There are chills and chuckles in abundance with this original one-woman show featuring Sweeney Todd’s partner in crime, Mrs Lovett! Be appalled by a plethora of other grotesque characters from the cheap and grisly pages of the Victorian era’s penny dreadful papers, in a theatrical comedy suitable for children and the young at heart. Go on – have a close shave with Mrs Lovett… She’d love to have you for dinner…The Coffin Works, in its atmospheric setting, makes the perfect backdrop for this hair-raising show. Suitable for all the family!Read More »
Donna Taylor is a doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham. She is currently writing a thesis on the origins of Birmingham Town Council and is owner of the blog ‘Notes from Nineteenth-Century Birmingham’.
On July 19th 1881 Mayor Richard Chamberlain laid the foundation stone of Birmingham’s first municipal art gallery and museum. It was a significant moment in the town’s cultural history, the result of decades of petitioning and planning by the local community. Civic pride was at the heart of the campaign, a desire to show off all that the town had achieved in a relatively short space of time. Less than a century before the laying of the foundation stone Birmingham’s first historian, William Hutton, had penned a bleak description of narrow, muddy streets ‘puddled with stagnant water’. In Hutton’s time the products that came from Birmingham also had a poor reputation, with ‘Brummagem ware’ often used as a byword for badly made, cheap and flashy items. By the later nineteenth century all of this had changed and ‘the city of a thousand trades’ had gained an important place at the economic heart of the British Empire. It had become widely acknowledged that if an item was not made in Birmingham, then it was not made anywhere. The inscription on the foundation stone reads ‘By the gains of industry we promote Art’. In this succinct statement Birmingham presented itself as not only a giant of industrial innovation, but also as a national cultural leader.
In 1856 Charles Adderley donated 8 acres of his family’s ancestral home to the council and this became Birmingham’s first public park, free to use by everyone. There was also an intention to build a fully accessible museum and free library as part of this project. In April 1856, Aris’s Gazette advertised a fund raising sale of ‘fancy goods’ to support the project which, the article expressed, ‘is one that every reflecting person who has watched the rapid increase of this town, and has taken the slightest interest in the welfare of its immense population, must have long considered of the highest importance’. The promotion of a public museum was not only of economic importance, but had a social significance, the dissemination of knowledge and culture to the whole community. It was a paternalistic approach, one which is so often associated with the Victorian period, but it was also a groundbreaking one, pushing aside notions that cultural pursuits were only for the privileged and wealthy minority. At the same there was a drive for greater accessibility to education; in 1845 an adult education school was opened at Severn Street and in 1854 the Birmingham Midland Institute (BMI) was founded by act of parliament ‘for the diffusion of and advancement of science, literature and art amongst all classes of persons resident in Birmingham and the Midland Counties’. This latter was famously supported by Charles Dickens, who visited the Town Hall in 1853 to give personal readings of ‘A Christmas Carol’. The first reading was to a paying audience of around 2000, for the purpose of raising funds for the BMI. But he also did another, free reading, at the Town Hall for the working men and women of the town. Birmingham’s cultural advance was clearly not just an issue of local importance, but attracted a much wider interest, a demonstration of the rapid changes taking place in the town.
In 1870 the resident artisan glass makers of Birmingham presented a memorial (a sort of letter of request) to the council ‘announcing that they had associated themselves into a working committee for the purpose of founding an Industrial Museum…after describing the advantages of industrial museums to large towns like Birmingham, the memorialists concluded by suggesting that the Council might reasonably take into consideration the granting of a sum of money for establishing a central Indu strial Museum for the town and district generally’(Aris’s, April 9th, 1870). The request was forwarded to the council’s Free Libraries Committee and it seems something of a ball was finally put into motion. The spending of ratepayers money had (and of course remains) a point of tension in the town. The council, which was founded in 1838, after a period of capital spending on the building of a prison and asylum in Winson Green and the public baths at Kent Street, been faced with extreme and well organised opposition to any further large projects. Nevertheless, at the time that the artisan glassmakers made their request, Birmingham had managed to open three public parks, a Central Library and three branch libraries. These were largely the result of individual effort and philanthropy and, of course, the indomitable, petitioning spirit that has defined modern Birmingham. But it would take the brilliant planning of Joseph Chamberlain’s council to finally enable investment in a public, municipal museum.
