As a volunteer at Barts Pathology Museum and a lover of all things macabre, quirky and unusual when I heard about the Coffin Works, a former coffin fittings factory in Birmingham, I just had to visit. I booked myself on a guided tour and just loved it. It's utterly fascinating, certainly not morbid or gruesome and it's suitable for children. It's an industial heritage museum, simular to Ironbridge or Beamish, but just on a much smaller and more intimate scale as it is a single building and it focuses on the death industry.
The Coffin Works opened in 2014 and is housed in a Grade II* listed Victorian factory building. The main building has been preserved and retains many of it's original features, while the remaining space has been converted into workshops and offices for local businesses.
It's located in the Jewellery Quarter, a historic area which today still produces 40% of the UK's jewellery. The area is home to many specialist shops, the Pen Museum and the Birmingham Assay Office, the largest assay office in the world and is where they assay (test) and hallmark precious metal items.
Newman Brothers were established in 1882, by Alfred and Edwin Newman. Originally furniture makers they moved to Fleet Street in 1894 and became specialist coffin furniture manufacturers. The move also saw the end of Edwin's involvement with the business but the name was retained and the company remained a family business until 1952. Joyce Green, Newman Brothers' last owner, had joined the company in 1949 when she had started as a secretary and had worked her way up. After the business ceased trading in 1998 she campaigned to preserve the building.
The Coffin Works has been preserved with its original machinery, fixtures and fittings and it is like walking in to a time capsule back to the 1960s. This was a successful period for the company and after that their decor and furnishings were never really modernised.
The Coffin Works offer both guided tours and self guided visits, for those who want to explore independently at their own pace. Personally I would recommend a guided tour as their volunteers are enthusiastic and knowledgable. I was shown round my John and he really helped to bring the place to life (no pun intended) by sharing lots of interesting stories.
The tour started with a visit to the Stamp Room, with it's original factory machinery, stock and tools. This is where the coffin plates were stamped. On the right of the photo is the largest press and to the left there is a row of hand operated presses. During its time as a working factory this would have been extremely hot and very noisy place to be. Even today it has a feel of a Victorian workshop about it and I loved that here, like throughout the museum, it has retained a lived in feel with its cluttered worktops, as though the workers have just downed their tools at the end of a day.
John in the Stamp Room
John, our guide, gave a demonstration on how the hand press worked. He explained the dexterity required to operate the machinary and the potential dangers of undertaking the work.
Above are examples of the RIP plates stamped on the hand press.
Above is a selection of some of the metal engraving printing blocks.
The tour continues onto the Warehouse, a death emporium, displaying a range of coffin fittings including name plates, handels and crucifixes.
The display shows the evolution of coffin fittings and fixtures. Originally coffin handles were made of brass but were later replaced with nickel-plated ones.
Coffin handle detail - Warehouse
Note the brown leather travelling saleman's case on the right complete with embossed NB, the company's initials.
The trade catalogue documenting their entire range of coffin fixtures and fittings.
The adjoining office has retained it's retro 1960s character. I particuarly loved the bottles of beer and glasses in the top cupboard.
The desk is strewn with leaflets, receipts and miscellaneous item.
On the top floor is the Shroud Room where the shouds and the coffin lining were made. Yes my eyes lit up when I saw this.
The Shroud Room is amazing and surprisingly very colourful. Along the window is a row of old sewing machines and the work surfaces are full of beautiful and brightly coloured materials and thread.
A basket full of pastel coloured material suitable for shrouds.
The Coffin Works is an astonishing place to visit, great for social and industrial historians, as well as those with a taste for the alternative. In a society where many of us still find it difficult to talk about death, dying and bereavement it provides a safe place to explore these important issues.
It's a very unique place to visit which is made even more special by their wonderful team of volunteers. Even if you don't live in Birmingham, add it to your to do list and just GO!
I found out about the Coffin Works when Mar Dixon tweeted about her visit and I'd like to thank her for also recommending a visit to the nearby Pen Museum, which I also loved visiting and will blog about soon.
PS: They have a shop and sell wonderful coffin handle tea towels.
Address: Coffin Works, 13-15 Fleet Street, Jewellery Quarter, Birmingham, West Midlands B3 1JP
Nearest Train Station: Birmingham New Street and Snow Hill. From both stations it's a 10 - 15 minute walk.
Opening Hours: Tuesdays to Sundays and Bank Holiday Mondays. Check website for opening hours
Guided Tours: Please pre-book a tour to avoid disappointment by phone: 0121 233 4790 or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Price: Adults £5, check website for up to date prices
Refreshments: 1960s-themed factory canteen (which has opened since I visited)
This is just one of many places to visit in Birmingham. If you'd like to know more about the city there's lots of information at Visit Birmingham.
If you enjoyed this blog post you might like to read about Barts Pathology Museum.
The author of this blog is a qualified City of London and City of Westminster Tour Guide who leads guided walks combining world famous landmarks with hidden treasures often missed by the crowds.