Original architect's plans of Newman Brothers designed by Roger Harley in 1892.

A family found and a mystery solved (well, nearly)

Newman Brothers was established in 1882 by two brothers, Alfred and Edwin Newman. Edwin, born in 1856, was four years older than Alfred. The brothers entered into partnership as brass founders, making fittings for cabinets, from rented premises. But in 1892 they decided to commission a state-of-the-art manufactory, dedicated solely to the production of coffin furniture.

They were making a big statement, but it was a natural step; after all, if you could make handles for cabinets, you could make them for coffins. The process was identical but the payoff more profitable, as there was no other period when the English funeral was more lucrative.

In 1895, just one year after opening their ‘Fleet Works’, the two brothers, who had worked together for 12 years, split and dissolved their partnership. And this is where the mystery begins; the mystery of Edwin Newman. Alfred Newman continued to run the business, while Edwin went his own way, and why he went his own way has always remained unknown.

Everything we know about Edwin Newman has come from census data. We know that in 1901 he was a Commission Agent (a travelling salesman), in 1911, a Metal Agent (selling hardware), and his last role that we know of was as a Managing Clerk at Jonas Strong Ltd, a haulage company on Montague Street, Birmingham, in 1921.

But why did he leave Newman Brothers’ Fleet Street Works just one year after opening? All his subsequent jobs suggest that he was ‘doing what he knew’ and working in metal trades similar to that of Newman Brothers. But nevertheless this would appear to be a step down from running your own business.

Intriguingly, despite leaving the business, Edwin still appears to have a stake in Newman Brothers until at least 1912. That’s because he is mentioned as joint owner, along with Alfred, in ‘Poor Rates’ records in 1901, 1906, 1911 and 1912. ‘Poor Rates’ were a poor relief tax charged to businesses by the parish of Birmingham. This indicates that even though the partnership was legally dissolved in 1895, Edwin maintained some ownership of the building nearly 20 years after.

Poor Rates’ Tax list for Fleet Street from 1901 lists Edwin as an Owner of Newman Brothers, six years after his partnership was dissolved.

Patience is a virtue and good things come to those who wait, or so the proverb goes. After nine years of carrying out research and eight years since the Coffin Works Museum opened, we’ve got used to waiting, and in that time, we’ve made so many new discoveries and connections. But we did not expect the latest revelation to be made at a friend’s summer barbeque in Sutton Coldfield. That’s where we start to unravel the puzzle that is Edwin Newman.

It was 13th August and my friend Beth said to me “I’ve got someone you need to meet. This is my friend, Adele, and she’s pretty sure she has a connection to Newman Brothers”.

The first thing Adele said was “I’m so sorry, I’ve been meaning to contact you for years, ever since Beth said that she had a friend who worked at the Coffin Works Museum”.

Adele then went on to tell me that her grandmother was a ‘Newman’ and the rumour was that her mum’s great grandfather was asked to leave ‘the’ business and possibly ‘paid off’. She told me that he was a ‘black sheep’ character in the family, and that his son Ed was married to a ’Bertha Amelia’. The name ‘Bertha’ seemed familiar, but I tried to not get too excited and just jotted down what I could. Could information like this really fall into your lap so easily after spending so many years trying to contact Newman family members? Then again, I’d only ever focussed on contacting Alfred’s side of the family, but to no avail.

The next morning, I checked the Newman family tree and was reminded that Edwin Newman actually had nine children in 21 years! But that’s a blog for another day.

I searched for ‘Bertha Amelia’ and there she was: she was married to an ‘Edmund Newman’, who was the son of Edwin Newman. And yes, it so turned out that it was the Edwin Newman. This friend of a friend just so happens to be the great, great granddaughter of the elusive Edwin Newman and therefore the great, great Niece of Alfred Newman. The information had been there all along and ‘just one friend away’, so to speak.

Edwin Newman’s direct descendants! From left to right: Adele (great, great grandaughter), Philip (great grandson, Josie (great grandaughter) and Liz (great grandaughter).

After contacting Adele with the exciting news, naturally I asked if there were any family photos of Edwin. Believe it or not, we don’t have any photos of Alfred or Edwin, the original Newman Brothers. Well, we suspect that Alfred and his sister, Amy, appear in one photo in our collection from 1912, but we’ve never been able to confirm it. Could Alfred and Amy Newman, who we know worked as a clerk at Newman Brothers, really appear in this photo of the Newman’s workforce? We strongly suspect that this is the case, and while we haven’t yet proved it, we’re getting closer.

One theory is that Amy Newman appears in the top row, immediate left, and that Alfred Newman stands below her, immediate left, with his arms folded.

Adele kindly went on the hunt for photos of Edwin, even asking extended family. Although she couldn’t find a photo of Edwin, it just so happens that the photo below is framed and on display in her mum, Josie’s house. It’s a photo of his son Edmund Newman and his family from circa 1927. And at present, that is the closest we can get to Edwin Newman. Wow! Josie’s uncle (also called ‘Ed’) is pictured at the far left of the image. We know that Edwin was still alive at the time this photo was taken, as he died in 1929 at the age of 75.

From left to right: Edmund JR, Bill Bratt, Ellen, Bertha Amelia, Audrey & Edmund – (son of Edwin Newman), circa 1927.

We’re the closest we’ve ever been to solving this Newman mystery and if the last nine years have taught us anything, it’s to be patient. It’s taken 127 years to reunite him with Newman Brothers after his partnership was formally dissolved. But now Edwin’s family have re-established that partnership, preserving his legacy and their connection to this building.

Special thanks to Suzanne Hayes for her research into the Newman family tree. 

By Sarah Hayes, Museum Manager

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