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Beyond the Banquets – The Guildhall’s Long History of Accommodating Those in Need    

July 11, 2023
Author: Aamilah Noor, Volunteer Blogger.

What is instantly brought to mind when you think of the Guildhall?  You might see it as historically important due to its archaeological splendour, making it ‘one of the most important medieval guildhalls in the country’ according to George Demidowicz.[1]   It might also be solely associated with lavish banquets and royal guests, as Henry VII may have come to the Guildhall during a visit to Coventry in 1485, and in 1605, Princess Elizabeth dined here.[2] While these features and events are significant to the history of the Guildhall, it is important to look beyond the banquets and consider the lesser-known individuals and groups the Guildhall has hosted.  

One such individual is Frederick Douglass, an enslaved person who became an antislavery lecturer and travelled from the US to Great Britain and Ireland in 1845, resulting in having his freedom from slavery purchased by the listeners of his speeches.[3]  It has been recorded that Douglass delivered three speeches in Coventry, including at the Guildhall on February 2nd, 1847.[4]

Little is known about what Douglass spoke about to his audience at the Guildhall, as very few sources remain.  However, assumptions about what was discussed can be made by looking at speeches by Douglass where there is more surviving evidence.  A month after visiting the Guildhall, Douglass delivered a speech in Leicester in March 1847 about the religious hypocrisy of enslavers, and the brutal abuse that enslaved people, particularly women, faced.[5]  It is not definitive that Douglass’ speeches in Leicester and Coventry were entirely similar, but it can be assumed that he raised awareness about the horrors of slavery when he spoke at the Guildhall. 

Douglass’ lectures were impactful.  Upon facing difficulties maintaining his American newspaper, The North Star, launched in December 1847, British friends of Douglass like Julie Griffiths appealed to those in a variety of cities where Douglass held lectures, including Coventry, to send financial aid.[6]  This could demonstrate the long-lasting effect that Douglass’ words had on his Coventrian audience.  

As well as providing a platform for Frederick Douglass, the Guildhall was pivotal for Coventry’s working-class population.  The historian Levi Fox argues the Guildhall was the ‘centre of (…) community activity’.[7] This suggests that the Guildhall was not exclusive to elites, city officials and notable figures; it was a part of the lives of the ordinary citizens of Coventry.  One example of how the Guildhall was occasionally open to Coventry’s working-class were the markets held between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, where goods such as cloth were sold.[8]  The Guildhall’s markets would have been an environment where ordinary Coventrians could purchase goods and socialise, and market traders could earn a living.  

Furthermore, the Guildhall hosted Coventry’s working-class during a time of economic crisis. In 1861, it was transformed into a soup kitchen.[9]  This creates a completely different image of the Guildhall than the bountiful feasts fit for royalty brought to mind when thinking about its earlier history.  The Guildhall was noted at the time as a venue for those facing financial hardship; in The Illustrated London News (1861), Frederick John Skill depicted in an illustration how the soup kitchen served Coventry’s weavers (the header image of this blog). [10]  This sheds light on how the Guildhall was recognised as providing relief to those who were destitute. 

Ultimately, looking at marginalised and hidden histories relating to the Guildhall demonstrates the different purposes the venue held over time.  It emphasises how crucial it is to look further than the royal guests and acclaimed cultural figures, such as Shakespeare, whom the Guildhall hosted.[11]  It was an environment in which Frederick Douglass could express his experiences and observations about the inequality and brutality of slavery, helping secure his way to freedom.  It provided Coventry’s poor and working class with a community hub and a soup kitchen.  The Guildhall’s history of accommodating those in need is clearly significant.   

Sources 

Coventry Archives, ‘Guide to St Mary’s Guildhall’ <https://www.theherbert.org/history-centre/free-resources.aspx> [Accessed 16th April 2023] 

Demidowicz, George, ‘The Development of St Mary’s Guildhall, Coventry: A Short History’, in Coventry: Medieval Art, Architecture and Archaeology in the City and its Vicinity, ed. by Linda Monkton (London: Routledge, 2011), pp. 164-181 

Fox, Levi, ‘THE EARLY HISTORY OF COVENTRY’, History, 30.111 (1945), 21-37 

McKivigan, John R., Julie Husband and Heather L. Kaufman, The Speeches of Frederick Douglass: A Critical Edition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018) 

Murray, Hannah Rose, and John R. McKivigan, Frederick Douglass in Britain and Ireland, 1845-1895 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2021) 

St Mary’s Guildhall, ‘Timeline of Coventry’s Medieval History’ <https://www.stmarysguildhall.co.uk/timeline/> [Accessed 2nd April 2023] 


[1] George Demidowicz, ‘The Development of St Mary’s Guildhall, Coventry: A Short History’, in Coventry: Medieval Art, Architecture and Archaeology in the City and its Vicinity, ed. by Linda Monkton (London: Routledge, 2011), p. 164. 

[2] St Mary’s Guildhall, ‘Timeline of Coventry’s Medieval History’ <https://www.stmarysguildhall.co.uk/timeline/> [Accessed 2nd April 2023].

[3] John R. McKivigan, Julie Husband and Heather L. Kaufman, The Speeches of Frederick Douglass: A Critical Edition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018), pp. xxiii-xxiv. 

[4] Hannah Rose Murray and John R. McKivigan, Frederick Douglass in Britain and Ireland, 1845-1895 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2021), p. xxxi. 

[5] Murray and McKivigan, pp. 75-76. 

[6] Murray and McKivigan, pp. 88-89. 

[7] Levi Fox, ‘THE EARLY HISTORY OF COVENTRY’, History, 30.111 (1945), 36. 

[8] Coventry Archives, ‘Guide to St Mary’s Guildhall’ <https://www.theherbert.org/history-centre/free-resources.aspx> [Accessed 16th April 2023]. 

[9] St Mary’s Guildhall, ‘Timeline of Coventry’s Medieval History’ <https://www.stmarysguildhall.co.uk/timeline/> [Accessed 2nd April 2023].

[10] Wikimedia Commons, ’L0000922 A soup kitchen’ (Credit: Wellcome Library, London.) <https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:A_soup_kitchen_Wellcome_L0000922.jpg> [Accessed 23rd April 2023].

[11] Coventry Archives, ‘Guide to St Mary’s Guildhall’ <https://www.theherbert.org/history-centre/free-resources.aspx> [Accessed 16th April 2023].

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Please note: the Guildhall will close early at 2pm on 13th June. Additionally, it will be closed all day on Monday 3rd June and Friday 7th June, for private events. The Tales of Tea restaurant will remain open during these times. Due to unforeseen circumstances, the Kilo Sale due to take place this Sunday, 26th May, at the Guildhall has now been cancelled. Therefore the Guildhall will be open as usual. We are sorry for any inconvenience this has caused.
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