In 1874, Joseph Chamberlain, then Mayor of Birmingham, led the council to apply for an Act of Parliament which would allow them to purchase all of the private gas companies in the town. This was granted and the Birmingham Corporation Gas Company was established. Profits from the company, now owned by the Birmingham ratepayers, would be ploughed back into a municipal museum. An opulent payment office was built as an extension to the Council House, where people could go and pay their gas bill and also see exactly where their money was being spent. The payment office is now called the Waterhall and is one of the museum’s many exhibition galleries. This was such a clever move by Chamberlain: the museum was still the property of the people and businesses of Birmingham, who were funding it through their gas bills. But it also avoided antagonising the ratepayer protection lobby. It also marked the emergence of what was known as Municipal Socialism, led by Chamberlain and which led to Birmingham being described in 1890 as ‘the best governed city in the world’ by a journalist writing for the American Harper’s magazine.
Our museums are an integral part of the proud and inspirational history of Birmingham. Today we are spoilt for choice in the number of heritage sites and art galleries that we have on our doorstep. Amongst these are nine which are currently at a real risk of being lost to the public, along with all the great industrial artefacts which inspired our early city fathers to pursue the establishment of municipal museums. It is easy enough to pass by the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery and think ‘I must pop in there one day’, or to maybe to go in for a mooch without actually being fully aware of what it actually reveals about our city’s incredible history. The introduction of public access to culture was part of a radical movement that helped to shape modern Britain, and Birmingham played a vital role in this change. I have written this post because I have a personal passion for and pride in my city and want to ensure that all of its heritage is preserved for future generations. Thousands of school children benefit from visits to the museums and they also offer other important social opportunities, such as the innovative Birmingham Museum’s Health and Wellbeing project which has established a Dementia Cafe at Soho House and a garden project at Sarehole Mill for people with mental health conditions.
The recent announcement of city council cuts across the cultural sector will have a hugely negative impact but it is especially important to preserve our heritage, because once it is gone, it will be gone forever. This is not in the spirit of the Birmingham tradition of innovation and accessibility. It would be wonderful to see a revival of Chamberlain’s Municipal Socialism, but for now I would urge everyone to voice a protest against the Council’s cuts to OUR heritage.
Please sign the online petition here:
And please keep supporting our museums. Ta.Read More »
(on a mobile device? Click here to view on Youtube)
Birmingham’s award winning museum Coffin Works invites you to ‘clock-in’ and watch this 360° taster tour video. This fun 360° video will give you a fully immersive and interactive experience.
“We’re always trying to find new ways to allow people to experience the Coffin Works and engage with the building and its historic contents. We also just love to try new things as we’re still very much shaping our own identity. Spark Media gave us the opportunity to do just that with the 360° taster tour. It’s incredibly immersive, inviting the viewer in, and showcasing the highlights of the Coffin Works in its 360° glory. Having a taster tour in this format is a luxury for us, and allows us to market the Coffin Works on yet another platform to even more potential audiences.”
Sarah Hayes – from Newman Brothers’ Museum.
The video has been produced by Birmingham content agency Spark Media after co-director Scott Barnett took part in a tour.
“I was totally blown away by the tour of the Coffin Works, it’s such an important part of the Jewellery Quarter’s heritage and I couldn’t believe it had escaped me. I felt it was important to share this hidden gem with more people and Social Media seemed like the most suitable platform. As a creative content agency we’re always looking at new and exciting ways to promote businesses and brands and a 360° video tour was the perfect fit. The technology we use puts the viewer inside the content and in control of what they want to see, providing them with a unique perspective and shareable experience.”
Scott Barnett – from Spark Media.
With the help of Newman Bros tour guide Owen, the 360° video takes you on a brief journey around the museum, highlighting the stamp and shroud room with informative visual stats and background information.
How to watch the Coffin Works 360° tour:
On your desktop: Using either Chrome or Firefox, by dragging around the video with your cursor.
On your mobile device: Click here to view on Youtube You can drag the video with your finger, or by simply tilting and turning your device.
