The Coffin Works Location: Fleet Street, Birmingham B3 1JP [map] Open: first tour 11am, last tour 3pm (closed Monday, Tuesday) Admission: £6.00 Website:coffinworks.org [Twitter: @coffinworks] Five word summary: getting a handle on funerals Time to allow: tours last an hour
There aren't many museums about the end of life, and the Coffin Works in Birmingham isn't even particularly depressing. That's because, although it is indeed about coffins, it's not about the act of filling them with bodies and carting them off for burial. Instead it's about the decorative side, specifically engineering the metal handles and ornaments once a key part of every good send-off. Newman Brothers used to make coffin furniture for all the best funerals, including some stonkingly important ones, and their factory survives thanks to a tenacious rescue attempt by the final boss.
In 1894 Newman Brothers opened a factory in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter, the industrial hub of the City Of A Thousand Trades. They'd toyed with other products, but decided there was money in brass, and focused the business on making handles, crucifixes, nameplates and other funerary trimmings. They also chose to focus solely on the very top end of the market, rich Victorians being only too willing to pay a fortune for metalwork which would be seen just once and then buried. Newman's soon earned a reputation as the best in the world, and ended up supplying handles for the funerals of George V, George VI, Sir Winston Churchill and Princess Diana, the latter a few months before they ceased trading.
To join a tour head for Fleet Street, a few roads north of the city centre, almost overlooking the canal. If you're early there's a small shop to hang around, and don't be worried by some of the stock, you're not about to be sent round a tacky London Dungeon style experience. Instead a tour guide, possibly even a former employee, will take you through to the courtyard where the horse was stabled, and where 12 year-old boys risked their lungs in the acid bath sheds. A lot of the former workshops are now used as offices, which was part of the financial deal necessary for getting the museum open, and one room had to have a foot of its floor dug out to remove all trace of a century of noxious chemicals. You won't be going in there.
The one ground floor workshop to be retained is the Stamping Room, with all its terribly dangerous machinery still in place. Your guide will demonstrate how to smash out a small brass plaque by yanking a chain on one side of the room, then how to thump the letters RIP into it by spinning a handle on the other. When employees were on piecework speed was of the essence, so very occasionally a finger got in the way, but profit was always more important than health and safety back then and the bosses simply got a new bloke in. You will get to handle the resulting stamped plaque, but don't make the faux pas of thinking you can keep it... it'll be on sale for 75p in the shop at the end of the tour.
Upstairs is the warehouse where all the finished metalwork was boxed and stored ready for delivery. All of the unsold merchandise from 1998 is still here, behind evocative labels indicating which are coffin screws and which are nickel plated handles. When the Queen Mother died Newman's had officially closed, but someone still found sufficient Gothic handles for her coffin (alas they have no more left for when the next major Royal goes). Nextdoor is the office of Joyce Green, the final owner, a nostalgic garret packed with order books and old typewriters. It's her persistence which led to the factory being saved and, eventually, the museum being opened, but sadly she never (quite) lived to see it.
The top floor is the shroud room, opened when Newman's realised they could make money from fancy material as well as metal. A row of ladies sat at sewing machines along one wall, knocking up shrouds for the wealthy, and ultimately for anyone willing to fork out extra for an Aston Villa special in claret and blue. But the tour also focuses on Dolly the tea lady, and her sinktop realm, and that time she led the employees out on strike for longer tea breaks... because this isn't really a museum about death at all. It's a reminder of the trades which made Birmingham prosper, and a celebration of the minutiae of a long-standing small business, and a tribute to the people who kept the whole thing ticking over. Making a good life out of death, that's the Coffin Works.