Herbert Art Gallery, Historic Coventry

I visited Herbert Art Gallery to educate myself on the history of Coventry, paying particular attention to the Blitz, industrialization and modern Coventry. I wanted to gain more facts and statistics regarding its history and changes within this planned city in recent times. Coventry and its people were shimmering bright despite the war but suddenly dimmed and withered in the 70’s when Conservatives were in power and have witnessed highs and lows ever since. I wanted to gain more facts about these changes and how this affected its people.

The exhibition separates the history of Coventry into three key periods: City of Spires, covering the late medieval and early Tudor Coventry (1450-1509), City of Industry, Victorian Coventry (1837-1901) and City of Dreams, exploring Coventry from World War II to the present day (1939 onwards).  I focused on the latter part of the exhibition, City of Dreams, which covers the main events I want to investigate.  The story of modern Coventry is one of movement and change. Change being my main focus for this brief.  This has been more dramatic then at any other time in the city’s history so City of Dreams is where I did most of my research and documentation.  I circulated around the exhibition backwards almost, starting from present times, working my way back through its history.

Stand Up For Your Rights (1970-1980), this part of the exhibition informs the audience of Coventry’s economic decline in the 1970’s and the threatening rise of strikes and protests. Coventry was once booming, the ‘it’ city for jobs and employment. However, by the 70’s with Britain under the Conservative Government and the rise of Margaret Thatcher this all came crashing disastrously down and saw the end of Coventry’s economic success. With this, the people’s sense of optimism, confidence and reconciliation vanished.

At least 40,000 jobs were lost in Coventry during the 1970’s and 1980’s.  As unemployment soared Coventry people joined others across the country in strikes and protests like the People’s March for jobs. Economic problems and shortage of jobs contributed to an increasing number of anti-immigration demonstrations and racist attacks. Groups such as the Indian Workers Association in Coventry were at the forefront. It was also a time for more general protests against world events. This piece of Coventry’s history evidences sufficiently how a person’s environment can drastically transform their behaviour. This was a time of growing unrest and confrontation, quite different to the behaviour witnessed after the Blitz. Racism, angst and frustration engulfed the city whilst unemployment and these feelings within the city are sadly still evident today.

In this part of the exhibition Thatcher’s presence is rife. I couldn’t help but feel her power and leadership during this period were responsible for the economic decline in Coventry, which thus changed the people of Coventry forever and mostly for the worst. The space displays titles similar to newspaper cuttings emphasizing the horrific decline in jobs and money, ‘5O years of Triumph history ends in city’ or ‘300 more jobs go’.  The display exudes angst and a sudden change in Coventry and its people. I want to research more about Thatcher and her affect on workers and unemployment as I’m lacking thorough knowledge on this period.

Another change Coventry went through was mixing with different cultures and foreigners, represented in the Moving In, Mixing In part of the exhibition.  People from across the world, both far and wide, Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and Ireland were living in Coventry before World War II but its peak came in the 1950’s-1960’s. Migrants came for a multitude of reasons. Some were escaping troubles in their homelands, others due to the British government’s call to help rebuild the city after the war or to work in the NHS whilst the thriving industries were also appealing. My maternal and paternal grandparents travelled to Coventry because of work opportunities.

Many migrants have shaped and incorporated their own diverse cultures into the lives of Coventry people and the city’s landscape.  There are now mosques and foreign food and clothing shops. Coventry is continually evolving even now as it is now home to many oversea migrants, wanting to seek better opportunities of work and education. One could argue that the insights into different cultures and people have broadened the minds of the Coventry people and are now more open to new ways of living. The people of Coventry I feel are more accepting and open to migrants in modern times, although sometimes it can be a struggle.

Coventry was at its economic and industrial peak in the 50’s-60, which is evidenced and displayed in the Coventry Ltd part of the exhibition space.  Again I’m quickly prompted to visit the Transport Museum to learn more about Coventry’s vehicle and aircraft industries, which I will be sure to do in due course!  However, I do learn of key parts of vehicles and aircrafts, which were designed and made in Coventry. I also learn that the success of Coventry’s engineering industries made Coventry a boomtown, where jobs were easy to find and wages were high, specifically in the car industry, as suggested in the Mixing In part of the exhibition. Coventry and its people were riveting, exciting and shimmering!

