History of Black Swan Terrace

Black Swan Terrace is in Spon Street; one of the most important historic routes in Coventry. It forms part of the east-west axis running through the city which led on to Fleet Street, High Street, Earl Street, Jordan Well, Gosford Street and Far Gosford Street. People would have come down Spon Street towards the city from the important cities to the North West such as Lichfield or Chester.

This part of Spon Street was called Spon Causeway as it formed a causeway across the flood plain of the Sherbourne leading to Spon Bridge.

City Wall and bar gate

When they came to build the city wall in 1355 (finally completed in1510) the whole length from Gosford Street to Spon Street extended well beyond the city wall. So we are now standing about half a mile outside Spon Gate which stood next to St John’s Church at the other end of what is now Medieval Spon Street.

We are just outside the Spon Street bar– also known as the bar gate, literally a bar across the road which much pre-dated the city wall. This was the point beyond which people had to pay a tax or toll to enter the city. The gate closed at 8pm and re-opened at 5am. So if you arrived late you either lodged for the night (hence the pub on the corner) or you took Barras Lane (previously called Bar Gates Lane) and bypassed the city via the high ground to the north.

Black Swan Terrace was by no means the only property outside the gate and a continuous frontage continued from the gate, west to the river and beyond (you can still see medieval buildings beyond the river in Spon End. The river (upstream of the polluting city) would have been an important resource and a reason why there was development here, well to the west of the city centre.

Black Swan Terrace

Our 6 cottages were built as one structure in 1455 replacing existing buildings, which cannot have been so well-built and probably had become derelict, or had suffered some catastrophe such as a fire. They were built by Coventry Priory for rent.

The cottages were all built to the same plan each with just three rooms, two downstairs and one upstairs, and they were what we would today call live-work units. People had their businesses and lived in the same three rooms.

They were built on burgages, long plots, which extended some 50m back from the street to what was called Windmill Field – and that was the pattern for all the houses along this street.

After the dissolution of the monasteries

After the dissolution, the king acquired and sold off the cottages almost immediately. There is a 30 year gap in the record after that, but we know that in the 1570s they belong to the Mercer’s Company, one of the large number of craft guilds in Coventry including shoemakers, weavers, mercers, drapers etc. Mercers are a superior type of grocer, a very prosperous and profitable trade.

The Mercers owned the cottages until sometime at the end of the 17th century when they passed into the hands of an unidentified Mr. Rogers.

By 1700 they were owned by the Pickering family and this remained the case for approximately 100 years. Eventually the Pickering children split the terrace up, so what had been administered as a single range of cottages now went in different ways.

During the 18th and 19th centuries several significant things happened:

  • Behind 120 a range of further cottages was built (which is what we see there now).
  • Behind 119 there was also a range of cottages with top-shops over, which we can see in photos taken in the 1950s.

These buildings behind were typical Coventry Courts, which consisted of a number of buildings stretching back along the burgage plots where families would live in very unsanitary conditions. Virtually no trace exists of Coventry’s courts as those that were not destroyed in the blitz were demolished as part of redevelopment and slum clearance schemes.

Nothing was built behind 121 and 122.

Behind 123 the block that we still see today was built and beyond there (where the nursery is today) in the 1820s a terrace of houses was built facing Barras Lane. That terrace was a casualty of the blitz.
In the early 1800s was the first mention of the Black Swan, an Inn representing the two end units. It might well have been an alehouse long before that, but we don’t know. The name Black Swan Terrace is a useful label for the whole terrace but it doesn’t have any historical validity.

In 1812 Spon Street was one of six Coventry streets that were turnpiked (improved and converted to toll roads) and this must have added to the importance of the Black Swan Inn. This part of Spon Street was however bypassed with the construction of the Holyhead Road between 1827 – 30.Telford designed the Holyhead Road to run in a straight line between the Plough Inn in Spon Street and the Rainbow Inn in Allesley.

Inhabitants and trades in the 19th century.

In the 19th Century census records of the terrace provide a picture of local industrial development.

In 1841, the cloth trades still dominated the economy of the area with nearly 50% of the occupants involved in the area’s traditional trades of weaving and dyeing.

The close proximity of farmland is also demonstrated by three farm servants living in the terrace. Shoe-making, pipe-making and watch-making are also represented.

Ten years later, the emphasis had shifted to the silk trades, with over two thirds of occupants employed in the silk ribbon industry.

The collapse of the silk ribbon industry and the rise of watch-making can then be charted through 1861 to 1871, By 1891, nobody living in the terrace was employed in silk or cloth-weaving or dyeing. Most families relied on watch making although the new growing industry of cycle manufacture was a secondary household employment in five families

At this time the north of Spon Street an area of houses was developed for the growing watch-making industry and for the professional classes.

Watch making soon suffered from American and Swiss competition which by the beginning of the First World War had devastated the industry.

20th century

Between 1900 and 1914 the frontage of the terrace was slowly converted to shop fronts and by 1905 the Black Swan Inn was also closed. However the precision skills of the watchmakers were now being redeployed by the bicycle, motorcycle and motor car producers springing up throughout the city. At its height the city held over one hundred motor manufacturers and one of these was Glover Brothers Motor Cars.

Starting out as chemists at 49 Spon Street, by the 1909-1910 trade directory we see the Glover Brothers producing cars in the old stable building of what had formerly been the Black Swan Inn. The terrace also has a link with the city’s fledgling aeroplane industry, with the Glovers attempting to build a plane to win the Daily Mail challenge for the first flying machine to cross the English Channel. However the brothers were beaten to the £10,000 prize by Bleriot in 1909.

In the second half of the 20th century, the small shops that made up the terrace tell their own story: A radio engineer, Herbert Cleaver, in 119 – who festooned his attic with aerial wires (some of which still remain). He was followed by A.C.Buckle, whose billboard can be seen on the 1957 photograph of the terrace.

The wholesale and retail tobacconist, HE.Jones, (whose sign we have re-painted) and then the London Laundry in 120 to which we are told one would deliver a bag of washing, to collect it later.

Charkes Gutteridge, who lived in no. 121, was a turner and fitter but we do not know who used the shop itself.

No.122 was lived in by Joseph 0 ‘Neil, boot-repairer (1932), while no. 123 housed Walter and Emily Westbury, green-grocers and fruiterers. As its sign proudly proclaims, this later became Moira’s Wet Fish.