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  • Writer's picturePhil

Cabs, Cold Places, Coal & Canals

Updated: Jul 27, 2020

I spent yesterday (Saturday) evening viewing some interesting TV programmes relevant to our local industries that put me to thinking about the past, present and future of work and working methods in our city and beyond. The first portrayed current production methods at a local company partially geared towards adressing environmental concerns and the second showing the extent to which our industrial activity is threatening our very planet and lifestyles.

Throughout this post I shall refer to some attractions which I feel are worthy of a visit to any interested reader. Obviously opening hours have been retricted recently so I would advise visiting the websites of those attractions to check availability.

The first of my programmes of interest was Channel 4's "How to Build British - The London Cab". It showed the techniques involved in producing a modern electric TX model taxi at Coventry's "London Electric Vehicles Company".

The company grew out of Carbodies - the Holyhead Road based producer of the classic London Taxi. The roots of the company lay in the older industry of coachbuilding (the occupation of my great-grandfather Ernest Breakwell in Coventry). Carbodies was rebranded as the London Taxi Company in 2010 and is now known as the London EV Company to highlight their role in pioneering the introduction of electric vehicles.

The programme showed how the cabs are engineered to reduce emissions, give easy access to passengers, allow increased manouvreability and to give passengers the best possible view of landmarks as they pass them. It is noticable to the layperson just how important robots and automated processes supported by a skilled and a disciplined workforce working to strict time constraints are to the production process.

The methods shown in the programme are typical of those in modern factories with the tendency to move more and more towards automation. This has been a process which has continued in Coventry from the early days of coachbuilding moving from the preserve of the craftsman towards production line methods towards the end of the 19th century - as the transport industry undertook similar changes to those which had hit had the weaving industry decades earlier (when that cottage industry had became overwhelmed and dominated by the introduction of steam looms and factory production within the context of international economic pressures).

Once current restrictions have eased visits to the Weaver's House in Upper Spon St and the Watch Museum in Spon St will give a good insight into the lives of some of Coventry's cottage industry artisans. The Weaver's Workshop which is based at the Weaver's House also gives an opportunity for anybody to have a go at developing one of our traditional skills.

The British motor industry was launched in Coventry when Harry Lawson aquired a fire damaged former textile mill adjacent to the canal and close to the Canal Basin. He converted the building into the "Motor Mills" building and began building Daimlar cars under license. Subsidiary industries and power plants soon grew up locally which in turn attracted futrther industry leading to Coventry being recognised as a major centre of production. A good example of this is Bretts Stampings allowing for industrial components to be cast on a large scale with a much higher degree of built in quality control.

A visit to Coventry Transport Museum is essential to those interested in the deveopment of factory techniques across the decades in the motor industry as there are many dispalys of vehicles in various stages of production and videos of the lines in operation. these give a good historical context to the modern less labour intensive techniques shown in the BBC London Taxi documentary.

The themes of engineering solutions geared to lowering emissions led on well to my next viewing - a BBC News documentary about Thwaites Glacier in Antartica. The Glacier is melting at a previously unexpected rate which threatens to contribute to unprecedented rises in sea levels and changes in climate which could lead to the continuation and worsening of extreme weather conditions globally. The programme showed how a team of scientific experts had drilled through the ice sheet and launched a probe to explore conditions below and send back footage. Some stunning images of sea life below the ice came back together with confirmation of rapid depletion of the glacier. The somewhat optimistic conclusion was that it is a positive thing to be able to monitor the scale of receeding ice and increasing sea temperature to be able to live with the impact. The scientists were convinced that the climate change they were monitoring had been caused by industry - in particular the effect of dumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It is now widely agreed that this process began with the onset of the industrial revolution.

The industrial changes which had spawned that process emerged in Britain and the Coventry and Warwickshire colliery owners were to play a part in ensuring the efficient and smooth running of the nation's emerging heavy industrys.

Although Coventry lagged behind industrial centres like Birmingham and Manchester in early industrialisation it was to catch up - largely due to the vision of some highly regarded engineers and the local colliery owners who founded the Coventry Canal Company. They employed renowned waterways engineer James Brindley to oversee the project which would see the Coventry Canal acting as the last piece in the jigsaw of a national waterways network linking all of the industrail canals with England's main navigable waterways - the Severn, Thames, Mersey and Thames. Coal from Coventry and Warwickshire could now reach the nation's industrial centres and ports. In turn industry quickly grew up alongside the banks of the canal.

Earlier this week I enjoyed a couple of walks which took in some of Coventry's historical industrial sites and seem very relevant to my thoughts following viewing those TV programmes.

On Tuesday, I went for a walk around Wyken Croft Nature Reserve. This is not unusual for me as it is a local walk and one of my dog's favoured places to have a bit of a run and good sniff around off the lead! My son. Rob, lives close by and we often take Spike around the pathways and fields there which have been the site of ancient farming, coal mining in various forms for hundreds of years and more recently a twentieth century landfill site. We were joined by friend Nigel Ward (some will know him as an established local folk musician) who grew up locally and considered the area as a sort of adventure playground during the late 1950s and early 60s. This was the site of the Craven Colliery - one of the three "Wyken Collieries" which was closed almost a century ago. Although now pleasantly landscaped as a nature reserve, environmental concerns have not always been the first priority at the site. The main colliery shaft (about 30 yards off the Henley Road) was used as a 1930s dump for domestic rubbish including everything other than human waste!

