Blog Archives

Celebrating the origins of public libraries in Coventry

This coming Saturday, February 4th, libraries all over the UK will celebrate the importance of libraries on National Libraries Day.

Many events have been organised in all different types of libraries across the country to support and raise the profile of libraries. Locally Coventry Libraries have organised several events.

Books and libraries have always been an important part of life in Coventry. Whilst there is evidence of earlier libraries the first public library in the city was created in the Old Grammar School in 1602. The library was open to both pupils and members of the public.

Gulson Library from Broadgate, 1905

Gulson Library from Broadgate, 1905

In 1791 the Coventry Library Society was established. The society met originally in a property near the Castle Inn, Broadgate and later at 29 Hertford Street. During this period there were other private, circulating libraries in the city and possibly a Ladies’ Book Society.

The Coventry Library Society flourished during the first half of the 1800s but went into decline during the 1860s, possibly due to the wider economic conditions in the city at the time (sound familiar?). It was decided the society could not continue so they offered their Hertford Street premises and collection of 17000 volumes to the corporation to a public library. The library was officially opened by the mayor John Gulson on 31st August 1868.

The Hertford Street premises soon became unsuitable and a new library, the Free Library was built on the site of the disused Coventy Gaol adjacent to County Hall. The library, opened on Wednesday 8th October, 1873, was funded by John Gulson, Samuel Carter, public subscription and the Committee of the Coventry and Midland Fine Art and Industrial Exhibition.

Just a year later another literary society, the Coventry Book Club, was formed in 1874. The club greatly supported the Free Library. They purchased books for their own use and then passed them on to the public library for a nominal fee.

Interior of Gulson Reference Library

Interior of Gulson Reference Library

By 1889 the number of volumes held by the public library had risen to 34,000 meaning yet again more space was needed. A new wing was built and opened in 1889 to house the reference library. The new wing was entirely funded by John Gulson and consequently the library became known as the Gulson Library.

The Gulson Library was badly damaged during the blitz of November 14 1940. However by keeping calm and carrying on a temporary library service was set up at the Methodist Central Hall in January 1942.

Ten years later the Central lending and reference libraries were moved back into part of the Gulson Library which had survived the blitz and had been renovated.

A new Central Library opened in Bayley Lane in 1967 complete with a new-fangled Gramophone Library! This remained the Central Library until the library moved to its present location at the former Locarno/Tiffany’s building in 1986.

Rayanne, Acting Librarian
Coventry History Centre


Lord Mayors of Coventry

Colonel William Fitzthomas Wyley

Colonel William Fitzthomas Wyley from

Whilst the debate over whether Coventry should have a directly elected Mayor continues, last Thursday saw Councillor Keiran Mulhall become Lord Mayor for 2011-12.

Coventry has held the right to annually elect a Mayor or Lord Mayor since the Charter of Incorporation in 1345. In 1953 the office title changed to Lord Mayor following the conferment of Lord Mayoralty on Coventry by Queen Elizabeth II on the eve of her coronation. It is thought this honour was in recognition of Coventry’s industrial importance and suffering during WWII.

We are often asked for information about past Mayors of the city by those interested in a particular period of Coventry’s history, street names or researching their family history. Being so prominent there is usually plenty of information in books, pamphlets, newspapers and news cuttings. The Archive catalogue includes a person database available to view online at, a good starting point for background information. The database is updated by a Senior Archivist and includes references to documents in the History Centre Archive Collection which may be of interest for further research.

Looking back 100 years Alderman William Lee was Mayor, serving his fifth term. Alderman Lee was a weaver born in Bedworth. Lee was replaced in November 1911 by Colonel William Fitzthomas Wyley. 

Colonel Wyley was a chemist and was involved with his family’s wholesale drug company. He was interested in public health, motoring and art. Colonel Wyley owned the Charterhouse from 1889 which he later bequeathed to the city on his death in 1940.

As well as factual information about past Mayors and Lord Mayors we are fortunate to have photographs or illustrations of many. Amongst formal photographs there are a few lighter examples such as these cartoons of Colonel Wyley and Alderman Lee from Hill’s Monthly Recorder, March 1912.

Colonel Wyley from Hill's Monthly Recorder, March 1912.
Colonel Wyley from Hill’s Monthly Recorder, March 1912.

Alderman Lee from Hill's Monthly Recorder, March 1912.
Alderman Lee from Hill’s Monthly Recorder, March 1912.


The Census, Past and Present

I expect you will have returned your census form by now but if you haven’t it doesn’t take as long as you think to fill it in (and apparently it’s even quicker to submit online). I’m probably sad but I quite enjoyed filling in the form knowing that I was part of a process that started in 1801. There is talk that the 2011 census may be the last…we shall see.

In England and Wales a full census has been taken every ten years since 1841, apart from 1941 during World War II. The information collected is used to plan services such as housing and transport. However once 100 years has passed information about individual people is released such as their name, age, family relationships, occupation and where they were born. These details are an invaluable aid for historians, especially those tracing their family history.

The first full census of England and Wales took place in 1841. Right is a page from the 1841 census showing Robert and Mary Ann Evans (writer George Eliot) at their house in Bird Grove off the Foleshill Road.

With every decade more information was asked during the census so later years show many more details as seen from the following 1901 census page showing Pepper Lane and Bayley Lane, just around the corner from where the Herbert stands today (pictured below).

