The final nail: Newman Brothers in Birmingham made coffin fittings for Winston Churchill and the Queen Mother / Suzanne Carter

A Victorian coffin factory in the West Midlands that made Churchill's final resting place has reopened as a tourist attraction. Christopher Beanland lifts the lid on the past

It's like stepping back in time when you walk through the gates topped with the words "Newman Brothers" in metal letters, from a thoroughly modern Birmingham street dripping with bars and apartments to a cramped Victorian courtyard preserved in aspic. Inside the 120-year-old factory on Fleet Street, tools and vintage newspapers lie in a time warp. In fact, Britain's most famous coffin factory was derelict for 15 years. Until last week, when this fascinating – though slightly macabre – workshop was reborn as a tourist attraction showing how we used to do death.

"My favourite thing is the discarded engraved breastplate screwed into the front door, which has been used to cover up a hole," says Suzanne Carter from the Birmingham Conservation Trust. "You can see engraving mistakes in it! They seem to have just grabbed whatever was at hand to repair the building over the years." Carter explains she's been almost "living in the building", as she and her colleagues sought to save this spooky bit of history from the bulldozers.

Carter points out that Newman Brothers didn't fashion wooden caskets themselves but rather: "the breastplates, handles, screws, ornaments, etc..." Nevertheless the roll call of grandees who have made their last public appearance in coffins adorned with Newmans' renowned finishing touches is a who's who: Winston Churchill, Neville Chamberlain, the Queen Mother, Diana, Princess of Wales.

It might seem odd, but this building has resonated with people: Newman Brothers was the runner-up in BBC2's 2003 series Restoration, which flagged up some of our most endangered buildings. Since then, a £2m restoration job plodded along – culminating last week. Old workers returned: "The first day we re-opened, Mark Finch, a former drop stamper, turned up," explains Carter. Finch confessed to Carter that he'd been following the project but had "given up hope" that the re-opening would happen.

So why refurbish a coffin factory? "Why not?" answers Simon Buteux, who directed the job. "It's easy to get the impression that 'heritage' is about churches, castles and country houses. Birmingham's heritage is about industry – I get a bigger kick from this. A coffin fittings factory scores double: first, you have all the old machinery, second, you have the unusual products. And we have great stories about the people who worked in the factory." People will still work here – there are small offices for businesses to rent.

The Grade II-listed building itself is a hidden gem. The repeated rhythms of the windows on the handsome facade – allied to the symmetry and style of the workshops – show you that this is bespoke Victorian artisan architecture at its finest. Like the other "manufacturies" in Birmingham's jewellery quarter, Newmans was about high-quality stuff produced by craftsmen and women at the top of their trade.

What's more interesting still is the Victorians' attitude to dying: they were completely obsessed. "They made a great show of funerals, and spent a fortune on trappings associated with death," agrees Buteux. "This was the market Newman Brothers catered to." Seamstresses even stitched burial shrouds for the dead here.

Buteux has a theory that stops me in my tracks: "The Victorians pretended that sex didn't happen. It was swept under the carpet. Today we seem obsessed with sex but pretend that death doesn't happen." Perhaps we are again becoming as interested in death as sex?

Tours of the old factory are already proving popular. "Newman Brothers provides an opportunity to think about what has become a taboo subject," mulls Buteux. Certainly one Birmingham factory has proved that there is life after its own death – if we are brave enough to face our own fears and peek into this gothic world.

coffinworks.org

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