It’s the land of Peaky Blinders, Balti and Brummie accents, and it’s now shaking off its forbidding former image and flying into the 21st century. Welcome to Birmingham 2.0.
Coffins rarely qualify as can’t-miss tourist attractions—but, ironically, these wooden mortuary boxes, and this pile of bricks where they were made, once sat at the beating heart of Birmingham.
Built in the second half of the 19th century, when this Midlands city drew immigrants from all over the world to the plentiful jobs generated during the last stages of the Industrial Revolution, the Newman Brothers factory once employed hundreds, cranking out the jewelry that adorned the final resting place of the apex of English society, from Winston Churchill to the Queen Mother.
Once shuttered and padlocked, this rambling, multi-level hulk has now been restored to the tune of a couple of million pounds, and is breathing new life as the Coffin Works Museum. And thanks to my guide, Cornelius Sullivan, I get an insight into the often-difficult stories of those who worked here.
Take, for example, the ‘acid shed,’ where unfortunate souls treated the golden fixtures with acid. It’s perhaps one of the worst places to work in the entire plant—rivaled only by the stamping room, which is where Sullivan is presently taking me.
Outfitted in a grubby, standard-issue, yellowish work coat that runs to his knees, Sullivan leads me back 130 years, demonstrating the ear-drum-shattering strength of the room’s drop-stamps, each one hammering out distinctive designs, including one piece I get to keep—a little bit of tin adorned with a curving, cursive ‘RIP’.
“Every one of these stamps has done a million blows—and they say they would’ve done a million more,” he says afterwards, before describing the odors that hung in the air. “You had lead fumes, gas fumes, and if that wasn’t bad enough, you got the acid fumes. And maybe a whiff of horse manure.”
“The craft here, now, it’s about art and wine and cocktails and beer. This is the Detroit of England!”
Jonathan Todd, 1,000 Trades
Birmingham. It’s the land of Peaky Blinders and Brummie accents, a rough-and-tumble town that’s now reinventing itself, embracing its gritty history while moving forward. Once something of a cesspool, the city’s waterways are now chock full of tour boats and water taxis, exploring more miles of canal than Venice. The Jewelry Quarter, the former manufacturing hub, has been repopulated with high-end boutiques, bistros, hotels, and museums like the Coffin Works and the Pen Factory, where ghosts gain new life and hard-knock life stories are resurrected against a backdrop of 21st-century prosperity.
And that’s perhaps the exact appeal of Peaky Blinders. Set on the hardscrabble streets of 1920s Birmingham, this award-winning BBC series paints a picture of that industrial, urban crucible—gangsters and communists and immigrants and revolutionaries (with characters portrayed by everyone from Tom Hardy and Adrien Brody), rabble and rabble-rousers, all fighting for their piece of the post-Great War pie. It’s dark and violent and satisfying and, despite all the gentrification, a residue of this old Birmingham remains today.
You can feel it at places like The Electric, the oldest continuously operating cinema in the UK, where the floorboards creak and a piano from the silent movie era remains near the screen, and you can sink into a slightly battered sofa to watch a movie. And you can feel it while riding a water taxi on the canal, or in the Great Western Arcade, now lined with fine shops, and in the taste of a Balti—available in abundance inside the so-called Balti Triangle—a curry invented by a Pakistani chef to fuse South Indian and English cuisines.
And it’s all around you at restaurants like 1,000 Trades, a former jeweler’s workshop where hipsters gather for a good Sunday roast in a pleasantly unpolished space, under bricks and beams. “The craft here, now, it’s about art and wine and cocktails and beer. This is the Detroit of England!” co-founder Jonathan Todd tells me over hearty piles of beef and Yorkshire pudding, perhaps not realizing the somewhat limited extent of that city’s still-incomplete renaissance.
I decide to work off my heavy lunch, stretching my legs and making my way around the Jewelry Quarter. The first goldsmith opened up shop here in the 16th century, and by the early 20th, some 30,000 people came to work in this rambling, labyrinthine grid of streets every day.
I walk up to the iconic, green Chamberlain Clock, once derelict but now restored, and past the Pen Museum, which, at its peak, sat at the center of some 100 factories in this neighborhood that, during the 19th century, manufactured three-quarters of all the world’s pens. Heading down the hill, downtown, I end up at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.
Entering that imposing Victorian pile, one that still dominates the city’s central business district, curator Anthony Crutch tells me that the original wing, which opened in 1885, was built for the working man, complete with gas lights so people could visit in the evening, when their shifts were finished.
“Birmingham at the time was this industrial powerhouse, and they wanted to inspire the next generation of craftspeople with this art,” Crutch explains as we explore galleries that still hold some of England’s finest collections, including perhaps the world’s best collection of pre-Raphaelite art. “It was built to give something back from the gains of the Industrial Revolution.” And those gains have been rich, with the gallery compiling a collection that presently runs to 800,000 pieces, just a fraction of them on display in its 40 galleries.
It’s not clear whether Joyce Green, the Coffin Works’ last owner, was a frequent visitor of the museum, but it’s in her tidy office, frozen in a diorama four decades old, that my tour of the Coffin Works with Sullivan finishes. “Pardon the pun, but the 1970s was the death knell of Newman Brothers,” he says drily, explaining that an influx of cheap plastic and a general English economic malaise hobbled the company.
He shows me a frozen-in-time photo of Green, a strong woman looking determined, arms crossed, eyes steadfast behind plastic frames, in front of boxes and boxes of stacked-up inventory. Green started working at the company in 1949, amassed stock over the decades, and became its sole owner in the 1980s, right up to its dissolution in 1999.
But like Green, Birmingham is tough; we don’t know if she ever lived out a second act, but the city, her home, is well into a post-industrial age, and determined to make it a success.
Toronto-based writer Tim Johnson spends most of his days searching for a new story and a good adventure—he’s visited 135 countries on all seven continents, and written for CNN Travel, The Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, and more.