Guest Blog: Three years in the making – the release of the Coffin Works’ Guidebook

This month’s Guest Blog Post celebrates the recent launch of the Coffin Works’ Guidebook. This beautiful publication documents the history of the Newman Brother’s Factory, its workers and the story of its recovery. Sarah Hayes, Museum Manager on site, has been part of the process since the beginning and tells the story of how this unique book was made.

The Coffin Works Guidebook

The Coffin Works’ guidebook brings together over ten years of research, and much of that research was undertaken before I was even recruited back in January 2014. As soon as we opened our doors to the public just ten months later, visitors and volunteers alike were requesting a guidebook, but we weren’t quite ready.

If we’d attempted to have written a guidebook five years ago, it would have been a diluted version of what it is today. And why? So much has been discovered in the archives since 2014 that just simply wouldn’t have featured in the book – some key stories in fact, like that of Newman Brothers’ polisher, Lewis Watkins, who died at the battle of Passchendaele in 1917. That was a chance find made while sifting through historic newspaper articles in 2015.

Former Newman Brothers’ worker, Shelia Maher, visited us in 2016 to share her story of working at the manufactory back in the late 1950s. She reminisced of how she made her wedding dress out of the factory’s shroud material, material that she actually stole by hiding it under the dress of her protruding pregnant belly. It took her nearly 60 years to confess her story and return to the factory. And of course, there was proving the royal connection between Newman Brothers and the crown undertakers, which we managed to do in 2016. You’ll have to see page 20 for more on that story!

My colleague, Simon Buteux, and I began writing the book in 2016 and we actually finished it that year, but we still needed to raise funds to get it printed. That fundraising campaign was kick-started by our very own staff and volunteers, with a very generous donation coming from volunteer tour guide, Owen Edmunds. The final piece of the puzzle was securing a principal sponsor to help us complete our journey, and thanks most certainly has to go to Brumpic, who put us in touch with No5 Chambers, one of the country’s leading barristers’ chambers. A very generous donation from them allowed us to finally get the guidebook printed. The book well and truly fills a gap in the literature and we’ve even had our first international orders from Canada and Australia!

Since the launch night on 2nd May, we’ve sold 70 copies which is just fantastic! Thanks must also go to the JQBID and PMP Consultants who sponsored our catering on the evening. We were proud to be sponsored by fellow Jewellery Quarter businesses and the book was even printed by Hobs, yet another JQ business.

The guidebook retails at £9.99 and is available in the museum shop or online via art tickets when you purchase a ticket for the museum.


A bit about the book:

Newman Brothers produced the world’s finest coffin fittings for over 100 years from 1894 until it closed its doors in 1999. Their furniture adorned the coffins of kings, queens and prime ministers, but eventually, Newman Brothers, the king of suppliers, sadly died its own death and was forced to down tools and cease trading.

It is with thanks to the vision of the last owner, Joyce Green, that the manufactory and its contents survive. Everything has been preserved in situ, as it was left when its doors finally closed. The building and its time-capsule contents have been described as Birmingham’s’ ‘Mercantile Mary Celeste’ and now forms the basis of the award-winning Coffin Works’ Museum.

Sarah Hayes, Museum Manager

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