Hidden Quaker History in Coventry

Eleanor Nesbitt explores the history of Coventry’s Draper Hall, designed by Quaker architect Thomas Rickman, as it is restored as part of Coventry City of Culture:

Spotlight on Quaker architect Thomas Rickman, on a royal birthday and young people’s music-making in Coventry the 2021 UK City of Culture

In November Drapers’ Hall will be opening as Coventry’s impatiently-awaited new music centre, with performances by Tom Robinson (of BBC Radio 6 Music), Joan Dalene (Swedish violinist), saxophonist Jess Gillam, Stratford upon Avon’s Orchestra of the Swan, and harpist Catrin Finch. Importantly,Coventry Music Service will be developing the venue as a centre for music education for young musicians.

For some years the Grade II* Regency building on Bailey Lane was used as a church centre and a youth magistrates’ court. Then, in the 1980s, it closed and started deteriorating with damp and neglect.  Now, thanks to the vision of Historic Coventry Trust, The Prince’s Foundation and other funders, Drapers’ Hall has been restored to its former glory as an outstanding, city-centre cultural venue. It boasts three performance and meeting spaces – the Ballroom, Tearoom and Cardroom – as well as 19th century basement kitchens that once provided shelter from air raids. 

The restoration and repurposing of what was once the guildhall, bult in 1832 for the wealthy Worshipful Guild of Drapers, was one of seven projects selected by The Prince’s Foundation to celebrate Prince Charles’s 70th birthday. But how many people are aware of the Quaker backstory?

Thomas Rickman (1776-1841), the co-designer of this remarkable ‘Greek Revival’ building (the third drapers’ hall on the site) was a birthright Quaker. He became a major figure in Britain’s Gothic Revival, along with Augustus Pugin. Like Pugin (who designed St Chad’s cathedral), Thomas Rickman designed churches in Birmingham and, indeed, he also rebuilt Coventry’s Greyfriars church. (Renamed Christchurch, this church was destroyed in the second world war.) Rickman’s only completely surviving building in Birmingham is the former Midland Bank building on Bennetts Hill. In Warwickshire, All Saints’ church in Stretton-on-Dunsmore is another example of his work, as is St Peter’s church, Sherbourne, although St Peter’s was later remodelled by another Gothic Revivalist, Sir Gilbert Scott.

Unlike both Scott and Pugin (whose father was a French draughtsman), Thomas Rickman was an entirely self-taught architect. He was born into a large Quaker family in Maidenhead, Berkshire. His father, a grocer and druggist, had wanted him to train as a doctor but, instead, Thomas went into business. He also defied his elders’ counsel by marrying Lucy Rickman, his first cousin, and this ‘estranged’ him from Quakers. Whereas Anglicans were allowed to marry their first cousins this was forbidden for Quakers. Thomas and Lucy could not be married in a Quaker Meeting House.

Sadly, Lucy soon died and Thomas’s business venture had failed. In his distress he took to going for long country walks which, in turn, aroused his passion for church architecture.  In just one year, 1811, he is said to have studied 3000 ecclesiastical buildings. He would return from his walks with sketches as well as carefully scaled drawings.

From observing the tracery of medieval church windows he worked out his pioneering and influential classification of English architecture as Norman, Early English and so on, as set out in his (1817) publication: Attempt to Discriminate the Styles of English Architecture from the Conquest to the Reformation.

After Lucy’s death Thomas had two more marriages. Despite the ‘estrangement’ he did carry on attending Quaker Meetings for Worship. In his final years, however, he became a member of the Catholic Apostolic (Irvingian) Church. Perhaps this church’s emphasis on miracles and spiritual gifts caught Thomas Rickman’s imagination, although – in contrast – Pugin’s enforced attendance as a child at meetings addressed by the Church’s founder, Edward Irving, had driven him away into the Roman Catholic church.

In the Middle Ages crowds came to Coventry to see the mystery plays, including their grand finale in the Drapers’ Guild’s staging of the Last Judgement. Please now come to the Drapers’ Hall for first class musical refreshment.

© Eleanor Nesbitt, Central England Area Meeting