Coffin Fittings Works Visited

Background

On Sunday 28 April I went on the final day of tours, before restoration starts, of the Coffin Fitting Works in Fleet Street in the Jewellery Quarter.

This important historical building is now owned by Birmingham Conservation Trust a charity funded partly by BCC, Heritage Lottery Fund, and other public bodies and private charities.

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The company produced some of the finest coffin furniture in the world. Its products were so good they were used in the funerals of many famous people including Sir Winston Churchill, Neville Chamberlain and Diana, Princess of Wales. They also supplied their products to many foreign countries including West Africa, India, Sri Lanka, South Africa, the Caribbean, Canada and Malta.
OD4A1653The Newman Brothers moved into the premises in 1894 and the business was run there until closure in 1999 when it was one of only three remaining coffin furniture manufacturers in England. When the company closed all the machinery and products were left inside. All portable items have been taken into secure storage by Birmingham Conservation Trust, who are about to begin restoration of the building mainly as museum. So, this is why there was keen interest and uptake of attending the last visits before restoration.

The Visit

There was nothing funereal about this visit as the works did not build the coffins but produced pretty well everything else to fit out the coffin including brass-ware and burial dresses. It was supplier to undertakers who had the coffins built by specialist firms then completed matters with products from the works.

OD4A1692As you enter the U-shaped complex from Fleet Street, on the right was a brass foundry and on the left the production unit, while straight ahead there was a gas driven engine – when electricity was not generally available Birmingham was blessed with a gas supply to every building that wanted it. This gas supply is one of the reasons for the growth of manufacturing in Birmingham for which it was globally famous.

OD4A1674The left hand building has its courtyard side with very large windows facing south. This is not by chance. Although there was gas in abundance there was no electricity and so no effective lighting apart from daylight. Working hours were dictated by availability of bright daylight. An auxiliary gas supply line was routed along the windows to enable additional lighting (left).

The brass foundry in the building to the right was a hell of a place to work with heat and fumes and as a result reaching 40 years of age was an achievement! Yet it produced the casted gems such as those shown below (after finishing).

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OD4A1660Below the gas engine platform (left) were a set of horizontal drums. Rough castings from the brass foundry were smoothed off by placing them in the drums together with abrasive material and rotated for many hours.

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The gas engine lay on top of the platform. It was used to drive all the machines inside via a drive belt passing through a window  of the building on the left and producing circular motion of two main shafts running through the first floor of the building. These shafts in turn supplied power to other shafts on other floors. The main shafts are not present at the moment but there are subsidiary ones. The end bearings  of the shafts, shown left by our guide Bob, are still present but not the shafts.

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OD4A1669The two main shafts on the first floor were also used to polish casted products with brushes rotating with the shafts aided by abrasive materials, the fly off of which is still present on the wooden floors (left). This polishing was carried out by stoutly built “well upholstered” (Bob’s words) ladies of noted strength.

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OD4A1718As well as the casting and finishing of products there were seamstresses at the Fleet Street front of the building creating burial dresses and other fancy cloth products.

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OD4A1733On the ground floor there still are many examples of the heavy metal bashing machines used.  There are hand powered presses to produce pressed metal plaques. These use a hand lever and wide gauge screw thread to lever great pressure on sheet metal to form into a die. Perhaps an easier job than others in the company?

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OD4A1739For heavier work there is a set of shaft driven cold drop forged machines that dropped a very heavy lead  convex die into a lower concave die to produce the wares shown here.
The top (hammer) die was raised by a frictional belt over a subsidiary shaft. At the opposite side of the shaft a rope was attached to the belt. Light hand pressure on the rope provided enough friction for the shaft-pulley combination to raise the hammer. Sheet metal was then placed in between the upper and lower dies. The rope was then release and the upper heavy die descended and forced the sheet metal into the shape of the lower die.

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OD4A1682Some of the drop forged products produced from sheet metal are shown left.

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It’s an amazing thought that hard work in this company was at least regular and generally less arduous than the alternative of working the land.

I look forward to the museum opening so we can see the many artefacts that have been cached locally.

Here are various photos taken during the tour which help to describe what the company was like.

We were very expertly guided by Cllr Bob Beauchamp, of the Birmingham Restoration Trust of which he is chair. He was deeply knowledgeable on the history and working practices of the employees at the Works, in fact I believe, one of his ancestors walked all the way from Cornwall to join the workforce! His surname suggests a French ancestry, born out by his beautifully orchestrated gesticulations which he employed to illustrate his narrative. Very interesting and enjoyable!

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