After Edward III granted the incorporation of the town in 1344, the city was encircled with walls three yards in thickness and six yards in height, with thirty-two towers and twelve principal gates, the first stone being laid by the Mayor in 1355, but the progress of the work was not continuous, and it was not till forty years had elapsed that the wall was completed. It withstood all attacks for 300 years, enabling the inhabitants to bid defiance to the mandates both of Edward IV and Charles I, when those monarchs appeared before the gates with armed forces and demanded admittance. Shut Lane, a small lane off Far Gosford Street, leading to the Charter House district, marks the spot where the royal armies were refused admittance to the city, and history says that Charles II, piqued at his father being refused an entrance, ordered the destruction of the city walls in 1662.
In the year 1392, Richard II. made the administration of justice in the city distinct from the county by constituting a mayor, a recorder, and four of the chief inhabitants, justices of the peace. By a charter of Henry VI in 1451, “the County of the City of Coventry” was formed, and continued till after the passing of the Municipal Reform Act, 1835. During the Wars of the Roses, the gates of the city were closed against Edward IV, and he was compelled to retire; but after the battles of Tewkesbury and Barnet, he returned, and deprived the city of many of its privileges, which were afterwards restored on payment of a fine of 500 marks.
In 1842, Coventry was incorporated with the County of Warwick; in 1888 it was constituted a County Borough, and so it remains. Extensions of the boundary took place in 1890 and 1899, as already stated.
Having thus taken a cursory glance at the history and present position of Coventry we will start on our first walk. No visitor can fail to notice the beauty of the principal approach to the city. At the end of Eaton Road we are attracted by an ornamental ground a little over two acres in extent. Let us take a walk along the path towards the west, and pausing about halfway across enjoy a favourite view of the city, with the “three tall spires” pointing heavenward. This enclosure, Grey Friars’ Green, so-called from the Grey Friars’ Monastery, which once flourished close by, was formerly a part of the waste land of the Manor of Coventry, and was used as a common playground; it was also for a long time the chief site of the Annual Great Fair, which then lasted eight days, and is one of the eleven recreation grounds (large and small) which Coventry possesses, totalling to 97 acres. In this ground, at the narrow end, nearest the city, is a statue of Sir Thomas White, a native of Reading, whose benefactions to Coventry in the 16th century are largely enjoyed in the city. The statue was unveiled in October, 1883, by Mr. A. S. Tomson, then Mayor, whose good fortune it was on the same day also to declare open to the public for ever Spencer Park (the gift of Mr. David Spencer), and Swanswell Recreation Grounds (presented by Sir Thomas White’s Trustees)—an occasion of much rejoicing throughout the city.
On the right-hand side of the main road are some modern and well-built villa residences, erected on leasehold land forming part of the Park Estate, belonging to Lord Cheylesmore. This Park was in olden times attached to the royal palace of Cheylesmore and, as before stated, was sold by the Prince of Wales to the Marquis of Hertford, by whom the demesne was enclosed. A portion is let in garden allotments, but a considerable and increasing area has in recent years been laid out for building purposes.
A little further, the Quadrant, a well-built series of residences, will be seen standing a little back from the road on the right. No. 10 is the home of the Y.M.C.A. and No. 2 is the headquarters of the District Nursing Institution, which is doing a beneficent work among the sick in the city. At the end of the Quadrant, fronting to Warwick Road, and also running some distance along Union Street, are the buildings of the Liberal Club, which, in addition to the usual clubhouse accommodation, has a spacious hall, much used as a place of public assembly. The handsome structure, which, with towers and domes stands nearly opposite, is the Warwick Road Congregational Church, erected in 1891 for the congregation of Vicar Lane Chapel, which dated back to 1723, the first minister being the Rev. Robert Simpson, grandfather of a vicar of St. Michael’s bearing the same name. Imposing as is its exterior, the interior will be found quite in keeping, while in the rear are Sunday school and other rooms.
The neighbouring building with the flagstaff is the Reform Club, a well-appointed house of the Liberal party, opened by Lord Carlingford in 1883. Christ Church (to be hereafter noticed) stands to our right hand, and passing Bull Yard, the back entrance to the Barracks, on the left of the road, and Union Street and Warwick Lane on the right, we come into Hertford Street, where we have a full view of Holy Trinity Spire. Shortly, on the west-side we notice the handsome offices of Mr. Edgar Whittindale, a well-known auctioneer. The present edifice was erected in 1911, after a destructive fire, on the site of a stucco building with a castellated parapet. This was originally built for the use of a body of Dissenters : it afterwards became a Subscription Library, and being transferred to the Coventry Corporation in 1867, it was used as the first Free Public Library and Reading Room. Higher up on the same side of the street, with a useful projecting clock in front, are the offices of the Midland Daily Telegraph, Autocar, Cyclist, Photography, and other publications of the well-known house of Messrs. Iliffe & Son, Ltd. Here also is a branch of Parr’s Bank.
On the right-hand side stands the Queen’s Hotel, an elegant three-storied stone building, erected by a Company in 1879, which is usually the home of the Liberal candidate at Parliamentary elections. The next building is the Coventry Savings Bank, which, previous to extensive reconstruction and alterations, was the Coventry Institute. The adjoining pile of buildings formerly belonged to Messrs. J. & J. Cash, textile manufacturers, but was purchased some years ago by the Government and converted into an up-to-date Central Post Office, of which the city had long stood in need. The wine and spirit stores of Messrs. Johnson & Mason stand next.
Almost directly opposite is the Empire Theatre, originally known as the Corn Exchange, which was a handsome structure of the Italian order, in red and white brick. The chief entrance was approached by a flight of steps surmounted by an open balcony ornamented with pillars. This building, which consisted of a corn exchange or concert hall, assembly room, etc., was erected at a cost of £7,000 by a Company formed in 1853, and was opened in 1856; but some years ago the Company disposed of the property to Mr. William Bennett, proprietor of the Opera House. The great hall was 110 feet by 52 feet, had a noble appearance, and would seat about 1,300 persons. In 1906 the building was converted into the present Theatre of Varieties, the memorial tablet of which was laid on 30th June by Miss Ellen Terry, the famous actress, who was born in Coventry. The handsome building next on the same side is the King’s Head Hotel—a famous rendezvous—in a niche at the corner of which is the official effigy of Peeping Tom. And it may be remarked that this effigy is not a mere public-house sign.
The open space at the top of Hertford Street, where all tramlines meet, is called Broadgate; but leaving this to the left, and Grey Friars’ Lane to the right, we enter High Street (forming part of the London and Holyhead Road), when we see on our left one of the old houses for which Coventry is so noted. This house, at the corner of Pepper Lane, is a good specimen of the half-timbered houses which form one of the most interesting features of the city.