Wednesday, 31 January 2018

London's Malign Geometry - A Hawksmoor tour (Part 2 Spitalfields & Whitechapel)

Spitalfields starts somewhere in the warren of streets between Bishopsgate and Commercial Street. As soon as you come off the main thoroughfare you start running into groups of tourists being walked around by tour guides. One of the places you will often find a group of people being lectured by a guide is at the entrance to an unnamed service road at the side of White’s Row multi-storey car park. Groups of travellers from Japan, the States, Germany or even from the English provinces stand here in rapt attention, only moving to lift their camera viewfinders up to their eyes and take a shot. They are gripped by this unprepossessing street because it was once Dorset Street, ‘the worst street in London’ and there, by the steps to the office block, was Miller’s Court, the scene of Jack the Ripper’s last and most brutal killing of Mary Jane Kelly on November 9 1888. Hawksmoor’s Christchurch is just around the corner and Iain Sinclair writes that the building was a  "magnet to the archetypal murder myth of the late 19th century ... The whole karmic programme of Whitechapel in 1888 moves around the fixed point of Christ Church ..."  Hmmm.

The street was originally laid out in 1674 and was known as Datchet Street. The name was gradually corrupted to Dorset Street and the street became full of doss houses. By the 1880’s it was estimated that 1200 men slept every night in the lodging houses of a street that was only 400 feet long. Miller’s Court was built off an alleyway between Dorset Street and Brushfield Street to the north. Mary Kelly who worked as a prostitute rented a room in the court which she used to entertain her clients. She had taken a stout ginger haired man who wore a bowler hat and carried a can of beer back to the room just before midnight on the 8th November. By 2.00am she was back out on the streets and asking an acquaintance to give her sixpence. Whilst he was making his excuses Mary was approached by a man of ‘Jewish appearance’. She took the man home with her and was never seen alive again. Her landlord sent his assistant to collect the rent the following morning and it was the unfortunate rent collector who, getting no response to his knock on the door, opened the curtains through a broken window and discovered Kelly’s horribly mutilated corpse. Kelly was the only victim to be photographed at the scene of her murder – the photograph is grainy, blurred, faded and obviously Victorian but still harrowing and shocking. You can easily find it on the net if you want to see it.  

Fiona Rule's "The Worst Street in London" is an excellent account of the history of Dorset Street if you are interested. The photograph below was taken in 1902 as an illustration for Jack London's "People of the Abyss", a classic account of the east end and significant contribution to the east end myth and shows Dorset Street looking west from Commercial Street. Once one of the most degraded areas of the capital (“in the shadow of Christ's Church, at three o'clock in the afternoon, I saw a sight I never wish to see again….” wrote  Jack London in “People of the Abyss”, appalled at the squalid poverty he witnessed in what was meant to be the greatest city in the world) now an uber-trendy artists quarter where rich artists and corporate types who like to live somewhere a little bit edgy blow vast sums to buy houses and flats in the Georgian weavers houses and where the local colour is now provided by the local Bangladeshi community down Brick Lane.       

It may look like it has been there since 1888 at least but I’d be surprised if Verde & Co have been here for even 20 years. The veneer of age and gentle dilapidation is all carefully contrived. It is a rather expensive delicatessen serving the new well heeled residents of Spitalfields and the thousands of people who work in nearby offices. Just across the road is Spitalfields' market which has been through a similar face lift and now has restaurants as well as stalls selling designer clothes, arty crafty bric a brac and so on. (It does have a good second hand book stall though specialising in old Penguin paperbacks, most of which are only a couple of quid). Christchurch is at the end of the street, not looking at all like the axis of evil Iain Sinclair would have us believe it is. 

Donovan Brothers was an authentic east end business at 46 Crispin Street. It was founded in the 1830’s by Jeremiah and Dennis O’Donovan who came to Spitalfields from Dublin via Liverpool to escape the economic collapse of Ireland during the potato famine, and is still going strong, in Leyton rather than Crispin Street though. 

