One of the most common questions people seem to have in relation to Newman Brothers is ‘why did a coffin-furniture manufactory choose the Jewellery Quarter to run their business from…wasn’t that an odd place?’ The short and simple answer to that is no, surprisingly not, but I understand why people initially may draw that conclusion. Newman Brothers were originally brass founders, established in 1882, operating from premises in Nova Scotia Street in what is the Eastside area of town today. As such their business was based on casting an assortment of metal articles, in this case, largely cabinet furniture from molten brass. But by 1894, just over ten years later, they had moved to new premises at 13-15 Fleet Street in the Jewellery Quarter. This move also spelled a slight change in their production line.
They were now listed as ‘Coffin Furniture Manufacturers’ and specialised in the production of general brass furniture. I say slight change as coffin furniture is, in fact, a natural extension of the jewellery and ‘toy’ trades and their many ancillary trades, using not only the same materials, but also incorporating the same skills and processes to produce various metal goods.
Central to the production of both trades was and is (especially in terms of today’s jewellery production) the drop stamp, which uses heavy metal weights known as dies and punches with chiselled designs, on a pulley system to ‘stamp’ out products. So, the materials, machinery and methods of production were identical in both the jewellery and coffin-furniture trades, with the main exception being that drop stamps for the latter were much bigger, incorporating more weight to produce the larger items. Whether you were making a badge, a breastplate or a brooch therefore, the manufacturing processes involved were the same. The only difference was the intended use of the finished article. In this respect it made perfect business sense for Newman Brothers to relocate to the Quarter, as this new locality positioned it amongst a hive of thriving skills central to the production of coffin furniture, as well as allowing them to continue their tradition of casting.
The company’s transition from cabinet to coffin furniture was equally a natural development rather than a radical innovation in their product line. Take the two images above for example. The one on the left shows an 1884 Newman Brothers’ patent design for a cabinet backplate and handle, and was one of their earlier registered designs as brass founders. The other is yet another backplate and handle, but this time, intended for a coffin rather than a cabinet. Although flora-inspired designs for coffin furniture were common during this period, fauna-based patterns rarely seem to enter the equation. In this respect, the form and function of what Newman Brothers were producing largely remained stable, but the aesthetics of their designs altered to suit the backdrop of their new business.
Brass founders were renowned for making a range of different products and because of the ease with which coffin furniture could be produced, many non-specialist firms could quite comfortably ‘tap’ into this line of business, which means that there’s a good chance that Newman Brothers were already making some goods for the funerary trade before they became specialist manufacturers. No doubt they also had an existing clientele to some degree too, making their transition into the funerary trade smoother, and it would seem that their move from cabinets to coffins was most likely financially motivated. The transient nature of the funeral was simply bigger business than the permanence of home furnishings.
Sarah Hayes, Collections and Exhibitions Manager at Newman Brothers at The Coffin Works.
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Family history never ceases to amaze me, especially in how we can often unknowingly mirror the endeavours and actions of our ancestors. In fact, a recent discovery of an ancestor working in the funeral trade in Birmingham over 150 years ago, and then of her daughter living on Fleet Street, just ten doors down from what was to become Newman Brothers Coffin Works (my current place of work) is almost poetic symmetry for me. For those unfamiliar with the project, Newman Brothers made coffin furniture for over 100 years between 1894 to 1999 on Fleet Street in the Jewellery Quarter. But failing to meet the demands of changing-industrial processes, largely dictated by the ‘plastics revolution’, as well as simply running out of steam, meant that Newman Brothers finally closed its doors in 1999, leaving everything behind. Everything is the operative word here, because everything from machinery, coffin handles, breast plates, company ledgers to a bottle of whiskey along with cans of soup were discovered. These objects will form the basis of Birmingham’s latest heritage attraction, allowing people to step back in time and experience the history of this company and of this trade.
My connection to this trade is through my great-great-great grandmother, Caroline Derkin, who at the age of 17 was described as a ‘coffin-furniture maker’ on the 1861 census. Discovering that I have a direct connection to this trade through one of my ancestors was a special moment indeed, and has fuelled my passion for this project even further. Coffin furniture covers a broad spectrum of products and as there was a division of labour between genders at this point, it’s most likely that Caroline was either working in the ‘soft’ furnishings division of this trade, making shrouds, linings and other textile-based products, or equally feasible is that she may have been working on the more industrial side, operating fly presses for cutting and piercing metal, another female-oriented role.
