Design, architecture and site of the Council House
The Council House was designed by the architects Edward Garratt and H.W Simister of Birmingham and was built in 1913-17. The outbreak of the First World War meant that the building was not officially opened (by the Duke of York, later King George VI) until June 1920. The use of an early Tudor style was in keeping with St. Mary's Hall at the rear (a condition set down by the Corporation) and suited the awkward site.
The original scheme for new municipal buildings was actually put forward in 1895. A competition had been organised to find the best design and 10 designs from nine different architects, three of whom were Coventry men, had been received. Prizes were awarded to the three best designs - £150 to Harry Quick of Coventry, and £50 each to H. T. Hair of London and Herbert W. Chattaway of Coventry. Quick's design was illustrated in the Midland Daily Telegraph for June 20th and 22nd, 1895.
The 12 drawings carried the motto of 'Leofric the Saxon' and were praised because "...apart from their merits as showing the best arrangement of the necessary buildings upon the somewhat scattered site, [they] are beautiful works of art". The proposed buildings were in the Tudor style, faced in stone and decorated with turrets and crenellations, oriel and bay windows and a corner Clock tower, not dissimilar to the one eventually built.
The chosen site was bounded by Earl and St. Mary Streets and Bayley and Hay Lanes, and would involve the demolition of the existing police station, all properties on the west side of St Mary Street, the block of property extending from the corner of St. Mary Street along Earl Street as far as F. J. Thomas's shop, the Gas Offices, Town Clerk's Office and the premises of Messrs, Dewes, Seymour and Wilks in Hay Lane.
Disputes over the Council House
The design was altered in December 1895 to reverse the original arrangement of placing the new police court in Earl Street and the Council Chamber on the site of the Old Council Chamber and Court, fronting Bayley Lane and St. Mary Street. This scheme, however, never came to fruition. The site was eventually cleared of buildings, largely to help the widening Of Earl Street, but then remained vacant for over a decade. This brought much criticism because many of the demolished buildings had been shops and, according to Six Hundred Years of Municipal Life (1946), this "altered the balance of the business centre of Coventry, and led to some striking changes in site values".
The main reason for the lack of action seems to have been that many local people wanted the new buildings to feature shops on the ground floor and municipal offices on the floors above. A minority, however, argued that a proper, dignified Council House, worthy of the city, should be built. After a long and bitter argument, the majority idea won the day and an application was made to the Local Government Board for permission to raise a loan to cover the cost of erecting the buildings. The President of the Board at that time - John Burns, MP - had worked in the city as a young man and took a personal interest in the application. He successfully persuaded the Corporation that the scheme involving shops and offices was unworthy of Coventry and so, in November 1910, a competition was again set for architects.
Another minor dispute arose over whether or not a town hall, as well as a Council House, should be built. The site was a bit small to house both, but competitors were asked to design both buildings as one scheme, even though the town hall part might not be followed up. For that reason, the conditions stated that: "It will be desirable for competitors to design the Municipal Offices so that they can be erected and completed independently of the Town Hall, but with the ultimate idea of forming one building." Everyone agreed that the new buildings must pay respect to the beautiful historic buildings nearby, especially St. Michael's Church (later the Cathedral) and St. Mary's Hall.
Size of the Council House
The building had to house the following departments: Town Clerk's, City Engineer's, Waterworks, City Treasurer's, Rates, Medical Officer's, Weights and Measures, Education, Electric Light, Gas and Police, plus Council Chamber, Committee rooms and Lord Mayor's Parlour.
The Town Hall was to house some 1,500 people (300 in galleries) and include a caretaker's home. Today's Council certainly could not fit into one such building!
Building the Council House
The competition to find the best design was won by two architects from the Birmingham firm of Garratt, Simister, Buckland & Farmer. The builders were Wilcock & Co. of Wolverhampton.
The plaster modelling was done by R. M Catterson Smith of Birmingham, the windows and leaded lights by Henry Hope & Sons of Birmingham and the stained glass and geometrical glazing by Harvey & Ashby, also of Birmingham. Stone and wood carvings were executed under the direction of Henry Wilson, President of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society. The zeal of Alderman William Henry Grant ensured that many heraldic devices of special relevance to Coventry history were included in the decoration of the building, inside as well as out.