The foundations for Christ Church were started in the summer of 1714. It took over 14 years and £40,000 to complete the church which was consecrated in July 1729. Spitalfields lay in the large medieval parish of Stepney which also included Poplar, Bethnal Green, Wapping, Shadwell and Limehouse. In 1710 the Church Convocation, in its report on parishes that needed new churches, had reported that Stepney had 86,500 inhabitants, one parish church and two Anglican chapels-of-ease. In stark comparison the non-conformists had an estimated 19 meeting houses. The church commissioners agreed that the parish needed four new churches built. All four were eventually built, three were designed by Nicolas Hawksmoor, Christ Church, St George’s-in-the-East and St Anne’s at Limehouse.

Often cited as Hawksmoor’s masterpiece but even at the time it was built it was already out of fashion. The Palladian critic James Ralph wrote, a mere 5 years after it was consecrated, wrote that the ’monstrous expense’ lavished on it had resulted in the erection of ’one of the most absurd piles in Europe’. Even in the 20th century Nicholas Pevsner called it ‘ugly’. Hawksmoor’s original design, in so far as it can be reconstructed from the extant drawings, did not include either the Tuscan portico or the gothic looking steeple (see above).   

When Gilbert and George moved into Fournier Street, it was because the monthly rent was £16, and the landlords didn't mind whether you slept in the building or used it as a studio. The area was run-down, but, says Gilbert, "totally magic, romantic". Fournier Street was occupied by buttonmakers, furriers and hat-makers, and the area was Jewish. "The front doors were open all day," says George. "All the windows were open, so people would speak to each other from one side of the street to the other. Extraordinary antique behaviour."

"This area has been everything. It's been a Roman cemetery, it's been part of the hospital for the returning Crusaders. It's been a manufacturing base for guns which, curiously, was staffed entirely by Germans. "In between the Jews and the Bangladeshis, it was briefly Maltese, then Somali. It was extraordinary when it was Maltese because they all had Alsatian dogs, they kept ferrets, they played cards all day."Their London centres around Fournier Street, which is now seen as a masterpiece of early Georgian architecture, just as Gilbert and George are hailed as pioneers of the East End art scene. "George used to teach in Hoxton in 1967," says Gilbert. "In the evening, when we came back, my God." "All the businesses were totally shuttered," says George. "Totally deserted - scary. You could either have sex with a stranger or get beaten up. Those were the only two choices. And that was only Hoxton Square!"

"It's extraordinary to think that within walking distance you can find the tomb of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism - the tomb of George Fox, the founder of the Quakers, of Daniel Defoe, author of one of the few books in the world which is never out of print, John Bunyan, and William Blake," says George. "Only one grave has a jam-jar of flowers - William Blake". "We rather like John Bunyan," says Gilbert, "because we feel that's what we did - Pilgrim's Progress. Every year we have to fight all the moral dilemmas in ourselves."

To explore this further, Gilbert and George take me on a tour. The first stop is the mosque on the corner of Fournier Street and Brick Lane. "That was the synagogue when we were students," says George. "The posh synagogue at that." "It was a French church," says Gilbert. "A Huguenot church. They tried to convert Jewish people to Christianity. It didn't work."

Alastair McKay, Evening Standard 31 Jan 2007 

The name Spitalfields is a contraction of ‘Hospital Fields’ , the fields being ones that lay in medieval times to the east of the priory of  the New Hospital of St Mary without Bishopgate which presumably stood just outside the city walls (‘without’ in the sense of ‘there is a green hill far away without a city wall’).  Brick Lane runs from Bethnal Green, down through Spitalfields and ends almost at Whitechapel  Road. It was originally called Whitechapel Lane and took its current name from the brick and tile works that grew up in the area to take advantage of the local brick earth deposits.  As well as bricks brewing was big business. The most famous was Truman’s Black Eagle brewery (see picture below).  The area has always had a large immigrant population, Huguenot’s in the 18th Century, the Irish and then Ashkenazi Jews in the 19th and Bengalis in the 20th.  Today Brick Lane is the heart of Banglatown, the street signs are written in Sylheti as well as English and every other shop is an Indian restaurant.  

