My Visit to Newman Brothers in Birmingham

by Bernard Taylor

I received an email from Leigh Walker, who wanted information for his friend in Hong Kong. Basically, his friend was interested in purchasing the old Ansells Outdoor on the corner of Bissell and High Street.

I sent Leigh some information and he reciprocated by offering me a personal guided tour of Coffin Fcatory in Birmingham.

I accepted his offer and with his permission I decided to give you all a taste of what to expect when and if we visit or book a speaker for one of the evenings next year.

The History of Newman Brothers

Newman Brothers in Fleet Street

Newman Brothers were established in 1882 by Alfred Newman and his brother Edwin. Originally brass founders, they predominantly made cabinet furniture until 1894, when the company moved to the present site on Fleet Street and began to specialise in the production of coffin furniture.

Newman Brothers continued to specialise in this area until, due to competition from abroad and failure to modernise, they were forced out of business and ceased trading in 1998.

1894 to 1999 Fleet Street Works

Newman Brothers were originally brass founders, established in 1882, by two brothers, Alfred and Edwin Newman. They originally operated from premises in Nova Scotia Street in what is the Eastside area of town today. As brass founders their business was based on casting an assortment of metal articles, in this case, largely cabinet furniture from molten brass. But by 1894, just over ten years later, they had moved to new premises at 13-15 Fleet Street in the Jewellery Quarter. This move also spelled a slight change in their production line.

Newman Brothers Workforce in 1912

They were now listed as ‘Coffin Furniture Manufacturers’ and specialised in the production of general brass furniture. We say slight change as coffin furniture is, in fact, a natural extension of the jewellery and ‘toy’ trades and their many ancillary trades, using not only the same materials, but also incorporating the same skills and processes to produce various metal goods. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that they entered this aspect of the trade, as there would appear to be more money in coffins than cabinets.

Coffin furniture covers a multitude of products from handles, breastplates, crucifixes, decorative ornaments to shrouds and robes.

The move from cabinet to coffin furniture also coincided with a change to the partnership of the business, as Edwin’s involvement was dissolved in 1895, making Alfred the sole owner of the company. We don’t know what caused this change in circumstances, but Edwin’s exit resulted in Alfred running the business as a sole trader for 38 years until his death in 1933.

Stamp Room and Cornelius(an old employee)at the back

At this point, Newman Brothers was valued at £12,500; a sum that suggests the company was doing well. After Alfred’s death, two of his sons, Horace and George took over the running of the business, now a limited liability company, as the new generation of Newman brothers. George died in 1944, and Horace continued to run the business as the main director shareholder until he died in 1952.

His death spells the end of the unbroken Newman link to the business and although the brothers’ sister, Nina Newman, still had shares in the company and was therefore technically a director until 1980, the direct management by a Newman of the business ends with Horace in 1952.

The Shroud Room in the 1960s

From that point, and for the majority of Newman Brothers’ time in business, the company was managed by a small group of shareholder directors, with the main day-to-day running of the company taken over by the Whittington family, relations of the Newmans’ and a family known as the Doggarts, after Horace’s death.

Perhaps most intriguing of all is how the last owner, Joyce Green, acquired the company, working her way up from office secretary in 1949 to company secretary sometime in the 1950s, to finally sole owner of Newman Brothers in 1989, until it ceased trading in 1998.

Joyce Green in her office at Newman Brothers

and below her desk (just how she left it)

Joyce Green was associated with Newman Brothers for over 50 years and when the company was dissolved in 1999, she turned her attentions to saving the building and preserving a rare slice of this country’s industrial history, with the aim of turning it in to a visitor attraction.

She continued her involvement for another 10 years, until 2009, when at the age of 78, she died. Joyce’s steadfast determination and wish for Newman Brothers to live on is now a reality and the new generation of Newman Brothers’ staff will continue her legacy.

