WHAT WE LEARNED
Words written and PDFs created by our project researcher, Lydia Richmond
This Victorian Era coffin works, located in the Jewellery Quarter of Birmingham, was originally owned by the Newman Brothers, Alfred and Edwin Newman. The company produced coffin furniture, such as coffin handles and nameplates, for over 100 years before it closed its doors commercially in 1998.
The first mystery of the coffin works is the short lived involvement of Edwin in the company, for unknown and perhaps suspicious reasons, he stepped down as co-owner in 1895. Did his brother want to have the company all for himself? Alfred continued to run the coffin works alone until his death, after which his sons took over the business, and when they stepped down the majority of the company shares were bought by two gentlemen by the names of Kellett and Floyd. Kellet and Floyd both died relatively soon after acquiring the company and it was taken over by Joyce Green, a formed secretary of the Coffin Works who had be slowly building up her shares in the company. Could the deaths of the previous owners of the factory be suspicious? Perhaps there was some foul play in the acquisition of the company shares, who knows?
Although a coffin works may sound quite sinister the factory has a rather peaceful history, only marred by the dark memory of strikes encouraged by the ominous alliance.
The alliance was a group made up of coffin manufacturers who sought to monopolise the lucrative coffin works industry, controlling trade and stamping out any competition, using threats and even violence!- think Peaky Blinders but for the coffin industry. The Newman brothers did not join the alliance on opening their factory thus angering the alliance who retaliated by convincing the factory workers to strike. The manager of the Newman Brothers Factory- Edgar Ulysses Kettle- attempted to resolve the situation by writing to the Birmingham Post of the dealing of the alliance but was threatened with violence by an alliance member. Eventually the alliance was unable to control the growing industry and disbanded, buts its monopoly on the coffin manufacturing nevertheless marked a turbulent time for the industry.
A darker side to the factory’s history is the danger that the factory equipment held for the workers, as can be said for factories across England in this time of industrialisation. The heavy die casting equipment, fierce coal fired engines and vats of acid for cleaning the sharp metal, meant that the factory could be a very dangerous place to work, home to many accidents- or maybe they are not all accidents…