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Weaving, Watchmaking and Workhouses


There are recurring themes which have been reported (and under-reported!) in the news lately. Last night’s TV news carried stories of currency fluctuations, industrial re-location to ensure profitability and a global sustainability “overstretch”. The overstretch story reported that we have already reached the level of resource consumption (including energy, food, water and building / manufacturing materials) which the world could sustain in one year. Basically this means that we have an ever decreasing level of non-renewable resources year on year despite having to cater for a growing population. By 29th July we have already used what the planet could have afforded us by 31st December.


Although we need to be wary of news stories and wary of “false news” the theme of sustainability of resources and industrial, practices has to be a serious priority and impacts on every local economy across the world.


International trends have greatly influenced Coventry’s economy over the centuries. Changes in tariff rates hit the Weaving and Watchmaking industries hard in the 19th century. Workhouse populations soared. As well as Whitefriars there was a workhouse close to the weaver’s cottages (mentioned on Saturday’s blog) in Stoke and also in the North East of the city. Philanthropists such as Joseph Levi (clock restoration on Binley Road) tried to help to redress the situation.


Coventry industrialists such as Charles Bray and the Cash brothers are renowned for putting their social consciences to work in practical projects designed to enhance all facets of the everyday lives of their workforce (including the establishment of the country’s very first co-operative movement (not Rochdale as is often thought!). I shall look at some of these projects in detail in a later blog post.


Even the aristocrastic Berkeley family were renowned for their philanthropic acts around the Caludon Castle estate during Tudor times. Henry Berkeley’s generosity saw the area’s poor sometimes attending lavish banquets and the early equivalent of food banks operating from the castle on a weekly basis.


The tradition of Philanthropy was well established in the City. Visionary industrialists also looked at socially forward thinking projects for their developments. Coventry’s industry has always been open to the affects of wider economic and international trends. Free trade agreements ending tariffs on cheaper ribbon and watches from the Continent hit the local economy hard.


Technological advances as today have meant social upheaval. The City’s first factory to use a steam powered loom was attacked during a riot by disaffected weavers fearful for their livelihoods. As of today many of the workforce felt that they were being “left behind” by technology. Philanthropy, charity and the workhouses could not address these issues on their own. In future blogs I shall be looking at Coventry’s Labour, Trade Union and co-operative movements in more detail.


In the aftermath of World War I the City’s car manufacturers had to adapt to the mass manufacturing methods introduced by Henry Ford in the United States or face going to the wall. The subsequent years and decades was an era of mergers and increased automation in the industry.


In my blog entry a few days ago entitled “From Caludon’s Past to Technology, Work and the Future” I touched upon some of the major challenges which will face us (and opportunities that will open to us) as we begin to encounter the latest “industrial revolution”. In coming posts I’ll be looking at organisations locally which try to promote sustainable practices and dealing with the question of whether a truly “local economy” is possible in dealing with challenges which will face our industry and society as a whole.


My Coventry ramble goes on (a walk to town later to discuss all things Coventry with a like-minded friend) ahead of some voluntary work maintaining the “Coventry Way” path tomorrow .....

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