Despite the destruction of the city wall after the Civil War in 1662, the 12 gatehouses were left intact and most were converted into housing. However, in the 18th century as the industrial revolution swept through the country and Coventry grew rapidly, transformed by new industries and a rising population. This growth was cause for expansion, and gradually the gates were demolished to accommodate the needs of an industrial city. In 1762 the four largest gates (Greyfriars Gate, Gosford Gate, Bishop Gate and Bablake or Spon Gate) were taken down to ease the increasing flow of traffic into the city, as large loaded waggons were unable to pass through the medieval gateways. By the end of the century most of the remaining gates had also been lost.
In 1810, William Reader recorded that only three gates remained, Cook Street, Swanswell and Mill Gate, however Mill Gate was subsequently demolished in 1849. After the walls were destroyed, Swanswell Gate had been converted into a cottage. The battlements were replaced with a raised pitched roof, windows were created, and the large archway was filled in in 1856. Cook Street Gate was never converted, and started to fall into disrepair, with the roof falling in and stonework crumbling.
In 1913, Cook Street Gate was gifted to the city of Coventry by local philanthropist Colonel Sir William Fitzthomas Wyley, and was restored by the council in 1918.
Swanswell Gate, having been used first as a cottage then a shop, was later acquired by Sir Alfred Herbert. In line with the restoration of Cook Street Gate, the gatehouse battlements were restored, and the roof that was added when the gate was used as a residence was removed.
In the second half of the 20th century, Swanswell Gate was used as a gardeners shed, an artists studio and a city centre base for the West Midlands Police. Having been left empty, in 2020 Historic Coventry Trust began restoration work on both city gates, to ensure the buildings’ continued survival and preserve them as extremely significant historic sites for Coventry.
Memories of the gates and garden
Andy led the restoration work on Swanswell and Cook Street Gate in 2020-2021, and recalls the complexities of the project…
We started in September. Basically, Cook Street was a bit of a shell, really. Swanswell had been converted, I think it had been a police station at some time. So, it was to take everything out that had been put in over the last few years or whatever, get it back to a shell and then start again. There's been a lot of drawings done before we started, but once you start working on these old buildings, nothing's square, nothing's plumb. So, there's been quite a few changes that we work through and different details that have to be slightly changed so that things would work and obviously everything that we do is reversible. So one day, if somebody decides that they want to take it all back out and get the gates back to how they were in 2021 and you could do that without seeing what interventions we made.
One of the floors had been taken out years ago, so we put that floor back in but we used the original holes that all the joists sat in, so we've gone back to that again. There's some repairs on the lead roof to Swanswell, but it was only repairs, there was nothing that could be totally ripped off. The timber was fairly good as well on the roof. Over at Cook Street we put a single ply membrane, guttering, and there's a new metal roof on there. It had a metal roof before, but the timber condition was pretty good to be honest. It was ok, had been covered up pretty well and I think because they were pretty drafty as well, a lot of air has been going through there so it's kept it fairly dry and not too damp. So, the only problem we have had is obviously getting power into them. Swanswell did have power and a water supply, we had to put new water and power supply, we put a drainage in there as well obviously because it's going to be used as a let, and then Cook Street had nothing so we had to put drainage in there which had some problems with the archaeology and finding that there was a drain that we were supposed to connect to that when we dug, wasn't there. So, things like that.
The only place where the archaeologist got involved really was the staircase in Cook Street, where we dug down adjacent to the existing city wall to put our foundation in and we found that there was an old wall there, the old foundation. So basically, the engineers had to change the detail on that, so all that’s stopped so it's preserved. Originally, we were just going to dig it out for the concrete footing but now there's small concrete footings in there. There's bits of brickwork, there's sand binding it. So again, if you wanted to rip it all out in the future, that historical evidence is still there. We can't just go knocking it, we're not allowed to cut any stone on the city wall or cut anything into it so everything's pretty minimal really.
We haven't really changed much internally. We basically put new flooring, left the original flooring and just built a new floor on top and our services sit under the new floor. There's a studwork partition in there which obviously separates the kitchen, bathroom and bedroom. But again, it's not actually fixed to the to the structure. If one day somebody said right, we want the city gate back to what it was you could go up there, rip everything out and apart from two small holes in the floor where the services run through you wouldn’t know that anybody had been in there.
Swanswell is little bit different yeah, it's still listed, but it was a little bit different to be honest. But again, there's minimal intervention there to be quite honest with you. We've used all the old joist holes, whether it's timber in there or stainless steel brackets. We've used all the old holes to fix into, so there's nothing again actually fixed to the structure and if we've had to fix we've gone into joints not stonework, so we haven't damaged the stonework. So again, if you go in there one day you could take everything out and wouldn't know we'd been in there, really.
It's got two floors in Swanswell has yeah, you've got a ground floor. The ground floor, when we went in there was like a hardboard covering on the floor so we took that up and found the original blue brick floor underneath. So, we've taken the blue bricks up and cleaned them off. There’s underfloor heating systems gone in, and now we've put the blue bricks back in, so it’s at a higher level to compensate for the underfloor heating, but the floor is the same as what was there. Then there's a mid floor which we put in, which was an original floor there. That's really going to be the sitting room area and then the other floor at the top that was missing, that's gone back in now, that's a shower and bathroom and bedroom within that area there. We put a spiral staircase in as well, metal spiral staircase, cladding oak which takes you from the first floor to the second floor. All the stonework is on show, there's nothing been covered up or plastered over, so when we've done it will just be brushed down so it's all on show inside. No difference at all. The only plastered areas are the stud work where the bathrooms are. No decorations to the walls either, they'll just be left as stone walls.
It's been fairly difficult really, it's been an awkward job because there's not much space inside the buildings so it's been fairly awkward. Luckily, we've managed to get ourselves a big compound at the back of the project which has helped us enormously with our materials otherwise it would have been a struggle. It's just size, and obviously with Covid as well when we first started out, it's a small building to have a lot of people in. So, we have tried to keep a bubble of guys working there, the same guys so they're together all the time. But no, it's been a nice project, it's been difficult but it's a nice project and when it's all done I think everyone will be really happy with the result to be honest.
Andy, as part of Historic Coventry Trust's 'gates and gardens' oral history project
Historic Coventry Trust have restored both city gates, removing them from the Historic England Heritage at Risk Register. In addition to sympathetic repairs, each gate has been internally adapted to holiday apartments, giving guests the opportunity to closely experience a special part of the city’s history.