For our second walk, we will start from the King’s Head Hotel, at the corner of Smithford Street. As we look down this important business thoroughfare we cannot but notice what a picturesque effect the old houses, with their projecting gables, and the fine embattled tower of St. John’s Church in the distance, give to the view: it is one of the best street views in “ye ancient citie.”
The first house on our right is the City Hotel, which formerly had a verandah, from which many an exciting scene, especially during election times, was witnessed. It has, however, been re-modelled and re-decorated as an hotel and restaurant. Immediately adjoining is a succession of old houses, the fronts of which show a good proportion of timber work, though some have been filled up with brick and other materials in such a way as to destroy their former quaint appearance. Passing on, we come to a narrow passage on the left, called Vicar Lane, where a building known for many years as the Vicar Lane Congregational Chapel is occupied by the British Photo Engraving Co. The first meeting house of the Society of Friends was in this lane, a much more ancient building than Vicar Lane Chapel.
Returning down the lane we cross over into Market Street, which leads to the Market Hall, with its lofty clock tower. The building is erected partly on the site of the old butter market and watch-house, near which formerly stood the city stocks. The materials used are brick and stone, and the cost of erection was about £20,000. The building consists of one large hall, 140 feet by 93 feet, with four entrances; a smaller hall, partly let as shops, and an arcade. The tower is 135 feet high, and contains a fine clock, with illuminated dials, the cost of which was £300. The hall was opened in 1867 with an Art and Industrial Exhibition. In Market Street, by the way, was born the celebrated actress, Miss Ellen Terry, and two houses have put forth claims for the distinction of being the birthplace.
Retracing our steps into Smithford Street, the next place to be noticed is the old Theatre Yard on the left. The Theatre was erected by Sir Skears Rew, a member of the Coventry Corporation (who then resided in the building in front) and opened for public performances on Easter Monday 1819, but was superseded on the opening of the Royal Opera House in Hales Street.
On the right is Drinkwater Arcade, named after a popular mayor, and adjoining is the new Corn Exchange, erected on the site of the old Post Office. Just below, on the left, we come to the Barracks, with stone buildings facing the street, entered by a gateway. The Barracks were erected on the site of the once famous Bull Inn, within whose walls many a stirring event took place. Here the hapless Mary Queen of Scots was confined as a prisoner. The rooms fronting the street are the officers’ quarters, next to these being offices and the quarters of the married soldiers. Under the second archway is the stabling, over which are the rooms occupied by the rank and file. Then there is a spacious drill-yard, which was formerly a bowling green connected with the Bull Inn. Facing the visitor as he enters the drill-yard is the hospital, while to the right and left stand the riding school, guard-room, canteen, workshops, etc. The outer gate of this yard opens into the Bull Yard, a short thoroughfare which emerges at the bottom of Hertford Street.
Returning to the main entrance, and passing a short distance down Smithford Street, we notice on the right a large red brick building. This is the Great Meeting House, now belonging to the Unitarians. It was erected in 1701, partly on the site of an ancient structure called St. Nicholas’ Hall, or Leather Hall, and is fitted up in old-fashioned style, with oak pews and galleries. In connection with this place of worship is Smith’s Charity, yielding about £100 per year, which is at the disposal of trustees.
A little further down the street, on the right, we come to the central stores of the Coventry Perseverance Co-operative Society. A bridge, known as Ram Bridge, not visible however, is now crossed, and passing by the end of West Orchard, on the right, Fleet Street is entered, marking the site of the ancient fleet, or overflow of the Sherbourne, which passes under the bridge. Fleet Street got its name for the same reason as Fleet Street, London.
St. John’s Church
We now leave the main street, and, turning to the right, enter Hill Street, passing the east end of St. John Baptist Church. This edifice, which was restored in 1875, is a noble specimen of mediaeval church architecture. Its-origin is traceable to the religious guilds of the city, and Queen Isabel, by a grant dated May 7th, 1344, gave a piece of land at Bablake whereon to erect a chapel, which was dedicated in 1350. This chapel was very small, only occupying the space now taken up by the chancel. In 1357 a former valet of Queen Isabel took an interest in the fortunes of this chapel, and by his gifts facilitated the work of extension; he also endowed the place to such an extent that four additional priests could be maintained. Two years afterwards other lands were given by Edward the Black Prince, and buildings appropriate to a collegiate institution were added. On the suppression of religious houses the church and its property were granted to the Mayor and Corporation of Coventry, but services were not regularly kept up. During the time of the Commonwealth the church was used as a temporary prison, and many Scotch soldiers were confined in it. It was repaired in 1734, and service has since then continued to be held. The interior is one of the most beautiful, as well as most peculiar, in the Midland Counties. On the last day of 1900 the church was much damaged by a great flood, the water rising to a height of nearly six feet. Since then further renovations have been carried out, and a new organ provided.