Happy birthday Council House - 100 years old today!

Published Thursday, 11 June 2020

One hundred years ago today, the Council House was officially opened by HRH the Duke of York – later to become King George VI.

Council House

The building may be based on a Tudor style and many people think it’s older than it is, but it celebrates its centenary today.

Work actually began in June 19​13 and the building was completed four years later, but the building was officially opened on 11 June 1920​.

The idea for the new Council House had first been proposed in 1891 by Alderman James Marriott who said a new building was needed to house Coventry’s increasing Council departments.

But the plans were hit by many delays.

There were arguments over choosing the building’s exact location and then buying out the shops and other properties already on the site.

The design and purpose of the building were also the subjects of long discussions, with original plans for the entire frontage on Earl Street to include shops with the Council buildings behind and then amended plans for shops on the ground floor with Council offices above.

Councillors were split over the issue of shops, with some believing they were needed to keep Earl Street vibrant, but others believing they would detract from the splendour of the new offices.

Eventually, in 1908 the Council gave new instructions to the General Works Committee to plan a new building without shops and in 1910 a competition was launched for designs, with the winners chosen as Edward Garrett and HW Simister of Birmingham, who wanted to reflect the grandeur of the city’s medieval past. 

The site had been empty so long it was known locally as ‘the Earl Street Stoneyard’, but finally work began on creating a building designed to complement the neighbouring St Mary’s Guildhall and St Michael’s Church.

The main aim for the Council House was to be a centre where the people of Coventry could visit those that represented them and get help. It also had to house a growing number of departments, with pamphlets given to architects saying the new building had to include departments for: Town Clerks; City Engineers; Waterworks; City Treasurer​; Rates; Medical Officers; Weights and Measures; Education; Electric Light; Gas; and Police.

Finally, the building we see today was created, with three storeys ​and 16 bays and many notable features, including the three figures of Leofric, Godiva and Justice above the main entrance and the clock on the tower to the east side of the building. 

Heraldic features were included to represent the city’s story and the stone and stained glass used were symbolic of the historical, religious and civic elements that had made Coventry famous as a city. 

Unfortunately, the stained glass windows were destroyed during the Second World War bombing raids and replaced with plain glass windows – although the building escaped relatively unscathed.

Even the artwork led to issues and stories in the papers of the time with some people objecting to the level of decoration. An article in the Coventry Graphic commented that ‘the exterior of the Council House is being overloaded with gaudy ornament’ and an article in the Coventry Herald said the new Council House had a ‘slightly vulgar’ look to it.

Besides the figures of Earl Leofric, Lady Godiva on either side of the figure of Justice, you can also see Edward the Confessor, The Black Prince, Ranulph Earl of Chester, St George, St Michael and Peeping Tom (described as a Saxon youth and located at the east end). 

Forest figures around the doorway recall that Coventry was in the midst of the Forest of Arden. Similar figures decorate the Council Chamber. To the left and right are the mace and sword, while overhead is the city's coat of arms, placed there before the supporters were added.    

The Royal arms in the porch are those of Margaret of Anjou, Elizabeth I, Henry VI, Henry II, Edward the Confessor, Richard II, Isabella, Edward III, Black Prince, James I, and overhead are the arms of Leofric, Earl of Mercia.

The Hay Lane tower  is dressed with shields of civic office and carved with  the four patron saints of the British Isles.  

On the corner of St Mary's Street,  jutting out of the tower is a cantilevered clock with its backswept wings of a golden angel.  The original clock had a seven foot copper disc face but it was damaged during the 1940 Blitz and was replaced with white glass with a light behind it. 

​Outside the Council Chamber on the first floor, are a collection of water colours by H E Cox,  and show Coventry as it would have looked in the early part of the 20th Century.  Inside the Council Chamber are seats made of Warwickshire oak with their carved forest symbols. This is where the 54 elected councillors sit during a Full Council meeting. Portraits include those of the late Alderman H B W Crosswell, last Mayor and  the first Lord Mayor(1953), plus  late Alderman Mrs Pearl Hyde MBE and first  woman Lord Mayor in 1957.  

The stained glass windows recall Coventry's history.   

On the left is the name of Coventry's first mayor, John Ward, which should be 1346, , the year after the city received its Charter of Incorporation. The central figure in the adjoining window is that of Edward III, who granted Coventry's Charter in 1345. In the centre is Lady Godiva, a Saxon Countess, holding the priory she and her husband Leofric founded. On the right you can see Henry VI, who created the city a county.

Happy birthday Council House!

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