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Dig For History, Urges Enthusiast

A central slice of Coventry’s medieval history is close to being unearthed following efforts to trace a building’s past by a local historian.

Concerned at the apparent lack of interest in the old County Hall, John Russell has been digging around to find evidence that there was a much older building on the site in Hay Lane in the city centre.

The County Hall, home to the city’s courts until 1988, has been derelict for many years and is currently being turned into a pub.

County Hall

Work to renovate the stonework of the façade of the building will be revealed later this week when scaffolding is removed.

But John Russell, great-nephew of legendary amateur archaeologist JB Sheldon, has taken the chance to look around the building site while exploratory trenches have been dug.

And similar to Sheldon, who forced the city to take its heritage seriously by taking his trowel to every site of interest, Mr Russell has found traces that there was a much earlier building.

He has discovered some tiles from the 14th century, which experts say were made at a kiln in what is now Harefield Road.

Mr Russell said there should be a thorough investigation of the courtyard area of the old hall, which used to be an exercise yard for the prisoners of the county gaol.

The yard, currently overgrown, is to be used as a dining area in the pub. Work has stopped on the area while the plans are finalised.

He said:

“I’m not an archaeologist, but at the moment there’s a window of opportunity for an archaeological team to delve into a part of the 14th century which has never been uncovered.

“It wouldn’t upset the work that’s being carried out on the pub because they are going to excavate anyway.”

Records point to the site being used as a medieval prison, but Mr Russell thinks the building could have had a grander use.

He said:

“The council and the guildsmen used to parade from the Guild Hall to St Michael’s church for every meeting.

“I think it is unlikely that they would have wanted to walk past the prison.”

There are references to a “gaol hall” in old records, and Mr Russell believes that there may have been another guild hall in front of the jail.

He hopes that an archaeological dig will reveal if the tile he found is a random deposit or he start of a find that will explain more about the history of the area at the centre of Coventry.

George Demidowicz, Conservation Officer at Coventry City Council, said a dig was being planned when the pub moved into the next stage of the design.

So far the only work to have been carried out is external, and plans for the inside have not yet been finalised.

If there is a lot of disruption and digging to the yard area for service trenches, then the city council will force the developers to pay for a proper excavation. Otherwise the site will be left undisturbed.

Mr Demidowicz said:

“The process of achieving a satisfying scheme has been long, tedious and intricate over three years.”

Takeovers and mergers between breweries have meant that the plans for the Grade II* listed building have changed several times. The developers are Wolverhampton and Dudley Breweries Ltd.

Each set of plans have to be approved by the city council.

Mr Demidowicz said he wasn’t surprised that medieval tiles had been found by Mr Russell:

“I would have been more surprised if there hadn’t been any. You can’t put a spade in the ground in the centre of Coventry without finding a piece of something medieval.

“We found buckets of them when we excavated the old cathedral.”

Mr Demidowicz added that certain features of the old courtroom were to be kept, including the judge’s bench, the docks and the cells.

People visiting the pub, which is aimed at a more upmarket clientele than the Varsity brand owned by the firm, will be able to drink in all of these places.
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CWN / Heritage / Historical Places / Coventry / County Hall / 14 Aug 00
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