Shiny new Birmingham is in your face, but look carefully, starting at Snow Hill station cheaply rebuilt after an inept closure in the Beeching era. You can spot little bits of the old station walls and, most joyfully, the old cast iron toilet still sitting under the old railway arches.
We dived down under the modern road system to follow the Birmingham and Fazeley canal to Newman Brothers coffin works.
The last owner was a lady, who joined the firm’s office as a young girl and worked her way up to the top. When the market for expensive elaborate coffin fittings dwindled, she decided in 1998 that, rather than make a small fortune by selling the site, she would help set up a trust to keep the building and much of the stock and machinery intact.
The Victorian industrial processes were explained to us and some demonstrated. Much of the work was difficult and dangerous. The working day was 12 hours long and woe betide any worker whose concentration lapsed – it was very easy to lose the odd finger. When a worker had to leave his machine before his fellows, he had to disengage the mechanism as a safety precaution by knocking the leather drive belt off hence the phrase ‘to knock off work’.
Steve and Liz listen to Cornelius explaining the metal press used by women workers
There were baths filled with heated sulphuric and nitric acid into which young lads dipped the metal products- very gently to minimise the chance of splashing the body or clothing, all the while holding their breath to avoid the noxious fumes.
The Shroud room had rows of old sewing machines at which up to 17 girls made these strange garments, some still displayed awaiting a sale. Our guide explained that the products of this factory were bought for the very wealthy, (Princess Diana and Winston Churchill for example). The poor were buried in the ground, the rich with their expensive fittings and shrouds, were laid above ground in mausoleums. Not so hygienic we’re told- hence ‘The stinking rich’. We were also told that the deceased poor have left us another ghoulish phrase – relatives of the dead would burn their old wooden clogs. The wood went pop, pop as they burned, hence ‘Pop your clogs.’
We ate our lunch in the Victorian pub on the corner nearby and got back on the train to Tipton. The Victorian civic authorities sited Tipton cemetery well away from most of the population to avoid the ‘harmful miasmas’ thought to emanate from the newly dead. The cemetery is still in use and is a fascinating monument to changing fashions, with some very poignant memorials including the 19 girls, one only 13, who were killed in an explosion. They were taking old shells apart. The metals were to be sold as scrap, the gunpowder discarded in a pile on the floor. The weather was very cold, and the brazier was lit. A spark flew out and ignited the powder.
JC (pictures EK)