In the city car making was the biggest industry and employed approximately 50,000 people. Employment was at an all time high! FACT: Over a quarter of all the cars produced in Britain were made in Coventry, which I find quite impressive. The city’s car workers were among the highest paid factory workers in the country, no wonder the people of Coventry had so much pride and confidence!  The reason employment was thriving was due to the fact the workforce included not only highly skilled engineers but also less skilled people who worked on production lines. This type of work would mean doing the same thing over and over again, the work was repetitive but the pay was still good and better then other places in the country!

Coventry’s industrial success and high employability attracted many oversea migrants. However, people from the Caribbean and south Asia in particular found it challenging to get a skilled job in the engineering industries and if they were given a job, they were summoned to unpleasant and poorly paid jobs. Racism is something that has reappeared within Coventry’s history and its people. This outlook could have been caused from unresolved feelings of World War II or the idealistic idea of the Jones’s. A saddening part but apart of the Coventry history and society still.

However, I do feel these feelings have diminished with time and are less existent within modern Coventry. And there’s hope still as Coventry not only has opened and accepted different races and cultures but also genders and different sexualities. In the Queering in Coventry section of Coventry, where delightfully reminded with bright colours how far Coventry and its people have evolved, becoming another city that supports LGBT, Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transsexuals. Your Coventry, work with community groups to produce displays exploring aspects of local history and the lives of Coventry people, which are displayed on small screens in the exhibition. There was a small screen for Queering in Coventry, where people in Coventry discussed their experiences of LGBT. It was refreshing and enlightening and made me proud to see how Coventry and its people have matured and become more accepting as years have gone by.

The next part of the exhibition I wondered upon was that of World War II and The Blitz. The focus on industries and work is still poignant even during the war as Coventry’s industries played a vital role in making products to help the war effort. The greatest contribution was producing aero engines and aircraft.

These industries made Coventry a target for air attacks. Special measures such as blackouts made the factories harder for the German aeroplanes to find. Factories were also built outside the city to avoid the worst of the raids, as Andy had mentioned when we met up, known as shadow factories. Coventry’s people possessed a strong work ethic during these years. Factories operated 24 hours a day and workers had to work long shifts.  Production even continued through the air raid warnings. In the raid of 14th November 1940, The Blitz, 111 factories were damaged but production soon resumed in the majority of places.

Walking through this space made me proud of the people of Coventry. No matter what the odds, people continued, worked and wanted to better themselves and their community. Their efforts are ones that should never be ignored or forgotten despite crumbling circumstances after. It shows how pressure and the conflict of war can actually make a city and its people stronger and more determined. I then watched a video on the Blitz, which featured the aftermath and news reports after the event, which I recorded for reference.  It shows the people of Coventry uniting to tidy the damages the Blitz caused at the Cathedral and a sense of peace and reconciliation exudes. However, it also shows hysteria and panic, which grasped the city, nonetheless, despite all odds the city revived.  I’ve looked at various articles online regarding The Blitz and the aftermath, which I hope to go into more detail with.

After looking through The Blitz part of the exhibition, I accidently wandered onto the Victorian Coventry space. However, I did come to learn about the cities past leading industries during this period: watch making and ribbon weaving.  Watch making was an important industry in Victorian Coventry. It reached its peak in the 1880’s when around 3500 workers were involved. Many people started at the age of 10, taking parts from workshop to workshop then by 174 would begin a seven year apprenticeship, eventually setting up businesses of their own for some. Making a watch was a highly skilled and complex job, thus paying greatly. One watch was made by up to 30 workers! Each specializing in a particular task, going from one workshop to the next until the watch was completed! Intricate! Coventry was one of the main centres of watch production in Britain.

Ribbon weaving was another great industry in Coventry until around 1860 but never paid as well as watch making.  The industry began in the 1600’s. By the 1850’s around 10,000 people worked in the industry, including important characters such as Charles Bray, a prosperous ribbon manufacturer/philosopher and the Cash brothers. The changing fortunes affected the entire city as ribbons were in high demand due to current fashions. However, the ribbon industry suffered a major crisis in 1860 when the government signed a treaty with France, which made French ribbons cheaper than Coventry ribbons. As an outcome the Coventry ribbon industry suffered a terrible decline whereby many weavers lost their jobs and several manufacturers went bust and the industry never recovered.

After walking round the exhibition I come to learn more about the people of Coventry’s strong work ethic and Coventry’s leading industries throughout the years. It’s become clear that events such as war or migrants and/or governments in power have affected the behaviours and actions of the people in Coventry, which I will explore in more depth but nonetheless the changes in landscape and society have altered the actions of Coventry people.

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