In an old warehouse just north of Birmingham city centre is a treasure trove of pale, unopened boxes. Hundreds and hundreds stacked up in rows like the tombstones of Manila Bay, filled with reminders of history. Each one contains the intriguing remains of The Coffin Works labelled with the room from which they came, their contents entombed for now with packing plastic. And it is here that they are joined by a small group of eager BCT staff and volunteers armed with an inventory, for a few hours of welcome discovery. An archivist’s dream.
Simon, Suzanne, Julie, Barbara and myself, and Josh an intern from the Prince’s Regeneration Trust.
The long anticipated restoration work of the old Newman Brothers factory on Fleet Street is soon to begin, with the last pre-restoration tours at the end of March.
So now attention turns to sorting through and making sense of the works records, objects and machinery, lovingly removed to safety here many years ago. This is just the beginning of a huge, but intriguing job.
As the first few boxes are identified and opened we are like children in a sweet shop. Simon discovers an old salesman’s case, in severe need of restoration but complete with brass handles, coffin plates and a book containing jovial anecdotes – for putting prospective customer at ease!
There are recordings of business activities such as a beautifully bound ledger of financial transactions dated the year the Second World War broke out, and a useful little black address book of hand-written contacts.
Then there are signs of former factory workers; an old staff clocking in and out machine with named stamp cards, holiday request letters, and an old cigarette machine with packets priced at two shilling and sixpence. Even a statutory poster from 1978, which outlines holiday allowances enforced by the obscurely named ‘Coffin Furniture and Cerement-Making (burial garment) Wages Council.
But to some of us the most intriguing items are tucked away in an old filing cabinet amongst a stack of loose papers, yet to be archived. And here we find, amongst other things, the old CV of a young women by the name of Kellett, the same name as the former Director. We wonder whether she is a daughter, niece or sister and why her CV would be here.
These items only scratch the surface of the contents of The Coffin Works. There are so many. And even more endless, unanswered questions; Who were these people? What were all these objects for? What are the stories behind them?
As the restoration work begins shortly on Fleet Street, these answers will gradually emerge and so too will the intriguing real life stories of The Coffin Works as it once was.