Celebrating 120 Years of Coventry & Warwickshire Chamber of Commerce - 1903 - 2023
The first chamber of commerce was established in Marseilles in 1599. It was not until the Victorian age that Chambers of Commerce spread throughout the country. This reflected the huge growth of manufacturing and trade, and the need for business leaders to have a strong independent voice.
A Chamber was established in Coventry in 1856, at a time when the city was in a serious state of decline due to a collapse of the market for its ribbons and textiles. It was intended to persuade Parliament to introduce tariffs to protect the industry, however, this proved impossible and it closed down in 1889.
As the new century dawned, things were changing fast. A new breed of dynamic and inventive entrepreneurs were building a new economy based on engineering and manufacturing.
In 1903, Mr Vernon Pugh, managing director of Rudge Cycles, called together local business leaders to discuss the formation of a new and modern chamber to represent the interests of their fast growing companies and to promote trade within the UK and beyond. A chamber was formed and Mr Pugh became its first President. Other founders included Siegfried Bettman (Triumph), Sir Edward Manville (Daimler) and Col. William Wyley (Wyley & Co) who was to leave his home, the historic Charterhouse, to the people of Coventry on his death in 1940.
The Chamber’s income in that first year was £130, with 35 members paying a subscription of two guineas and 54 paying one guinea.
The new Chamber made an immediate impact:
- Challenging the railway company about poor service, high freight charges, lack of timetable information and no station clock, when the city was still producing thousands of them!
- campaigning for overseas tariff reductions for Coventry-made products
- pressing for a municipal telephone exchange to improve the service provided by the GPO.
One success was persuading the railway company to timetable a regular stop on the London to Birmingham express. The Chamber appointed its first full time secretary in 1908 and set up offices in Little Park Street.
The first decade of the Chamber’s life saw a massive expansion of manufacturing. By 1906, over 10,000 people were employed in the motor trade. It wasn’t just about manufacturing though – the chamber organised a Coventry Shopping Week in 1912 to showcase the city’s retail offer and win shoppers back from Birmingham!
A trade directory of the time shows a fast-changing business world, listing 200 boot makers, 14 chimney sweeps, loom makers, employment agencies for domestic staff, taxidermists, a phrenologist and 16 pawnbrokers.
The watch and clock-making sector was still an influential local player, but new names were emerging: Rover, Standard, Triumph and Daimler cars, and Alfred Herbert and Webster & Bennett machine tools.
What other city could supply locally made items such as a bicycle for £6, a car for £125 (£5 extra for a reverse gear), or an aeroplane for only £450? At this time, the chamber was actively promoting local products to overseas buyers and entertaining commercial attaches from around the world.
The outbreak of the First World War saw local manufacturing businesses switch production to munitions and military supplies. The Chamber set up an emergency committee which, at its weekly meetings, tackled issues affecting production, such as dockside delays, steel shortages and manpower problems.
After the war, the Chamber moved to new offices in Earl Street, courtesy of the then president, Lord Iliffe. International trade remained a key area – in 1922 the Chamber received a 40 strong Japanese delegation, who were met at Leamington Station by a fleet of Coventry-made cars and given tours of various factories.
Issues taken up by the Chamber included the dumping of cheap foreign textiles and the ‘’Made in Coventry’’ label being used by overseas manufacturers of inferior quality products!
As the 1930s drew to an end, local manufacturing was busy on re-arming the county’s armed forces. Shadow factories were set up by some of the area’s leading manufacturers. When war broke out in 1939, the Chamber was given a number of very important roles, including representing the needs of manufacturers to government, disseminating information and helping employers comply with the trading with the Enemy Act and the Civil Defence Act.
The night of November 14, 1940 saw an enemy raid that devastated the Coventry, known as The Blitz. The Chamber’s offices (and all records) were destroyed. The President’s chain of office survived, however, as he wore it to a function the previous evening! Following the raid, other Chambers of Commerce immediately donated office equipment and supplies. Among the chambers who jumped in to help were Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield, Glasgow and London.
An accountant offered temporary premises in Hertford Street and the Chamber was back in business. It continued to provide business with a focal point for discussion, and a channel to the wartime government. Even as early as 1942, the Chamber’s retail members were coming up with plans for the redevelopment of the damaged city centre.
As the war progressed, the Chamber was actively involved with the authorities in a committee to defend Coventry. One task was to assist retailers whose stock had been destroyed by bombing. After the war ended in 1945, attention switched to the rebuilding of the city, and assisting with the transition from a war economy to export-led growth.
Coventry’s Council applied for a Compulsory Purchase Order for 452 acres of land in the centre of the city. The Chamber represented the interests of the many businesses displaced by the development plans, and those who had suffered war damage but had received inadequate compensation.