The inner decorations of the Council Chamber and the original committee rooms include symbols of the Forest of Arden, which once spread right across the Coventry area (place-names ending 'in-Arden' appear both east and west of Coventry).
The foundation stone of the Council House was laid on 12 June 1913 by the Mayor, William Fitzthomas Wyley, at a ceremony with band music, a hymn and prayers. Despite the outbreak of war in 1914, the money was found to continue the building programme. The delayed opening, held on 11 June 1920, was accompanied by music from the Band of His Majesty's Coldstream Guards. The Duke was met by the Corporation in the old manner of receiving royalty - at the City boundary, by the old Toll Gate House on Warwick Road (since demolished).
The exterior of the Council House
The building is faced with Runcorn stone and roofed in Cotswold stone. The rich display of heraldic carvings mostly centred around the main entrance includes the arms of many historical characters associated with Coventry's history, from the time of Edward the Confessor until the 16th Century.
The full list is: Edward the Confessor; Henry II; Queen Isabella; Edward III; Edward, the Black Prince; Richard ll; Henry VI; Queen Margaret; Queen Elizabeth l; Mary, Queen of Scots; James l; the Earls of Chester, Cornwall and Northampton; the Dukes of Norfolk and Hereford; Neville, Earl of Warwick; Sir William Dugdale; Thomas Sharp; John Hales; Sir Thomas White; the Botoners and Swillingtons; Thomas Wheatley; Thomas Bond; William Ford; Dr Philemon Holland; the Davenports: the Hopkins and Jesson families; Sir Skears Rew; the Harringtons of Coombe Abbey; the Berkeleys of Caludon Castle; the City of London; and the See (bishopric) of Lichfield and Coventry.
This is the list published in the programme to the official opening, but when the devices were repainted in the 1950s, it was found that Ford and Rew were not among them but another - Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick - was.
The other main features of the exterior are the corner clock tower and the statues of Godiva, Leofric and 'Justice' above the entrance, plus smaller figures elsewhere on the building. These were actually not present when the building was opened, although spaces had been left for them. They were not added until 1925-26. The architects, after consulting the Council, had commissioned Henry Wilson to provide the figures in 1924. Wilson had previously been responsible for making the stalls and canopies in the Council Chamber, and supervising other carving.
The smaller figures include Edward the Confessor; Edward, the Black Prince; and Ranulf, the Earl of Chester. The four figures at the clock tower's corners are the four patron saints of the British Isles (although originally they were to be the 'angels of the four winds). The figure at the top of the clock tower has been thought to represent many people, from St George to a boy scout (!), but is actually St Michael (the archangel described in the Bible), with a flaming sword, keeping watch over the city. The clock mechanism was made by John Smith & Sons of Derby, but the outer casing (featuring the figure and wings of an angel) seems to have been part of the general architectural scheme for the building and may have been designed by H. VV. Simister, who the Corporation asked to make suggestions for modifying the clock in 1926. Internal lighting was added in May 1925, by the Coventry Electrical & Engineering Company. The clock was damaged during an air raid in 1941, but the full extent of the damage was only discovered in the autumn of 1959. The design was altered slightly when repairs were carried out, at a cost of around £1,400. The clock is wholly mechanical, with no electrical parts at all.
The interior of the Council House
The interior of the Council House has a fine curving staircase and a lofty Council Chamber on the first floor.
Near the Chamber lies another fine group of rooms, the Lord Mayor's Civic Suites, made up of the reception and hospitality suites and the Lady Mayoress's Parlour.
There are symbolic features in the plasterwork of the corridor ceilings, and there are stained glass windows next to the main staircase, which carry the crests and mottoes of the old Coventry craft guilds and companies. Those trades represented are the mercers, drapers, smiths, cappers, tailors and shearmen, butchers, girdlers, bakers, masons, weavers, dyers, whittawers, tanners, carpenters, saddlers and skinners.
The Council Chamber lobby has a fine display of original paintings of Coventry scenes in the early 20th century, by Herbert E. Cox.