On Sunday April 22nd a party of 24 members visited Fleet Street in the Jewellery Quarter in Birmingham for a guided tour around Newman Brothers also known as the Coffin Works. It is now a Museum under the auspices of the Birmingham Conservation Trust. The coffin works is something of a misnomer as they produced brass (and later plastic) coffin furniture such as crucifixes, breast plates, name plates and soft goods such as shrouds and coffin linings; never coffins. We learned that the works was established in 1882 by Alfred Newman and his brother Edwin and moved to the Fleet Street site in 1894. The company ceased trading in 1998 and the building fell into serious disrepair. The move to restore it was dogged by setbacks but it is now restored externally to its former Victorian splendour whilst the inside gives the visitor an insight into how it would have been in the 1960s.
After tea/coffee and biscuits we commenced the tour in the courtyard looking at, and learning about, the Victorian architecture of the three-storey building and imagined the horse drawn carts entering through the impressive gates. In the workshop we saw the presses and were given a demonstration by our excellent guide of the great strength that would have been needed to operate the largest one many times a day. It required the operator stepping into a pit; a health and safety horror! The beauty and complexity of the dies was fascinating and the huge number a revelation. Death was clearly big business. We spent time in the room where the shrouds, robes and linings for the coffins were made and the trims were applied. The guide told a story of a member of staff who had her wedding dress made from shroud material. George V, George VI, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, Princess Diana, Sir Winston Churchill and Joseph Chamberlain all had coffins that were dressed in furniture made by Newman Brothers.
A lady named Joyce Green who had worked her way up from to doing the secretarial work was the last owner of the business. We looked around her office which was just as it would have been when the business closed. It was her wish that the building became as museum and she supported the determined efforts to achieve this right up until her death in 2009.
A short write up such as this cannot do justice to this superb museum which is the only building in Fleet Street to retain its Victorian façade. It was Gill’s first trip as Visit Organiser for our Society and everyone said how much they had enjoyed it. Well done Gill! It was a fascinating way to spend a Sunday morning.
Text by Chris Glaze-Millis
Photographs by Graham Beckley.
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