Restoration of the Newman Brothers Coffin Fittings Works in Fleet Street started at the end of July 2013 and this Grade II* listed factory is now open to the public.
Over the last 10 years the Trust has worked hard to create a sustainable rescue package for this incredible piece of Birmingham Industrial heritage. For an overview of our involvement and a timeline see here.
The Coffin Works Project
The Coffin Works project focuses on a historic coffin fittings factory with its “time-capsule” contents, and on the human stories behind the 100 years of operation, highlighting the industrial processes and the lives of the workers and owners.
From 1894 until 1999 Newman Brothers produced high quality coffin fittings in solid brass, stamped electro-brass, silver and nickel plate, and latterly in moulded resin. Additionally the company sold shrouds and coffin linings, which they manufactured at the factory from the mid C20. When Newman Brothers started Birmingham was at the centre of the trade, but by the time they ceased trading the company was one of only three such manufacturers in Britain, the trade having been hit by competition from the Far East and changing patterns of burials. In their heyday Newman Brothers employed a workforce of over 100 people. They produced goods that were sent out across the world and adorned the coffins of the great and good, such as Joseph Chamberlain, Winston Churchill, the Queen Mother and Princess Diana.
Located on the city centre edge of the historic Jewellery Quarter and built in 1894, the factory is a typical example of a late C19 purpose built Jewellery Quarter manufactory. It has a characteristic rectangular courtyard plan form and is of modest scale having been built on the site of former domestic housing. It is three storeys high, built of red brick with slate roof and has high quality brick and stone dressings with lots of small paned cast irons windows to flood the buildings with light. It has two entrances separating the clean areas of work from the dirty industrial processes. Customers and office staff would enter via the panelled double doors, whilst workers would go in through the big cart entrance.
The 9 bay front range has a full length shroud room on the second floor, a warehouse room and two offices to first floor, and a tiled hallway, shelved stores and Post Room to the ground floor. To the rear on the north side of the courtyard is an original lower three storey range with central stairs. It houses the stamp room with all its original stamps and plating room to the ground floor, polishing, finishing and assembly rooms to first floor and two large rooms to the second floor, the handle assembly workshop and the 1960’s vacuum plating room for resin handle production.
On the south side of the courtyard is a two storey 1960’s brick wing with flat roof of little architectural merit, which replaced a single storey lean-to that housed casting, polishing and japanning shops. To the far end is an original basement containing important historic barrelling equipment and shafting.
The courtyard is lined in blue brick except in the centre where a former “dippy shed” and coke store stood. To the far end of the courtyard is a pit that formerly contained a large gas engine which powered the factory. Apart from the new wing and the sheds in the middle of the courtyard the buildings remain remarkably in tact.
The buildings were carefully planned to facilitate the industrial processes they were to be used for – the courtyard being the area where the raw materials came in, where all the toxic, smelly and noisy activities (plating, casting, japanning, polishing and stamping) took place and where all the waste was gathered before removal. The courtyard was also the area by which the goods left the factory and the two rooms either side of the cart entrance have raised floors to better accommodate loading and unloading. The upper floors of the back ranges housed the slightly less dirty finishing processes, such as piercing, grinding and bending and the assembly processes, such as putting together the handle sets, whilst the front range was for clean work only. On the ground floor finished items were wrapped and stored, on the first floor the orders were gathered together and office work undertaken and on the top floor all the shrouds and coffin linings were made and finished. The full height hoist in the front range meant goods could easily be transported between the floors.
Some alterations were made in the early part of the C20 to this flow of manufacture, when a plating shop introduced on the ground floor and the polishing shop was moved to the floor above. Later still in the 1960’s a vacuum plating shop for the production of resin handles was introduced, but essentially the pattern of production remained remarkably unchanged for a hundred years.
When the factory was sold in 2003 all the contents were left in situ. This included large quantities of stock – handles, back plates, pins, screws, breast plates, crucifixes, shrouds and coffin linings of different designs and dates. Much of the paper documentation was also left – sales ledgers, staff clock cards, photographs and catalogues. In addition a range of domestic and personal items remained – handbags, tea towels and tea making equipment, tins of soup and evidence of strong drinks in the director’s office! These items together with all the fittings – window benches with zinc covered tops, wooden shelves, office desks complete with drawers full of carbon paper and work benches with vices and flypresses – give an extraordinarily vivid sense of how the factory was when it was still working.
The Coffin Works is a Grade II* listed building and the only complete historic building remaining on Fleet Street. (Next door is listed but only the façade remains). The factory is located within the Jewellery Quarter Conservation Area, which is recognised by English Heritage as being an area of international significance, and is being put forward for World Heritage status by the City Council. The importance of the building was established during English Heritage’s survey in 2000 when a full historic buildings report with detailed photographs, was produced by the National Monuments Record.
Although undesignated the contents of the factory are a fundamental part of the heritage of the factory. They represent the equipment and production of over 100 years of manufacturing and offer a fascinating picture of life in a Victorian factory in Birmingham, which was considered the Workshop of the World during the C19. They are also important because they provide unique insights into changes in attitudes to death and funerary rituals between the late C19 and early C21. The contents have been full recorded and catalogued by Ironbridge Archaeology.
The project is also important to the general public. Its appearance on BBC’s Restoration programme in 2003 generated hundreds of thousands of vote of support and demand for visits to the factory remain unabated.
Dr Julian Litten, formerly of the V&A and an expert on the Victorian way of death, describes Newman Brothers as “the most important manufacturer of such items (coffin fittings) at a time when England was regarded as the template for funerary pomp and extravagance” and Dr Hugh Willmott of University of Sheffield says “This collection represents a unique and international important resource for a wide variety of social, economic and industrial studies, and as such must be preserved for the nation.”