1999 to 2013 The Rescue Mission

It was Joyce Green, the last owner of Newman Brothers, whose wish it was for the company to become a museum. After five vacant years and tireless campaigning, she sold the business to Advantage West Midlands (AWM) in 2003, on the basis that the building would not be used for residential use for a period of five years, thereby giving the project enough time to raise funds to fulfill her dream. In the same year it was featured on the BBC television series, Restoration, which drummed up even more interest in the project.

That dream appeared to be a reality when Birmingham Conservation Trust (BCT) were brought on board the same year to lead on the development of the project. But uncertainty over funding stalled the project until 2005 when further project development and a business plan could be drawn up. The project seemed to be back on track in 2006 when £1.5 Million of funding was secured, which allowed a full professional team to be appointed by 2007. Everything was moving in the right direction with listed building consent and planning permission secured in June of 2008, which set out designs to transform the Newman Brothers’ building in to a visitor attraction and a mixed-use venue of lettable studios spaces. Newman Brothers was now a designated listed building and its Grade II* status brought wider recognition to the importance of the project.

Then disaster struck

Advantage West Midlands, who owned the building and were the chief supporter of the project, had its funding withdrawn by central government in 2009 and announced that they would be unable to assist Birmingham Conservation Trust with any further grants. This was a devastating blow for the project that had already been seven years in development.  But with the help of a grant from Birmingham City Council, BCT purchased the building and its contents in June 2010 from AWM.  A complete re-think of the project was in order, as costs had to be reduced by half in order to secure the £2m necessary to transform the building and guarantee funding. But, with new maintenance and business plans drawn up and a successful HLF bid of just under £1 million, the project was alive and kicking once again and since then we haven’t looked back.

A new professional team was appointed in 2012, and we’ve been working tirelessly ever since to transform Newman Brothers into Birmingham’s next visitor attraction and make Joyce Green’s dream a reality. We owe a lot to the various teams and individuals who have been involved in this project for the past 15 years, and even more so to Joyce, whose vision and steadfast determination has enabled us to be able to share such an important part of this country’s industrial heritage with the wider public.

2013 Onwards –The Restoration Project

Between July 2013 and September 2014, building contractors Fairhurst Ward Abbotts and the wider Birmingham Conservation Trust professional team have been working hard to transform Newman Brothers at the Coffin Works from a semi-derelict building into a visitor attraction and mixed-use development. This transformation has always kept the historical integrity of the building at the heart of the project, so that as many original features have been restored and retained as possible.

Over this period there was lots of activity going on behind the scenes; we were running tours, working in schools, putting together research groups, creating resources and interpretation, and preparing for opening!

The three storeys of the front range of the building have been preserved, so that it retains its many original features, resembling the space it was prior to construction when Newman Brothers were still in business. The remainder of the building has been converted into units and workspace to let with the aim of supporting local businesses.

Leigh Walker a helper/guide at the end of our tour

Visitors will be able to explore this historic range on our guided and self-guided tours, stepping back in time to experience how the company operated and what it looked like in the 1960s.

This era has been chosen as Newman Brothers never really updated their décor and furniture after this period, so that the building in 1998 outwardly resembled a company from the 1960s. We also know that this was the heyday of the business, when it experienced a revival in both its product range and sales. The work of our research team over the last year has directly influenced the interpretation on site, specifically focusing on the 1960s’ archive, so that we have been able to create a visitor experience that will truly allow you to absorb the day-to-day atmosphere of the sights, sounds and smells of this historic company.

The visit was very enjoyable and with lifts, to assist those who are not to able with the stairs, it is accessible to everyone. Opening times are Tuesday to Thursday 11.45am till 3pm; Friday and Saturday 10am till 3pm and Sunday 11.45am till 3pm. Guided tours are on the hour but self-guided tours are available via headsets. The best time to visit is Sunday because the car parking is free in meter zones in Fleet Street. Admission charges are Adult £5 Concessions £4 Children (5-16) £3 under 5 are free. My advice is to pre book your visit by telephoning 0121-233-4790. I may not be arranging an outside visit to the site but I will more than likely include a talk in the programme for 2016.

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