If you get on a walking tour you’ll be shown the brewery and the railway bridge, whatever recent street art is worth looking at and someone will point out the brickwork bas relief high on the façade of the Sheraz Balti House that tells you that this used to be the Frying Pan public house. It was here is this pub that 43 year olf Polly Nichols, the first of the rippers victims, spent the last evening of her life.  She left the pub at 12.30am and tried to get a bed at a lodging house in Thrawl Steet ( the pub stood at the corner of Thrawl Street and Brick Lane) but was thrown out when it transpired she didn’t have the necessary four pence needed.  She was seen on Whitechapel Road at 2.30 but an hour later her body was discovered at Bucks Row, a few hundred yards away, with her throat cut and her abdominal area viciously slashed probably after she was already dead.  

From Brick Lane I walk down to the Whitechapel Road and make my way to St George's-in-the-East via Cannon Street Road, crossing the Highway (formerly known as the Ratcliffe Highway), Commercial Road and Cable Street.

This piece was originally written and published on Flickr in November/December 2011. 

Sunday, 28 January 2018

London's Malign Geometry; A Hawksmoor Tour (Part 1 Bloomsbury to Bishopsgate)

Unusually I had a spare afternoon; a work appointment fell through at the last minute and I had almost all of the afternoon to myself. I was already in Westminster so this was the opportunity to take myself on the Hawksmoor tour I'd promised myself. I had just read Iain Sinclair’s ‘Lud Heat’, his book of poems and short prose pieces published in 1975, in which he created the dark legend of Nicholas Hawksmoor (a legend exploited to the full by Peter Ackroyd in his novel ‘Hawksmoor’ and Alan Moore in his graphic novel ‘From Hell’.) In ‘Lud Heat’ Sinclair sets out a theory that the 8 Hawksmoor churches along with a number of pyramids and obelisks dotted around London form a sacred geometry of power lines in the shape of an ancient Eygptian Hieroglyph  "Eight churches give us the enclosure, the shape of fear; ... erected over a fen of undisclosed horrors, white stones laid upon the mud and dust" This ‘enclosure’ covers the ancient city and its Roman temples dedicated to Mithras, its plague pits and cemeteries, its prisons and places of execution and the scenes of its most notorious crimes, the Ratcliffe Highway Murders of 1811 and the Whitechapel murders, the Jack the Ripper killings, of 1888.  The Ratcliffe Highway Murders happened almost in the shadow thrown by the massive tower of Hawksmoor’s St George-In-The-East in Shadwell. His Christ Church in Spitalfields was, according to Sinclair a "magnet to the archetypal murder myth of the late 19th century ... The whole karmic programme of Whitechapel in 1888 moves around the fixed point of Christ Church ..." Obviously none of this is coincidence, it is the result of the malign forces summoned by Hawksmoor’s mysterious geometry, concentrating evil and darkness in the East End of London.  Although he has a febrile imagination it is hard to believe that a man as sensible as Iain Sinclair really believes all this twaddle. But the myth has gained some currency and Hawksmoor, a protégée of Christopher Wren’s, has acquired all the allure of darkness and mystery as a result.

There are 6 Hawksmoor churches (Sinclair gets 8 by including 2 designed in collaboration with another architect but excluding his other great collaboration, the Western Towers of Westminster Abbey) which lie roughly in a straight line from St George’s in Bloomsbury to St Alfege’s in Greenwich. My afternoon off work seemed enough time to do the 6/7 mile walk from Bloomsbury to Greenwich until I remembered that (a) it gets dark at 4.00 now and (b) the Greenwich foot tunnel is closed making a direct walk impossible. I cut my walk down to 5 churches, St George’s, St Mary Woolnoth at Bank, Christ Church at Spitalfields, St George-in-the East at Shadwell, and St Anne’s at Limehouse. Even so I did the last two in the dark. Which meant I had to go back later to get more photographs.  

