Coffin Museum

From Birmingham to Bladon via St Paul’s Cathedral, With Maggie Chaplin

First published September 2015 Four Shires Magazine

Set well back from the busy A4095 Bicester to Witney road that runs through the village of Bladon is the church of St Martin. On the face of it the church and its graveyard are just what you’d expect to find in any Oxfordshire village – until you notice the striking tombs of the most famous family in its parish.

It’s here that most of the Churchills of Blenheim are buried, including the most eminent of recent times, Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill. He was one of the few commoners to be accorded a state funeral, but was at his own request interred in a private ceremony in Bladon near his birthplace.

Throughout most of the funeral proceedings Churchill’s coffin was draped in a Union Jack, so the public didn’t see it. It was made of oak and was probably lead-lined, but there’s little information about the design. We do know something about the fittings though. They were best quality brass and were created in Birmingham. What’s more you can go and see for yourself where they were made. It involves a trip to the centre of the city, where in Fleet Street in the Jewellery Quarter there’s one of the most unusual museums in the country – the Coffin Works.

The museum occupies part of what was the Newman Brothers factory. The company was set up in 1882 to produce brass cabinet fittings, but when the brothers moved to the present site in 1894 they billed themselves as “Coffin Furniture Manufacturers”, presumably having discovered a niche market that was more lucrative. They were essentially a metal working firm so didn’t make coffins, but supplied handles, breastplates, crucifixes and other coffin “bling”. Later they added shrouds, robes and coffin linings to their repertoire.

The heyday of the business was in the 1960s and few alterations to the premises or working practices were made after that time. Although a facility for producing resin handles was introduced, it’s probable that the general failure to adapt to changes in funeral customs, with a move towards cremations and plastic coffin fittings, contributed to the closure of the business in 1998. There was also competition from the Far East. Fortunately for posterity though, the last owner, Joyce Green, who had started as an employee of the company in 1949 had far-sightedness of a different kind.

Joyce was determined that although the firm was no longer viable, the building and its contents should be preserved and turned into a museum. It was a huge project and finance was a major issue. It took nearly two decades to secure funding and the premises finally opened to the public in October 2014. Sadly Joyce didn’t live to see her dream realised.

When the last employee left on the final day of production in 1999, it was as if the place had just been closed up for the weekend, with the expectation of a return to work the following Monday. As well as all the manufacturing equipment, there were large quantities of stock fittings in different designs and finishes. Much of it was wrapped or boxed and on shelves, whereas was some scattered on workbenches half finished. There were coffin linings and completed shrouds, coyly referred to as “robes”, in designs from frilly-lacy to football team colours.

Documents of all kinds were left in situ: trade catalogues, sales ledgers, staff records and photographs, all of which help to give a detailed insight into the day to day working of the business. There were domestic and personal items too: a travelling rep’s leather samples case, a handbag, a suit jacket; kettle and teacups – even the tea and a drying up cloth and the boss’s office was equipped with something stronger in case a quick snifter was needed.

This vast collection of material provides a treasure trove of information and represents a huge research undertaking for the foreseeable future, and work is ongoing, but sufficient knowledge has been gained to enable the visiting public to share a unique insight into an unusual aspect of our industrial heritage.

From the moment you go through the door into the museum you step back fifty years. Reception is an old wooden desk surrounded by walls lined with the original shelves and cubby holes. There’s an old-fashioned cigarette machine and the card-punch clocking on system the employees would have used. All the front of house staff are in the “period” costume of brown drill coats that would have been the norm when the factory was in production, and they’re enthusiastic and keen to share their practical knowledge about the firm’s history.

The guided museum tour takes about an hour and on the day I visited we were shown round by Neville who was a mine of information, and who, along the way, also regaled us with amusing anecdotes about the company’s past. We learnt about the travelling salesman who was mistaken for a spy, the seamstress who told her boyfriend she made clothes to die for, and we even found out what was done with all the horse manure that was generated in the days when all the goods and raw materials were transported by horse and cart.

We started in the courtyard where those carts would have been loaded and unloaded and we saw where the gas-powered four-stroke engine that drove all the factory’s machinery would have been. Although the public aren’t allowed in the basement we were able to look down and see the massive drums in which cast brass fittings would have been turned to rub off the rough edges.

Next stop was the stamp room – a long narrow workshop that housed the huge die-stamping presses that imprinted the designs on the sheet metal. Men would operate these, whilst on benches opposite were the machines that were used by women to trim the designs to shape. The working of the equipment was demonstrated by Cornelius, who had worked in the trade. He explained that in this dimly lit, cramped space, seventeen people worked amidst noise and dust and in close proximity to machinery with the potential to maim if your concentration or that of a workmate faltered. Modern Health and Safety would be at a loss where to start. The benches were littered with work that was clearly “in progress” when the factory closed.

The stock room was more civilised and hands on for visitors. It was here that the coffin furniture was assembled into sets and packed, and the rough wooden shelves and cubby holes around the room are stacked with cardboard boxes and brown paper packets containing fittings ready to batch into “kits” for dispatch. The drawers of the large central table hold dozens of the different types of fittings that the firm supplied, and spread out on top, all neatly tagged and coded are handles, breast plates, crucifixes and other adornments in a variety of metals and finishes which you are encouraged to pick up and examine.

Moving into the shroud room you see a long workbench of industrial sewing machines surrounded by part-finished work. Boxes of different styles of lace occupy some of the shelves along with rolls of fabric, and there are baskets containing huge bobbins of thread. At one end of the room is a heavy duty machine that surprisingly is for making delicate frilling, and near the hoist a sample coffin is fitted out to demonstrate how the interior would be typically dressed.

We’re nearly at the end of the tour. The hour has sped by and it’s been intriguing to get close to a subject that most of us choose to ignore. It’s been enlightening and not at all morbid. When you visit the Coffin Works, you feel less like you’re visiting a museum and more as if you’ve been invited into a factory where most of the staff have just downed tools and popped out for a lunch break and that any minute you’ll hear the clatter of feet on the wooden floors and the buzz of chatter as they return to their work stations.

Although Newman Brothers factory is no longer in production, thanks to the vision and determination of Joyce Green and the hard work and persistence of many people since, it now forms part of our national heritage.

Sir Winston Churchill’s funeral made history and Newman Brothers became part of that history by supplying the fittings for his coffin. They were of the best, and it’s still a matter of pride at the Coffin Works that they were made here in the heart of Birmingham.

It’s fifty years since Churchill died. If you want to mark this anniversary year, you can make the pilgrimage to Bladon churchyard as thousands have done before you to see the splendid white marble tombstone on the great man’s grave. It would be more original though, to take a trip to the Coffin Works and find out just what the fittings on his coffin were like. As well as learning lots more fascinating facts besides!