360° video is currently viewable on the web and on Andriod and iOS devices.Read More »
Who could resist the offer of an assignment in the Jewellery Quarter graveyards? Well, truth be told I did ask if I could go along the next time Sarah was working there. A brisk walk and a take-away cuppa later, we were splashing through the mud in Warstone Lane cemetery. I was surprised to find out that the scattered marks on some headstones are in fact bullet marks from German World War 2 gunners. The assignment was based in Key Hill cemetery and involved locating the site of some particular headstones.
I knew from family history research that graveyards are divided into numbered compartments and each grave should have a specific number recorded somewhere on the headstone. In some cemeteries it’s more clearly marked than in others, but with our combined map reading skills, logical thinking, intuition and sheer guesswork, we got the hang of it.
Still splashing about in very wet, muddy ground, we started to find what we were looking for and the layout became clearer.
Many of the headstones are of well known local dignitaries, politicians, luminaries and industrialists. I was curious about the less well known people, maybe the more ordinary citizens resting here.
Carl (see image above to the left) seems to have arrived in England in March 1859 via Hamburg on the ship ‘Planet’. He was Prussian. He lived in Islington Row in the 1880s, working as a merchant’s clerk. Did he have a family? His simple headstone, like that of Johannes above, makes me think he had no-one here with him.
Johannes (see image above to the right) lived in London in 1861 and then is found in Birmingham in 1871. By 1881 he was a merchant living in the Royal Hotel. He died in 1894 in Greenfield Crescent, Edgbaston. Probate records show that he left £24, 308 19s 7d to Robert Hall Best, joint owner of Best and Lloyd Brass Foundry. It seems a large amount of money and I’d love to find out more about Johannes. Why did he leave his money to a wealthy manufacturer? Did he have any family? Census records show he was single with no dependents. His headstone is very simple, no personal tributes.
This grand resting place (image to right) is very worn and damaged, which makes me want to come along and clean it up, restore it to its former glory. It’s possibly the tomb of the family of John Barnsley, the builder whose firm built many of the city’s major landmarks, including the Council House, Art Gallery, Grand Hotel and Children’s hospital. Though my research is far from professional and this might be just a shot in the dark…..
I had a great afternoon with Sarah, laughs galore, mud, tripping up, mishaps and some serious moments reflecting on the child mortality rates of the age. I’m taking up the challenge of finding out more about those regular Brummies who lie here, going back again soon to get more details. I want us to plant lots of bulbs so the cemeteries are celebrations of life as well as honouring death and passing.
Mary McHenry, Front-of-House and Research VolunteerRead More »
We’re pleased to say that we won the award for best Customer Service and we’re over the moon! This is the first award of 2016 and fills a nice gap on our awards shelf, largely because this is the first award we’ve received for recognition of the exemplary customer service our volunteers, in particular our front-of-house staff, so consistently provide. Once again, well done to the Coffin Works’ team for always working together to give the best possible experience to our visitors! It really is customer service to die for!
Here are a list of the winners:
Have a look at some of the photos here, thanks to photographer Simon Callaghan.
http://www.simoncallaghanphotography.com/Brighton-Photographer-Blog/Best/Museum-Heritage/Awards-2016/Read More »
For nearly 40 years, Birmingham Conservation Trust has been a leading force in preserving Birmingham’s architectural heritage. Past projects include rescuing the city’s last court of Back to Backs, and our most recent major project is the multi-award winning ‘Newman Brothers Coffin Works’ in the Jewellery Quarter, where we are running our own heritage attraction – a new departure for the trust.
In addition to the Coffin Works, the Trust provides consultancy services and specialist support to some of Birmingham’s most important historic buildings and landscapes such as the Jewellery Quarter Cemeteries, the Highbury Estate and Moseley Road Baths. It is also currently working with partners to find ways to save the Cadbury Barn at Manor Farm Park and the 16 listed post-war prefabs on the Wake Green Road.
- To champion the work of the Trust, and build the support and partnerships needed to secure sustainable and imaginative new futures for Birmingham’s endangered historic buildings
- To guide the development and diversification of the trust as it tackles new projects
- To increase corporate engagement with the trust
- To shape the board of trustees by leading on the recruitment of four new trustees
- To develop the trust’s strategic and business plans
- To ensure the effective administration of the trust and its financial stability
- To take a leading and high-profile role in the advocacy of the trust, promoting it to a wider audience, including the business community
- Plan and chair meetings of the Board of Trustees, ensuring it functions effectively and annually reviews its performance
- To make a real difference to Birmingham and the local community
- To help ensure Birmingham’s architectural heritage is preserved for future generations
- To use your skills and experience to help shape the future of the trust
- To develop new skills, knowledge and contacts.
