October 4, 2023

Coventry’s Hidden History Revealed in Saved Photos

Medieval wall

Images show that parts of medieval Coventry were revealed during the construction of the modern cathedral

Rare glimpses of a city’s medieval past and long-gone street scenes have been revealed in a collection of photographs saved from destruction.

Some 800 other negatives, handed over to a city archive by a cameraman and saved them from dumping, also show early excavations for the construction of the modern Coventry Cathedral.

They have been added to a collection of more than 8,000 photographs taken by Arthur Cooper between 1930 and 1960 and made available to the public as part of the Coventry Digital project.

After the photographer’s death, his glass negatives, destined for the tip, were saved by Ian Hollands before the majority were sent to Mirrorpix publishers.

Workmen build concrete piles

Hundreds of concrete piles were driven into the foundations of the cathedral

John Shelton

Archaeologist John Shelton is depicted conducting his own exploration

In addition to the city streets, weddings, parades and visiting celebrities are part of the collection of the photographer who captured everyday life in the city.

The new collection contained “significant” images that would “greatly enhance” Coventry Cathedral’s archive, said Martin Williams.

The President of Friends of Coventry Cathedral has helped digitize the latest collection and identify the individuals and events depicted.

“It was quite exciting working through it, but some of them were very badly damaged, which is a shame because they are moments in history that have passed,” he said.

Part of the latest collection shows parts of the town’s cathedral and priory, St Mary’s, dating back to the times of Leofric, the Earl of Mercia and Lady Godiva.

The walls were exposed during the construction of the new cathedral in the mid-1950s.

Schoolboys in a park in Coventry

Photographer Arthur Cooper captured daily life in Coventry

Edward G. Robinson

Hollywood actor Edward G. Robinson visited Coventry Cathedral in the early 1960s

The photos “show the scale of the priory complex,” which was destroyed after the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Williams said.

City archaeologist of the time, John Shelton, can be seen at the site, he explained.

“He was trying to preserve the history of the city before we did archeology in a big official way, before it became as important as we think of it now,” he added.

There was little organization in the city at the time “that could exert pressure to ensure that our archaeological sites were properly surveyed,” added Dr Ben Kyneswood, director of the Coventry University initiative.

“What I love about these photos is they really make you feel like there’s archeology going back almost a thousand years, and I’d never seen that before.”

“Had it been today, it would have involved an important investigation,” he added.

Mothers Union service

More than 100 members of the Mothers Union attend a 1947 church service

Trinity Street

A photograph from the mid-1930s shows the construction of Trinity Street in the town

Others show hundreds of concrete piles being driven into the cathedral’s foundations, and pre-war streets cleared as part of plans to modernize the city before German bombing sped up the process.

A view of the town center from the mid-1930s shows how planners had “completely changed the road network”, Dr Kyneswood added.

“This whole area was a very narrow medieval street grid that was completely cleared to make way for this brand new Trinity Street, allowing traffic – ever larger vehicles and buses – to move through the city centre.”

“Unfortunately, Coventry had a one-way council at the time,” he added, leading to the “tragic” destruction of many medieval buildings.

The building site of Coventry Cathedral

Images show the scale of Coventry Cathedral construction site

Pearl Hyde depicted with the Kazan Cathedral icon

Pearl Hyde depicted with the Kazan Cathedral icon

Another photo shows a visit to the town by actor Edward G. Robinson, who had been identified by members of the Friends of Coventry Cathedral, Williams said.

“I suspect he visited Coventry in the summer of 1962 and contrary to the gangster image he portrayed in many of his roles, he was personally a mild-mannered man with a serious interest in art.”

A photo of Pearl Hyde, the city’s first female mayor, pictured with a Russian icon was another favorite, he said.

“[The icon] came in a package with no information so she took it to the cathedral thinking it might be a place it should be,” he explained.

“And about six weeks later a letter came saying it was a gift from Kazan Cathedral in Stalingrad.”


Arthur Cooper photographed hundreds of weddings in the city


The hundreds of new images have been put online as part of the Coventry Digital project

Dr. Kyneswood said he would again work with volunteers in the city to crowdsource information about the photos.

“The pictures are brilliant, but the important thing is that people like Martin and the Historic Coventry Forum and other groups have logged on and said ‘this is what you’re looking at’, and they’ve told the story, and it’s their version of history .

“And suddenly we get a biography of the photo, which is a lot more than you normally get when you go on a website,” he said.

The work with Mirrorpix and owner Reach PLC on the Arthur Cooper collection was “really important, because it tells those kinds of working-class stories at street level,” he added.

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