The census images were taken from the genealogical website Ancestry which contains a wealth of family history resources. The History Centre has a subscription to the library edition of the website which users can access free of charge using our family history PCs. We also have census information for Coventry, Warwickshire and other counties on microfiche. Unfortunately the History Centre is still closed for repairs but we hope to re-open soon. When we do re-open please ask any if you have any questions about using the census and we will be happy to help.


Add to DeliciousAdd to DiggAdd to FaceBookAdd to Google BookmarkAdd to RedditAdd to StumbleUponAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Twitter

Baby it’s cold…..inside!

Whilst very seasonal, the recent cold weather caused a heating pipe to burst in the History Centre Reading Room. We have been closed since the beginning of December and the last few weeks here at the History Centre have been trying for both customers and colleagues.

We expect to be closed to the public for a few more weeks whilst repair work on the heating continues. However we are making exceptions for students who have dissertation deadlines looming and for customers who need to access building plans for emergency purposes.

But there is no escape from the cold here at the History Centre! Putting other items away I had a wry smile at this news cutting about the demolition of an 18th century ice-house in Styvechale.

The chilly article in the local paper

The ice-house was part of Styvechale Hall, home of the Gregory family who owned the land for over 400 years. The ice house would have been used to store the family’s food just like our fridges today. According to the article the ice-house was filled with ice from local ponds and brooks cut during the winter. The thick walls of the ice-house prevented the ice from melting too quickly. Our weather this winter would have been perfect!

The ice-house was large enough to be recorded on past Ordnance Survey maps – the map below shows the ice-house and Styvechale Hall in 1925.

Styvechale Hall was demolished after World War II but the ice-house survived until 1963 when houses in Knoll Croft, off Knoll Drive were built.

Map detailing the location of the Ice House – click to enlarge


Add to DeliciousAdd to DiggAdd to FaceBookAdd to Google BookmarkAdd to RedditAdd to StumbleUponAdd to TechnoratiAdd to  Twitter

Lunch Break in 1896

My colleague Andrew has been busy the last two weeks finding information and photographs for a television programme about the history of the British bicycle manufacturing industry.

For me the downside of all Andrew’s hard work was a less than thrilling hour scanning photographs of the interiors of various Coventry bicycle firms but one photograph of workers outside the Coventry Machinists Company really caught my eye.

Commerce Dinner Hour at Coventry Machinists

The photograph is from Commerce February 26, 1896 just one of several cycling journals in the History Centre Cycling Collection.

Originally manufacturers of sewing machines, the Coventry Machinists Company was one of the most advanced bicycle manufacturers in the country. At their Cheylesmore works off Little Park Street over 10,000 people were employed. By 1896 up to 600 Swift bicycles and tricycles were produced every week and dispatched all over the world. The company had sales offices in Holborn, London and in Paris and supplied specially designed bicycles for the British Army.

The age of the boys at the front of the photograph is really striking. Some may have been as young as 11 (the school leaving age 1893-1899). There are no women on the photograph as their lunch was likely to have been in a separate part of the factory to the men but many were employed by the company for light production work and for the lacing-up of dress guards of ladies’ bicycles.

Add to DeliciousAdd to DiggAdd to FaceBookAdd to Google BookmarkAdd to RedditAdd to StumbleUponAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Twitter

Ruairi’s Work Experience Blog

Today we have a guest post from Ruairi, a student who has just completed his work experience with us.

Today has been my first day at the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum for my work experience. Although I haven’t actually been involved in any sort of work related tasks, it has been, all in all an interesting day. I have had a guided tour around the museum in and around the site meeting the staff and memorizing the locations in which I will be working in the future. I was shown the various exhibits around the museum as well, for instance the Elements exhibition which had some very interesting exhibits like the temperature panels which, as the name suggests, projects temperatures from certain environments around the world such as the Arctic and tropical rainforests.

Today I have been doing varied work. For instance, in the first half of the day, I was painting a play area for children in the Studio. And in the second half of the day I was photographing historical artefacts for the Herbert website. But it was raining outside so I had to put the camera in my bag and at the end of the day, I forgot to take it out! So I was completely oblivious to the fact that I was holding some very expensive equipment on the way home!         

On Wednesday, I was continuing painting in the studio. Which was nice because I saw the progress that was being made inside it. The paint colour was supposed to be brown but it looked a lot more like a pinky sort of colour.           

On Thursday morning I was helping out in a presentation to a primary school. It was about the book “Why?” by Nikolai Popov. Which is about the pointlessness of war…. Which is an odd topic to be discussing with primary school students but they handled the topic quite well and they looked like they enjoyed themselves.

On Friday morning I was helping out in the archives (or the History Centre). I was mainly tasked with finding documents underground and handing them to the people looking for them. But the most interesting thing was seeing a letter written by Anne Boleyn to the Lord Mayor of Coventry and another letter written by Queen Elizabeth the first to the Lord Mayor of Coventry regarding Mary Queen of Scots which had been amazingly well-kept.  And that afternoon I was doing odd jobs for the Front of House receptionist: putting posters up, taking posters down, restocking shelves, etc. which wasn’t as boring as it sounds, actually.
Add to DeliciousAdd to DiggAdd to FaceBookAdd to Google BookmarkAdd to RedditAdd to StumbleUponAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Twitter

%d bloggers like this: