Here is Part One of a portrait of a Coventry street in the earliest years of its existence. Kensington Road, running between Albany Road and Earlsdon Avenue North, is a thoroughfare I thought I knew well, for it was in one of its 138 houses that I became, for the first time, an owner occupier, in a terraced property that was home to my family for almost ten years. I loved that house from the moment we moved in (our youngest son made his appearance into the world on moving day itself), which was just as well as we had no money to change or replace anything. Lucky for us then that the original window frames hung on long enough to serve us, even though the sash cords were largely useless and the single glazed glass panes defenceless against passionate garden football matches. It was years before we dared peep under the carpet in the narrow hall in case the Minton tiles we hoped would be there proved too badly damaged to expose. But there they were and although we were never able to have them professionally cleaned and restored, we were pleased they were back on show anyway (just visible under a sea of trainers), a proud feature of the original house. We never did risk removing the wood chip wallpaper that adorned the whole house, for fear it was all that was holding the plaster on the walls, yet even through its thick and uneven texture, we could just make out the pipes that served the gas lamps that once lit the front room.
Other parts of the house’s history revealed themselves to us bit by bit. A builder friend showed us how the force of bomb blast had shifted the top half of the house before it settled back into place but now ever so slightly out of kilter with the lower half of the building. Troublesome drains eventually led to an understanding of the extent of fractured sewage and water pipes running under the whole neighbourhood, a consequence of the pounding that Coventry took on the night of 14 November 1940, one of the most intense bombing raid on a British city outside London during the Second World War. Digging at the bottom of the garden one day, my husband’s spade went through the earth and kept on going down, revealing a shaft to ensure fresh air could reach the (long gone) air raid shelter that offered a safer space than the house did to its wartime occupants. I have always loved the story recounted by Ernie Newbold in Portrait of Coventry (1972) of King George Vl’s morale boosting visit to Coventry hours after the 1940 Blitz. Alderman Moseley, at that time Mayor of Coventry, lived at number 39 Kensington Road and, in the course of the King’s tour of the city, brought him to his home. The Mayoress, Moseley’s wife, was evidently taken by surprise, for she was at the back of the house dealing with fallen plaster and broken glass when there was a knock at the front door. She yelled out an instruction to come round the back because the door was off its hinges and then she saw who it was, ‘a tall spare figure in a military greatcoat’. I love the story not so much because of the thought of Mayoress Moseley yelling ‘ come round the back, it’s open’ to the King but because of what it says to me about women’s endless capacity for resourcefulness.
When we finally accepted that we had grown so much that we had run out of space and needed to move (albeit not far away), I cried when our Kensington Road front door closed behind us for the last time. Nearly two decades later, the Covid lockdowns of 2020/1 provided me with an unexpected opportunity to stay and work locally and to go for walks which took me on occasion back to this road which I held so much affection for. On some days, the traffic was so light that I could walk down the middle of what is normally a busy road and take photographs quite safely. It brought to mind a story I was told by Charles Evans, who came to live in Kensington Road not long after it was developed. As a boy, he and his siblings used to attach a very long rope to a garden gate on each side of the road. The rope, used for mammoth skipping games, needed untying only a few times in any one day, if a car or delivery vehicle needed to get past. A far cry then, from modern car ownership; when we lived there it was considered something of a triumph to be able even to park in the street.
One of the results of those local walks this past year is this blog, produced with the help of what I already had to hand – census material, newspaper archives and a good collection of books on Coventry’s history. There is – I know – much more still to discover in building plans, regulations and rates books, all to be explored when life is back to normal with archives offices and libraries open once again. I have thought long and hard about whether to post this, as it is so clearly unfinished but after years, I am finally beginning to understand that if I don’t put things out there, they will remain on the hard drive of my computer and running around my head but of no use to anyone. So this is a brave effort on my part to share and it comes with a plea; if you have any information, plans, deeds or stories about the street and its residents, please do get in touch with me so that the story can be expanded and enriched. I make no claim that Kensington Road was a typical Coventry street; the characteristics of the city have always been too diverse for it to be that. It is just a story of everyday life in early twentieth century Coventry.
The houses in Kensington Road were built between 1907 and 1910 on land sold by the Sir Thomas White Charity to the Newcombe Estates Company. This development company was responsible for the streets of terraced housing now variously referred to as Hearsall or North Earlsdon and situated between the mid 19th century districts of Earlsdon and Chapelfields. The best – and also the most visual – description and analysis of the development, which began in 1904 with the development of Newcombe Road, can be found in David Fry and Albert Smith’s Earlsdon and Chapelfields Explored (Simanda Press 2011). They explain how the land was sold in stages to the Company and how, from there, it was sold on again to individual builders who in turn bought plots large enough to build several houses. In April 1907, in a column called ‘Expanding Coventry’, the Coventry Herald announced plans for new buildings including 11 houses in Kensington Road for Mr W Higgins, 20 for Mr C.J. Smith, 13 for Mr C.F. Woodhall and 10 for Mr T.F. Bird. A first glance down the road seems to suggest uniformity but a slow walk along it shows precisely how it was shaped by the piecemeal development; here’s a run of houses with flat roofed bay windows, there’s another with small, pitched roofs over the bays and extending over the front door. Some houses are entirely flat fronted and a few more have bay windows on both levels.
With the exception of one or two larger houses built on corner plots, the houses were built with two reception rooms, kitchen and/or scullery and (on the whole) three bedrooms. Some had entrance halls, others opened straight into the living room. The original specification for the majority of the houses was an outside WC next to the coal shed and all the houses had back access, via a series of alleyways, with gates to each property. This ensured that coal could be delivered without the need for it to be tramped through or stored in the house. I know I would have been particularly pleased with that, given the dirt and the dust involved in bringing in the coal.
Using the 1911 Census of England and Wales, we can see which houses had six as opposed to five rooms. It’s important to note that in the room count for each entry, bathrooms and sculleries are excluded. This does make it more difficult to know which of the houses were originally fitted with bathrooms or added them subsequently. There is some useful evidence in the local press, such as the notice of a sale by auction of number 26 Kensington Road in 1912, after the death of the owner occupier. This house was described as having a forecourt, a good piece of garden ground at the rear with back approach, 3 bedrooms, a fitted bathroom and WC, front and back sitting rooms, kitchen, scullery, pantry, coalhouse and WC. The deceased owner was a 71 year old widow who lived alone in the property with a servant. Neither servants nor sole occupants living ‘on their own means’ were the norm on this working class street of workers, families and lodgers so perhaps the bathroom at number 26 was added as something of a luxury feature. When selling newly built houses, builders often made it clear that finishings could be added at the purchaser’s request, to suit their budget and tastes, rising from a basic price in the region of £270 in 1909. By the time we moved into our house in the early 1990s, a bathroom had been added to the back of the kitchen, where once the outside WC and coal shed had stood. Upstairs, the third (back) bedroom showed signs that it – or much more likely a divided section of it – had once been a bathroom, but without access to any documentation, I cannot be certain that the bathroom was an original feature (although I suspect that it was).
I recall another conversation with Charles – the young skipper – who moved into the road in 1912. According to the census of the previous year, his family’s house had five rooms; Charles told me that it had a scullery and I regret not having asked him what made him describe it as a scullery as opposed to a kitchen. On the whole, sculleries were for food preparation, washing dishes and doing laundry and were not big enough to count as living or even cooking space, thus distinguishing them from kitchens with a range and even a table around which family members gathered for meals and domestic jobs. I have not yet been able to go and see any plans of the houses but I have turned to Fry and Smith for some help. They include a floorplan for a substantial terraced house in Albany Road which had both kitchen and scullery marked out. There is also a plan for a small (and much older) cottage in Warwick Street, showing the architect’s plans for its extension in 1911. This adds space for a scullery and pantry but with no mention of kitchen. My Kensington Road kitchen originally had a fireplace along the back wall of the house and small though the room was, the six rooms recorded on the census suggests that this had always been regarded as the property’s kitchen, with a walk in pantry under the stairs.
Selling the Houses
Once the houses were nearing completion, builders used various methods to try to sell them. In the autumn of 1908, Mr Taylor of 65, Butts, put five houses on the market at a combined price of £1,100 (although they were also available singly), presumably hoping to sell to a landlord who would then let to tenants. T.F. Bird, a young builder and contractor (born in Dudley but by 1911 living with his wife in Earlsdon Street), who built extensively in Earlsdon and Hearsall, placed the following ad in the local paper in 1909:
“An Englishman’s Home” should be his own. Hundreds of our fellow townsmen realise this and instead of paying rent they buy their own houses and save the rent. Why not do likewise?
TF Bird seeks to make this possible for all. Call and see his houses in Kensington Road. They are designed for you. You can either buy them outright or by the payment of a deposit of £30 and the balance at eight shillings and four pence per week.
It’s interesting to see an advertisement from over 100 years ago playing on the British obsession with buying as opposed to renting, which is today as strong as ever. I presume that those who bought from the builder in 1909 remained leaseholders until they had paid off their debt, whereas those who had a more conventional mortgage were immediate freeholders. David Fry and Albert Smith note that owner occupiers lived in half of the road’s houses, a much higher percentage than some of the streets that surrounded it. I need to do more work to find out the average cost of weekly renting but I did see that a landlord with a house in nearby Newcombe Road was hoping to get seven shillings and six pence per week from tenants.
And now for those who lived in the street.
The People and the Census
There was an urgent need for housing in Coventry by the early 20th century; the city’s population had risen from 46,563 in 1881 to 106,349 in 1911. The craft industries that had dominated Coventry’s economy in the nineteenth century – ribbon weaving and watch making – were both in decline. But new industries were changing the face of the city, providing employment for Coventry born folk and for those attracted in to the city by openings in bicycle and – increasingly – motor car manufacture. Both were predominately male occupations and by 1911, along with the associated industry of machine tool making, made up the largest category of employment for men in Coventry. Across the city some 13,000 men were employed in these industries out of a total of 37,222 working men.
The 1911 census reveals that in Kensington Road, the motor, cycle and machine tool industries accounted for around 40% of male heads of household, lodgers, sons and other male family members and this was the single largest category of male employment in the street. By contrast, only one young woman in the road – the daughter in a household – is expressly recorded as working in the cycle industry (across the city over 1000 women were employed in the cycle and motor industries). Of the Kensington Road men working in these new industries, over 60% had not been born in Coventry; some came expressly to take jobs in workshops and factories where wages were relatively high. In 1913 a strike and campaign initially at the Humber, Daimler and Ordnance factories, resulted in a minimum wage of 26 shillings and 6 pence for a 53-hour week. This was as much as five shillings higher than the average paid at that time to a general labourer. These were undoubtedly good wages for Coventry’s factory workers, generally classified as semiskilled, and the agreement set a basic rate that was higher than anywhere else in the country, and on a par with London rates. The skilled engineers (the craftsmen – those who had served apprenticeships) may well have been somewhat irked by the fact that overtime pay for these semiskilled workers was paid at the same rate as their own.
That these industries were attractive to relatively young men is evident in Kensington Road, where the average age of men thus employed was around 30. The majority of these were householders, many married with children, some of whom – the vast majority boys – also went into this work. This certainly fits with the findings of a study that found that in 1911 over 75% of those in the cycle and motor industries were under the age of 35, and over 5000 were under 25.
Although employment in the city’s engineering factories dominated, there was still quite a range of employment in Kensington Road. Among men the next largest category of work (although at around 12% it was considerably less than engineering) was that carried out by craft and tradesmen – builders, decorators, carpenters and gas fitters were, with all the house building going on in the city, generally in high demand. In addition, there were railway workers, shop workers, a few white collar workers – clerks and insurance agents – and a few professional workers, including an accountant and a very few teachers.
The crafts of old Coventry – watch making and ribbon weaving – were both represented but in small numbers. The once thriving watch industry, so prevalent in Earlsdon and Chapelfields, was clinging on but the average age of the men thus employed (for on this street no women were recorded as working in watch making) was, at about 42, more than a decade older than the average in engineering. There was just one apprentice to the industry and whereas one might expect this to be because of local connections to watch making, he was in fact a young man whose father worked as a nightwatchman in a machine tool factory, the family having moved to Coventry from the south west of England. The husband and father who lived in ‘our’ house was a watch dial painter, and at 35, he was a relatively young worker in the trade although, unlike the apprentice, he was a Coventry born man who came from a watchmaking family.
Ribbon weaving, once such a proud feature of the city, had suffered a devastating and irreparable blow in the 1860s and although it remained, it had, by 1911, come to be regarded more as women’s work than employment dominated by skilled male craftsmen. What did this mean? That the women employed in the industry (of which, across the city, there were far more than men) received low wages, a consequence of it now being a woman dominated industry which in turn acted as a deterrent to men because of the low wages. There is just one man on the street – a silk dyer – working in the silk trade and a 77 year old ribbon weaver (despite the fact that by 1911 the State had introduced old age pensions, this man is described as ‘unable to work’ rather than retired. The fear of destitution lingered long in people’s minds). We need to be wary of assuming that the work had become de-skilled; true, the days of master weavers working in their homes with the help of their families was long gone, but among the few young women in Kensington Road described on the 1911 census as working in the silk industry, there is evidence of specialist work, including silk blocking and pearling.
Of the houses in Kensington Road that are listed as having male heads, around 70 show that no occupation was recorded for their wives. There has sometimes been a temptation amongst commentators to conclude from such statistics that married women did not need to work because they were the wives of relatively well-paid male workers. This may have been the case for some families, particularly because of decent wages in the Coventry engineering industries. But if we look again, the census also reveals that of the households where women were not working outside the home, nearly half had lodgers, or accommodated one or more extended family member. Men of various occupations – including engineering – lived in houses with lodgers and there is little doubt that the work of ‘doing’ for the lodger would have fallen almost entirely on the women of the household. Having a lodger was certainly no easy way to make money. During these early years of the 20th century, the local press is full of columns advertising rooms, such as this from 1909:
Board-residence Vacancy for Gentleman Boarder 43 Kensington Road. Healthy situation. 16 minutes Broadgate. Penny tram and motor bus stage. Every comfort. No children. Moderate terms.
Another at number 8 Kensington Road offered sole occupancy of a bedroom, a shared sitting room and a bath. Prices were not generally advertised, as the terms of residence were for private negotiation; some lodgers requested an evening meal whereas others would eat at the works canteen and opt for a more self-contained arrangement (the provision of meals and services was what usually distinguished a boarder from a lodger), perhaps needing only to share the family kitchen to make tea or light suppers. Boarders and lodgers alike added considerably to the laundry load and to housework tasks and of course there was the loss of family privacy – a stranger at the table for Sunday dinner, perhaps. There was the inconvenience of another person using the WC and washing facilities, the need for more hot water and heat. Kensington Road boarders and lodgers were overwhelmingly male and in Kensington Road the very few women lodging included a dressmaker, a nurse, a piano teacher and an elementary school teacher (living in a household where the daughter was also a teacher). Suitable lodgings for women workers were difficult to find during these years and there were public meetings organised by concerned campaigners to establish all-female lodgings where women could feel safe and secure. This was put forward as a moral as well as a practical issue (it being declared a ‘disgrace’ that Coventry had nowhere where women could seek lodgings other than newspaper columns and shop noticeboards), for the need to preserve women’s modesty and privacy in mixed sex boarding houses or households troubled many who sought to improve the lives of young and single women workers. When young women could no longer live with their families or had left their home towns in search of work, what they needed was to see advertisements like this one, for ‘superior apartments for one or two young ladies: board optional. No other boarders kept’. They still of course had to take the meaning of ‘superior’ on trust.
Taking in lodgers or being recorded on the census as ‘helping’ with the family business (I will talk more in the next blog about this) are all signs that extra income was needed to help make ends meet, to pay the rent or mortgage and to feed growing families. There was always a need to be as resourceful as possible, where work outside the home was not possible, practical, desired or permitted (by husbands).
Amongst women who were heads of households, over half were widows, some of whom living with children who were working, one who was running a shop ( I will talk more about shop work in the next blog), another who had turned being a landlady into more of a formal arrangement and was letting out apartments. Of the single women heads of household, one acted as her sister’s housekeeper (the sister worked for a tailoring company) and two others were dressmakers, working at home. A couple of married women were recorded as housekeepers or carrying out domestic duties; I like to think that they insisted on these descriptions to show that their unpaid labour was of immense value but in reality it probably depended on who filled in the form or on how the given information was interpreted by the enumerator once it had been collected.
Most of the women listed as being in work were the daughters and female relations of heads of household. It is – because of the small numbers – much more difficult to try to analyse women’s occupations in Kensington Road in relation to the broad trends of Coventry employment in 1911 than it is for its men. It is just possible to see, however, that the majority of Kensington Road women did very broadly reflect the city wide trends, which identify domestic work of all kinds and work in the textile industry as the main categories for employed women. There was a handful of women working as servants or housekeepers in Kensington Road but with the exception of two (as far as I can see), they worked at home for their families. In addition, some women in the street were employed on different types of factory work, including cardboard box making and there were a few clerks and teachers.
If you’ve survived my riff on statistics and are still interested, do watch out for the next part of this blog when I’ll take a look at life on the street and offer some information on setting up home, buying and acquiring furniture and all the other things that make a house a home. I locate the street’s shops and think about food prices, meal preparation and lots more besides.
Huge thanks to David Fry and Albert Smith for allowing me to use their images of Kensington Road
Thanks also to the British Newspaper Archive
The study that I referred to when discussing the ages of Coventry’s new workers is by Brad Beaven and John Griffiths and is called Citizenship in the Industrial Boomtown: Narratives of work and leisure in Britain 1880-1914
Ernie Newbold’s Portrait of Coventry was published in 1972 by Robert Hale