Ye Olde Tower Inn

Industry transformed the city centre in the 19th century, and an examination of the area immediately surrounding the gates creates a fantastic picture of  Coventry’s most important innovations and trades.

There is evidence that the newly created top floor of Swanswell Gate was used as a weavers workshop in the early 1800s. The dyeing and weaving of wool had been instrumental in Coventry’s success in the medieval period, however in the 18th century this had begun to evolve into ribbon weaving. By the time of the workshop in Swanswell Gate, half the population of the city were employed as ribbon weavers in the first half of the 19th century.

In the middle of an ever growing city, census records from the houses on Cook Street give a good snapshot of life in Coventry during this time. In the 1851 census there were 67 households recorded, and of the occupations of the heads of household 25 were employed in silk ribbon weaving.

As well as ribbon weaving, many residents wee employed in Coventry’s other primary industry, watch making. By the late 1700s Coventry was one of the main centres in England for the manufacture of clocks and watches. This peaked in the 1880s with around 3,500 workers in the trade. This is also reflected in the mid century census records, also although the area was clearly dominated by weavers, there were also 6 watch makers on the street, a number which grew in later years. 

From 1890 the Bonnick Cycle Company was located next to Cook Street Gate. This became the Riley Cycle Company in 1896 and later evolved into Riley Engine Company producing engines for motorcycles. One of the early factories for the Riley company, it was the first site for the Riley Engine Company launched by 3 brothers, were the sons of founder William Riley. Part of the city wall formed one wall of the small factory, and the foundations of the building were found during archaeology of the site ahead of the recent restoration works by Historic Coventry Trust.

The rapid rise of cycle and motor manufacturer in Coventry can be seen in the 1911 census records for Cook Street. The collective picture of the occupations of the residents had changed dramatically in only 60 years. Out of 60 houses, 11 were involved in the cycle trade and 12 were working in the motor trade. Only 1 ribbon weaver remained.

Memories of the gates and garden

Bob lived next to Lady Herbert’s Garden on Jesson Street in the 1940s , where his father had a furniture shop. He recalls what budlings and businesses were there at the time, and remembers playing in the garden with the firemen’s children, catching newts in the pond and watching the Coventry Carnival from on top of the city wall…

From the entrance to Lady Herbert's Garden there was a public house, quite a nice public house from what I can remember of it, sandstone brickwork, and then adjacent to that there was Morris' Hardware, of which I got Saturday work. Jacks the fruit...fruit and vegetables stall, and then there was Harry Tennent's motorcycle shop. I used to work in Morris', and Jacks I'll always remember, the fruiters, always had wonderful toffee apples. They used to have them there with all this lovely melted toffee, in a tray and it was all sticky. We used to get them, because my dad worked round the corner. You used to get your finger in the tray and slide it along. Anyway, from a very young age I used to go in on a Saturday, I think to give my mother a bit of relief, and play in Jesson Gardens.

[Jesson Gardens or Lady Herbert's Garden?]

Not Jesson Gardens, Lady Herbert's. You could get lost in it as a child, and you always felt safe. Right at the bottom of Jessson Garden, as a living memory I've always got, there was a little pong and in that pond was newts. I used to go along there with a jam jar and collect newts. I never took them home, always put them back, but there were lovely red crested newts in there and they were beautiful little things. My dad being there he knew the firemen, and the firemen's cottages which are, which run up the side of Lady Herbert's Garden, and they had children, of course the firemen had children, so we used to play in this, and collect the newts and the frogs and heaven knows what. You'd have pals and you'd knock on the door and you'd go and have a cup of tea in there and there were a friendly bunch, and of course my father being there knew them. and that was good. As you went up there adjacent to the Cook Street Gate there used to be cottages right at the very top there, and there was a bakery, and they sold the best Chelsea buns ever. The bakery was obviously at the top of Lady Herbert's Garden, and you went up to the top, turned left. You see my father was, basically not put out of business, had to move because these were temporary accommodation buildings, and the Coventry ring road was put in, which is now this walk way. In that wall, are my initials. I can remember doing it, because I took a drill, a drill bit, I remember taking this drill bit and doing this writing. I went to look for it, when they were putting this walk way, but damned if I could find it. I don't recall much else being written on there, because the bomb site was, there was a lot of sort of rubble, they'd used it when they were tidying the site up and buildings there they'd used it to put all the bits and pieces that were there prior, rubble, bombed.
Coventry Carnival used to come along there, all the people on Jesson Street used to get their wooden step ladders and by the gate they used to put their step ladders up with planks on. They were beautiful carnivals in those days...

[and we're talking 50s here?]

Yeah 50s yes, yes they were 50s onwards, I'd have been what ten? Maybe eight.. and they used to put these steps up, ladders, and then put some beams across so that the kiddies could get up high and their parents would stand on the first rung and they'd put another one up and they used to sit there and watch. Of course they'd come down, come down Trinity Street so that was elevated so you could see them coming all the way along the line and then we had this elevated view, but it was, it was a spectacular thing then.

Bob, as part of Historic Coventry Trust's 'gates and gardens' oral history project

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