The William Morris Building History

The William Morris began life as a Hotchkiss Machine Gun factory in1913. The Hotchkiss company of France, who were makers of the famous machine gun, hurriedly transferred production to England during World War I when it looked as if their St. Denis factory near Paris was going to be overrun by the Germans. Consequently, a factory was erected at Gosford Street, Coventry, and both machines and key staff were brought over to England so that production could start as soon as possible.

At the end of the War in 1918, the Hotchkiss Factory in Gosford Street, suddenly became short of work so Hotchkiss agreed to manufacture engines and gearboxes, copied from American designs, for Morris Motors Ltd. Delivery of these power units started in mid 1919.  A few years later Morris started to acquire some of his suppliers. By May 1923 he had acquired Hotchkiss and renamed it Morris Engines Limited.  Thus, the building goes through its second transformation, becoming Morris Engines Ltd in 1923.

The Hotchkiss Machine Guns factory and its renaming and new purpose to Morris Engines, represents Coventry’s industrialization of this time. Coventry had numerous jobs, prosperous businesses and factories and was the key city for the motor and air craft industries throughout both wars and for some time after.  The William Morris’s initial purposes reflects the height of Coventry’s industries and people. The city attracted people world over due to the amount of jobs opportunity and excited to be amongst big business and engineer names and manufacturers. It was an exciting and prideful time at which this building was a large part of.

The buildings we see today of the William Morris building date from around this time, as Morris invested heavily in the Gosford Street factory and production increased dramatically. American engineers are said to have judged the production systems to be 20 years ahead of their time and so inevitably its products were in high demand. However, the site was too restricted to expand the building too much in the same area, but it was extended slightly. The main larger part of the William Morris is the original building for the Hotchkiss factory and the shorter bit was added in 1921 by Morris, evident in the image above detailing a gap between the two parts of the building. As the factory couldn’t be extended much more, at the beginning of the twenties after William Morris took over the Hotchkiss factory, he later built a new one at Courthouse Green in order to bring Coventry within his scheme of car production.

The Gosford Street factory stayed in Morris ownership, but became Nuffield Mechanisations in the mid 1930’s and produced armaments throughout World War 2.  This change in the building represents Coventry city’s involvement in producing many war-related products during the Second World War. During this time, again many people travelled to the city to help build and develop war time products to help demolish the Nazi’s.  Again, it was a united time of success, good economy and determination within its people.

The building appears to have been relatively unaffected by the Blitz of 1940, as photos show it standing when buildings all around it were destroyed. The building later became offices for the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance, a Government warehouse but in June 1964 it suffered a large fire, following which the upper parts of the building were rebuilt.

In 1971, the building became the Department of Social Security, where people would sign on for dole money. During the 70’s and 80’s the city was engulfed with unemployment, riots and angst, as did the rest of the nation due to the changes set out by the Conservative Government led by Margaret Thatcher. It saw a change in the people of Coventry. Once prided for their hard work and acts of peace and reconciliation, the people of Coventry were now angry, struggling for money and unemployed. The city’s major factories were shut down, thus experiencing the its industrialisation decline. The William Morris’ transformation from a government warehouse to DSS reflects all of the above. Once a building for successful businesses creating worthwhile and thousands of products with high employment and opportunities was now the place for the unemployed.

The building was then acquired by Coventry University in approximately 2000, where they added the two modern top floors of accommodation. When looking at my images you can see how the upper floors have been added to the building. There’s a clear distinction between the different materials used and contrast between old and new. Red brick was used for the main original building and white stone is used for the extension and looks much more modern. Giving the building this new purpose of education and new modern extension reflects the city’s change from the place of successful industries to focusing on education.  It also shows how the city is no longer just a medieval city but has many modern features and modern designs.

The William Morris has gone through all the changes the city has gone through, throughout the years. From a factory for guns and motor engines which built towards the city’s renowned industries and the war to a government warehouse for pensions and national insurance then experiencing a mysterious fire to becoming the DSS for the people of Coventry to sign on for doll money due to the high unemployment the city was hit by and finally being taken over by Coventry University. The building represents the highs and lows the city and its people have experienced but more importantly Coventry’s ability to always revive and respond with peace and success.

When thinking creatively about this brief, to bring this sweet little coincidence into visual terms, I want to create a short photo film, describing the building’s changes throughout time in correlation to the city’s historic events.

Photographs © Sophie Moet

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