There is something odd about Nicholas Hawksmoor’s architecture. It is hard to put your finger on what exactly the oddity is in his six striking London churches. Their sheer scale is impressive; most of them are massive buildings, far bigger than the average London parish church. They are built of Portland stone which, when it has been cleaned, as many of them recently have been, is almost blindingly white even in weak London winter sun. Their style is idiosyncratic; no Hawksmoor church looks like any other church anywhere, even though they are composed, for the main part, out of standard classical elements (though they also almost all contain at least one highly unusual feature). I read somewhere that Hawksmoor built churches that had Gothic silhouettes out of classical elements. Certainly Spitalfields is a bit like that being a spired church but I’m not sure about the others. St George’s in Bloomsbury has a very distinctive stepped tower, almost a ziggurat or a Mayan pyramid. Hawksmoor based it on a written description of the mausoleum at Halicarnassus by Pliny (the portico is based on the Temple of Dionysus at Ballbeck in the Lebanon) and has a statue of George the First in a Roman toga at the top and lions and unicorns, symbolishing the victory over the first Jacobite rising, gambolling around the base. The Lions and Unicorns were recently reinstated, the originals having fallen off in the 1880’s I believe.

St George’s, Bloomsbury was the last of Hawksmoor’s churches. Work started on it in 1716 and it was consecrated by the Bishop of London on the 28th January 1730. The church was built at the request of the residents of fashionable Bloomsbury who petitioned the Church Commissioners for a new parish. Bloomsbury belonged to the parish of St Giles-in-the-Fields, the church stands a couple of hundred metres away from St George’s. Those two hundred metres though were occupied by the Rookery, one of London’s most notorious districts, home to every type of lowlife imaginable; whores, bawds, thieves, drunkards, murderers, cut-purses, fences……the area is portrayed in Hogarth’s “Gin Lane”. The tower of St Georges is clearly identifiable in the background, just below the pawnbrokers golden balls. The church has been recently restored back to its original glory thanks to British vice (gambling money from the Heritage Lottery fund) and American philanthropy from Anglophile multi-billionaire Andrew Mellon’s estate.

Although quite a lot is known about Nicolas Hawksmoor’s professional life, very little is known of his private life or his personality and for that reason he remains a relatively enigmatic figure. He was born in 1661 or 1662 at East Drayton in Nottinghamshire. He probably went to grammar school and he worked first as a Judge’s clerk before moving to London at the age of 18 to work as a domestic clerk for Sir Christopher Wren, Surveyor of Works to King Charles II. Hawksmoor remained closely associated with Wren for the rest of his employers life. His duties within his mentors household changed and he became almost exclusively involved in working on Wren’s architectural projects. He was senior draftsman on the reconstruction of St Paul’s for more than 19 years and he worked on the construction of the Royal Naval Hospital in Greenwich. In 1699 he met Vanbrugh and worked with him on the Earl of Carlisle’s home at Castle Howard and the Duke of Marlborough’s Bleinham Palace. He did independent work in Oxford and Cambridge, including the remodelling of All Soul’s College in Oxford and designed the two West Towers of Westminster Abbey (which most people assume are the same age of the rest of the medieval building but are in fact only 300 years old). But his most celebrated achievements are the six London churches he built following the 1711 Act of Parliament requiring 50 new churches to be built in the capital and its suburbs. The act set up a commission, headed by Sir Christopher Wren to direct the work. Wren appointed Hawksmoor to work on designing and building the new churches. Only 12 of the 50 were built by the time the commission was wound up in 1733; 6 of them exclusive Hawksmoor creations, and two others designed in collaboration with John James (who was another of the commissioners).

Hawksmoor’s work wasn’t always appreciated. Horace Walpole called St George’s “a masterpiece of absurdity” (though, to be fair, he also said that Hawksmoor’s Mausoleum at Castle Howard was so beautiful it would tempt one to be buried alive), the London Guide of 1876 described it was the “the most pretentious and ugliest edifice in the metropolis”, a sentiment echoed by Pevsner who also described it as ugly. After arousing a fair amount of controversy in his own lifetime, in the 19th century and for much of the 20th century Hawksmoor aroused only indifference. By the 1950’s Christ Church at Spitalfields was scheduled for demolition.   

Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.
There I saw one I knew, and stopped him, crying: 'Stetson!
You who were with me in the ships at Mylae!
T.S. Eliot - The Wasteland

The photo above is looking down King William Street with St Mary Woolnoth on the corner. It is, along with Christ Church at Spitalfields, generally acknowledged as Hawksmoor’s masterpiece. In Peter Ackroyd’s novel the architect bludgeons a colleague to death as a human sacrifice and drops the body into the foundations of St Mary’s. There are no bodies around St Mary’s now. Between 1897 and 1900 the City and South London railway built Bank tube station beneath the church. They had originally been given permission to demolish the church but a public outcry caused a rethink. The company has to restrict itself to using only the subsoil on the site. They were forced to purchase the crypt and to remove the bones for reburial at the City of London Cemetery in Manor Park. The church structure was supported on steel beams and girders to allow the excavation of lift and staircase shafts for the station directly beneath the floor of the building.   

From Bank it is a short walk up Cornhill, to Gracechurch Street and on to Bishopsgate. One of the principal streets in the City of London Bishopsgate is named after one of the seven gates in the original London wall. The gate had existed, in one form or another, since London was a Roman city but it was demolished in 1760. By this time the walls were redundant and the gates an obstruction to the movement of traffic in what was then the world’s biggest city. 46,000 people work in Bishopsgate ward but there are only 48 residents. It is an area of offices, shops and stations – Liverpool Street is about halfway up it. It was the site of an IRA truck bomb in April 1993 which killed a journalist, injured 40 and caused over £1 billion of damage. It caused so much havoc in fact that Lloyds of London looked like the insurance payouts might sink them, triggering a crisis in the insurance business. As I walked up the street an empty Marlboro packet perched on the red plastic bench of a bus stop caught my eye. Like a dosser I couldn’t help giving it a quick shake to make sure there wasn’t a forgotten cigarette inside it. It is over three months since I stopped but I still get the odd urge now and then – well, more than now and then to be honest. Two or three times a day. Even more irritatingly I dream about cigarettes quite regularly. I dream about buying them, about finding forgotten packets in drawers or rucksacks, about being given them. I sometimes dream that I’ve smoked one and find myself in a mild panic about being found out. All these dreams make me feel guilty for having given in to temptation. I never dream about actually lighting one up though and smoking it, mores the pity. At least that might be a substitute of a sort.

The picture below is also taken on Bishopsgate. The Golden Beaver is at 60-64 Bishopsgate above what was Hudson House, the home of the Hudson Bay Company. The office block in the background is Heron Tower at 230 metres the tallest building in the city of London and the third tallest building in London (after the Shard and Canary Wharf).

To get to Christ Church, Spitalfields, the third Hawksmoor church on my afternoon tour, you pass Dirty Dicks and turn right into Middlesex Street (the pub gets its name from Nathanial ‘Dick’ Bentley an 18th century merchant who refused to wash himself or clean his premises after his fiancée died on the eve of their wedding. His house and warehouse/shop became so filthy that he became a celebrity. He died in 1809. A pub called the Old Jerusalem cashed in on Bentley’s celebrity by changing its name to Dirty Dicks and recreating the look of Bentley’s warehouse in the salon bar, including dust, cobwebs and dead cats. They are still there today but hermetically sealed for health and safety reasons in this more fastidious age in a glass cabinet.) 

This piece was originally written and published on Flickr in November/December 2011. 

