The Coffin Works, Birmingham

The former Newman Brothers coffin-fitting works provides a fascinating insight into Birmingham’s industrial past, but the visitor experience could be improved
Colin Mulberg
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When visiting the Coffin Works, which opened in October last year following its redevelopment by the Birmingham Conservation Trust, it takes a while to realise that it is not going to be a particularly macabre experience. Instead, the site provides the chance to step back in time to discover part of Birmingham’s industrial past. This is done through the history of the Newman Brothers, a company that for more than a century was a leading provider of coffin furniture – the handles, plaques, crucifixes, corner pieces, ornaments, fittings and so on that were selected for funerals.
 
A visit centres on parts of the original 1894 building and courtyard. The areas open to the public give a flavour of the business, including metalworking, making shrouds and coffin linings, packing finished items for shipping and taking orders in the office.

The indoor areas are presented as they would have been found in the 1960s. Each room is full of original material, as the works shut in 1999 with almost everything left just as it was. There was little modernisation, with much of the interiors remaining from the 1890s. The equipment, furniture, boxes and other objects look as though they were decades old when the company closed. Everything is on open display, so the drama on entering each new room is the main payback to a visit.

Guided tours

The aim is to experience the works as if the visitor were there during a working day, so there is little interpretation to act as a distraction. Some rooms have audio, such as the noise of sewing machines, 1960s radio or a ringing telephone and sales conversation. There are two handling tables, one with a reproduction sales catalogue showing the range of fittings.

The main way of exploring the Coffin Works is through a guided tour. These are led by enthusiastic volunteers dressed in period-style workshop coats. They add extra information about the history of the company and its fluctuating fortunes, changes in production processes and products, and the working conditions in the different parts of the works.
 
The visit really takes off when the volunteers help interpret what is visible in each room. In the plate-stamping workshop, they demonstrate two processes for turning a blank rectangle of sheet brass into a “RIP” decoration. This gives a good impression of the noise during manufacture as well as an insight into working practices on site. Workers were paid per piece, so skill was necessary to operate the machinery quickly and accurately.

Guided tours last about an hour, which gives volunteers plenty of time to cover a wide range of topics associated with Newman Brothers. The company sent items around the UK and abroad and supplied the adornments for the coffins of many notable people, including the former British prime minister Winston Churchill.
 
The nature of the company’s wares over a century gives an insight into changing attitudes towards death. At the time Newman Brothers started its business, Birmingham was the centre of a large funerary industry servicing a fascination with the pomp and extravagance of funerals and the importance of the final journey.

When the Newman Brothers’ works were created, Birmingham was also a major manufacturing centre. The works were located in the city’s Jewellery Quarter, where metalworking skills and processes were long established. The site is one of the most important survivors from that era and a key part of the strategy for preserving the heritage of the area.

Incomplete narrative

Yet introducing these topics on the guided tours can feel like a procession of spoken facts, moving away from the experienced-based nature of the rooms. This is compounded by the lack of interpretation around the site. Despite the wealth of visual material at the works, understanding the wider perspectives relies on remembering what was said.

The guided tours take visitors to each of the public areas, but there is little sense of a narrative journey linking the route together. This can make the visitor experience feel disjointed.
 
The other way of experiencing the Coffin Works is through a self-guided visit using an iPad. This centres on films of a character in a Victorian undertaker’s costume talking to camera. At times this is a confusing contrast with the 1960s settings of the rooms and works best when the user is shown something other than a talking head.

Architecture of the site

The iPad tour is also arranged by room, with a general introduction to each space and then additional screens of information. Users can learn about a wide range of topics through further films, images and text. Much of this is very detailed; for example, the workings of the gas engine that originally powered the machinery. The digital navigation is linear, so users have to swipe a screen at a time to see what is available or to skip to the next room.
 
Both types of tour felt a bit light on a key feature of the Coffin Works, namely the architecture of the site itself. In some respects, the works is typical of its period. Though a factory, the Victorian buildings still give a sense of pride, with handsome contrasting brickwork and detailing, along with fine proportion and balance.

The Newman Brothers’ premises were purpose-built for the company, with the rear courtyard and surrounding buildings designed to accommodate the noisy and dirty processes. The workshops in the original building were arranged around a central staircase to reflect the stages in manufacture; an early form of production line.

The front building was for clean processes and office work. Workers and management used different entrances according to their jobs. Understand the design of the site and arrangement of the spaces and you understand the business. More of this could be conveyed on the tours.

The Coffin Works is developing a public profile through a range of events, temporary exhibitions and the sheer exuberance of its welcome. A slight refocus on how it reaches out to visitors would raise its profile higher still.

Colin Mulberg runs a consultancy specialising in improving the visitor experience and is the co-founder of the Labelling Buildings scheme

Project data
  • Cost £2.3m
  • Main funders Heritage Lottery Fund (£1m); English Heritage (£450,000); Esmee Fairbairn Foundation (£105,000); Association of Independent Museums (£44,60)
  • Main contractor FWA

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