A message from the Chairman of
The Friends of Coventry Cathedral
Anthony Bleewho has died aged 88, had a remarkable career spanning more than 50 years, working closely with Basil Spence on many of the seminal buildings of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Later he became one of the country’s pre-eminent experts on the integration of new buildings into the historic urban landscape. Anthony was a was a consummate designer and draughtsman. He joined the Basil Spence Partnership in 1957 as a graduate from Brighton, shortly after the foundation stone was laid for Coventry Cathedral. He was involved with many aspects of its design and construction, along with associated buildings in the precinct. In 1959 he married Spence’s daughter Gill in the cathedral – the first ceremony held in the as-yet incomplete structure. He was Basil Spence’s right-hand man for 20 years, becoming a partner in 1970. After Spence’s death in 1976, Anthony became senior partner of the firm. An extract from the RIBA obituary
February 1959. Anthony Blee and Gillian Spence were the first couple to marry in the Chapel of the Cross, Coventry Cathedral. (Photograph by Arthur Cooper courtesy of MirrorPix and Coventry Digital)
Anthony Blee will be remembered by many members of the Cathedral community not only for his contribution to the architecture of the building, but for his willingness to tell us all the story of its creation, and the warmth with which he spoke about it. The picture below was taken on the 24th May 1992 when to mark the 30th anniversary of the Cathedral Consecration he spent time sharing some of the unrecorded stories of the construction with members of the Cathedral congregation. Pictured with Anthony and his family are Michael Sadgrove (Canon Precentor) and Gerald Hughes (Canon Pastor).
In recent years Anthony's knowledge of the Cathedral’s history helped the Friends of Coventry Cathedral in the production of the book “The Stained Glass of Coventry Cathedral”. I met him in his office and at his London home, and each time I learned new details about the Cathedral, a building that was clearly close to his heart.
A sad loss indeed.
THANKS TO RESPONSES from members of the Friends it has been possible to identify the Mystery Man visiting Coventry Cathedral about whom I asked last month. He is Edward G Robinson, the American film actor famous for playing gangster roles.
The pictures of his visit (on the left above) were amongst thousands of glass negatives created by local freelance photographer Arthur Cooper in the 1950s and 1960s. Many of his negatives were rescued from a skip, digitised by MirrorPix and sent to the Coventry Digital heritage website for help in identification. Members of the Friends have helped to caption the Cathedral-related photos.
The pictures of Robinson were taken in the late summer of 1962. That year whilst filming the closing scenes of “Sammy Going South” at Momella in Tanganyika, he suffered a heart attack. After receiving treatment in a leading African hospital he came to Claridges Hotel, London to convalesce and to prepare for new filming work at Shepperton Studios that started in September 1962.
Contrary to the threatening gangster image that he portrayed in many of his roles, Edward G Robinson was a gentle, softly spoken man with a serious interest in art. The walls of his house were hung with paintings by old masters.
I was not brought up in a particularly cinema-going home, but looking at the long list of Edward G Robinson films I realise that when I was 10 years old I did see him in “The Ten Commandments” in Coventry at the magnificent, pre-multiplex Gaumont Cinema (now the Ellen Terry Building) on a sold-out occasion when numbered tickets had to be bought in advance on the film’s release. He played a “baddy” – an Israelite who cooperated with the Pharaohs and acted against Moses throughout. Robinson once commented that whilst other actors lived off their good looks, he had a talent for conveying menace!
If you are enjoying this newsletter and are not yet a member of the Friends of Coventry Cathedral I invite you to join us today.
In the Friends we join together to support the ministry and buildings of Coventry Cathedral and help it continue speaking out to future generations.
Joining is easy by using the membership application form on the Friends of Coventry Cathedral website with easy online payment facilities.
I invite you to join us.
ADVANCE NOTICE - The Annual General Meeting of the Friends of Coventry Cathedral will be on Saturday 30th September 2023. The day will include a talk on "Coronation" by Rev Canon Adrian Daffern, one of the authors of the Coronation Service of King Charles III. He was pictured on the right during his time as our Canon Precentor from 2003 to 2010.
The Friends Council meets 4 times a year. If you would like to fill one of the vacancies on the Friends Council for the next year, please let me know. The Friends can only move forward with your support.
AS THE YEARSrollby, my joints sometimes creak. The same is also true of the Cathedral’s nave chairs that were commissioned specially for the Cathedral in 1962.
