My thanks to Dr Ruth Cherrington for this follow-up post to her contribution on the origins of the Canley Estate last week. 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.
Moving to Canley
My parents moved to Canley in December 1948 having been allocated a brand new three-bed British Iron and Steel Federation council house there. We looked at these so-called ‘steel houses’ and the early development of the Estate in last week’s post.
They left behind their shared lodgings in the older district of Foleshill, with its emissions from the local gas works and back-to-backs. But they also left behind close family and friends.
What did they bring with them? A few belongings, three small children and another one very much on the way: mum was eight months pregnant. They also brought with them working class values and way of life.
At first, mum thought it was ‘lovely’ to see the boys enjoying the relatively spacious house and garden (though just mud at this point) nearby after the former crowded conditions. She wasn’t so happy about field mice also running around but they soon left. My parents stayed for the rest of their lives.
But my mother felt isolated. Hearing the trains on the nearby railway line was a relief: she felt ‘there was some life in the place after all, it wasn’t just a dead end.’ But it did feel like that at first.
Many women on new estates up and down the country felt the same. It was quite an expedition for mum to visit her own mother with four bus journeys needed there and back and four children in tow. Canley buses terminated in the ‘bottom’ part of Canley back then, which made it even more of a trek.
My grandmother visited as often as possible as did my dad’s mum. Their help was welcome as babies arrived, right down to the seventh, myself. Mum lost her mother when I was only six. I clearly remember her anguished cry of grief when told the news. It was a huge loss to her on so many levels.
Housing was the priority and the rest, it was thought, would come later. Homes had been built quickly but people need more than a roof over their heads in order to lead full lives.
The town planners designed the estate to promote sociability. But did it? A group of researchers led by Leo Kuper in the early 1950s studied a part of Canley they called ‘Braydon’. They found typical conflicts and friendships as families settled into the new estate.
The thin walls of the BISF houses through which you could hear what was going on next door and vice versa were disliked. There were complaints about the ‘back’ door actually being a side door opening out towards your neighbour’s. You could see over to their side of the fence and, if the door was open, into their house.
As time went by, people put up high fences to block this intrusive view. The new houses were seen as lacking privacy and perhaps disappointing in that respect. People didn’t want ‘strangers’ knowing their business. Some families appeared as ‘stuck up’ and distanced themselves from others. Perhaps they saw themselves as socially above the majority of working class tenants.
My mother was friendly with some of our neighbours but not with others. Some helped her out with the kids though they had their own and gave her some support.
Some life-long friendships were formed from a very early age amongst the children. Many made playthings such as trolleys from what they could find or ‘scrounge’ which they then shared.
Mostly kids played together on the street, in each other’s houses and gardens and boys often formed ‘gangs’. They would be off into the woods or down the brook as often as possible. But what did the adults do?
Pubs and the Canley Social Club
My father was typical in returning to former watering holes back in Foleshill in the early years. Many men maintained links with mates, pubs and communities elsewhere as there was little on offer in Canley. The Phantom Coach, at the bottom of Charter Avenue, was never destined to become a ‘local’.
An older pub from the city centre, The Dolphin, moved to a green wooden hut in Sheriff Avenue in 1941. Whilst being a bit closer for men on our part of the estate, it was not as appealing as the well-established pubs they were used to. Dolphin regulars were more likely to be those in the immediate vicinity.
A new pub was built in our end of Canley in 1951– The Half Sovereign. Surely this would be the local that men had been waiting for?
Yes and no. By this time a social club had been established which was already very popular and had boosted a sense of community in Canley. The new pub had to compete with the Canley Social Club, which was right opposite our house.
Coventry is a good case study of clubs and community building and the Canley Social illustrates this well. The Council was quite radical in the early redevelopment of the inner city and the outlying estates, deeming it necessary to provide sites for residents to establish their own clubs. Seeing these as potential community centres, they allocated five plots of land on new estates.
The Council went further, taking a ‘Coventry City Bill’ through Parliament to allow the financial arrangements for these new clubs to be obtained through city funds.
Canley men wasted no time in setting up a club on the Marler Road plot. The first proposal was submitted on 16th December 1948, the month my parents moved to Canley. The Council approved this the following July. This drawing was the basis of the club as it developed with a billiards room, a hall for concerts and bar.
Money and building materials were scarce but enthusiasm in plentiful supply with locals keen to have their own club to use and run. An application in October 1949 was approved for a ‘temporary structure’ to be erected which was to be made permanent no more than ten years later.