Monday, 15 January 2018

All the names - Valentines Park, Ilford

The strategy of thwarting mortality and getting yourself remembered by inscribing your name on some sort of memorial has been around since the Assyrians invented cuneiform and the Egyptian's hieroglyphics. The Parks Service of Redbridge Council aim to assist anyone wanting not to be forgotten after their demise with their tree sponsorship programme. This offers an opportunity for sponsors to celebrate “a special occasion, a new birth, or a memorial to a lost one.” Almost all sponsored trees are memorials to the deceased; there are so many in fact that Valentines Park in Ilford is starting to become something of a surrogate cemetery (albeit one without bodies). Most of the little metal plaques standing beside saplings of varying degrees of health and vigour are memorials created by the relatives of people who have been cremated. Many crematoriums have memorial gardens attached but this is often just a lawn on which grieving relatives are only allowed to plant a small wooden cross which gets easily lost alongside hundreds of other identical wooden crosses. Sponsoring a tree gives the bereaved something more akin to a traditional grave to focus on. One of the few rules set by the Parks Service about sponsored trees is that “no further items of flowers or memorabilia are attached or placed around” them but the rule is often ignored. The charge for sponsoring a tree is £200 plus VAT but if you want a metal plaque with an inscription that is another £100 plus VAT; around £360 in total, much cheaper than a grave.  

If you want something more substantial than a metal plaque and a sapling you have the option of paying for a new memorial bench at a cost of £1200 (plus VAT) including plaque or inscription. “The majority of these benches are often sponsored by loved ones in loving memory of those who once enjoyed the beauty of visiting our parks and were a part of the parks community,” says the council. If the cost seems prohibitive then there is a cost effective alternative, a refurbished bench with a new plaque is a mere £350 plus VAT.  

'Generations to come will stroll beneath trees in Ilford's parks grateful for the shade but oblivious to the fact that some of the town's leading citizens spent the best part of a gloomy, raw December morning in 1937 planting them,’ said the Ilford Recorder of 2 December 1937. An avenue of trees was planted to commemorate the coronation of King George VI earlier in the year. The idea came from a local woman, a Miss Wynne-Jones, and taken up by the Men of the Trees, an early environmental organisation set up by Richard St Barbe Baker to promote reforestation (one of his more ambitious ideas was to reclaim the Sahara desert by strategic plating of forests). St Barbe Baker turned up in person to make a speech at the December planting of the avenue. Local dignitaries were commemorated by hefty cast iron plaques bearing their names planted at the side of the tree. The trees are now mature, many of the plaques are still there (though some are broken and others have been pilfered by scrap metal thieves).  The photo shows the plaque of Councillor Adam Wilde of Ilford Urban District Council. Councillor Wilde has long since returned to the dust of which he was made and his reputation and story have joined them and become totally extinguished. But his name lives on, cast in something more durable than collective memory, on his plaque.    

Professor Sasha Gogolin died of lung cancer at the age of just 45. He was born in Tiblisi in 1965, the only child of two physicists. He studied at Moscow State University and the Lebedev Institute and then became a research associate in Moscow, before moving to Aachen, Grenoble and finally London. His “formidable reputation in his field of condensed matter theory” won him a Lectureship at Imperial College. He was the co-author of the book “Bosonization and Strongly Correlated Systems”.  
“Outside physics Sasha was an avid reader and he liked nothing better than to enjoy his secluded garden in Ilford,” says his obituary on the Imperial College website.

Alan Hooker was born in Teignmouth in Devon but his family moved to London when he was still a boy. At school he represented London at discus at an event in Paris. He studied physics at University and later worked in the research department of Ilford Limited, manufacturers of photographic film and paper. When the company closed its office in Ilford and moved to Cheshire Alan arranged alternative employment as a University Lecturer working on computer graphics and networking. His real love was botany (he even married someone called Cherry), particularly lilies and he was a leading light in the Royal Horticultural Society’s Lily Group, successfully running their international seed list.  

In the Holocaust Memorial Garden is a cenotaph to Leon Greenman (who is buried in the Marlow Road cemetery in East Ham). Leon was born in 1910 in Whitechapel and grew up in Rotterdam and Forest Gate. He was a survivor of Birkenau and Auschwitz (prisoner number 98288), unlike his wife Esther and his 3 year old son Barney, who died in the gas chambers at Birkenau. In fact and one other man were the only survivors out of a transport of 700 Jews from the Westerbork transit camp in the Netherlands. After the war Leon dedicated his life to the tasks of remembrance and education about the holocaust (work for which he was awarded an OBE. Even as an old man local fascists threw bricks through his windows and sent him Christmas cards telling him that he would make a lovely lampshade. Some people simply are not educable.   

