You can probably tell from my posts so far I have a passion for discovering new things and for Heritage so when I found out via Twitter that Drinks Thing was coming to Birmingham and their first event would be held at Newman Brothers Coffin Works I couldn’t sign up fast enough!
Drinks Thing is where people from all sectors: publishing, animation, digital, tech, start up, museums, heritage, science & more meet up for drinks. Their events are strictly social no selling is allowed. I liked that you could make connections with people rather than feel like you were going to get a sales pitch about their latest product/project when you asked what they did.
The venue for the evening was Newman Brothers Coffin Works which is based in the Jewellery Quarter. We met for drinks and nibbles in the courtyard, luckily the evening was warm and dry. After introductions were made and a bit of small talk we had the opportunity to go on a tour around the Coffin Works. We were split into two groups and my group was taken round by a volunteer called Cornelius.
The Newman Brothers Coffin Works was established in 1882 by Alfred Newman and his brother Edwin. Originally brass founders, they predominantly made cabinet furniture until 1894, when the company moved to the present site on Fleet Street and began to specialise in the production of coffin furniture. The company ceased trading in 1998 due to competition from abroad and failure to modernise.
It was Joyce Green, the last owner of Newman Brothers, whose wish it was for the company to become a museum. After several years of renovations the Coffin Works was opened as a visitor attraction on 24 October 2014.
Although the Coffin Works closed in 1998 the decor had changed very little since the 1960s so when it came to the conservation it was decided to focus on the 1960s era which was the company’s heyday. Using their archives the team done a great job of restoring this factory.
We were shown round the stamp room and got to see the presses in action. I can imagine it would’ve been very noisy in here when all the presses were going at the same time. Our guide was very informative and told stories such as when the men finished their shift they would go to the nearest pubs rather than home in case a late order came in. Young boys would then be sent to fetch the workers. Apparently at one pub nearby you would feel the vibrations from the machines starting up again.
I enjoyed seeing all the ephemera dotted around, you could imagine people working there. I loved the details such as the tea lists up on the wall and shoes belonging to the last owner Joyce Green tucked under her desk. Her office complete with drinks cabinet showed how different the culture of the workplace is today. We also heard how the company made fittings for the funerals of Winston Churchill and the Queen Mother.
For me one of the most fascinating aspects of this tour was hearing the story of Joyce Green. We were told that she worked her way up from office secretary in 1949 to company secretary sometime in the 1950s, to finally sole owner of Newman Brothers in 1989, until it ceased trading in 1998. It seems Joyce was rather a canny lass as we heard the tale that she was offered a pay raise in her younger days but she asked instead for shares. Once the other shareholders had died off she was left as the sole owner.
We heard how some of the male workers objected to having a female boss and how they had sabotaged their machinery once they quit in protest. When they returned a few weeks later expecting Joyce to beg them to come back they found that she had modernised their area and as such was no longer in need of their skills.
Joyce Green was involved in the business for over 50 years and when the company was dissolved she turned her attentions to saving the building with the aim of turning it in to a visitor attraction.
You might think wandering round a coffin works might be morbid however it was interesting to see a piece of industrial history preserved. I’d definitely recommend visiting!
Newman Brother Coffin Works will be participating in Museums at Night on Friday 13th May 18:30-20:30 with a talk from Gemma Freeman from William H Painter Funeral Directors, there will also be a chance to have a tour of the award-winning Newman Brothers’ factory. Tickets cost £8.50 and must be booked in advance by calling 0121 233 4790 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
For general opening times and admission prices please click here.
Thank you to Mar Dixon and everyone at Drinks Thing for organising this event. To find out about their future events around the country please visit their Twitter account.