memories: Amateur with love for vanished city; PIONEERING RESCUE ARCHAEOLOGIST 'JB' BECAME CURATOR OF HIS OWN MUSEUM.
JOHN Bailey Shelton was a pioneer of rescue archaeology in Coventry. Long before the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum became a reality, he opened his own museum of antiquities in the city centre. KEITH DRAPER reports.
THE Benedictine Museum was founded at Cave's Yard, Little Park Street by John Bailey Shelton, arguably the city's most famous amateur archaeologist.
It was housed in a makeshift building next to the horse and cart haulage business that he had established 30 years before.
Displays were crammed with items discovered during central redevelopment, many of them artefacts used by the friars at Priory Row. And, in the spring of 1937, his large collection was opened to the public.
John Shelton's fascination with archaeology had come about literally by accident 10 years before when he was 52.
An accident with one of his drays had left him with a badly broken leg and as he convalesced in hospital he buried himself in a book on Coventry history. His recovery continued on crutches with short walks out to Old Cheylesmore.
"It happened that Harris and Sons were excavating on the site of the Hare and Squirrel," he said later, "and being only a short distance from my home, I was able to make the journey to watch the contractors' trenches.
"I had read about the building occupied by Greyfriars and kept a record of these excavations - there were sandstone walls 4ft wide."
Unfortunately, the records were lost in bombing raids on Little Park Street during the last war, but this first taste of archaeology was significant for him.
When the mediaeval city was being torn down in the 1930s for the building of Trinity Street just one man appeared interested in the city's past.
In white coat and straw hat, John Shelton could be seen scrambling in and out of excavations and over rubble, peering into newly-discovered cellars and talking to the workmen as the 20th century closed in over the mediaeval city.
As a result he built up a considerable collection of historic items from vanished Coventry and was curator of his own museum for 15 years.
On the day the Benedictine Museum opened a large crowd gathered to watch the Mayor, Alderman Barnacle, turn a mediaeval key to open the room.
John Shelton explained that the key matched the 15th-century lock he had fitted to the door. He told them about dishonesty in the Corporation during the late 17th century, when some of the members had used the funds of the Sir Thomas White's Charity for themselves.
"They were found out, forgiven, but were never really trusted again," he said. "The fraudulent behaviour led to a chest being provided for the funds by St Michael's Church and it was fitted with four locks.
"But it was destroyed in 1895, and one of the locks was fitted to my museum entrance door."
The Mayor predicted that the museum would become a place of pilgrimage for those interested in the city.
In 1945 the city council appointed JB, as he was known, to the office of City Chamberlain.
As curator at St Mary's Hall he was the perfect ambassador enthusing on the city's history to visitors. His knowledge was passed on to thousands through his lectures and newspaper articles.
Coventry can be proud that in JB Shelton it had one of the true pioneers of rescue archaeology. It recognised that by naming a city school and Shelton Square in his honour.
Proud to be a citizen JOHN Bailey Shelton was born at Kirkby Woodhouse, Nottinghamshire, in 1875. The son of a farm labourer, he left school at the age of 11, learned how to handle farm animals and was hired as a shepherd at Nottingham Goose Fair. His first job in Coventry was looking after the shire horses at the railway yard.
He met his future wife Catherine Ashton at the Young People's Bible Class which met in the Wesleyan Chapel, Warwick Lane. The devoted couple had two children, Bailey and Kathleen.
He was elected to the Board of Guardians in 1923, and from then on he took a special interest in the less fortunate, particularly at the Workhouse.
John Shelton received the RSPCA's Queen Victoria Medal for saving horses during the Blitz, and was made an MBE for his services to archaeology and history in 1956. His collection was handed over to the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum.
He died in November, 1958, after being knocked down by a motorcyclist, robbing Coventry of one of its best-loved citizens.
COLLECTOR: John Shelton (above) comparing notes with the Herbert's curator, Cyril Scott, at the Benedictine Museum and (left) examining a stone coffin lid with a strange cruciform design which was unearthed during redevelopment at Trinity Street.