam in Cook Street Gate. Miss Denison, a horticulturalist, was responsible for laying out the gardens and managing the site 1930-1947, and lived in one of Lady Herbert’s Homes herself.
The Portland stone birdbath was installed in the garden in 1950, presented in honour of Sir Alfred Herbert’s 50 years as president of Coventry Engineering Society. The stone bench seat was added in 1956 to commemorate his 90th birthday. Sir Alfred Herbert passed away in 1956, leaving the garden in the care of a specially formed trust.
In 1974, ownership of the garden was taken on by Coventry City Council. Historic Coventry Trust acquired both city gates in 2020, and alongside restoration work to repair the buildings, also delivered an engagement programme to revive Lady Herbert’s Garden and return it to the ‘haven of peace and floral beauty’ that Sir Alfred Herbert envisioned.
Memories of the gates and garden
Ann grew up in Foleshill in the 1940s and 50s, and fondly remembers spending time in Lady Herbert’s Garden on the weekends….
I lived in Foleshill I was born and brought up in Foleshill. In fact, I was born in the house my mother was born in in Foleshill. We’re a very old Foleshill family. And on a Saturday morning we were set free, you know, to do our own thing with sixpence or something and we often used to go into town, and we used to walk into the city from Foleshill. I lived quite near Courtaulds bridge, if you know, I don’t know if you know. Are you from Coventry? [Yes]
And so, we used to walk from there via Foleshill Road, Eagle Street, Springfield Road, Stoney, Howard Street, Stoney Stanton Road, into Lady Herbert’s Garden, so that’s where Lady Herbert’s Garden figured because we would often sit around in Lady Herbert’s Garden because it was a quiet space, you know. And you didn’t get children playing ball or anything in there. There always seemed to be a gardener about or there seemed to be somebody in authority around at that time. So, you know, it was, it was a quiet space. And so that’s why we, so Lady Herbert’s, so we would walk through Lady Herbert’s Garden on our way into the city, you know. And the city was very interesting at that time because 1949 it was you know, it was a ruin, and they were just beginning the building. I mean, Princess Elizabeth had, now the queen, had laid the foundation stone about that time. I’m not quite sure what year, 48, 49. And I’d been a Brownie guard of honour for her at the time, so I felt, I had a personal interest in rebuilding the city. So, we used to walk through Lady Herbert’s Garden, into the city. Often climbed the spire, because it cost sixpence to climb the spire, so we often used to climb the spire, have a look down to see what was, you know, what was changing, and then back again through Lady Herbert’s Garden. And then we often had something with us, you know, a drink, in a glass bottle of course it was pre plastic, and a snack. So, we would stop again in Lady Herbert’s Garden on the way home. And I’ve spoken to one or two friends, you know, of my own age who remember Coventry from that time, about Lady Herbert’s Garden and they talk about it as being kind of a hidden place, you know, a kind of secret place that lots of people didn’t go into, or thought they shouldn’t go into, or they weren’t allowed to go into. Certainly, you had to open the gate to go in which would have put people off, some people off at the time. But it suited us because for us it was a quiet little haven, you know, to be quiet in. And it was always very nice, the gardens were very nicely kept. I think there was a bomb in Lady Herbert's Garden wasn’t there? Did a bomb drop or was there some bomb damage in Lady Herbert’s Garden? I don’t know. There were certainly no signs of it particularly at that time for me, that I remember. Yeah, but I wouldn’t necessarily remember because it was a long time ago. It would be 75 years ago, you know. So, it’s a long time.
[I suppose you’ve seen a lot of change around that area?]
Well, the Hippodrome was there, the fire station was there, and Chauntry Place, you know the houses at the side that were built for the fire crew, they was there. But there was road, there was Jesson Street that went along the other side of Lady Herbert’s Garden, so yeah, it really has changed quite a lot. But Lady Herbert’s Garden and the fire station, there are very recognisable points there still and they’ve remained for quite a long time of course.
Ann, as part of Historic Coventry Trust's 'gates and gardens' oral history project