Your qualifications as Chair:
- An interest in and commitment to the heritage of Birmingham
- A readiness and ability to play a role in fundraising/development activities
- The qualities of fairness, impartiality and openness to new ideas
- Good leadership skills, including in creating and delivering a clear strategic vision and direction
- Board level (or equivalent) experience and proven competence in chairing meetings and managing performance
- An understanding of the challenges of leading an organisation in periods of significant change
- Ability to work with the Director to maintain the appropriate balance between management and governance
- Ability to inspire and lead a team of highly skilled and motivated individuals
- An ability to command respect among local, regional and national stakeholders – acting as an ambassador for the trust
- Senior-level experience and well-established networks in one or more of the following areas:
- Management or Business
- Planning / Architecture
- Finance, Law or Human Resources
- Communications, Marketing or Public Relations
- Heritage, Museums, Tourism or the Arts
- Education / Academia
- Community Service (paid or voluntary)
Want to know more?
More details on the role and how to apply are available in a briefing pack. Please email our Director, Simon Buteux: firstname.lastname@example.org. Simon can also be contacted for an informal chat on 0121 233 4785 or 07973 498013. An open evening is being held at the Coffin Works for potential candidates at 6.30 on Thursday 26th May.
Deadline for applications is the 3rd June and interviews will take place on the 8th June.Read More »
I made the decision to do my work experience at Newman Bros, the Coffin furniture factory. It differed from the standard work experience locations, and quite significantly at that. While others headed to dentists and primary schools, I secured a place at the Coffin factory. From the off, I was kept busy. I spent a large part of the first day collating graphs from around the site, based on humidity and temperature, which I then saved as PNG files for future reference. Once I had finished that, I made a start on adding up volunteer hours. Nether task was overly challenging, but both were very time consuming. However, after the tasks, I did feel like I had a better understanding of the admin side of museum work, which is, I suppose, the point of work experience.
On the second day, I helped with the money side of running a museum. I worked out the amount the tenants owe for their water and electric usage, and added up some of the donations made to the museum. After that, however, I did something not many people will have done on a work experience. To put it simply, I varnished a coffin lid. While a bit unusual, it was definitely fun, and something to talk about. I finished my second day by being given a tour by Neville, a volunteer, who was certainly very nice, and very well informed.
My third day started by adding a final two coats to the coffin lid, which looks, even I say so myself, quite good with the four coats of varnish. I then helped to set up the lights on the Christmas tree with Adam, a volunteer, and tested a smoke machine (see before and after photos below) for an upcoming performance of a Christmas carol. To finish off, I cut out cards, for a new trail, currently being produced.
My penultimate day was spent off site, at Wightwick manor and gardens, run by the national trust. I went with Lorraine, teacher at Coffin works. We attended a meeting on West midlands Museum development, and how museums can use social media to their advantage. After the meeting was over, we managed to get a guided tour of the Manor by the house steward, which was certainly interesting. After that, we headed into Wolverhampton to pick up card, before just making it back to the museum in time to head home.
My last day at the coffin works started by me writing this blog, which I now seem to have almost finished. And, seeing as it’s only ten, I guess I’ll have to ask what else to do. I’ve definitely enjoyed my time at the Coffin works. It’s been a lot of fun, and I’d love to do it again. It’s been a great insight into the world of work, but above all, very enjoyable.
Luke Bradley, Y10Read More »
Who’d have thought a training course on cleaning could be so much fun and fascinating at the same time. Not to mention hard work and a brain challenge. I signed up at Coffin Works to find out how to clean museum objects with Deborah, the freelance conservator. Owen was on the course too, which meant some good conversation, laughs and probably more knowledge than I would have. We were working down in the old barrelling shop, hopefully we weren’t going to be cleaning the barrels themselves. I had to leave at pm to go to Villa Park…. so there was a slight air of excitement in the room.
After a detailed risk assessment session, we started by observing our objects and describing them in detail. Every word matters and no assumption or vaguerie will do. Colours need to be accurately represented and a clear picture has to be drawn but in words, with the occasional photo allowed. The object has to be described, then the condition of the object. Corrosion? Sure? There appears to be corrosion…. Silver flecks? Are they silver? Silver coloured flecks….
