03 July 2023
The Old Windmill on Spon Street
is the oldest pub in Coventry
The Old Windmill at 22 Spon Street claims it is Coventry’s oldest and best-known pub. During my ‘field trip’ to Coventry last week, I dropped into the Old Windmill, which dates back to 1451 and is a Grade II Listed building.
Many people see Spon End as the heart of the city, with its diverse and vibrant community. The area has a mixture of old and new, from mediaeval ruins to modem high-rise buildings, and the range of community projects include the annual Spon End Wakes Week Festival in July.
Stepping though the doors of the Old Windmill on Spon Street, I could feel I had almost stepped back through time. This is the oldest surviving residential area in Coventry. The name Spon first appears in the late 12th century, but there is no agreement on what it means. Suggestions for the meaning include ‘span of hand,’ ‘Wood shaving or chip’ and a ‘place where shingles were made.’
There was a bridge over the Sherbourne by the late 13th century. Spon End is at the end of Spon Street around Spon Bridge, and includes Saint John’s Church. In the late mediaeval period, Spon Street lay outside the town walls when Spon (Bablake) Gate was built ca 1390 near Saint John the Baptist Church. Spon Gate stood for almost 400 years until its demolition in 1771.
The chapel of Saint James and Saint Christopher, now roofless, stands on the town side of the bridge. The chapel was first mentioned in the early 15th century the chapel was originally built by weavers for the their own use. In more recent times it was converted into a house and was eventually bought by the council in 1936. However, the restoration scheme was never realised, and the chapel was left in ruins after World War I.
The leper colony of Saint Leonard’s was founded in the late 12th century at a safe distance beyond Spon End. The colony with its chapel dedicated to Saint Mary Magdalen were at the junction of Allesley Old Road and Hearsal Lane. Later, the chapel was converted into a barn, but it was demolished in the early 19th century.
Spon Street was also an important trade route from London, through to Shrewsbury and Holyhead. Spon Street was one of six streets in Coventry that were turnpiked in 1812 or improved and converted to toll roads.
Stage coaches continued to rattle through the cobbled street until Thomas Telford opened his ‘new’ Holyhead Road in 1829, relieving pressure on Spon Street. The area was then dissected by Coventry-Nuneaton railway.
Dyers, tanners, carriers and similar trades were the mainstay of Spon End from the 14th and 15th centuries,. The area was later associated with weaving and a number of weavers topshops survive. Weavers, dyers and tanners worked next to the river, so that the Sherbourne ran blue from the dye, and the highly prized cloth gave rise to the expression ‘True as Coventry Blue.’
Another Spon Street expression, ‘Sent to Coventry,’ recalls the hostile reception given to Civil War prisoners who were confined in the 14th century in Saint John the Baptist Church.
Coventry’s link to watchmaking began in 1683, when the Coventry clockmaker Samuel Watson was commissioned by Charles II to create an astronomical clock. He also invented the first stopwatch and the five-minute repeater. Samuel Vale moved his watch company to Spon Street in 1776. Other watchmakers followed, and by the Georgian era Spon Street was a centre for watchmaking, competing with London and Liverpool.
Many former weavers took up watchmaking as the balance shifted from the cloth and leather trades, so that by the 1850s the area was the centre of the watchmaking industry that made Coventry famous around the world.
Samuel Yeomans of 49 Spon Street made watches that were so accurate he would send them to the Kew Observatory on tests lasting 45 days. Many of the watchmakers’ houses can still be seen in the Victorian watchmaking quarter, close to the surviving Victorian synagogue in Barras Lane. Bahne Bonniksen, inventor of the Karussl, lived for many years in Norfolk Street.
The area to the south of Spon Street became a slum of back to backs and courts. In the area north of Spon Street, the houses for the professional classes were built on the Lammas and Michaelmas lands enclosed in the 1880s.
The Spon Street chemist and druggist Frederick Bird provided cures for almost every complaint that children or adults could suffer from, with his teething powders, cough elixir, restorative pills and many remedies concocted by Bird himself.
Many famous industrial names are associated with Spon End. They included Renold Chain and Rotherhams, and JK Stanley, inventor of the modern safety cycle and founder of Rover, who lived in Gloucester Street.
The Old Windmill on Spon Street was built in 1451. An original feature is the hearth of the fireplace that conceals a priest’s hole. The inn was called the Windmill after a windmill on Spon Causeway by the River Sherbourne. Another inn with the same name was at No 105-106 Spon Street and so, in 1836, this inn was renamed The Old Windmill to distinguish it. The other inn closed in 1970.
Until the mid-19th century, the Old Windmill was split into two premises, with the partition being the passageway from the front door that ran between the two. To the left of the passageway a shop sold an assortment of goods, including toys; to the right was the pub.
When the property was converted into one, the left hand side formed part of the domestic quarters until the pub was extended across the entire ground floor in the early 1980s.
The pub had its own brewery until 1930 and the brewhouse still survives to the rear of the pub. The pub was run by members of the Brown family from 1931 to 1975. When Ann Brown was the licensee from 1940 to 1967, the place became known as Ma Brown’s.
The building has been Grade II listed since June 1974.
The Old Windmill was renovated in 1985, when the bar area was expanded to incorporate an open courtyard and a room that had once been a toyshop. During those renovations, a Victorian fireplace was removed to expose an open stone hearth in the lounge, dating back to the 15th century, complete with a ‘priest’s hole’.
The Old Windmill has remained virtually unchanged since the 15th century. Today, it is well known for its real ale and friendly atmosphere. It retains many original features, including inglenook fireplaces and quirky rooms, such as the Black Room and the Brewhouse.
This award-winning pub was a winner at the Great British pub awards in 2022, and it has been a winner of best divisional pub for Stonegate, and a finalist in the Best Pub for Ale, and a past winner of Camra’s Pub of the Year.
Beer festivals are held in spring, summer and winter, there is live music on Friday evenings, and a Sunday folk group. Displays from the local Morris men and Coventry Mummers involve members of the local playing music, acting, singing and dancing.