• Phil

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.