In part one of this special blog series, we’ll be exploring the objects from our collection that highlight Coventry’s role in Britain’s industrial and cultural history.
Born in Coventry around 1635, Samuel Watson became one of the most famous clockmakers in England during his lifetime, making clocks for the likes of King Charles II and Sir Isaac Newton. This ornate pedestal clock is the earliest English astronomical clock to show the Sun fixed at the centre of the solar system. But it is more than just a timepiece, it also includes the phases of the Moon and high tides at London Bridge.
Coventry nurtured and inspired horologists; by the 19th century, it had grown into one of the centres of watchmaking in England, and Coventry timepieces became synonymous with quality and reliability. The rapid development of the trade saw factories that employed specialised workers spring up alongside master craftsmen workshops.
The industry started to decline in 1880 faced with competition from cheaper watches from Switzerland and America. Not all was lost, as the pool of skilled workers left were crucial to establishing the sewing machine and bicycle making industries.
From the ‘Coventry blue’ dyed wool of medieval times to the iconic Cash’s woven nametapes adorning school uniforms, Coventry played a key role in Britain’s textile industry. By the end of the 18th century, the silk and ribbon trade was the basis of the city’s economy while the industry boomed as fashions saw ribbons trimming all manner of clothing and accessories. Although weaving was considered a skilled male occupation, over half the city’s expanding population was employed in the textile trade by the 1830s.
Houses, known as ‘top shops’, were designed to provide space for living and working. Often the entire family was engaged in work including children who thread the looms and by 1851 there were more women working in the trade than men. Much of the production was carried out at home with weavers in Coventry retaining a cottage industry long after other cities adopted the factory system.
The introduction of power looms and changes in production methods led to civil unrest and rioting from hand-loom weavers. In 1831 a power-loom factory was burned to the ground and the manager was paraded around Coventry on a donkey. Despite opposition, more steam-powered factories were built to meet domestic demand and competition with other ribbon-making cities, like Derby and Manchester.
The lives of Coventry’s silk weavers became harder following the Cobden-Chevalier Treaty of 1860. This free trade agreement removed tariffs on imported goods from France allowing cheaper ribbons to flood the English market. The impact on Coventry’s ribbon industry was catastrophic. Firms collapsed leaving tens of thousands of weavers destitute and the city’s population fell as weavers left to look for work elsewhere.
Despite international competition some specialist firms continued to thrive, including Cash’s. Founded in 1846 by brothers John and Joseph Cash, the company expanded their textile range to include name tapes, bookmarks and luggage straps. The loom below was used at Cash’s Coventry factory and could weave up to four ribbons at the same time. The jacquard head on the top acts as a programming system, giving instructions to the loom to weave a particular pattern.
The creative possibility of the Jacquard loom inspired another Coventry weaver, Thomas Stevens, who responded to the influx of European goods by adapting the machinery to weave colourful pictures from silk. These “Stevengraphs” came in a wide range of designs, including pictures of sporting events and portraits of royalty and politicians. They often even celebrated technological developments such as the first locomotives.
Coventry remained abreast of new textile developments. In 1905, the well-established textile company Courtaulds opened their first factory in Coventry to manufacture artificial silk, later renamed “rayon”. Prior to rayon’s invention, only natural fibres such as cotton, silk and wool were available for clothing and home furnishings. The growth of artificial fibres had a dramatic impact on fashion, leading to cheaper goods, more variety of colours and applications. The demand for synthetic textiles increased during World War II. British Nylon Spinners, a partnership between Courtaulds and Imperial Chemical Industries, opened a new factory in Coventry and in 1941 produced the first nylon yarn in Britain.
Coventry and its people have inspired creative industries, with manufacturers, inventors and tradespeople responding to international competition and changing fashions by adopting, adapting and advancing new industrial processes and goods. In the next post in this series, we’ll explore how Coventry drove advancements in cars, planes and communication.