Laugh after death

Eleanor Mills, 05.11.2015
Surprisingly jovial tours of a coffin factory take you back
A tour of a coffin works, by its nature, promises to be macabre and one wouldn’t expect it to be jolly necessarily. But the tours of the Newman Brothers Coffin Works in Birmingham are superbly jovial.

Set up in 1894 by Alfred and Edwin Newman, the works were a key part of a thriving industry in Birmingham and its environs. At the heart of production for coffin ‘furniture’ (handles, religious decorations and death shrouds), and with UK-wide mortality rates rocketing at the end of the 19th century, the Newman brothers’ coffin works thrived.

The factory stayed operational until 1997, when due to the fashion for cremation there was no real use for the often fairly ornate brass decorations for coffins. Cremation requires a plastic coffin with plastic furniture, not the traditional wooden ones.

So what you see on the tour of the coffin works is really a workshop stopped in time, much of the furniture, methods and machinery dating from the 1960s, but with a distinct Victorian hint.

The tour takes in the stamp workshop, where brass plates are stamped with decorative symbols, patterns, or a simple RIP, the store room where all of the coffin furniture would have been distributed from, an authentic 1960s office set up complete with Gestetner duplicator, and the shroud room, where the women in the factory sewed the death shrouds.

There are some rather charming stories of workers who devoted their entire working lives to life at the coffin works, so not only is the tour packed with crucial information about the orchestration of the death trade, but it brings in characters from it too.

The Newman Brothers Coffin Works is a fascinating step back in time, into a trade that one wouldn’t normally get the chance to see. And there’s the odd coffin too, so what’s not to like?

Tours for delegates at the Museums Association Annual Conference and Exhibition run every half hour with an open house tonight 6.30-7.30pm.

Comments

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Ian Fraser
Conservator, Temple Newsam House
05.11.2015, 20:43
It was dead good, then, was it?