A 15-year scheme to restore the historic Newman Brothers Coffin Fitting Works in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter is almost complete.
Conservation experts have revealed the factory will reopen as a museum at the end of October.
Around £2 million has been spent renovating the Grade II* listed building in Fleet Street to restore it as a unique heritage attraction.
A £1 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), matched by English Heritage and Birmingham City Council, formed part of the package of funding that made the conservation work possible.
The Coffin Works was built in 1894 when Queen Victoria was still on the throne and funerals were big business.
Newman Brothers developed a reputation for making some of the finest coffin fittings in the world, and their products adorned the coffins of Joseph Chamberlain, Winston Churchill and the Queen Mother among many others.
Though in business for more than a century, the manufacturing processes and the way the business was run changed very little, so visitors to the new attraction can step back into a different world.
Suppliers to the undertakers’ trade for over 100 years, Newman Brothers closed its doors in 1999, leaving most of the contents in place as if at the end of an ordinary working day.
There was a huge stock of 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 was a range of extraordinary machines, including a pantograph, used to engrave the names on the coffin plates, a frill-maker for the shrouds, and of course, the staff clocking-in machine, which visitors will use to ‘clock-in’ to tours.
There were even travelling salesmen’s bags, still with their samples inside, and brandy and cigars in the director’s office.
In 2007, as the rain began to pour through the deteriorating roof, all contents except the largest machines were removed from the factory to off-site storage.
Now building work has finished, the Birmingham Conservation Trust is returning the contents of the historic factory to prepare for the October 24 opening of the heritage attraction.
Since January, Sarah Hayes, the Trust’s collections and exhibitions manager, has been working in the off-site store with a team of volunteers to catalogue, clean and conserve the collection in preparation for its return.
The Trust has now started the task of putting things back where they came from, so that from October visitors will be able to experience Newman Brothers as it was in its heyday: the machinery will be working, the space filled with sound, and its most unusual products on display in the workshops and store rooms.
Reyhan King, Head of the HLF for the West Midlands, said: “Newman Brothers were once the maker of the world’s finest coffin furniture – a leader in the field and one of only three remaining in the UK at the time of closure.
“Now, thanks to the passion and dedication of volunteers, and support from Heritage Lottery Fund and partner organisations, the Coffin Works has been preserved for future generations and the collections are being reinstated once more.
“It will soon present the public with a rare opportunity to explore the modern heritage of death in the UK, a fascinating subject. It is set to become an enduring attraction for Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter for generations to come.”
Founded in 1978, Birmingham Conservation Trust is a charity which exists ‘to preserve and enhance Birmingham’s threatened architectural heritage and to promote an enjoyment and understanding of the city’s historic buildings’.
Its director, Simon Buteux, said: “I am very excited – this is a moment we have all been waiting for, and the last major event before our Grand Opening on October 24.
“Almost every day Sarah and her team have been uncovering new treasures and sharing them with us on the Coffin Works Facebook Page. Now is the chance to see them for real, back where they belong.”
“We wouldn’t be able to open Newman Brothers to the public without the help and support of our volunteers.
“We are looking for more volunteers in a variety of different roles, from tour guiding to demonstrating the original machinery, who want to share their passion for Birmingham’s social and industrial history with our visitors; more information is available on our website.”