I’m very pleased to feature another fine guest post (and would welcome others), this one from Dr Ruth Cherrington. Ruth runs the Club Historians website and is the author of Not Just Beer and Bingo: a Social History of Working Men’s Clubs. You can follow Ruth on Twitter at @CHistorians.
I wasn’t sent to Coventry: I was born there. Though I left a long time ago I regularly visit family still living there and the familiar sites of the estate where we grew up: Canley. We can take ourselves out of our childhood homes, but do they ever really fade away from our own sense of attachment and place? For me, the answer is a resounding no. I’m still very much a ‘Canley kid’ at heart after all these years.
I’ve seen many changes, of course. But the constants are clearly visible such as the strong element of working class identity that remains, though now embattled in many ways. I’ve been in a good position to observe the life and times of Canley given my lifetime’s experience of this former council estate. From my recollections and observations I have compiled a two-part blog about the place where I grew up. I write about what made Canley similar to other post-war housing estates but also what made it special not only to me but also in historical terms.
What and Where is Canley?
Canley existed long before Coventry Corporation bought 20,000 acres of the land from local landowning family, the Leighs, in 1926. It is mentioned in Medieval documents, linked to the nearby Fletchampstead, Westwood, and Stoneleigh estates. These historical aspects are important, reflected as they are in names of roads and schools but also in the attempt to design into the new estate a village feel.
The Canley we now see is largely the result of a pre-war vision of a ‘planned neighbourhood unit’ on the outskirts of Coventry. Building began in the 1930s mainly to rehouse people from city slum clearance programmes but the war halted construction. It continued with renewed haste thereafter, especially given the severe bombardment Coventry suffered. The first bombs to fall actually landed in the industrial area of Canley on August 18th 1940.
Then came the blitzkrieg, lasting until mid-November with three quarters of the city centre destroyed. This included the 14th century cathedral, with only its shell remaining once the fires had died out after the single most concentrated attack on any British city during the War on the night of November 14th, 1940. A new word was coined to describe such sustained heavy bombing – to ‘Coventrate.’
Residential areas were badly damaged such as the older district of Foleshill where my parents, still single, were living with their families. Over 41,000 homes were damaged, many destroyed completely and 550 people lost their lives. It has been said that the German bombers continued what the town planners had begun before the war – the wholesale modernisation of the city. Coventry Corporation had intended to implement grand designs for a new city centre surrounded by healthy suburban estates such as Canley.
The war left a scarred landscape and a severe depletion of the housing stock. Resuming the construction of Canley was part of the post-war drive to provide new homes. The pre- and post-war parts of the estate not surprisingly have a different look to them reflecting the changed contexts of the grand 1930s plans and the pressing post-war needs.
Growing up there in the early 60s, the countryside never seemed too far away. We kids were often out and about, playing in the woods, making dens and tree swings, watching cows graze in farmers’ fields and scrumping in nearby orchards where Warwick University and Cannon Park shopping centre now stand. There were brooks to jump across (or fall into regularly in my case) and an old Roman ford near to the busy A45.
There were two woods very close to our house. Ten Shilling Wood was so named because that was how much a licence cost to shoot there in former times. Park Wood was at the top of our street though we never called it by its proper name: I’m not even sure we knew it then. To us it was the ‘top wood’ with Ten Shilling Wood being the ‘bottom’ one. Park Wood was also known as the dark woods or the bluebell wood because of the wonderful displays in springtime when we would collect huge bunches for our mothers. Both woods were remnants of the ancient Forest of Arden.
Canley has three main ‘boundaries.’ Fletchamstead (N.B. Modern spelling) and Kenpas highways, comprising part of the Coventry Bypass (A45) was one of these. This major route links Coventry to Birmingham in one direction, and ultimately to London, about 100 miles away, in the other.
There were older parts of Canley on the other side of the Bypass, however, including some pre-war council housing along Burnsall Road from the early 1930s estate construction period.
There is also Canley station, formerly Canley Gates, opened mainly for workers at the Standard Motor Works in 1940. This is on the main London to Birmingham railway line, which forms another Canley boundary. Constructed between 1833 and 1838, the railway cut through number of farmer’s fields and several small bridges and crossing points were put in place as access for the farmers and their livestock. Rather than being used to move cows between fields, it’s now a main thoroughfare from Canley to Tile Hill and beyond.
Charter Avenue, the main road into and out of the estate, forms the third boundary. It begins at a junction with the A45, marked conveniently by the Phantom Coach pub. This is typical of many built in the interwar years, being spacious when compared to older city centre ‘boozers’, with gardens back and front. It was intended to serve the expanding new estate as well as to pick up passing trade from thirsty travellers on the A45.
Moving westwards along Charter Avenue, we see all key Canley estate roads branch off to the right hand side in ribbon style development. The road is a dual carriageway as far as Mitchell Avenue, where building stopped before the war. This also represents an internal ‘border’ within Canley, marking the older from the newer part, the top from the bottom end of the estate. Charter Avenue continues as a single carriageway from there till it ends about a mile later at the junction with Cromwell Lane. This marks the edge of Canley and in the past of Coventry City’s limits.
Charter Avenue is Canley’s main road and buses to and from the city centre still pick up passengers from stops along here as they have always done.
