Thursday, 15 October 2009

Meet the Masons

In September Ava and I managed to visit a few of the usually closed buildings that opened their doors to the public for the Heritage Open Days weekend. This was the first time I've done this and it was an enjoyable experience.

First off we went to the ruins of St. Michael's. The usually closed Capper's Chapel was open. In here one of the many pro-active Cathedral guides explained that some of the stained glass windows ( or 'painted glass' as he termed it ) were thought to be the work of John Thornton. This Coventry born master glazier is most famous for the Great East Window at York Minster. We were informed that bulbous noses are his signature piece:

Bulbous Nose

After signing a health and safety disclaimer I then climbed what remains of a spiral staircase to the upstairs part of the Chapel. It's hard to imagine an 'upstairs' in the ruins. The room itself is nothing special but the fact it survived the blitz is remarkable. It also makes you think about the power that guilds once wielded in Coventry.

Back in the ruins I rejoined Ava who was in conversation with another guide. We briefly discussed the destruction of the Cathedral and Britain's military involvement in Afghanistan before moving on to the Blitz museum a few yards away. The last time I was in this part of the Cathedral I'm pretty sure it was a coffee shop. It's small but houses a good collection of war time items which give visitors a good feel for what life was like back then.

We then went inside the 'new' Cathedral and headed downstairs to the archive area. I was interested to see the memorabilia associated with H.M.S. Coventry which was sunk in 1942 off the coast of North Africa. I acquired an interesting book last year about the war time service of the ship which was written by George Sims who served on her at the time. In the book there is a photograph of Petty Officer Alfred Sephton who was killed in action and posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, Britain's highest award for gallantry. The same photograph is in the glass cabinet at the Cathedral along with his medal. Sephton grew up in Wolverhampton and met his demise directing the ships guns against Stuka dive bombers which were trying to sink the hospital ship Aba on 18th May 1941. Early in the attack he was critically wounded by an air-cannon bullet.

The book also records the reaction onboard to the Coventry Blitz:

This news of success, [Operation Judgement - an attack on Taranto Harbour] and the safe arrival of our convoy in Alexandria, was somewhat spoiled by our hearing that the City of Coventry had been attacked by the Luftwaffe, and it's Cathedral destroyed. A pack of Brownies from Coventry had earlier sent gifts to cheer up "Coventry" ship's company. Now it was our turn to help the people of the town. A collection was made on board, and when the boxing team was competing at the Fleet Club, a further collection was made. Collection proceeds, with the addition of a grant from the ship's canteen fund, produced over a hundred pounds for helping Luftwaffe victims of Coventry.

On leaving the Cathedral we popped into The Herbert to view the local history fair. The Willenhall and Whitley history groups both had 'stalls' and some interesting photographs on display. As we were on our way out we passed the legendary John Russell, who I appeared with on BBC C&W earlier in the year. Much as I would have loved to have said 'hullo!' to John time was pressing so I gave it a miss. Anyone who has met John will know that he can talk for England when it comes to discussing the history of Coventry!

The Police Museum was next on the agenda. This was the venue I was most looking forward to visiting as I'd heard so much about it down the years. Also known as the Black Museum, it is home to some grizzly exhibits relating to the darker side of life in Coventry. After queuing for a while, we joined ten others and were the last visitors of the day. A somewhat tired female led us down some stairs into a small basement beneath Little Park Street police station. The room is split into two sections, one being for the over-15's only. It was not surprising to see why this was once we starting nosing around. Pictures of abused babies, murder victims, weapons that killed people are all on display. For me though, the main attraction was the remains of the bicycle used in the I.R.A. bombing of Broadgate in 1939. It was a very poignant and sad moment gazing at something that was instrumental in bringing such carnage and loss of innocent life in the heart of our city. It has no handlebars or front wheel but other than that looks brand new with the Halfords logo clearly visible on the frame. Of course it was new back then. I kind of imagined it would be scratched and dented. Only this week I was in touch with a relative of one of the victims who had read my article on the Historic Coventry website. He, like all decent people, is baffled by the lack of a public memorial to the dead. It really is shameful that the civic leaders haven't sorted this issue out.

The trip to the cop shop concluded our adventures for Saturday. On Sunday we made the short journey to the Masonic Hall on Warwick Road. Here we met the Freemasons and were given a tour of the building. A very nice Mason basically told us they are a group of people with higher 'values' than most. He added that anyone can join so long as they believe in a 'supreme being' and that Freemasons donate £millions to charity. The charity angle was reinforced with display boards and tables covered in press releases detailing the beneficiaries and amounts. It was also emphasised that they are not a secret society but do have secrecy regarding their rituals.

It was interesting. When I got home I looked up the Wikipedia entry for the Freemasons and it soon became apparent that our guide had memorised this almost verbatim. I don't have any axe to grind against them but clearly there has to be some kind of benefit to becoming one. Just having a higher set of 'values' and wanting to give money to charity are surely not reason enough for joining? Whatever the case it was nice that they opened their doors. I don't think I'll be joining up any time soon though!