Descriptions completed, we start to clean.
Gentle brushing with a soft brush, gentle circular brushing with a toothbrush, slightly harder cleaning with fine wire wool. Differences appear slowly. Words appear, possibly the manufacturer’s details. More pressure, harsher wire wool, more elbow grease. Shiny patches start to appear, encouraging us to work harder. Eventually we have cleaned away most of the corrosion and particles, so it’s time for some white spirit solution and cotton wool. This has to be done very carefully, using the solution sparingly. This really shows how much progress has been made. We can see the object much more clearly now, we can read the manufacturer’s name and really see how it would have looked when in use by the drop stampers in the factory’s heyday.
More polishing, more gentle brushing, more close examination of any remaining particles then onto the hot waxing. Wax is applied carefully and then it’s hairdryer time. After the beauty salon treatment, it’s on with the soft polishing cloth and maximum elbow grease. Repeat this and then you have it. The difference is just stunning and not a spray of detergent in sight. (Though Owen can be easily described as Mr Muscle after these efforts) Thanks to Deborah’s excellent teaching and extremely high standards, we have both succeeded in showing the beauty and simplicity of the drop stamps. I’m surprised at just how satisfying both the process and outcomes are. It’s like that feeling when the sun shines through your newly cleaned windows onto your newly dusted bookshelf and all seems right with the world, because of your physical efforts and sheer hard work.
All that remains is to describe the cleaning processes and the state of the cleaned object in the same meticulous detail as earlier and then we are done. Deborah the conservator is impressed. Sarah the curator is impressed. Owen and I are both feeling pleased with ourselves and a real sense of achievement is in the air. Bring out your corroded objects! We are ready.
Mary McHenry, VolunteerRead More »
1894 was a good time to enter the coffin-furniture trade, but what you won’t often hear is that it was a dangerous time. And not because of industrial accidents or poor working conditions. This was a well-organised and tight-knit industry where outsiders were not highly thought of or easily admitted.
In fact, by 1888 admission to this exclusive group was strictly regulated and you needed just two things in common: to be master coffin-furniture makers and second, to ‘doth your cap’, or sell your soul, as others saw it, to the reigning organisation known as the ‘Alliance’.
The Alliance was a group of manufacturers, led by Ingall, Parsons and Clive, with mutual interests, whose main aim was quite simple: to regulate trade and stop competition. Its underlying means of getting things done, was based on manipulation, corruption, threats and sometimes, it seems, even violence.
The Newman Brothers
Why did Alf and Edwin Newman then, voluntarily choose to enter this unscrupulous world, actively making the move from brass founding to coffin furniture production? They must have been aware of this group and the influence they possessed. But, it would seem that rather than fully complying with the Alliance , they chose to sit on the sidelines and go head-to-head with this powerful combine. Why? Most likely to take a chance, fill a gap in the market, offer cheaper products, thereby challenging the ruling elite. And to do this, they had to play dirty.
Because of the ease with which coffin fittings could be made, pretty much any brass founder or stamping company could produce them, and there lay the problem. By 1888 there were around 19 master coffin furniture manufacturers in the UK, with the overall majority in Birmingham. But there was also a wider ‘black’ section of the trade, making cheaper products in the city. This was allegedly causing a fall in prices and profits, and the ‘masters’ did not like it.
18 of the 19 firms joined forces creating a monopoly or even a cartel, as some may argue. Together, they intended to eliminate any outside competition by encouraging others to buy from them, and them only. Rather than accepting a free market, the Alliance instead, made moves to control it, and this is where the recent production of Peaky Blinders comes to mind. But initial attempts weren’t as successful as they had hoped. It was clear that more severe actions were needed. They needed leverage – they needed control of a bigger force, what they needed was to control the workers.
Manufacturers did exactly that and joined forces with workers creating a new ‘union’ between masters and men. This was led by the Alliance and what they did was instrumental – they created a Trade Association, which outwardly appeared as though it was acting as a union for the labour force, but this was a front. And why a front? Exactly because workers didn’t decide when to strike – they were strategically encouraged to strike at manufactories which choose to operate outside of the Alliance’s remit. And their efforts were successful. They managed to engage nearly the entire labour force of the coffin furniture trade by offering 10% bonuses to any worker who joined them.
