Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda

Memorandum by the Victorian Society, Birmingham Group (CEM 97)

  My name is Barbara Shackley and I am the Chairman and Casework Secretary of the Victorian Society, Birmingham Group on whose behalf I am writing. The Society has been concerned with the future of two cemeteries within the Jewellery Quarter in Birmingham for many years.


  In the Birmingham Jewellery Quarter are the first two cemeteries set up by Cemetery Companies in Birmingham. The Birmingham General Cemetery Company was founded in 1832 and the Cemetery at Key Hill was opened to all creeds and denominations in 1836, although in practice it was used mainly by non-conformists. The Church of England Cemetery Company, was founded in 1845 to establish a burial ground for members of the Anglican Church, and the Cemetery in Warstone Lane was opened in 1848.


  Between 1775 and 1831, Birmingham's population had increased fourfold and the churchyards were over-crowded and unsanitary, becoming a threat to the health of the population. Cholera and typhoid endangered the lives of all classes. The church yards of six Anglican burial grounds in the town centre and those for the Jews, Quakers, Baptists and Congregationalists and Methodists were overflowing. The sexton had to have recourse to the "boring rod" to find space for one more body. The accumulation of a century or more of interments at St Philip's Church (now Cathedral) was clear enough in the height of the churchyard above street level.

  In England, the first urban cemetery was established in Liverpool's Derby Road, in 1825; followed by Kelsall Green, in 1833, in London. Thus Birmingham was very much at the forefront of the movement.

  Key Hill Cemetery was designed by Charles Edge, the most prestigious Birmingham architect of his day and who built himself a house above the quarry. His designs were in the English landscape tradition, and choosing a sand quarry with dramatic cliffs, he used the natural contours to create terraces and serpentine walks, integrating the monuments and catacombs to cause a "picturesque" atmosphere. The planting of planes and poplars were used to create the correct effect, and today, provide a haven for flora and fauna. The mortuary chapel, (demolished in 1966), the boundary wall, railings, gate piers and gates, (all now statutory listed) are in the severe Greek Revival style favoured by non-conformists.

  Many important figures of 19th century Birmingham were buried here, including Joseph Chamberlain, the politician, and many of his family, George Dawson, (preacher of the "Civic Gospel" and educationalist); Charles Edge, and John Henry Chamberlain (architects); and Joseph Gillott and Thomas Avery, (industrialists).

  At Warstone Lane Cemetery, James Medland designed the Mortuary Chapel, catacombs and entrance lodge, in the Gothic style favoured by the Anglicans. The chapel received war damage (which was repairable) and was demolished in 1958, but the Tudor styled lodge, of blue bricks with stone dressings has recently been restored and statutory listed. The terraced semi-circular sandstone catacombs, completed in 1880, were built into the sides of the old sand quarry and face, still remain s do some of the piers on Icknield St. and the original serpentine paths. The cemetery has been extensively cleared, most of the original planting has disappeared and the catacombs have lost their symmetry, possibly through war damage but there is a great scope for restoration. Many prominent citizens were buried here including, John Baskerville, (the printer); (the artist) Allan Everitt; William Dufton, (founder of the Ear and Throat Hospital); Ralph Heaton and William Chance, (industrialists) and Jacob Wilson; (Birmingham's last town crier)


  Apart from providing burial space, these open spaces were originally designed for promenading and recreation. Over the years these areas have been forgotten and neglected and indeed closed for burial since 1982. Today, they look forlorn and unattended, the monuments are broken and misplaced, graffiti is found on the walls, the gates are broken and the gate piers badly eroded. There is a general air of abandonment and neglect. However, they are still the only open spaces in this area and in February 1996, the Key Hill Cemetery was placed on the English Heritage Register of Parks and Gardens of Historic Interest, Grade II. Recently, Metro have taken over a strip of land from Key Hill Cemetery for their new railway track, moved about 700 graves into another area and have created a Garden of Remembrance, and so begun a tidying up process.


  I am unaware that there has been any Government management of these cemeteries but I would advocate that some management and protection of these cemeteries is greatly needed. Without some positive management these historic spaces will disappear.


  It is very important that these cemeteries should be managed.


Reasons for funding these cemeteries

  (1)  The open spaces of these cemeteries could be included as part of the Jewellery Quarter's recreational assets.

  (2)  Because of the important and distinguished people buried here, any student of local history would find this a study centre for Birmingham's heritage.

  (3)  The designs of the monuments themselves are fascinating to any student of art.

  (4)  They could become part of a tourist route. In London some of the catacombs have been opened to the public and have created great interest. Those who have entered the catacombs at Warstone Lane have been impressed with the quality of the workmanship and the good condition of the interior and they too could become part of the tourist route.

  We suggest that a Trust Fund is set up to restore and improve these cemeteries. Many old Birmingham families are still surviving and may contribute to the restoration of the gravestones. Local businesses may also contribute as might the National Lottery bodies. It is essential that regular management is introduced.

January 2001

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