In the second part of my small study, I am going to introduce a fictional family to tell the continued story of one Coventry street and its residents. The family may not have existed but the details of their lives are based on historical research and it’s a way of taking as close a look at Kensington Road’s earliest years as possible. As with the first post, I welcome comments from readers so that the most accurate portrait of family life can be painted.
George and Lucy Harris moved into Kensington Road in the autumn of 1909 when George was 27 and Lucy was 25. With them was their eight-month old son, Thomas, and a new arrival was expected in the spring. The couple was relieved to finally move out of Lucy’s parents’ house in Spon End where Lucy had grown up with her five siblings. Although this meant that she was used to the noise and chaos that filled each of its four rooms, starting her married life within those crowded walls had proved a strain on everyone. After the wedding in the summer of 1907, the couple lived there so that they could start saving in earnest for a home of their own. It was a tight squeeze. In order to free up a room for the newly-weds, Lucy’s parents slept downstairs in the living room and her three younger sisters shared the other bedroom. Her elder brother had already left home, for a room in a house near to the newly opened Ordnance Works in Red Lane where worked.
George was not a Coventry kid. He was born in Northampton, left school at 14 and started work on the railways. He was always vaguely restless and listened with interest to his fellow workers’ animated talk about the Coventry cycle factories that were beginning to diversify into motor car production. One Saturday morning, he asked a friend to cover for him for the last hour of work on the tracks near the station, boarded a train to Coventry and made his way to the Humber Works on Lower Ford Street. Dressed in his Sunday suit, George made a good impression on the work’s foreman who understood only too well his keenness to join the men who were part of this transport revolution. Looking beyond a lack of engineering experience, the foreman recognised a willingness to adapt and to learn and hired eighteen year old George on a trial basis.
It was a good decision for the Humber. George was hard working and although his job was initially in cycle production, he was quickly hooked on the excitement felt by the young workers as the company strengthened its development and output of motor vehicles. He found lodgings on the Holyhead Road and it was while cycling back from work, that he first saw Lucy Evans, leaving Williamson’s watch making factory where she worked. A courtship was followed by an engagement, which George insisted should continue until they had saved enough to set up home together. As they walked out together on Sunday afternoons, they noted the progress made to the new streets and houses being developed near Hearsall Common. As they strolled, they speculated about what their future might be like in one of these modest but elegant red brick houses. It took many walks but eventually Lucy persuaded George to set a date for the wedding, by telling him that if they could start their married life with her parents, the money George paid out in lodgings could be put aside. They would, Lucy was quite sure, only have to give a little extra to her mum to cover their contribution to food and fuel. The wedding was at St Thomas’s Anglican Church on The Butts, where Lucy had been baptized in 1884. From girlhood, Lucy had dreamt of a wedding dress of satin crepe -de-chine, trimmed with pearls, finished off with a satin train and tulle veil, with a tiara of orange blossom. She kept her dreams to herself, however, and opted for a simple cream dress with a grey serge coat. A future and a home were more important and the only frivolity Lucy allowed herself was a sheaf of white lilies which everyone agreed set off her outfit perfectly. There was a wedding breakfast of roasted ham, beef and wedding cake at her mum’s and just enough wine and beer to toast the young couple. For a year, the newly-weds saved every penny they could and, when, in the late summer of 1908, they realised that they were going to have a baby, it was clear that they would need to redouble their saving efforts ahead of Lucy leaving her job at Williamsons. Despite her many friends there, Lucy couldn’t wait to turn her back on the factory; she had expected, as did her employers, that she would leave as soon as she was married – as she had seen so many other women doing – but she had stayed in pursuit of achieving her dream of a good, solid home for her family.
And then, there it was. In the early summer of 1909, a sign appeared in the window of a house still under construction at the top end of Kensington Road. The notice directed those interested in this or the houses to its immediate left and right to contact Mr Bird, the builder and developer. Lucy immediately loved everything that she could see from the road, from the downstairs bay window, to the tiny tiled porch and the intricate pattern of the line of decorative brickwork below the eaves. When they got back to the house in Spon End, she stood impatiently beside George as he wrote to express their interest in the house. The reply came two days later. Mr Bird asked them to meet his agent at the house that Saturday afternoon and so, leaving baby Thomas with Lucy’s mum, they knocked on the door at 3 o clock. It was love at first sight for Lucy; the house was nearing completion, the walls were plastered and the floorboards were laid. The Minton tiles in the hall were in the process of being laid and added a rich redness to the interior of the house. Compared to the little Spon End house where Lucy had grown up, it seemed palatial. There were two downstairs reception rooms and a kitchen with a generous sized pantry. The builders, said Mr Bird’s agent, were about to install a coal-fired range for cooking and a copper for boiling water. Upstairs there were three bedrooms, the smallest one still big enough, explained the agent, to partition and add a bathroom if they wished. If they wished! Neither Lucy nor George had even considered such luxury and nor did they now. Not only would this add to the weekly rent, it was far beyond their expectations and they dismissed the idea. To have their own outdoor WC and not to be sharing with five other people seemed luxurious enough for them.
The agent, who could see that the couple wanted this house very much, asked them if they had considered owning rather than renting it. George and Lucy’s initial reactions were the same – that such an arrangement could never be for the likes of them. They knew very little of banks and mortgages – this was not the world from which they had come – and so, as Mr Bird’s agent went into sales pitch overdrive, the Harris’s listened with incredulity and learned that with a £30 deposit, they could buy directly from the developer and then pay him nine shillings a week until the full balance of £235 was paid off. Minds reeling, they went back to Spon End to consider their options. They did have £30 in savings but not much more than this and, with the new baby on the way, they were acutely aware of the new expenses to come. Neither liked the idea of removing the only safety net that they had. But how wonderful it would be to own their home and not to be at the mercy of a landlord who might put up the rent without warning or even evict them in favour of a preferred tenant. George was earning a decent wage at the Humber. Work was generally steady; there had been a few periods of short time working and one or two layoffs when sales stalled or declined, depending on the season and the economy, but George had a good reputation with the firm which was expanding and had recently opened new works in Stoke. He was confident as he could be of his continued employment in Coventry. The couple took a deep breath and decided to enter into the agreement with Mr Bird.
The house was ready by early September and the keys were theirs. In the weeks before they moved in, George, Lucy’s father, and a friend from George’s days in lodgings, spent virtually every evening and Saturday afternoon papering the walls and painting the woodwork. Lucy arrived home one day with a pattern book she had picked up from a shop in Bishop Street. Her eye was drawn to a rich blue paper with a design of embossed daisies and tiny strawberries. How good this would look on the downstairs walls. For the nursery she liked a yellow paper covered with leaves and woodland creatures. She knew, however, that neither was in their price range and instead, she happily accepted the need to go instead to the Coventry Decorators’ Supply shop in Queen Victoria Road and pick out some of the cheaper rolls that were end of range. Although this meant that much of the house was decorated in rather plainer colours than she hoped, George surprised her by splashing out on a slightly more expensive cream paper with a textured rose pattern for the front room. For years afterwards, this room was used only when relatives came to visit and on Christmas Day.
Once the house was decorated, Lucy turned her full attention to the furniture and furnishings she wanted. She longed for elegant, brand new things but she knew that there wasn’t enough money to get everything at once. The couple had already acquired a few bits and pieces; wedding gifts, including a willow patterned tea service, had been carefully stored away until they had their own home. Lucy had been left tablecloths and a bedspread by her grandmother as well as an assortment of pots and pans and cutlery. Her father had made the baby’s crib and highchair and there was a bed from her parents’ house for Thomas, once the new baby came along. George’s grandparents in Northampton had left him an elegant dining table with six chairs which was being stored in a friend’s workshop. It was a start. Some more furniture came from an auction – an oak bedstead, a divan suite covered with brown velvet, a tiled washstand and two hearth rugs. Lucy was tempted by the ‘easy terms’ offered by the Coventry Furnishing Company in Fleet Street.
For four shillings a month she might be able to get the pair of walnut dressing tables she had seen in town, priced £4 and four shillings but she knew better than to ask George about it, knowing that he would never consent to buying goods on terms. His biggest worry was becoming ill or having an accident and not being able to work. He was in a trade union but its sickness benefit wouldn’t last long and, despite the advent of state sickness benefit some years later, George remained anxious about buying the house until the final payment was made years later. And nothing was ever bought on tick. Besides, matching bedroom furniture could wait; Lucy was particularly anxious to dress her windows as perfectly as possible, to let the neighbours know that she took pride in appearances, thereby demonstrating her family’s respectability. With material from the market, a friend of her mother’s made ‘lace’ curtains using white filet net with an elaborate border which gave Lucy the elaborate finish she was seeking. Even so, she aimed to replace these with Nottingham lace as soon as funds would allow.
Roller blinds were fitted to all of the bedroom windows and Venetian blinds prevented the prized living room wallpaper from becoming faded. The modern advice to housewives was to let as much natural daylight into the house as possible and Lucy, anxious for the health of her family as well as wanting to have a fashionable home, welcomed the move away from the heavy drapes that has been popular just a few years before.
The house was fitted with gas lighting brackets on each side of the chimney breasts in the main rooms. The only cost for the Harris’s was to choose globes to cover the mantles. There were so many styles but Lucy opted for a combination of plain and frosted glass. Gas was paid for by a penny-in-the-slot meter under the stairs and to keep costs low, the gas was only usually lit in the back downstairs room and the kitchen, with candles and night lights upstairs for years to come.
The next instalment of my study will look at life in Kensington Road for the young couple, with particular focus on Lucy as she grew as a mother and housewife, shopping, cooking and caring for her growing family. There was endless domestic advice given to women on the ‘home hints’ pages of newspapers and magazines. Times were changing but Victorian notions of the Angel of the Hearth were still very apparent, as this article in the Coventry Herald of 1909 makes clear;
Woman makes the atmosphere of a home, and it is for her to decide what the atmosphere shall be. Shame on the woman who does not make it an atmosphere of sunshine and love. Though she may be possessed of the wisdom of Minerva or the beauty of Venus, she is not a good no a worthy woman if she allows her moods and temper to ruin the home life of those dependent upon her for happiness. Woman are apt to excuse themselves, regarding their moods and their tempers by saying that they inherit these peculiarities or that they are the result of sickness or trouble. That is folly. There is no inheritance we cannot overcome if we set ourselves about it and some of the people who have suffered the greatest losses and the greatest trials in life have developed the sweetest characters. It is pure selfishness which permits a woman to indulge in these weaknesses.
Lucy certainly felt the pressure….