The Chamber brought together 66 members who shared the cost of a barrister to represent their views at the public inquiry set up to look at the redevelopment plans. The redevelopment was a huge issue, as can be gathered from the following quote from a speech given by Chamber president Lord Rootes in 1946:
"The war, through which we have all lived, has had, and will continue to have, a disturbing effect on our actions and outlook for the future. Planning for the sake of planning, by planners spurred on by superplanners and idealists, will tend to remove from our daily lives opportunities for achievement’’.
The Chamber was granted a new home in 1946 courtesy of the War Damages Commission, purchasing an ex-army hut 48ft by 18ft.
As the country dragged itself out of the post war economic crisis, the Chamber was busy taking up the shortages of raw materials such as steel, timber and fuel. Plans to nationalise the coal and steel industries were a matter of great concern.
Coventry and Warwickshire businesses rose to the challenge of the post-war export drive as major companies with big workforces dominated:
- GEC, Courtaulds, British Thompson Houston, Dunlop, Portland Cement, Armstrong Siddeley and, of course, the motor industry: Jaguar, Humber, Hillman, Triumph, Standard and many more.
It is estimated that 60 per cent of the city’s workforce was employed in manufacturing during the 1950s. The automotive sector in particular gave the city the ‘boomtown’ reputation. The Chamber played a particular role in helping to promote the sub-contract engineering sector in Coventry and Warwickshire – the first Directory of Engineering Capacity was published in 1958, followed by very successful engineering exhibitions.
One major issue for the Chamber at that time was a proposal by the National Coal Board to extend mining beneath the city. This caused huge worries about subsidence-particularly for the precision engineering companies and their equipment. The Chamber managed to win the day and the proposal was dropped. The Beeching plan for the railways was also a hot topic.
In 1973, the Chamber moved to new, purpose-built premises in St Nicholas Street, Radford. Membership grew to over 1,000-with Warwickshire-based members outnumbering Coventry based ones for the first time ever.
Branch committees were set up in north, south and mid Warwickshire to strengthen the local voice (Rugby had its own independent Chamber at this time).
The Chamber launched a very successful appeal to raise funds to provide a permanent home for the city’s collection of historic vehicles. Members gave generously, raising one third of the funds needed to create the Museum of Road Transport.
The late-70s and early-80s saw the end of boomtown – the closure of many famous names, mass redundancies and an unemployment rate of over 20 per cent. The Chamber’s commercial activity, membership and training seminars grew rapidly at this time. The focus was very much on promoting Coventry and Warwickshire’s products through regular local B2B and engineering exhibitions, and umbrella stands at NEC trade shows.
The Chamber was also a major publisher of trade directories, including the highly regarded Directory of Engineering Capacity, which was circulated to purchasing managers throughout the UK and beyond.
A record number of trade missions visited markets in all parts of the world, but particularly focusing on oil rich economies, and the emerging economic powerhouses of the Far East.
In the early 1980s, the Chamber, with the City Council, established the link with the Chinese City of Jinan - a link that has resulted in many profitable business relationships and ongoing trade cooperation.
From the early 1980s, the Chamber also became a major training provider, through its subsidiary Coventry & Warwickshire Chamber of Commerce Training (CWCCT) – helping both unemployed young people and redundant adults to attain new skills and seek job opportunities.
As many of the large employers either disappeared, merged or shrank, growth became reliant on the success of small and medium sized business. SME membership grew very quickly and the Chamber’s information service, networking events, and management training seminars boomed.
Government recognition of the importance of the SME sector led to the establishment of Training and Enterprise Councils in 1990. The Chamber took the lead in drawing together a shadow board for the Coventry & Warwickshire TEC, and at a later date merged to create the Coventry & Warwickshire Chamber of Commerce Training and Enterprise. This brought major resources, including EU funds, to help local businesses start-up, grow and develop. The Business Link service, another government initiative, was managed by the CCTE.
Inevitably, a new government scrapped these structures but the Chamber reverted to being a plain Chamber of Commerce again, but with the contacts to deliver Business Link services, export promotion (UKTI), and training (through CWCCT) to employers in the sub-region.
Today the Chamber has relocated to the Innovation Village on the Coventry University Technology Park. CWCCT, still based in the St Nicholas Street site, is one of the leading providers of apprenticeships in Coventry and Warwickshire. Membership is growing and events and seminars attract large numbers. The Chamber’s voice and credibility are as strong as ever, maintaining its position as one of the most active and influential in the country.
To survive and prosper for 120 years, the Chamber has had to be adaptable, responsive to its owners (the members) and its customers (the wider business community). Above all, it has to remain as relevant as it did to the founders back in 1903.
Is there a place for local organisation like the Chamber of Commerce, in an age of digital communications and globalisation? Most definitely YES!
Chambers of Commerce began life as bodies created by local business people with specific needs – they are not-for-profit, 100 per cent owned by their members, and are wholly committed to local business needs. The Coventry and Warwickshire Chamber will continue to adapt and thrive as long as businesses value local knowledge, personal contact, dedication, integrity – and a commitment to sustainable business success!