After over 60 years' use many of our chairs have loose joints that need re-gluing, and screws that need tightening. The Friends have two volunteers who have started the chair recovery work, but more help is needed.
Sadly, I have no carpentry skills. But if carpentry is your hobby, or if you know of some handy person who could help the Cathedral with the chair repairs please get in touch with Andy Shelley, the property manager. He will explain what is needed. The chairs may be worked on at home (by agreement) or at the Cathedral.
ON A RECENT break in Northumberland I met up with four old friends of Coventry Cathedral who send their greetings.
Longstanding members of the Friends will know them well. In the photo (L to R) are Jennie Sadgrove, me, Jane Williams, Mike Stansbie, Pat Stansbie and Michael Sadgrove. For the benefit of recent members of the Friends, Michael Sadgrove was the Canon Precentor from 1987 to 1995, Mike Stansbie is a former Vice-Chair of the Friends of Coventry Cathedral and for many years Pat Stansbie led the Cathedral Needleworkers. My wife and I visited the Sadgroves at their home in Haydon Bridge and the Stansbies at their home in the village of Hepscott, near Morpeth.
By a strange coincidence in the week before leaving Coventry to head north, I happened to come across an article about Philip Larkin - Coventry’s most famous poet – and I discovered to my surprise that he was another Coventry link with Haydon Bridge. Larkin’s partner owned a cottage in Haydon Bridge that is designated their “love nest” on the blue plaque outside. Larkin also had links with the Cathedral, so I share with you a little of what I learned of his life.
I first came across Larkin in my English studies at Bablake School. Philip Larkin was named by The Times as Britain’s greatest post-war writer, but in my time at school his controversial views on women, sex, race, class and religion put me off his poetry completely. I have come to realise that his writing transcends his personal life, and does not reflect it. I do not have to like him as a person in order to enjoy his poetry.
The Larkin family came to Coventry in 1922 when Philip’s father, Sydney Larkin, became City Treasurer, and Philip was born the same year. That year also he was baptised in Coventry Cathedral.
The family moved to Manor Road, near Coventry Station, and Philip attended King Henry VIII School. During the 1930s it is known that on occasions Larkin crossed paths with Angela Brazil, the famous Coventry novelist who lived in The Quadrant. She was also connected with Coventry Cathedral, where her family paid for a pew, and she did volunteer work.
Larkin’s father, Sydney, was an admirer of Germany’s recovery after WWI, and visited Germany frequently. He attended several Nuremberg rallies. He thought highly of Hitler and kept a statue of Hitler on the mantelpiece which would give a Nazi salute at the touch of its button. When war was declared in 1939, the Coventry Town Clerk ordered Sydney to remove from his Council House office all its Nazi regalia decorations. Philip was brought up in this environment, so it is little wonder that he developed many right wing views.
In 1940 at the time of the Coventry Blitz, Philip was away at university. After two days without any news from home, he hitchhiked to Coventry. In the midst of widespread destruction he found the family house intact – but empty. He hitched back to college where a telegram from his parents finally gave him news of their whereabouts. That experience frightened and shocked him, and haunted him for many years.
Larkin spent most of his working life as the Head Librarian in Kingston upon Hull. He visited Coventry occasionally. He recalled his Coventry days when his train unexpectedly stopped there in 1954 and he wrote the poem ‘I Remember, I Remember’ immediately afterwards. The opening four lines are commemorated by a plaque on Platform One at Coventry Station.
Coventry has never made much of its position as Larkin’s birthplace compared with the use Hull has made of Larkin to attract visitors. Hull has often mounted arts events highlighting its connection. There is now the Larkin Building at the University of Hull and the Philip Larkin Centre for Poetry and Creative Writing. A large bronze statue of Larkin by sculptor Martin Jennings stands at Hull Paragon Interchange.
But Larkin has not been completely ignored in Coventry. In 1973 at Coventry Cathedral Philip Larkin received an honorary doctorate from the University of Warwick. Philip was back in St Mary’s Hall, Coventry in 1978 when (alongside Bishop Cuthbert Bardsley, a fellow recipient) he received the Coventry Award of Merit from the City Council in recognition of outstanding literary achievements.
Coventry has its own Larkin memorials. In 2017 in The Burges, the pub that was then known as The Tudor Rose was renamed The Philip Larkin. In May 2022 Larkin's former school, King Henry VIII School, dedicated a memorial room, called 'The Philip Larkin Room', next to the main school hall. There is a Philip Larkin star in Coventry's Walk of Fame launched in 2008. National recognition came in 2016 when a floor stone memorial was unveiled at Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey on the 31st anniversary of his death.