Canley’s Early Residents
Coventry was in many ways a ‘city of factory workers’ with so many engineering plants, some of them in the Canley area. It was arguably one of the most industrial cities in Europe and my own ancestors had mostly pitched up in Coventry looking for industrial work of various kinds in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Canley was also to be all council housing, offering decent homes for the workers many of whom were living in overcrowded conditions in older parts of the city. Some residents were to be migrants from other areas of the country in search of work. Industrial Coventry had long been a magnet for those thrown out of jobs, whether from the mills of Lancashire, shipbuilding yards of Tyneside or collieries of South Wales. Coventry welcomed skilled and unskilled labour and Canley would count among its own resident a broad mix of people from across Britain.
The ideal was fair rent, with no family expected to live in a house too small for its size, with the council as a non-exploitative landlord. Acting upon a belief that ‘environment makes the slum dweller’, the Corporation wanted to make ‘better’ people on a new estate with a ‘healthy and pleasant environment.’
Building an Estate of ‘Happiness and Health’
An article in the Midland Daily Telegraph in 1938 (May 17th) declared that ‘Canley Contributes to Coventry’s Happiness and Health.’ It was referring to the 150 houses already occupied in the Prior Deram Walk and Queen Margaret’s Road area. The layout of the new streets and houses led the writer to conclude that:
Canley is, without a doubt, a very healthy housing estate. It is already becoming attractive in appearance, for many of the front gardens of the first 100 houses built are a mass of colour.
Clearly the residents had been very busy in their gardens.
The good-sized gardens front and back were for the men to grow not only flowers but also vegetables and to breathe in fresh air. They were for kids to play in but there were plenty of planned green spaces as well.
The houses were mostly redbrick, semi-detached, typical of those being constructed across the country. Coventry planners aimed to avoid ‘displeasing uniformity’ by building in blocks of four, some of them being set back a few feet. Variety would promote ‘beauty and harmony.’ Different colours were used for roof tiles and also for the doors and the pebbledash. No two blocks were to be painted the same.
Inside the one, two, three and four bedroomed houses there was light and space, fitted cupboards, storage space, picture rails and kitchen ranges. The houses were the sort of suburban home middle-class couples might aspire to buy but these were not for sale.
Nearby this new ‘township’ was a row of shops, which were later on referred to the ‘big shops’ after the construction of the ‘little shops’ in the post-war part of Canley. There was a brand new primary school as well, named after the son of local tenant farmers, Sir Henry Parkes, who grew up in nearby Moat House Lane. He went on to become Premier of New South Wales in 1872. A statue of a kangaroo was erected in front of the school to mark this link. A small public library was also built next to the school.
The City Corporation planners were forward thinking and included small retirement bungalows in their scheme, many of which remain today for retired people. The street is nicknamed ‘Pensioner’s Row.’
Two and three bedroomed redbrick houses were built along Charter Avenue as far as Mitchell Avenue. A few houses were built just inside the new turnings intended to be fully-fledged streets but the war came and these were put on hold.
After the war, the builders, including some of prisoners of war, returned. The ideals were not to be diluted but construction had to be speeded up. The decision was taken to use a new type of house specially designed in this period: the British Iron and Steel Federation or BISF house. (1)
To us locals, they were simply steel houses, built around a steel frame with part of the outside cladding steel as well. They are ‘non-conventional build’ because they are not brick with slate tiled roofs. Whilst the materials may be non-conventional, they are, in fact, traditional three bed, semi-detached houses. They were also meant as permanent, not temporary homes and differed from wholly prefab houses.
A plot of land near Prior Deram walk saw several rows of steel houses go up, around Thimbler Road and Sheriff Avenue. Some prefabricated bungalows were erected along John Rous Avenue and Mitchell Avenue thus largely finishing more quickly and cheaply the construction of Canley. The prefabs have long since been demolished and replaced with brick houses but the steel houses remain.
The prefabs were praised in a Coventry Evening Telegraph article in 1945 (October 30th) as the ‘Coventry’ experiment. Not only had the Corporation ‘pioneered a house of novel construction and design’, but had cut through red-tape. This referred to the fact that the plumbing system contravened building by-laws, but the pressing need for housing was seen as justification.
The compact homes were described as cosy due to good insulation, with no wastage of space: much research had gone into their design and construction. Coventry’s Lord Mayor described them as being good for housewives. By easing their burden, he believed the homes made a great contribution to society and also recognised the part women played in the war. Many women had worked in ‘men’s jobs’ but in peacetime were expected to return quietly to the home and domestic roles.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s several four storey blocks of flats were built plus some maisonettes in Donegal Close and Penrosa Walk. This renewed building in streets behind the ‘little shops’ and also further up Charter Avenue was done in a thoughtful manner, with variation of style and of colours.
The aim of providing light, airy houses, large gardens and green spaces remained as Canley expanded with the view that creating a better environment would create better people. Canley was still a planned neighbour, despite the war intervening, and was a practical example of current town planning ideas and ideals.
I will consider in the next blog to what extent the blueprint of architects and planners succeeded in promoting a sense of community across the pre- and post-war built estate.
(1) You can find more images and detail on post-war British Iron and Steel Federation homes at the BISF website.