People Power: Manufacturing and Migration in Coventry

 

On Saturday 5 June, the story of our signature event, Coventry Moves, will be framed around six themes or “Energies”, each one embodied by a well-known figure from the city. In the lead-up to the event, we’ll be taking a look at each of these in turn, beginning with the theme of “People Power”.

Represented by singer Navin Kundra, the “People Power” Energy reflects the idea of Coventry as a city built by people from around the world. The diversity of Coventry’s population is something that everyone who lives here is used to hearing about, but what’s perhaps less often discussed is how intricately that diversity is bound up with the city’s manufacturing heritage – another vital part of its identity.

Around 33% of Coventry residents are from backgrounds other than White British – a figure higher not only than the national average, but also than the average across the West Midlands region – and over 120 different languages are spoken here.

But ethnicity isn’t the only distinguishing factor of the city’s demographics: historically, its class make-up has also been distinctive. In 1913, Coventry was described as an “artisan” town – something which remained true for much of the rest of the century. In 1951, both the percentage of people working in professional, managerial and executive class jobs and those working in “lower occupational grades” were relatively low when compared with other similarly sized cities. Where the Coventry led the way was with its skilled blue collar workers – the engineers and designers who were central to the city’s world-famous motor industry.

Throughout its history, Coventry has experienced periods of boom and bust, as one industry has given way to another, from weaving, watchmaking and ribbon manufacturing, to bicycles and cars and other engines. Unsurprisingly, periods of prosperity have tended to go hand in hand with population growth, and little wonder. As vehicle manufacturing in particular flourished, the promise of steady jobs and high wages attracted talent from across the country.

Betweeen 1933 and 1938, Coventry’s unemployment figures were around half the national average, and its strategic importance to the British war effort was what prompted the devastating air raids on the city in 1940. Far from being crushed by the Blitz, however, Coventry quickly bounced back, remaining a desirable prospect for skilled workers from across the UK and overseas. By the 1950s, when Coventry came to be known as “Britain’s Detroit”, its engineering workers were enjoying the first £5 notes to be included in peacetime blue collar wage packets.

By 1961, over 13% of people living in the city had been born outside England and Wales, with many more having settled in Coventry from other parts of the country, and the number of people from India, Pakistan and the Caribbean was around three times what it had been a decade earlier. The growth continued: from 1961-1963, the Indian population increased by over 10%, while the Pakistani and West Indian populations grew by over 17% each.

While new developments in electric vehicles continue to take place in the city today, there’s no denying that industry in Coventry has changed drastically since the middle of the 20th century. But while it might not be opportunities to work in manufacturing that drive them here, it remains the case that people from around the world continue to make their homes in Coventry.

One reason for this is its universities, which attract a huge number of international students every year. But perhaps just as important is its reputation for diversity: regardless of their language, race, religion or nationality, there’s a good chance that anyone who moves here will find a place to fit in, with so many migrant communities now firmly established here.

The numbers show no signs of slowing down. The 33% of Coventry’s population from backgrounds other than White British (an increase from 22% in 2001) rises to a massive 48.7% among schoolchildren. Around a third of Coventry schoolchildren speak English as a second language, and a massive 50 different languages are spoken as first languages by at least 50 children in the city.

Although no city is without its problems, movements promoting welcome and sanctuary, peace and internationalism, and multicultural collaboration have long been part of Coventry’s identity, from anti-slavery campaigning spurred on by Ira Aldridge in 1828, to its pioneering post-war twin cities project; and from 2-tone and the anti-racism efforts of the 1980s, to its response to recent international crises, which have seen Coventry house more Syrian refugees than any other city in England, to give one example.

In 2017, Coventry’s City of Culture bid focused heavily on the idea of Coventry as a City of Cultures, recognising that our diversity is something to be celebrated, and that our culture is enriched through sharing and collaboration.

It’s this belief that lies behind the “People Power” Energy in Coventry Moves, which will combine a nod to Coventry’s manufacturing past with an explosion of dance and music in Irish folk, Bhangra/Bollywood and Ska styles, representing some of the largest migrant communities to have made their homes here.

Check out the video below for a sneak preview!

SOURCES

Coventry City Council

British History