In 1851, there were nine master-coffin-furniture manufacturers in Birmingham, but the ease with which coffin furniture could be made, meant that goods could also be produced by a number of other non-specialist metal firms who made similar products, using the same industrial processes.This makes it difficult to pinpoint exactly which company Caroline was working for, but as she was living on Cecil Street in the New Town area of the city, it’s likely therefore, that she was working within walking distance of her home, as was the norm during this period.
But, regardless of where she was working, it’s her connection to this Birmingham industry and more specifically, her direct connection to me and her legacy to my own story, that somehow brings me closer to her, and in a funny sort of a way, is an appropriate epitaph to our family’s history. She made coffin furniture and I’m attempting to preserve it. And it’s exactly that, the personal sense of preserving her story in my endeavours to preserve the history of Newman Brothers’ that has made this project yet again even more personally satisfying. What she’d make of a museum dedicated to the history of coffin furniture 150 years on is beyond me, but the story of Caroline Derkin has brought me closer to a chapter of Birmingham’s history and somehow for me, anyway, legitimised my role in preserving and exhibiting the history of this important Birmingham trade.
Keep up to date with progress @CoffinWorks and via http://www.birminghamconservationtrust.org
Sarah Hayes, Collections and Exhibitions Manager @CoffinWorks
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The 12th century was a period when the popularity of surnames increased and started to become hereditary. One such type was the ‘locational’ surname, which denoted where a person lived or came from. Birmingham is part of that group, as it represents a physical settlement. At this point though, surnames were unstable and likely to change depending on where a person was living or moved to. So, who were the family who assumed the de Birmingham name by at least the 12th century, and primed the town for its later industrial success?
The first reference we have to the de Birminghams is in the 12th century and we know that they were living in a moated-manor house centred upon what was to become Moat Lane car park, hence where the car park takes its name. The Anglo-Norman language had already made its mark on the country by this point, which can be detected by the adoption of the prefixes ‘le’ and ‘de’ before many surnames. This in itself raises an interesting point that many historians have been and are still asking: were the de Birminghams of Norman or Anglo-Saxon ancestry? The answer to that question unfortunately cannot be answered as there simply isn’t enough documentary evidence to state either way, but let’s take a look at what we do know.
It’s been estimated that only eight percent of England’s land remained in the hands of Anglo-Saxons after the Conquest, as the event marked a complete transfer of estates from ‘natives’ to the newly conquering noble class. It seems likely to many historians therefore, that the de Birminghams were most probably of Norman ancestry rather than Anglo-Saxon. However, they weren’t top-ranking nobles so to speak, but part of the middling tiers, so for some historians it’s feasible to suggest that they may have equally been of Anglo-Saxon origin. After all, the first reference of them owning land is from the early 12th century, nearly 150 years after the Conquest, giving Anglo-Saxon families, particularly those with political ambitions, plenty of time to settle in to the fabric of this ‘new’ country. Also, it was often political affiliations that counted, not necessarily cultural, meaning that the latter wouldn’t prevent advancement through the ranks.
The surname of the tenant holding the manor of Birmingham at the time of Domesday in 1086 was unrecorded; all we know is that his first name was Richard. The first named de Birmingham was a William who was ‘enfeoffed’, or given land in exchange for a pledge of service to his overlords during the reign of Henry I, sometime between 1100-1135. William’s son, Peter, is perhaps the best known de Birmingham as it was his shrewd business sense that secured the town’s growth with his purchase of a market charter in 1166. So, we can confidently say that from at least 1135, and very possibly before then, the family who were to own and cultivate the manor of Birmingham adopted the name of that manor as their own.
They were, in fact, small fry in regards to their lordly status, and if we were thinking about this in terms of a football league, the de Birminghams were far from Premiership quality, but somewhere in the second or third divisions perhaps. However, they always had their eyes set on promotion with aspirations of climbing the baronial leagues. Impressively, the de Birminghams managed to maintain their status until the fifteenth century when Edward de Birmingham lost possession of the manor to John Dudley, ending their long line of succession.
The de Birminghams were actually the sub lords to the lords of Dudley, and in modern-day terms this meant that they were ‘sub letting’ land from the Dudleys in return for providing military service. They were in effect their vassals or knights and this meant that if the Dudleys needed military backup, the de Birminghams would honour that request, no questions asked. If they failed to do so, they risked forfeiting their land. Nevertheless, they often acted of their own accord, actively participating in foreign military campaigns and even in civil war, most notably as rebels against the eventual Edward I in the Battle of Evesham in 1265.
