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.
Follow progress @HayesSarah17 and @CoffinWorks
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, the year that Prince Albert died. 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
Follow me @HayesSarah17