A Birmingham company played a key role in the funeral of the man considered by many to be Britain’s greatest ever leader.
On January 30, 1965, Sir Winston Churchill was laid to rest in the largest state funeral ever mounted in this country.
Newman Brothers Coffin Works made the ornate handles and other fittings for the wartime leader’s coffin as part of ‘Operation Hope Not’ – the code name for the funeral arrangements.
Today, Newman Brothers is one of Birmingham’s most unusual heritage attractions and exactly 50 years to the day since the funeral, the museum will be marking the event in a special evening of commemoration, on Friday, January 30.
Researchers working on the huge collection of artefacts housed in the museum have found examples still ‘in stock’ of the type of handles – needless to say among the best and most expensive – used on Churchill’s coffin.
All the handles are brass and the brown examples are the ‘brown bronze’ finish Newman Brothers offered and were famous for. At this stage, researchers do not know the exact finish used on Churchill’s coffin, other than they were made of brass.
With the unique factory as a backdrop, looking much as it did at the time of the funeral, the commemorative event will include a chance to hear again some of Churchill’s most inspiring speeches from 1940, the year that Britain was in greatest threat of invasion from Nazi Germany.
There will be an illustrated presentation on the pageantry of the funeral itself, from the lying in state in Westminster Hall, through the service in St Paul’s Cathedral and the procession of the coffin along the Thames by boat followed by train to Bladon, near Churchill’s birthplace at Blenheim Palace, where the interment took place in private.
Simon Buteux, Director of Birmingham Conservation Trust, which manages the attraction, said: “Newman Brothers made the coffin furniture used for the coffins of royalty and many of the ‘great and the good’, but that their coffin fittings were chosen for Winston Churchill’s coffin was probably their proudest moment.
“We’ve been told by members of his family that Mr Kellett, the managing director at the time, used to begin every meeting by reminding the board the Newmans made Churchill’s coffin handles.
“It was an exciting moment when Sarah Hayes, our collections and exhibitions manager, and volunteers identified the type of handles used amongst the stock.
“There are all sorts of events planned for the commemoration of Winston Churchill’s funeral on its 50th anniversary, but we believe that the one in our factory will be one of the most unusual, and a fitting tribute to Winston Churchill.”
Suppliers to the undertakers’ trade for over 100 years, Newman Brothers closed its doors in 1998, leaving most of the contents in place as if at the end of an ordinary working day.
In the various workshops there is a range of historic machinery, much of it still in working order, and a huge stock of the coffin fittings, shrouds and coffin linings that were made on site, testament to changing funerary fashions, as well as the business archive and product designs.
There are even travelling salesmen’s bags, still with their samples inside, and brandy and cigars in the director’s office.
The restoration of the factory was undertaken by Birmingham Conservation Trust and funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and English Heritage among others.