Bribery was the name of the game at at the prospect of more money, workers forgot their sense of loyalty according to F. Owen and Co allowing:
“outside interference to cause them to forget the value of regular employment and good wages.”
The workers at this company were not so lucky and paid with their jobs after Owen replaced ‘disloyal’ workers with non-union men.
Unionising the workforce
Why was this so significant? Exactly because this Trade Association could now call workers to strike, thereby forcing certain manufacturers outside the Association to join it. The choice was join us, or we will destroy you from the inside, by taking your workers and stopping your production. Interfering with sources of raw materials and customers would seal the deal.
For the short term at least, this worked. And it wasn’t just the manufacturers who were ‘held to ransom.’ In April 1897, several union pickets were arrested for intimidation of a worker who refused to leave his job.
Don’t cross the picket line
Not long after, the Association tried their luck at Newman Brothers and the call to strike left Alfred Newman with no workers except for a few boys. Alfred was forced to concede and joined this new alliance between men and manufacturers. He did however fine six of his workers £3 each for breach of contact.
Things got even nastier and even more desperate. In order to prevent non-members from selling cheaper products, the Association promised undertakers and ironmongers a special rebate of up to 10% so long as they only bought from the ‘recognised’ firms in the Association. Newman Brothers would appear to be reconsidering their position within the Association, as they were threatened with price fixing and would be undercut by 25% if they chose to operate outside of the Association’s remits.
You mischief-making devil
Edgar Kettle, Newman Brothers’ manager, went to the extreme of publishing letters in the newspapers warning customers against aligning themselves with an association that cared more about controlling their profits than looking out for their customers. He warned of the perils this would create for the entire industry and how this artificial control of the market stifled business and would let international trade in. This kind of bad press was clearly damaging for the Association and Kettle was warned off by a staunch member, Mr H Phillips. He not only appeared at Newman Brothers to personally ‘dissuade’ Kettle, but he was also fined £30, around £3,000 today, by Birmingham Police Court, for threatening Edgar in a rather explicit letter:
Seemingly, it was the physical threat to ‘punch your — head’ that caused Kettle to get a court summons for such threats. Edgar was accused of ‘playing dirty’ by trying to get ‘other’ men’s workers to strike. It would be easy to see Newman Brothers as a flagship in their attempts to promote a free market, when in actual fact, like others who resisted or rebuffed the Association, they were most likely just as concerned with their profits, and believed they would be hindered by the Association’s artificial control of the market.
Profits and principles seem to have been the driving force, and it was the precise action of companies like Newman Brothers, which in the end, made the Alliance and their Trade Association redundant. There were, by the close of the 19th century, just too many companies making coffin fittings to control. Newman Brothers survived this eventful chapter and emerged as one of Birmingham’s dominant forces of the 20th century.
Sarah Hayes, Collections & Exhibitions ManagerRead More »
This weekend marks the anniversary of Japan surrendering during the Second World War. Prime Minister, Clement Atlee, addressed the nation at midnight on 15TH August 1945 announcing the surrender, in a broadcast from Downing Street.
The next two days were declared public holidays and the buoyant celebrations in Birmingham reinforced what the end of the War really meant to people of this city.
It seems that the staff at Newman Brothers also had that day off and presumably took part in the day’s revelry. Recorded at the bottom of a wages ledger from the week of 18th August 1945 are the words ‘one day’s pay for VJ day, 8½ hours.’ They were paid for the second day the week after on 25th August, again the ledger said ‘one VJ holiday included, 8 ½ hours’.
Just a stone’s throw away from Newman Brothers on 15th August that year, were crowds of people singing and dancing in Victoria Square, rejoicing in the fact that the War was finally over. At that point, Newman Brothers only had 20 staff on the ‘books’ – the War had proved difficult for them – and of those 20 people, it’s likely that some at least, were present to witness that historic moment when the city came together to celebrate the end of six years of conflict, in what was the biggest ‘street party’ Birmingham had seen in many years.
We’ll be digging deeper into the Newman Brothers’ archive making many more discoveries from this period, so look out for our future blogs.
Sarah Hayes, Collections & Exhibitions ManagerRead More »