The History of Coventry Watchmaking...
Permanent working museum
In August 2002 the Museum project agreed to purchase for £31,000, a parcel of land and three derelict cottages built in around 1820 known as Court number 7 Spon Street. The cottages are the only remaining part of the Court and the City Conservation Officer believes that this is the only surviving court in Coventry. At one time there were hundreds of courts which had been built on land at the rear of large town houses. There would be a cobbled yard down the centre and a row of cottages either side. The properties were badly overpopulated and the wells were in close proximity to the outside toilets, which led to Coventry having one of the worst health records and mortality rates in the country. In spite of the uniqueness of the buildings, they are only locally listed and this is only by virtue of them being in the conservation area.
The site is situated at the rear of the Shakespeare Public house and the Midlands Co-op car park borders us to the rear and on one side. This part of Spon St (Lower Spon St) is a no through road bordered by the ring road although there is pedestrian access to Upper Spon St via a subway. Our part of the street has a relatively low footfall during daytime but contains several restaurants , public houses , a night club complex, niche businesses and the Caribbean social club. The separate Upper Spon St area is considered to be socially deprived and has attracted European funding.
At the time of agreeing to purchase, we still had to get outline planning permission for change of use from residential to museum and accordingly a 10percent deposit was paid and it was agreed that the balance would be paid over when we got agreement from The Coventry Corporation Planning dept. We had hopes of being able to open up the site to the general public for the European Heritage weekend in mid September 2002, but it was obvious we had a monumental task on our hands as the site had been used as a dumping ground for a number of years and was overgrown with weeds , bushes and small trees. The adjoining laurel hedge on the Co-op's land was badly out of hand and was over 20 ft tall and had encroached so far over the boundary fence that it was touching the cottages.
However, a small band of volunteers tackled the problem enthusiastically and the vegetation was all cut back and either burnt or removed from the site in skips along with a variety of rubbish that included old bicycles, mattresses, cookers, furniture and a vast amount of broken glass. We were able to open the site for the heritage weekend and were gratified to receive over 600 visitors and a number of the visitors were able to tell us about relatives that had lived in the cottages. One gentleman had actually been born in one of the cottages in 1935 and was able to tell us of his experiences living there during the blitz.
We completed purchase of the cottages in December 2002 after planning permission was received and we own the freehold outright. The site has been opened for subsequent European heritage weekends in both 2003 and 2004 and attracted good visitor numbers.
It is our intention to convert the cottages for use as a museum, but they will require major structural work carrying out on them and before we can even get a builder to quote for this we need to get a another structural survey done and a quantity surveyor and architect to provide some input. We are presently fund raising to meet that particular tranche of fees, which will be around 8,000, and when that is achieved we will be able to geta builder's quote and then seek further funding from either Heritage Lottery or grant making trusts.
We have not been idle in the meantime as we have carried out work which we were capable of doing which included replacing guttering, cleaning out blocked drains and replacing some underground drainage pipes . There was still a live electric feed in one cottage and after the electricity board had replaced the meter , one of our group was able to fit some lights and power points. We were gratified to find that the original cobbles and blue brick paths were still in place under a layer of ash which we removed and these now provide a striking feature.
In 2003 we purchased, for a nominal amount, a single storey building at the bottom of the garden. this building is located between our land and the advertising hoardings which border the co-op car park. The building has a concrete roof and we have been told that it was owned by Rotherhams Watch Factory and was used as an air raid shelter during World War II . It appears to have been designed as something else and converted into an air raid shelter and some of the fittings seem to indicate that there was machinery in there at some time. Perhaps someone may be able to tell us more about it.
We have re-screeded the roof to cure leaks and fitted a new secure door, we also tidied up the inside to make a kitchen and a display area. For the European Heritage in 2004 we were able, for the first time, to include a small display of war time memorabilia , this attracted considerable interest in view of the Coventry Blitz and has continued to do so in the following years. In the long term the air raid shelter will undoubtedly serve as an additional visitor attraction.
There was a large quantity of surplus soil on the garden area of the site and we have removed this manually so that the area will be suitable for erecting a temporary building . The work was completed, with the kind assistance of Coventry and District Archaeological Society and a few minor artefacts were discovered, which included 19th century beer tokens and scraps of Victorian pottery. We also uncovered the foundations of the old brew house and remnants of a cobbled yard , together with a sandstone path composed of large blocks which may have been re-cycled from the city wall.
During 2007 we paved a large part of the former garden area and erected a 5m X 6m portal frame steel building. We hope to start up a temporary watch museum on the site during 2008 putting on a limited number of events by utilising the air raid shelter, an existing storage building and steel building for display areas.The Watchmaking Heritage Trail, which is marked by plaques and was set up by us a few years ago, is near to our site and there is scope for us to run conducted tours which can start or end at our premises. We have still continued to put on mobile exhibitions at events such as the Earlsdon festival and the Godiva weekend and to give talks to groups.