They certainly enjoyed a life of luxury too judging by the stoneware jar below, which was found in excavations of the moat between 1973-75. It might look modest, but clay analysis tells us that it’s from the Levant region, around present-day Syria and Lebanon, and was once used for storing mercury, a very expensive medicine in the middle Ages.
For middling ranks of the aristocracy they also held a fair few estates including Shutford in Oxfordshire, as well as further afield with lands in Berkshire and Buckinghamshire. Closer to home was Edgbaston, which most likely explains why one of Birmingham’s first medieval roads sometime before 1296, was named Edgbaston Street. Presumably this was a sure way of connecting trading ventures between two de Birmingham estates.
Of all the estates though, Birmingham remained ‘king’ with its thriving market, as well as being the permanent home of lords of Birmingham. This was where the de Birminghams’ manor house was located after all, strategically situated, so that it was well placed to administer political and social life in the town, as well as serving as a natural meeting point.
The site, which marked the home of the de Birmingham lords since the 12th century was completely redeveloped by 1816, with remnants of the house and moat permanently erased making way for the Smithfield Markets, which opened the following year. Today, all that marks the location of Birmingham’s seigniorial birthplace is a 1960’s concrete car park that now sits on the periphery of the city centre, forgotten by most, no longer in the heart of civic life.
But, fortunately we can end on a high note because as part of Birmingham’s Big City Plan the site of the de Birmingham home and one of Birmingham’s first buildings, will be ‘resurrected’ in an upcoming future development. A new public space is being planned called ‘Moat Square’ in reference to the de Birmingham manor house and moat, and more exciting still, the boundary and general footprint of the moat will serve as a new water feature, returning it part way to its original purpose. It seems that the historic heart of the city, which has lay dormant for over 200 years is due to make an imminent ‘come back’ and breathe life back into Birmingham yet again.
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The title of this blog doesn’t refer to the sort of footprints you leave behind in the mud or snow, but rather the type that define the area or space occupied by a building, or in this instance the boundaries of a burgage plot. By ‘burgage’, I’m referring to the long and narrow strips of land arranged along street frontages that functioned as the basic units of a town that could be built upon.
So perhaps footprints isn’t the best word to use, because I’m actually referring to plot boundaries rather than the actual buildings. But, footprints is, in another sense, an appropriate word to use as it calls to mind the idea of ‘evidence’ left behind and that’s exactly what the landscape historian and archaeologist has to work with when attempting to reconstruct medieval towns. For a city that’s never been overly keen on preserving its most recent heritage, it might surprise you to learn that Birmingham has some of these medieval ‘footprints’ left.
There are around several of these medieval burgages left in the city centre located in the Digbeth area of town, which appear to conform to their original 13th-century boundary lines. The idea of property boundaries surviving is probably slightly underwhelming for a lot of people, who’d much rather see the actual medieval buildings, but the boundary lines are largely, in fact, an older remnant of medieval towns. Moreover, their story of survival is a fascinating product of the early legal status our ancestors attributed to land. After all, it was owning land, a burgage, that made a townsperson a burgess giving them particular privileges like participating in the collective decision-making of a town. Burgess is in fact, derived from the word burgage which itself comes from the Old French word, burgeis, simply referring to an inhabitant of a town. Buildings, although more appealing, were the dispensable attributes of a property, as they came and they went, but land was preserved precisely because of its power to bestow status on a person, and not to forget its potential to make them money.
We need look no further than London after the great fire of 1666 to help explain how and why burgage plots survive. This event brought disastrous consequences on the city burning down a third of London with an estimated ninety-thousand people displaced.
But for some like Sir Christopher Wren and the Royal Society, this was a golden opportunity. They proposed to rebuild London on the basis of an ordered grid system in place of the disordered medieval streets, but this didn’t happen for a few reasons. First, a complete redesign would have taken too long but more specifically here, the property boundaries, although now virtually impossible to pinpoint on account of the absence of the buildings, were still protected by law.
In fact, it would have involved intervention by the government to implement a complete redesign, and the difficulty of compensating people or transferring their property was a messy and complicated task. The actual reality of rebuilding London after 1666 involved surveyors like Robert Hooke walking the charred streets with residents, armed with available property deeds as well as twine and wooden posts to ‘stake’ out their original plots of land. This example serves to illustrate how legality ensured longevity. That’s to say, that it is precisely the early legal status assigned to boundaries that ensured their survival very often into the 19th century and as recent as the present day in many cases.