Canley Social Club’s founder members bought and put up themselves ex-Ministry of Defence wooden huts. The small club was open for business in 1950 and my father was an early member. It was the much-needed social venue for estate residents, somewhere to come together, make friends and experience the type of communal life they had left behind.
The wooden hut served us all well during its lifetime before being replaced by brick buildings in the late 1950s. Locals recall a warm atmosphere with a lot going on for families, from boxing lessons for boys to bagatelle for the men. There were ‘free and easy’ concerts, ‘housey housey’ and children’s parties, all self-managed.
We looked forward to nights out over the club, the Christmas parties and annual coach trip to the seaside. For many, this was the only time they would visit the sea.
Canley researcher Leo Kuper saw the club’s potential and was correct in thinking that it would be more popular than the purpose-built community centre in Prior Deram Walk.
As well as out-performing the community centre, the Club was up and running before there was a church on the estate.
What was their role in community building?
Canley was described as a ‘godless’ place with no church before 1952 when Canley Methodist Chapel opened in Prior Deram Walk. In 1955, St. Stephen’s C of E church opened, ‘our’ side of Mitchell Avenue.
When he consecrated St. Stephen’s, the Bishop of Coventry, Dr. Neville Gordon, described it as ‘a new outpost from which Christian witness would spread’. He said ‘there were a mass of souls around the church in very great need of God’s mercy and truth’. They had lost contact with the Church when they moved to the district and had been ‘drifting aimlessly’. He urged the congregation to pray not only for themselves but the whole community.
It may have been the hard experiences of the Depression closely followed by the battering of war rather than the move to Canley that had caused some of my parent’s generation to become ‘lost souls’. Family, work, having a good time at weekends and keeping out of debt were the main preoccupations. Religion was mostly about the rituals of christenings, weddings and funerals.
Those active in the congregation developed their own small community. Some of them were also club-goers but not all and in this sense there were distinctions between where people’s allegiances lay.
After years of being ‘godless’, Canley now had two churches. Then another came along, next to the Half Sovereign Pub. Its origins date back to 1950 when a group of young evangelical Christians decided to hold children’s services on a patch of open grassland on the newly built estate. These meetings proved so popular that a regular Sunday school was opened in the nearby Charter Primary School.
More regular services were started and planning began for a permanent church building but there was no suitable site available. Divine intervention perhaps came to their rescue as the brewery that owned The Half Sovereign were returning to the Council a plot of land they didn’t need. It was the very same patch of land where the open-air meetings had been held. This was purchased and the Gospel Hall opened in 1956.
Children enjoyed Sunday School there because they saw and made friends and could win prizes such as chocolate and books. Harry Hollingsworth lived in nearby Mitchell Avenue and was an early Sunday School leader. He remembered ‘the tremendous sense of community in the early days – a sense of oneness’.
Wednesday night’s ‘Happy Hour’ saw lively young audiences. We enjoyed singing the songs and learning about the Bible in a more interesting way than at school. When asked to find certain passages in the Bible, the first person to do so would shout ‘got it!’ and win a prize.
In some ways, it was like going to the club with these communal activities and experiences, which we remembered fondly for years afterwards. Another reason for sending children was so that busy mothers could have a few hours respite from their domestic chores.
Shops are also community venues and places where people can meet. We had the ‘little shops’ consisting of a newsagent, Post Office and hardware store, chemist, grocery and a greengrocery.
At Prior Deram Walk were the ‘big shops’ with a few more options including a Co-Op. Whenever we were sent there, mum always reminded us to collect the ‘divi’ stamps.
Other traders regularly did the rounds. Fifty years ago there were doorstep deliveries without the internet. There was the milkman, baker, coal merchant, Corona pop delivery and ‘Snowball’ laundry service. The ‘green van’ came round the estate selling fruit and veg. People complained about higher prices but these mobile traders saved a trek to the shops or town. Convenience, it seems, always has its price.
Few people had cars, especially women, in the 1950s. Going down the local shops or even to the ‘green van’ on the street could be a small gathering, a time and place for a bit of a chat. Even such short meetings helped increase sociability and sense of community on the estate.
Canley did develop as a community, perhaps several given the divides of the pre-war ‘bottom’ end and post-war ‘top’ end of steel houses. There were those whose social lives were centred around the Club whilst others were more ‘churchy’. It became a place to call home as time went on with more amenities, services and schools. Gardens bloomed, as did friendships, courtships and marriages. There were the teething troubles of any new estate and later on the deep problems caused by industrial decline and social change. That part of the Canley story will be told another time.