Coventry Watchmaking Quarter

Old Workshops in Lord Street

Coventry’s first clockmaker was William Watson who had a workshop in the city in the 17th century but it was not until a hundred years later that the trade blossomed.  In 1747 the company of Vale and Rotherham was established in Spon Street. The premises was set up in the way that early factories throughout the Midlands began, as a collection of small workshops under one roof (like Matthew Boulton’s Soho Manufactory where Birmingham “toys” were made)

Craftsmen rented space from the owners and sold their finished goods wholesale to their landlords to be sold on to individual customers. It was not until 1889 that the factory was converted into the type of building that is understood by the word today.

By the 1840s watchmaking in the city had grown so much that the original craft quarter around Spon Street was unable to contain it. Workshops sprang up in Chapelfields and Earlsdon, two adjoining areas of town. Streets of old watchmakers’ houses still exist in both.

One of the leading watchmaking families in the city was Player. By the 1870s there were members of the family living at five houses in Craven Street, Chapelfields and workshops on the top floor of the buildings opposite.

The industry flourished until it faced imports of cheap watches from Switzerland and the USA. Coventry’s product remained a hand-made, labour-intensive business but continental producers took advantage of cheaper automated processes. In a bid to counteract the impact of foreign imports the Coventry Movement Company formed in 1889 to produce cheaper workings that could be placed in hand-made cases but the plan failed. By the start of World War I the industry was almost gone.

When Coventry Council wanted to give Princess Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth II) a wedding gift in 1948 it was no longer possible to find all the necessary parts for one watch being made in the town.

Brighton Pavilion

In the 1780s architect Henry Holland converted an old farmhouse near the sea front in Brighton to be a pleasure villa. That building was altered, on the instructions of George (Prince Regent, later George IV) to become a glorious folly in which he could entertain guests. Work began in 1815 under the instructions of John Nash, but it was not until 1823 that the final flourishes were added to the building.

The site already had a domed structure in the form of the Stables, created in the early 1800s in the then fashionable “Hindoo” style. The design bore little or no resemblance to true Indian architecture and was rather more a dream of what England thought India was like – or should be like. In 1809 the fiirst Indian restaurant opened in London but it was never a huge success and closed three years later. All things Indian and “Hindoo” were therefore already falling from fashion when George gave the style his support.

While the exterior of the building is based on Indian influences, even if loosely, the interior is decidedly Chinese. Once again, however, the artists and craftsmen involved in its production knew very little about the country and the overall result is a dream of how they believed it was, rather than reality. Lots of dragons and bamboo but very little restraint. Overall the result is the architectural equivalent of a wedding cake – over dressed on the outside and extremely cloying on the inside. However, it is typical of Brighton, the home of Aubrey Beardsley.

In his BBC2 series Abroad Again in Britain historian Jonathan Meades pointed out that the building was never at the height of fashion and was certainly nothing like the commonly-accepted Regency style. He also called it an “ode to excess” and said: “It’s so rich it’s almost emetic”. That is probably true. It is, however, typical of George – Prince of Wales, Regent and dandy – overblown and extravagant.

Rotunda Museum

The William Smith Museum of Geology

The Rotunda is a unique museum in the town of Scarborough, North Yorkshire, which houses a collection of fossils and rock samples gathered by William Smith – “the father of English geology”.

It underwent modernisation in 2008 to enable it to display the collection to its best advantage.

The original round tower was constructed in 1828 and opened a year later as the town’s museum, at the behest of the newly-formed Scarborough Philosophical Society.

Stone for the building was provided by Sir John Johnstone of Hackness Hall, who employed Smith as his land agent.

William Smith was born in 1769. As a young man he was appointed surveyor’s assistant and helped to map out the route of the Bridgewater coal canal. As part of his work he was involved in creating deep cuttings for the canal to flow through.

He took great notice of the exposed rock sections that were created during the works and began to notice regular sequences in the layers. He noticed that each layer had its own distinct fossils and began to theorise that his observations could be used to predict the presence of coal or ironstone.

In 1799 Smith produced the first ever geological map, showing distribution of rocks in the area of Bath (Avon) that was based on his discoveries while working as a canal surveyor. It was called “the map that changed the world” but in spite of his success Smith was not a wealthy man and he was bankrupted. He sold his collection of fossils to the government to clear his debts and moved to Scarborough in 1824 where he began work for Lord Derwent at Hackness Hall.

As Smith’s success grew in the North and the Scarborough Philosophical Society’s collection increased the Rotunda was also extended to accommodate new finds. Wings were added to the original building in 1860 and it became the home of examples of local geology, archaeology and history as well as significant items from overseas.

Over the years the geological samples were scattered to other museums but they have been brought back together following the museum’s refit.

Avoncroft Museum

Avoncroft is a collection of old buildings that have been rescued from demolition and decay then transported to a site near Bromsgrove in Worcestershire. It contains structures from all over the West Midlands and from seven centuries.

There’s housing, agricultural and industrial buildings, a toll office, chapel, windmill, 1940s prefab and even a fibreglass church spire.

Working life is represented with workshops from Black Country chain making and nail making. These are not the huge manufacturing units of the late Industrial Revolution but the small, household workshops where every member of the family was expected to contribute to the work – including women and children.

The Museum was founded in 1964 following an unsuccessful attempt to preserve a listed Tudor house in Bromsgrove from demolition. Campaigners managed to save only the timbers but the Merchant’s House became the first exhibit to be restored and reconstructed on site.

As well as buildings it is possible to see old skills and industries recreated at the museum. There are also regular costumed re-enactment days. And for the communications enthusiast the museum houses the national collection of telephone boxes – including a Tardis!