Newman Bros was a family-run factory in Birmingham’s unique Jewellery Quarter. The firm made some of the world’s finest coffin furniture, including the fittings for the funerals of Churchill, Chamberlain and Princess Diana.
The very last sets of cast brass gothic handles from this factory were used on the coffins of Cardinal Basil Hume and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother.
Production stopped here in 1998. What is left behind is an extraordinary, frozen picture of the life of a Victorian factory.
It’s more than a building with artefacts. Newman Bros closed so recently that historical memories and skills still survive through the workforce and Birmingham Conservation Trust has been capturing these on film.
These remarkable circumstances were recognised by English Heritage when it registered the site as an outstanding survival. The buildings are now listed at Grade II*.
In June 2004 Julian Litten – a leading expert on the funeral industry – summed up its significance as “not only the last surviving 19th century coffin manufacturing but also … the most important manufacturer of such items at a time when England was regarded as the template for funerary pomp and extravagance”. As such it has an enormous amount to tell us about us and our attitudes to death.
The premises include warehousing and offices on the first two floors with the shroud room above. The rooms were heaving with old stock, company records, patterns and fine craftwork. At the back are two long ranges of workshops, including a stamp shop with its original battery of four drop stamps. Beyond is the electroplating room.
The regional development agency, Advantage West Midlands stepped in and bought the building in April 2003. In the same year it was featured on the BBC television series Restoration.
The contents were catalogued and stored in 2007 for safe keeping prior to work starting on site. Planning permission for a £4m scheme with a new wing to house an education suite and new facilities was secured in October 2008.
During 2008 we undertook lots of public consultation and produced an Access Plan, Audience Development Plan and an Interpretation & Learning Plan. Between January and Easter 2009, decontamination work to clear the site of chemicals and remove the electricity sub-station will be taking place.
Then disaster struck
Advantage West Midlands, who owned the building and were the chief supporter of the project, had its funding withdrawn by central government and announced that they would be unable to assist us with any grants. This was a devastating blow for the project that had already been seven years in development. But with the help of a grant from Birmingham City Council we purchased the building and contents in June 2010 from AWM. We have had a complete re-think of the project, reducing costs by half and we have been working hard to secure the £2m necessary to secure the building.
• Raising the remaining £200,000 for the project
• Detailed design work and trail events over the summer
• Hope to start on site by the end of this year or early 2013
• 12 months on site
• Open to the public Spring 2014
There will be lots of opportunities to see work in progress – check our blog for details.