Coventry in the 20th century

Between the wars, Coventry was the fastest-growing urban centre in Britain and the city that rose from the rubble was central to the new Labour government's vision of a brave new Britain, with the first pedestrianised shopping centre in Europe and a higher rate of car and home ownership than any other industrial city.

In the '50s they called it 'Britain's Detroit'. Its engineering workers enjoyed the first £5 note in a peacetime blue collar wage packet and immigrants flocked from the far corners of the British Isles and further afield to share in its prosperity.

Young Frank Whittle's astonishing journey from Coventry terraced street to a place in history as the inventor of the jet engine was exceptional, but by no means unique. An explosion of innovative talent and entrepreneurial dash was putting immense strains on Coventry. It was out-growing itself and something had to give.

Its new cathedral, consecrated in 1962 and dedicated to the cause of international peace and reconciliation, seemed to symbolise a prosperous and outward-looking future for a city.  But the spiral of history was about to take another cruel twist.  When the clouds of the recession, fuelled by an oil crisis, began to gather at the beginning of the 1970s, Coventry did not have the variety of industry or the ability to blow them away.

Its plight was brutally highlighted at the dawn of the 1980s with the collapse of Alfred Herbert, once the world's biggest machine tool firm. As machinery sales were held in a dead factory where thousands had worked it was clear that once again Coventry was veering towards a slump.

Factory closures, a failure to invest in its once pioneering shopping precincts and increasing unemployment rates gave the city a bleak and dispiriting Ghost Town feel, so articulately voiced by its most famous musical export, The Specials. Its image, once so vibrant and leading edge, worsened and it began to suffer an accelerating brain-drain as many of the most inventive people sought work elsewhere.

Coventry Archives

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