I learnt that the path accessed by the gate to the reserve close to the ancient St Mary Magdelene's church was referred to locally as "The Black Pad" (one of three fairly local paths with this name that I know of!) as the surface still retained a smattering of coal dust despite the Craven Colliery having closed back in 1927!

Nigel also described how local youngsters would uncover ways into mining tunnels which were used as dens and that rail tracks from the old network of tramways were still in place running between Henley Road as far as the Norton Hill Estate. The embankment on the other side of Henley Road still acts as a raised pathway round to Woodway Lane where one spur of it ended close to the (now lost) Jolly Colliers pub.

He described a large concrete block with an archway which sat above a section of the track (just beyond the North Bank of the Sowe behind the present day industrial estate) - presumably to act as a shelter for some of the rolling stock.

The tramway ran through the Craven Colliery site and also connected it to the other two Wyken collieries (Alexandra on the site of Moat House Park near to Deedmore Road and Victoria on the site of Hawkesbury Power station) and linked to the local (and national) canal and rail networks.

Another one of Nigel's memories (when aged about eight) was of joining up with some older youths in finding some empty barrels in a goods yard there and leashing them together to pallets to make a raft which was then launched on an "expedition" down the River Sowe! This was at the height of Coventry's industrial output at a time when environmental concerns were not to the fore! When I was myself growing up in area in the late sixties and early seventies the river would run a creamy bluish colour topped with an oily film and devoid of life. It is now in a reasonably healthy state, running clear, a home to fish and topped with ducks! I have recently seen a kingfisher in a tree on the banks - a testament to its recovery.

The following day I went on another walk lined with sites associated with Coventry's industrial past. We are now encouraged to avoid public transport as much as possible and take up walking and cycling to walk when we can. My son, Dan, has taken up cycling along the canal towpath between his Bedworth home and city centre workplace.

Since the lockdown restrictions have eased I have taken the opportunity for a few canalside walks to meet up with Dan on his journey home - as I did on Wednesday. Together with regular companion, my dog Spike (veteran of a canal walk from Coventry to Oxford to raise money for the RSPCA) I tend to join the waterway at Swan Lane, head into town towards the canal basin via various old indusrial sites andmeet Dan to head back towards Swan Lane then back home.

One of the first points of interest on the walk towards the Basin is the marina on Swan Lane. This was once used by the co-op dairy to deliver milk via a fleet of forty boats.

Just across on the other bank as the canal turns is the end of the huge building which originally housed Cammell Laird Ordnance Works - a manufacturer of large scale weapons including Howitzer guns.. Built in 1906 it was Europe's biggest factory of its time and featured in the works of the leader of the Russian Revolution, Vladimir Lenin who often used the term "alienation" to describe how typical factory workers were become removed from an affinity to the products which then manufactured as they rarely were involved in the crafting of a product from start to finish but tied to repetitive work on smaller tasks.

The Stoke Heath housing estate was built to accomodate factory workers at the works and the now demolished local pub the Barras Hotel was known locally as the "Bolshie" as it was puportedly the meeting place of local Communists. When as a child I used to go on canal works with my dad he would often say "we'll get on the path at the back of the Bolshie".

When I pass the Ordnance Works site I often think about the activity that must have gone on inside, the railway line running through the factory giving an indication of the scale of operations. My thoughts usually turn to considering how many lives must have been lost to the guns produced there during the "war to end all wars" As we know, it never did.

In a recent post on the facebook group "The Coventry I Remember", Adam Kara described a visit to explore the site and included some interesting photos including some showing part of the railway still intact and running into the building parrallell to the canal.

My grandma was born in 1901 in Cambridge Street and must have been impressed as the huge building took shape during her early childhood. By the time she was fourteen she was employed at the Humber factor which itself had been given over to production for the war effort at the time. It was at this factory that she would eventually meet my grandfather - one of the "lucky" ones to have survived the killing fields of both Ypres and the Somme.

My walk continues along the towpath past my grandmother's early home, under the bridge and on to Leicester Causeway. Across beyond the other bank is the land occupied by a scrapyard and sizeable new housing estate under construction. This was the site of Harnall Quarry (and brickworks) which covered a large area stretching between Stony Stanton Road and Foleshill Rd and bordered by Leicester Causeway and Broad St (which was earlier known as Brick Kiln Road). The ancient quarry was owned by the Cistercian Order at Coombe Abbey and stone from the site was used in the construction of many of Coventry's medieval buildings including the original St Mary's Cathedral and assoiated priory (home to English parliaments in the 15th century) which were destroyed under Henry VIII at the Dissolution of the Monesteries. The quarry site has been witness to much more ancient history and large fossils have been found there from a time that the land was below a shallow sea close to the equator - before continental drift and geological upheavel brought it to our present location.

Like the Craven Colliery the quarry site also doubled up as a 1930s dumping ground with industrial waste from local factories helping to fill in some of the holes!

I am planning to cover the section of the canal between the quarry site and Basin in a future post soon.

I shall be exploring some of the historical and industrial themes mention in this post during my upcoming guided walks - "Canals, Coal, Car and Cloth" and "The Bard, the Blitz and the Tudors" which I am currently offering. I have walks available on most days - to see more information and for booking please visit:

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