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New life for a lost treasure.

DETECTIVE work has revealed that a memorial plaque to Coventry factory workers which turned up for sale at a flea market originally formed part of a fountain with a drinking trough for horses and dogs. As work begins to restore it to its former glory, feature writer ALISON McCONKEY reports on the discovery of another long-forgotten memorial to George Eliot's dearest friend Cara Bray who led her into a literary life.

THE RATHER strange-looking memorial caught the eye for the many years it stood in Coventry's Queens Road.

The inscribed tablet to Caroline Bray, known as Cara to her friends, the greatest of whom was George Eliot, was attached to a horse trough and a water bowl for dogs.

It was a fitting tribute to the woman who founded the Coventry Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1878, later to become the Coventry branch of the RSPCA, and who was secretary of it for 21 years.

But in the sixties, when the ring road was under construction and horse- drawn vehicles were long since a common sight, the memorial was taken down.

The horse trough disappeared, but the tablet was saved and embedded into the wall of the RSPCA animal shelter in Coventry Street, Stoke, where it remained for many years.

Within the last ten years, it was removed at the instigation of the George Eliot Fellowship to the London Road cemetery where Cara Bray was buried after her death at the age of 90 in 1905.

Since then, the rather forlorn-looking tablet has been left lying unrecognised in the vast cemetery to the distress of the Fellowship.

Kathleen Adams, the Fellowship's secretary, wrote to Margaret Rylatt, of the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, expressing concern that the commemorative tablet now had such an insignificant home.

''We felt that it deserved to be made more secure and acknowledged,'' said Mrs Adams, secretary for 30 years.

''Caroline was a very important part of George Eliot's early life and the friendship between them continued until George Eliot's death. She was also very much valued, indeed, loved in Coventry.''

Mrs Rylatt contacted Peter Walters, a keen local history enthusiast and spokesman for Coventry and Warwickshire Promotions, and together they began to do some detective work of their own.

''We decided to do some digging which took us to the War Memorial Park where we found the horse trough,'' said Mr Walters.

''We were able to identify it from a photograph found in the Evening Telegraph archives of the memorial when it stood in Queens Road.''

Despite being neglected for so long, both the memorial tablet and the horse trough were in remarkably good condition, although they are in need of being cleaned before being put back together and re-sited.

''I was delighted and surprised when I was told they had found the trough, because I didn't think it still existed,'' said Mrs Adams.

It is hoped that the reunited memorial to Cara Bray will be put up on Greyfriars Green, close to Warwick Row where Eliot went to school and not far from its original home in Queens Road, and perhaps made into a flower garden.

''There is a project to restore and increase the number of objects of public art in the city centre and this fits in nicely with that,'' said Mr Walters.

Mrs Adams is in no doubt that Cara Bray led Eliot into the literary life at which she excelled.

Nuneaton-born Eliot met Cara in November 1841 while living with her father in Foleshill. The Bray family were eminent members of Coventry's society and often played host to London's literary circle.

''She was meeting the sort of people she never would have had the opportunity to meet back in Nuneaton. It was very much an intellectual circle,'' said Mrs Adams.

''It undoubtedly led her into a literary life. It was her introduction to literature and to published writing.''

Eliot and Cara became the best of friends. When Eliot's father died, she stayed with the Brays until she moved to London to pursue her career as a novelist.

''Cara was very highly respected and much loved. She was a very likeable and attractive lady. Their friendship was very warm and lasted for the rest of George Eliot's life,'' said Mrs Adams.

Mrs Adams hopes the restoration and re-siting of the memorial to her lifelong friend will raise Eliot's profile in Coventry where she lived for nine years.

''Generally Coventry has been very slow to acknowledge her important association with the city,'' she said.

''If she had not come to Coventry and had not come into contact with the Brays, I am quite sure she would not have gone into a literary life and her life would have been very different.''
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Coventry Evening Telegraph (England)
Date:Apr 5, 1999
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