Perhaps Larkin is largely ignored in Coventry because he never hid the fact that his childhood years spent here were very unhappy. The last lines of that 1954 poem “I Remember, I Remember” are quite negative.
‘You look as though you wished the place in Hell,’
My friend said, ‘judging from your face.’ ‘Oh well,
I suppose it’s not the place’s fault,’ I said.
‘Nothing, like something, happens anywhere.’
Philip Larkin (9th in line) in the Academic Procession leaving Coventry Cathedral after the award of an honorary doctorate by the University of Warwick in 1973.
At its July 2023 graduation ceremony Coventry University bestowed an Honorary Doctorate upon the Very Rev John Witcombe, Dean of Coventry, in recognition of his commitment to Coventry University and to the wider community across the city of Coventry.
Ambulance for Ukraine
ON SUNDAY MORNING13th August 2023 an ambulance that is destined for Ukraine will be displayed in the Cathedral porch.
I wrote earlier about previously donated ambulances driven to Ukraine by Tony Cleary, a member of Coventry Cathedral Choir. Tony has arranged for us all to see for ourselves the next ambulance before it heads across Europe. The ambulance on display has been sourced by The Polish Centre in partnership with European Car Parts. It will be loaded with donated medical supplies before it leaves.
There will be an opportunity on the morning of its display for donations towards medical supplies and further vehicles.
LAST MONTH WE said farewell to Canon Kathryn Fleming as she moves on to her new post at Southwark Cathedral.
It is a little-known fact that in her time in Coventry she became the only person ever whose contribution on the Coventry Cathedral Facebook page has gone viral!
When I last read her item in 2015 over 105,000 people had shared her Sunday Morning Message welcoming readers to join us in worship. If we could only retrieve the online message today it would be interesting to discover how many more people it eventually reached. I tried, but it appears to have been archived. I do not have the text of Kathryn’s message but it was illustrated with this photograph of one of the Dean’s grandchildren crawling across the aisle.
Royal Acquisition for the Archives
SIXTY-SIX YEARS AGO Lord Mayor Pearl Hyde joined Provost Howard and Bishop Cuthbert Bardsley to welcome Princess Margaret on a visit to Coventry Cathedral to learn about the building plans and to see what progress had been made to date.
As a reminder of that occasion in 1957 the Cathedral Archives has recently received the donation of the original Invitation shown above. I have added some of the press photos of the occasion. It is interesting to see on the Invitation that the site visit was followed by a talk by Rev Simon Phipps. It was to be the following year when Phipps was invited to join Coventry Cathedral's first staff team as head of the Industrial Mission.
Phipps had joined the Coldstream Guards straight from school. Early in his army career he was approved by the Queen Mother as a suitable escort for her youngest daughter. In 1953 he was appointed chaplain to Trinity College, Cambridge, and that was the year when Princess Margaret fell in love with the divorcé Peter Townsend. During the following three years the Princess turned to Simon Phipps for spiritual advice whilst struggling with her conscience. It is understood that at times they were in daily contact.
In 1962, after the Cathedral Consecration Services, Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon went for lunch at Simon Phipps’ council flat in Willenhall – an event that hit the front pages locally.
PEEL AND STICK wallpaper featuring the baptistry window from Coventry Cathedral is currently offered for sale on the Canadian Amazon website.
It is waterproof and self-adhesive, made of PVC and recommended for the living room or bedroom. The roll size is 69" x 98"/175cm x 250cm (Height x Width), cut into 4 pieces for easy installation, and each piece size is 69 "x 24.5". It is described as environmentally friendly, wearable and durable with clear printing and vivid colors.
The cost is £52 per roll.
You must provide your own font boulder.
MICHAEL PORTILLO WAS accompanied by Paul Maddocks, one of our Cathedral guides, when he visited to film another episode in his Great British Railway Journeys TV series for BBC broadcast last month.
You can still catch the broadcast on BBC iPlayer. It is Series 14 Episode 12 entitled “Coventry to Leamington Spa”.
On the night the Railway Journey programme was broadcast I also managed to view on the Sky Arts channel the Bill Bailey TV programme on stained glass about which I wrote previously.
The Sky Arts programme included film of the Cathedral’s stained glass windows and an interview with Dianne Morris, the Cathedral Archivist. If you keep an eye on TV schedules that programme may be repeated, but I do not think there is online “catch-up” available to people like me who are not Sky subscribers.