Along with a handful of other Birmingham Conservation Trust volunteers, trustees and members – including former BCT Director Elizabeth Perkins, who started the project over a decade ago – yesterday I had the privilege of a ‘hard hat’ tour of the work to restore the Newman Brothers Coffin Works on Fleet Street.
The project will bring back to life the historic factory, whose fittings adorned the coffins of Joseph Chamberlain, Winston Churchill, the Queen Mother and Princess Diana but closed in 1999, leaving behind a ‘Marie Celeste’ century-long industrial time capsule. For the full story see here.
The restoration of the Grade II* listed building has been underway since last summer and significant progress has now been made. The scaffolding that was up over the winter has now been removed. The collection of artefacts – including the coffin fittings, breast plates, crucifixes, shrouds and linings, as well as sales ledgers, catalogues and even tea making equipment – are mainly in storage elsewhere, giving the building an added empty eeriness, broken only by the glare of our high visibility garments (it’s good to have fun, but it’s even better to have safe fun…).
We were shown around by Lichfield-based specialist heritage contractors Fairhurst Ward Abbotts – holders of a Royal Warrant as the Queen’s Decorators and Builders no less – along with Simon Buteux (BCT Director) and Barbara Nomikos (Volunteer).
Simon outlined the philosophy behind the restoration. Refreshingly, rather than seeking to recreate the late-Victorian beginnings of the Coffin Works, the plan is to retain more recent accretions – like light fittings, switches and the speakers that would have piped Workers’ Playtime to the Newmans’ employees – so that the building will be as much about conserving social history as architectural heritage.
That isn’t to say that care isn’t being taken on the building itself – the windows are being meticulously repaired by specialists, or replaced by uncanny replicas where required; services are being put in older ducts to minimise the intrusion of the facilities needed to bring the building up to modern standards; traditional lime mortar is being used instead of modern cement. Down in the courtyard, the reclaimed blue paviers are almost ready to be laid, overlooked by the original ‘shopping’ range, complete with a variety of frightening machinery including hand-operated stampers and a guillotine.
Barbara showed us some of the fascinating coffin fittings and replica shrouds that will form a small part of the collection on show once the Newman Brothers opens its doors again, and explained how the factory was the victim of not only the familiar (if still depressing) circumstances of international competition, but also changing public attitudes to death. She also told us some of the stories of the people who worked here over the years gathered through oral history interviews – I won’t repeat them here so as to keep the surprise when the reader visits the finished article!