A walk down a few of the Farmers Bridge locks this morning and then across the arched footbridge. A familiar cruiser Yoghurt was making it’s way down the flight. We’ve seen the boat in Droitwich before and such a good name cannot be forgotten.
Just a couple of doors up the hill is Newman Brothers, a place more commonly known as The Coffin Works. This is another museum based around a factory where the workers laid down their equipment on the last day of employment and today it still lies there for visitors to see, a time capsule.
Alfred and Edwin Newman established the works in 1882, originally brass founders they predominantly made cabinet furniture. In 1894 they moved to Fleet Street and started to specialise in the production of coffin furniture, there was more money in dead people than furniture. Edwin left the company leaving Alfred to be the sole owner in 1895. The company was doing well, the fashionable dead liked having ornately decorated coffins, even the poor would do their best for the deceased.
Alfred left the business to his two sons, George and Horace. Shares were sold and handed out to employees. When Horace, the last surviving son died in 1952 the last direct link to the Newman family was cut. The company was then run by a small group of shareholder directors.
Joyce Green started work as a secretary in 1949, she rose quickly to company secretary during the 50’s. As employees left or died she would buy up their shares until in 1989 she became the major shareholder of the company. Her association with the company had been for 50 years and when it was finally dissolved in 1999 she turned her attentions to saving the building with the hope that one day it would become a museum.
The prime location was held onto for five years by Joyce, tower blocks now surrounding the three story building. In 2003 she sold the premises on the basis that the building would not be used for residential use for five years, hopefully giving enough time for funds to be raised for it to become a museum. Birmingham Conservation Trust then came on board, it took some time to raise the £1.5 million needed to transform the building, things were looking up.
Birmingham City Council put money into the kitty and by 2012 a new professional team were brought on board to manage the project. During 2013 and 2014 teams of conservationists moved in, photographed the collection and the building was restored and made safe for visitors. On the 24th October 2014, launch day, Joyce’s dream finally became a reality.
The old foundry no longer stands in the courtyard, a newer building takes it’s place, this now houses businesses that lease parts of the old factory taking advantage of a rather good address ‘The Coffin Works, Fleet Street’. David our guide showed us into the Stamp Room, here decorative panels where stamped out of tin. Then flywheel presses, bigger than those at the Jewelry Museum would cut out the shapes. These would then be polished up and passed up to the packing room ready for orders from Funeral Directors.
The demise of the company was partly down to foreign imports, but also more people were getting cremated. Cremation brought with it a ban on using metal, wooden handles or plastic were used instead. Newman Brothers invested in machinery to be able to make plastic versions of all it’s metal coffin furniture, but they couldn’t compete with prices from abroad.
The office was revamped in the 1950’s, a cupboard high up held the beer and cigars to help woo the funeral directors into placing large orders. Then David took us up more steep stairs to the Shroud room.
Here 14 sewing machines were kept busy creating shrouds for people to be buried in. There was a big market in such things until it became the fashion to be buried or burnt in your best suit or favourite dress.
When we’d arrived we clocked in and as we left we were encouraged to clock back out. Another museum well worth a visit in Birmingham.
Handy hint if you plan on visiting one or more of The Jewelry Quarter Museum, Coffin Works or Pen Museum, it’s worth trying to do them with a couple of days as you can get money off if you keep your tickets.
0 locks, 6 walked down, 0 miles, 1 yoghurt pot, 6.53 clocked in, 8.03 clocked out, 100 years of coffin handles, 1 undertaker, 8 on the tour, 1 determined Joyce, 1980 Joey Tempest Lion.