Chapelfields

Chapelfields Estate Building Plan 1847

The nineteenth century estate at Chapelfields predates Earlsdon by about five years but it had a distant past more notable than that of Earlsdon’s. In the twelfth century it was sufficiently far outside the city to make it a suitable location for a lazar house. This was like an isolation hospital for people with leprosy and given that the best cure was thought to be prayer such a place would be based around a chapel. Remains of the chapel have been found in the last twenty years in the grounds of the Four Provinces Club at the bottom of Craven Street. The name lived on as Chapel Fields the district and it has only been in the twentieth century that the original two words have been joined as one.

What is now called the Allesley Old Road has an equally long history as the main road to Birmingham (‘Birmingham Old Road’ or ‘Birmingham Turnpike Road’)and as an important coach road from London to Holyhead and then to Ireland. So important was the route that although already improved by turnpiking, in 1830 the whole route from London to Holyhead was further improved. The project was led by Thomas Telford and in the process the narrow winding Birmingham Old Road was by-passed by the more direct Holyhead Road.

Hearsall Lane had not been much better than a track to the common until it was improved during the nineteenth century alongside other developments in the area. Plans for the widening of the lane were discussed in 1853 and were carried out in 1881 and further improvements in 1908. No houses were built along its length until after 1905 when housing was planned for the eastern side. Actual building was spread over the next ten years

In the mid nineteenth century Coventry was booming with both the silk weaving and the watchmaking industries doing well. Watchmaking was to be found all over the city but was especially focussed on the Butts and Spon End areas. Property for housing was limited in Coventry and as a result the centre was overcrowded and insanitary. But expansion beyond the city centre was difficult because of the restrictions on development caused by the Lammas and Michaelmas lands that choked movement to the west and private estates blocking development to the south and east. A triangle of land bordered by Birmingham Old Road and Hearsall Lane was owned by the Sir Thomas White Charity and would be very convenient for local watchmakers. However, to free up this space for development needed the support of Coventry Corporation for a 1846 Act of Parliament to allow the Charity to sell the land. That the land was intended for watchmakers’ housing is clear from the involvement of two major watch manufactures in its development. They were William Hill and James Marriott who together with a local builder, Joseph Olorenshaw bought the land from the Sir Thomas White Charity Trustees for £3751. It amounted to a little more than 20 acres. Plans were published for the estate with the plots and roads clearly laid out, shown below. The street names still used today had already been decided. It is interesting to note that, as in Earlsdon, where potential housing land lay undeveloped beyond the housing scheme, an open ended cul-de-sac arrangement was used, as in the case of Craven Street. The space left half way down Mount Street also looks suspiciously like space for a future access road. Clearly the Sir Thomas White Charity’s Trustees had an eye on the potential of their land behind Chapel Fields, even though it was not exploited for more than another half century, when they laid out Sir Thomas White’s Road.

Note the differences today from the original plan, especially the way that the principal watchmakers were planned to be housed on the east side of Craven Street, but most did in fact establish themselves away from the workers along Old Birmingham Turnpike Road (Allesley Old Road). The terraced houses shown there were built instead on the east side of Craven Street where the quarry half way up was filled in to form a continuous line of housing. The space left in Mount Street was still there in 1914 and may have been deliberately left as another potential road access to any further development by the Sir Thomas White’s Trustees land behind Mount Street.

Collectively Chapelfields could be regarded as a watchmaking factory with the different departments spread out amongst individual houses. Some, for instance, would be concerned with making parts for the mechanism others with making the case or the dial. This was not a precise arrangement any more than it was in other parts of the city. There would be all levels from the single craftsman who lived on his own, (which accounted for most of the plots), through small factories that worked on a larger scale in producing or refining the parts, all the way  to premises that specialised in the final assembly of the watch.

As can still be seen today, the original master plan, shown above, was followed exactly in many respects such as the road layout and the positioning of the smaller terraced properties. The style of the smaller terraced housing was carefully prescribed in the original deeds. All houses were to be set back 12 feet from the footpath with an iron palisade fence upon dwarf walls. For some reason this was followed for all houses except those on the west side of Craven Street, which was also shown on the original plan as having no front gardens. The houses were not to be built in any ‘inferior manner’ than was stated; this included ‘dressed brick fronts’, stone window sills and lintels, ‘neat wood frontispieces with cantilevers’ (i.e. the doors and their surrounds) and iron drainpipes. The houses should be ‘uniform along the length of each street’ and have no less than two stories in height. Any houses along the Allesley Old Road had to have inside, not outside shutters. Most noteworthy was the covenant that no workshop windows were to be allowed to face the street. This resulted in many having a two storied front and a three storied rear, with the workshop on the first floor.

It is worth considering to what extent these covenants are a reflection of the views of the watchmaking community at large or those of the developers of the estate. Were they perhaps trying to create a more prestigious image for their development or did it reflect the perceptions of the watchmaking community as being a cut above other trades in the city? It has become a common practice to contrast the cottage industry of the ribbon weavers, whose houses had workshops facing the street, to the watchmakers’ houses where they were hidden behind their houses. The explanation put forward for this is that the watchmakers’ more highly skilled work could generate a higher income. A by-product of this was that their wives did not have to work and could therefore find the time to be more house proud than the weavers. This is usually supported by reference to the unusual housing configuration in Chapelfields.  But there is little evidence for the two storey front and three storied rear existing before the Chapelfields development. Indeed earlier watchmakers’ houses in the Butts had workshop windows facing the front. Though it is the true that most watchmakers houses built subsequently, as in Earlsdon, had their workshops at the rear, but few followed the two storied front three storey rear as in the original Chapelfields development. One rare example is Stanley Terrace opposite the Hearsall Lane junction with Spon End. (See page??) It is possible that Chapelfields set the trend for watchmakers to put their workshops at the rear, however, more often than not they resorted to a more simply built form of a one or two storey highly fenestrated extension, as found at Earlsdon.

Unlike Earlsdon the Chapelfields development was almost fully occupied within thirty years. Perhaps the closer proximity to the services of the town helped, but shops were equally as scarce as Earlsdon during the nineteenth century. On the other hand there was a proliferation of pubs compared to the number of houses. This may indicate that the power of the temperance movement was not as great here as in Earlsdon even though an offshoot of the Queens Road Methodist church had been established in Lord Street by 1860. As at Earlsdon it seems that the estate was designed without any thought for the provision of community facilities. Commercial or community premises that did develop were conversions of private dwellings as a result of private or community enterprise, as with the public houses.

The following views do not feature in Earlsdon & Chapelfields Explored

1. Queensland Avenue c1927 (Teesee)

This view, looking down Queensland Avenue, shows a profusion of mature trees where the Safeway Superstore now stands, on the other side of Allesley Old Road. The road crossing half way down is Abercorn Road, with R.J. Grimston Grocer on the left hand corner. Just behind the cameraman on the right is Craven Street