‘So what’ I hear some people say, but when you appreciate that we have a stretch of original medieval burgage plots still in Birmingham, standing on the same 13th-century boundary lines, that is a remarkable feat of survival by any standards. What fascinates me the most about this survival though, is that these plots would have been carefully measured out by some of Birmingham’s medieval residents using the town’s very own measuring rod or pole to achieve the intended widths and lengths. These boundary lines, now official, would have been recorded in court rolls and subsequent deeds of transfer. In 13th-century Birmingham one of these plots would have cost you eight pence or four pence for half a plot, incidentally much cheaper than the one shilling fee in other parts of the country.
Likewise, burgage widths vary a great deal across the country. In Birmingham, they were probably originally around five metres wide and anything up to 60 metres in length, but in Stratford-upon-Avon the average plot was around 15 metres wide! If you’re lucky, these exact widths and lengths are recorded in official documentation like borough charters as in the case of Stratford. But as Birmingham doesn’t have a borough charter, how do we know that these properties are standing on the same original medieval boundary lines?
Good question, and the answer is a mixture of hypothesis and fact. Local specialists like George Demidowicz used a technique known as deed regression, which involves tracing boundaries back as far as possible by using property deeds. Such documents record the positions and measurements of a townsperson’s land and luckily for Birmingham, we have a handful of surviving deeds which reveal the transfer of ownership for some of the town’s residents. But this isn’t the case for the entire original medieval town, as we only have this information for sections of the buildings around the Digbeth plots. The deeds tell us that the owners in this part of town ranged from early forms of local government like the Guild of the Holy Cross as well as prominent townspeople such as the Inge and Phillips families.
Specialists also turn to map regression, a technique that uses maps from different periods to compare changes over time and also to identify any continuity. By continuity I’m specifically referring to boundary lines that look ‘ancient’. This involves identifying classic parallel sequences of long strips of land which are often found on19th-century maps denoting the presence of burgages. If these same long strips are visible on even earlier maps like tithe and estate records, there’s a very good chance that we are looking at original burgage plots as laid out when a town was founded. A town’s layout up until the 19th century was often very stable and reflected the original burgage pattern of a town. And although burgages were subject to internal divisions, these later divisions did not normally alter or remove earlier boundaries. This has proven to be the trend across the country. In York, for example, burgage boundaries have survived unchanged from the tenth century, and when plot boundaries were eventually destroyed due to new developments, this change normally occurred in the second half of the 19th century.
In many instances, therefore, we can be sure that when we see long and narrow strips of land on 19th-century maps in places with a medieval past, there’s a very good chance we are looking at some of the original property boundaries of a town. Although the majority of property deeds we have for Birmingham only stretch back to the 1500s, the same rule applies as above: if map regression demonstrates that burgage boundaries do not alter until the 19th century, there’s no reason to suppose that they would have altered by the 16th century. That’s where hypothesis comes in, but this hypothesis is based on detailed research as well as numerous case studies from around the country. Although we can’t actually legitimately trace the Digbeth plots back to the 1150s when Peter de Birmingham founded the town, we can, with the help of both map and deed regression along with the presence of 12th and 13th-century archaeology from the plots, confidently place them at the very latest in 13th-century Birmingham. What is even more satisfying though, is that the forthcoming £150m Beorma Quarter set to transform the area with a 27-storey tower as well as 600,000-square feet of offices, retail and leisure space, will still retain the existing boundaries in the design of the new development. So fortunately, it looks like the medieval relics have a long life ahead of them yet!
Birmingham’s burgages are an incredible vestige of our medieval past in a city that’s rarely been sympathetic to its heritage. For me however, they’re simply special because of their ability to take us back to Birmingham’s beginnings as a recognisable commercial and soon to be urban centre. Just as those London residents who walked the streets with Hooke in 1666 staked their claims and protected their boundaries, this stretch of burgages in Birmingham similarly has the power to evoke the presence of people preparing and planning their very own town. In fact, the truly remarkable thing for me about these seemingly trivial features is the knowledge that around 700 years ago a few of Birmingham’s residents were protective of the very same boundaries we can still see today. In this way these medieval ‘footprints’ serve as a gateway with the power to take us back to the point when Birmingham’s inhabitants were laying the foundations of their town and creating the blueprint of what was to become the basis of this great city.
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