William Peter Griggs was born in Brick Lane in 1849 and worked as a bargeman on the Thames in his younger days. He had a head for business and became a builder. He built whole estates in Ilford and Upminster and sealed his bid for respectability by becoming a councillor on Ilford District Council in 1899, chairman of the council in 1910 and Conservative member of parliament for Ilford in 1918. He was knighted in 1916. He was a local philanthropist but liked to make sure that the recipients of his charity knew who the provider was. In Valentines Park he built and paid for the clock tower which bears a plaque with his name and the date of his largesse, and this drinking fountain presented in 1898 which has lost the metal letters bearing his name, which can only now be dimly made out in the unfinished surface of the marble.   

Monday, 8 January 2018

The Coffin Works & Warstone Lane Cemetery - a date with death in Birmingham

Is there a more entertaining way to spend a cold, dull, and wet day at the fag end of the year than in taking yourself off to Birmingham and visiting a coffin furniture factory and a graveyard? Probably, but I still enjoyed myself visiting the Coffin Works Museum and Warstone Lane Cemetery.
Metal dies for coffin plates line the wall of the Stamp Room
The Newman Brothers, Alfred and Edwin, opened a brass founding business making cabinet furniture (i.e. any visible metal parts for cabinets such as handles or fancy hinges ) at Nova Scotia Street in Birmingham in 1882. In 1894 they moved to new factory premises at 13-15 Fleet Street and began specialising in the production of coffin furniture for the profitable funerary industry. As well as coffin handles, name plates, and crucifixes they diversified into the production of funeral shrouds and coffin linings as well as eventually becoming a clearing house for other undertaking essentials such as embalming fluid or chin supports so that their clients could obtain everything they needed for a decent funeral under one roof. According to Julian Litten, author of The English Way of Death and founder member of the Friends of Kensal Green, Newman Brothers were “the most important manufacturer of such items at a time when England was regarded as the template for funerary pomp and extravagance.” By the 1950’s Newman’s were exporting extensively to the commonwealth as well as supplying the domestic market and employed over 100 staff. The company provided one off items for high end funerals as well as mass producing. They provided the coffin furniture for the funeral of Joseph Chamberlain when his family declined the offer of a state burial in Westminster Abbey and instead opted for a relatively modest interment in his home town (at Key Hill Cemetery, Hockley, just a stone’s throw away from the factory). Newman Brother’s coffin furniture also featured at the two biggest British funerals of the last 50 years, Winston Churchill’s in 1965 and Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997.  But times and tastes had changed dramatically in the 1970’s and the once thriving coffin furniture industry gradually fell on hard times.  Despite being commissioned to work on accoutrements to Lady Diana’s funeral in 1997 the factory closed for good the following year.

Chin rest for discreetly keeping closed a corpse's mouth and a bottle of the hard stuff, Arandee embalming fluid 

Rather than sell off the factory site for redevelopment Newman’s last owner, Joyce Green (more of her later), was very keen to see it turned into a museum. Rumour has it that she turned down at least one offer of £1,000,000 for the site. In 2000 the factory building was listed by English Heritage as Grade II* and in 2002 it was bought by the West Midlands Regional Development Agency with the intention of turning it into a museum. In 2003 it was featured on the first series of Restoration but failed to win enough votes to make the final or secure funds for refurbishment. It took another ten years for the scheme to be fully realised and the Coffin Works museum opened its doors to the public in 2014. The museum’s website says that in 1998, after a hundred years of operation “workers lay down their equipment, and walked out of the building for the very last time, leaving everything, including personal belongings behind…..The shelves and workbenches at Newman Brothers are full of original stock and tools of the trade. With the original machinery working again, you can truly experience how this old Jewellery Quarter firm once operated on a day-to-day basis, producing some of the world’s finest coffin furniture.”

