A ‘temporary’ new ‘Arabic school’ has opened for extra-curricular weekend classes for Syrian refugees at the listed former Coventry home of the internationally renowned literary giant George Eliot.
Speaking publicly for the fist time, the school as a new tenant told us it was looking for bigger premises to potentially expand.
In the meantime, it is committed to any discussions about a mixed use of Bird Grove house, including for tourist and George Eliot-related purposes.
It comes ahead of a live (council website) public debate at Coventry City Council tomorrow (Tuesday), tabled by opposition councillors supporting this newspaper’s and the George Eliot Fellowship’s campaign for the Grade 11* building to be preserved, and used by future generations of local people and tourists.
As our well supported and nationally publicised Bring George Eliot campaign has highlighted, the 19th century mansion had been lying derelict with its former unofficial George Eliot brass plaque removed, under the ownership of the Bangladesh Centre Limited and the building’s four registered owners including Labour city councillor Rois Ali.
Ahmad Kherallah, of the ‘Al Amal Arabic School’ told us his understanding was it did not require planning permission for a change of use as it was being used for classes for school-aged children for less than four hours on Saturdays, with some adult Arabic classes during the week.
He said painting, cleaning and refurbishment had not involved any alterations to the protected building. It is now the subject of enquiries by council conservation officers after the campaign notified national watchdog Historic England. Previously UPVC windows and an imposing steel fence were added.
Mr Kherallah, once founder of the Coventry Muslim Forum, said he and his wife were among volunteers teaching language classes at Bird Grove.
He said he had been in touch with John Burton of the George Eliot Fellowship with a view to meeting its requests for access for George Eliot-related purposes including visits by literary tourists.
Mr Kherallah said: “It should be open for the public. It should be open as an educational centre and used for many people in the future, including for George Eliot visitors. Why not?
“A lot of the Bangladeshi community will welcome, say, making it available on certain days and times for George Eliot days. We wouldn’t say ‘no’ to a museum too. I am ready to help.
“It should be a historical place. It was previously empty.
“We have more than 100 children and seven teachers and volunteers. These children from Syrian refugee camps want more support to live in the UK than they get from their schools, which are good but might lack translation services, for example. Some are nine years old.
“We are looking for other premises. It’s a temporary place. We expect there will be 500 or 600 children in Coventry from Syria and the building is not big enough. We are looking for another place.”
The Coventry Obsever’s campaign and the George Eliot Fellowship are calling for a blue plaque there, and for it be used as a visitors’ centre and cultural space, even if it does mean a multi-purpose venue. We say more should be done in the city centre too, with George Eliot’s Bicentennial approaching in 2019, follows by Coventry City of Culture 2021.
* The Nuneaton-born great novelist lived there in the 1840s in her twenties, a decade after being schooled in the city.
Her formative experiences in Coventry, where she became an associate of philanthropist Charles Bray, were a greatest influence on, and featured in, her enduring later works, including the celebrated Middlemarch.
Our campaign’s growing list of supporters includes BAFTA-award winning screenwriters Andrew Davies and Giles Foster, Eliot biographer Professor Rosemary Ashton, Culture Coventry, Coventry City of Culture Trust, Historic Coventry Trust, and Coventry University.