Admission to the museum is by guided tour only and entrance costs £6.00 for an adult. Our guide was Cornelius and he was informative and helpful and willing to wait while the pests in the group (myself included) held up proceedings to take photographs.  The factory has been restored to what it would have been like in the late 1960’s, early 1970’s. This is about the era that British manufacturing stopped investing in new plant and machinery and so it quite possible that nothing much had changed inside the factory when it closed in 1997. The stamp room, the first place you are shown on the tour, looks like it hasn’t changed much since the 1860’s. Workers stamped out coffin plates, handle plates, crucifixes and coffin decorations from sheets of metal using heavy hammer presses. Weight, gravity and human muscle were the main sources of power for the operations taking part in the stamp room rather than anything flashily technological, such as electricity for example.   Cornelius demonstrated the use of a press and brought half a ton of iron down on a tiny piece of tin plate and a metal die to produce an RIP motif. A noose of thick cord keeps the hammer press from falling under its own weight – Cornelius stood in front of us with the noose in his hand and deadpan told us that we were free to take to take whatever pictures we wanted in the museum, except of him holding the noose. He may have been joking and I may have missed a good photo opportunity.  

The factory office is even more of a time warp. It looks like the workers spontaneously evaporated sometime in late 1969, Marie Celeste fashion, leaving their desks scattered with random purchase orders, invoices, catalogues, and correspondence, their jackets still on the coat stand, unopened bottles of Worthington E, half drunk bottles of Gordon’s Orange Gin and whisky and a tin of Will’s Castella panatelas in the Director’s drink cupboard and cans of Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup and chicken risotto on a shelf above the secretaries desk. It was to this office, Cornelius, explained that the young Joyce Green came to work in 1947 after being wooed away from a competing firm across the road. From a relatively humble start as office secretary Joyce rose to become company secretary, somehow persuading the reluctant owners to part with a couple of shares in the company along the way in lieu of a pay increase. Quietly behind the scenes Joyce gradually managed to acquire more shares and increase her influence in the company. The process was so secretive that by the time she gained full control of the company in the late 1980’s it was something of a shock to her colleagues and employees. Some of the men resigned in protest at having a female boss (in 1989? This is what Cornelius said, and who am I to doubt it?), sabotaging their machines before they left and fully expecting to be taken back after a few weeks when Joyce realised she couldn’t manage without them. Joyce’s response was to automate their jobs. It is hard not to want more details of this story but we just seem to have the bare bones of Joyce’s remarkable career.  

In Newman’s sewing room a team of women workers produced shrouds, coffin liners and other fabric funeral goods. Cornelius had another good story about the machinist in the early 1960’s who helped herself to shroud offcuts and other bits of waste material, took them home and made them into her wedding dress. There was even a photo of her, with her husband, on her wedding day, looking slightly nervous as she was worried that colleagues or managers might recognise the remarkable similarities between the fabric of  her bridal gown and the shrouds she made during the day. If they did they were too polite to say anything.  

Warstone Lane is one of two cemeteries in Hockley, the other being nonconformist Key Hill cemetery, less than half a mile on the other side of the railway line. As is often the case the non conformists opened their cemetery first, Key Hill opened for business in 1836, whereas the Church of England Cemetery Company only opened Warstone Lane in 1847 on the site of a disused sand quarry. Birmingham Council compulsorily bought the site in 1952 and it was closed for burials in 1982. There is a handsome lodge still standing on Warstone Lane but the cemetery chapel was demolished in 1954. The chapel was once the dominant feature of the cemetery, standing at its highest point but the centrepiece now is the impressive terraced sandstone catacomb. The Birmingham cemeteries act of 1846 required coffins stored in the catacombs to be sealed with lead or pitch to prevent ‘harmful effluvium’ emanating from them. The cemetery is small compared to London cemeteries (and with few interesting memorials or monuments) but even so over 93,0000 burials or interments have taken place here.
Emma Hipkiss memorial