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Birmingham’s Spectacular Catacombs

Looking down on the Catacombs at Warstone Lane Cemetery
in Birmingham.

For three decades or more I have lived a 20-minute train from Birmingham (England, not Alabama) and I had NO IDEA the city has its own Catacombs until Younger Daughter took me there a couple of weeks ago (before my mother was ill). Sadly, they are all bricked up, so you can’t go inside, and they look very neglected, but nevertheless they are absolutely spectacular, ever so slightly spooky, and well worth a visit.

They are slap-bang in the middle of the Warstone Lane Cemetery, on the edge of the Jewellery Quarter, and I’ve never seen anything like them. They reminded me of some kind of Roman amphitheatre – something to do with the circular (or perhaps that should be semi-circular) shape I think, and the terraces and the arched entrances around a flat arena-like area. To start with we assumed these were family vaults, but I’ve done a bit of research, and as far as I can gather they were for poor folk, and coffins were just stacked inside the tunnels, which sounds a bit grisly.
A closer view of the bricked-up tunnels.
In the 19th century Birmingham was a manufacturing power house where wealthy financiers and businessmen made their fortunes. But the people who worked in the factories lived in squalid conditions, with overcrowding, no proper sanitation, and inadequate water supplies. Illness was rife and mortality rates were high. Graveyards, apparently, were as overcrowded as the streets of terraces and back-to-backs – so much so that in some places ‘boring rods’ were used to check if there was room for another burial! And at some of the city’s churches there were so many interments that the ground was raised several feet above street level.

Facilities were obviously inadequate, so a group of non-conformists established their own cemetery at Key Hill in 1836, and 12 years later Birmingham Church of England Cemetery Company established another graveyard close by, at Warstone Lane. It was created in an old sandpit, and the Catacombs were tunnelled into the sides on two levels, to create more space, while normal burials in proper graves took place on the rest of site.
Memorial stones have been inserted at the
entrance to one or two tunnels.
Bizarrely, when Christ Church, in the centre of Birmingham, was demolished in 1899 the remains of 600 bodies were moved to the Warstone Lane Catacombs. They were taken in funeral coaches, which travelled in a dignified, slow procession, as was right and proper – but it was all a bit ‘cloak and dagger’ because the journeys took place at night (under cover of darkness) so residents wouldn’t be disturbed, and it all sounds quite macabre.

Among those who were transferred to the Catacombs was the renowned printer and typographer John Baskerville, and the story of how he came to be there is very odd indeed. As an atheist he had no wish to be buried in consecrated ground, so when he died in 1775 he was buried in a mausoleum in his garden. , where he lay forgotten some 50 years, until gravel was excavated from the land. He was moved to a warehouse – where visitors paid sixpence (which was probably a lot of money at the time) to see his embalmed body! Then he was moved again, to the shop of a plumber and glazier. By this time, of course, the body was less well preserved than it had been, and people were no longer keen to see (or smell) it! In desperation, the poor old plumber/glazier had the body buried secretly at Christ Church, and from there poor old Baskerville’s mortal remains were shifted once again, to the tunnels at Warstone Lane.
The view from the ground.
Baskerville (one of the fonts he created) is still a classic typeface and, since I was once a journalist, I would have liked to pay a tribute to this great typographer and printer by using it for this post but it’s not listed on Blogger or Open Office. 

The cemetery also also provides the final resting place for Major Harry Gem who, with the help of a friend, invented lawn tennis in 1860 or thereabouts, and Pte James Cooper, who was awarded the Victoria Cross in 1867 for bravery at sea rescuing colleagues from cannibals in the Andaman Islands.
Part of the main graveyard at Warstone Lane.
I’m not sure when the last burial in the Catacombs took place, but apparently people lived in the tunnels during WW2. However, I’m not sure if they were used as shelters (like the London Tube stations), or whether bombed-out families set up home in them. Either way, it must have been pretty unpleasant. Today the entrances are bricked in and plastered over (to prevent vandalism and accidents I suppose) although a couple do have memorial stones set into them. A section of the wall is in danger of collapse and has been shored up, and the whole area looks in need of some tender loving care.

The entire cemetery, along with the one at Keys Hill (which also has Catacombs, but I haven’t been there yet), is ‘listed’, and volunteers help maintain both areas, which are not only architecturally unique, but have also become havens for wildlife and plants. I think plans for improvements are included in an ongoing scheme which takes in the whole of the Jewellery Quarter, so hopefully something will done.
The blue brick Victorian lodge at Warstone Lane Cemetery
still stands, although it has been sold for offices. But the Gothic
chapel, dedicated to St Michael, was demolished in 1958.

For more Saturday Snapshots see  Alice’s blog at http://athomewithbooks.net/ 

Edited, Saturday: I forgot to attribute my sources! Information in this blog was taken mainly from  the website for the Jewellery Quarter at http://www.jquarter.org.uk/webdisk/walk14.htm and the book ‘A History of Birmingham’, by local historian Chris Upton.
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Author:

I'm a former journalist and sub-editor who loves needlework, reading and writing, and is still searching for the Meaning of Life, the Universe and Everything. Until I find the answer I'm volunteering at an Oxfam Book Shop and learning about Creative Sketchbooks!

49 thoughts on “Birmingham’s Spectacular Catacombs

  1. Another interesting and informative post. It's wonderful that you live so close to history, no, you live with history. For me, I'll have to travel so far to see something like this. And I did too. But then again, I'd forgotten where I'd seen a Catacombs.

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  2. Tom, if you hadn't shown Emily, she would not have shown me, so thank you! I had never even heard of the Catacombs, and they dn't seem to be at all well known, which is a shame – but perhaps they are nicer left slightly shabby and lonesome.

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  3. Lovely to have you visit FHC, Christine! having been to your Birmingham, i'm totally enjoying your discovery & ty for sharing! fascinating read.. found the same burial activity at a church in York that stacked when there was no longer any room for new graves..
    also surprised and pleased to see you're part of the Canadian Reading Challenge! and i also have Alison's book on my 'to read' shelf at the moment 😉 does your public library carry many Canadian authors?
    Have a fab weekend!

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  4. Nice to meet you! I'm interested that York churches had the same problem with burials – perhaps it was quite widespread, but I'd never heard of it before. I'm enjoying the Canadian read – our library has some, but not lots. I tend to rely on charity shops for books.

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  5. So much history there! I'm glad you shared it with us – I didn't know any of that about Baskerville. I would love to see catacombs someday, but definitely wouldn't want to shelter in them.

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  6. What a fascinating post! Thanks for sharing about these crazy catacombs – a nice place to visit but wouldn't want to live there!
    And poor Baskerville – I'm familiar with that font too and my word program doesn't have it.

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  7. I love that our local areas can still throw up surprises 🙂
    Like you, I would have said they were ancient Roman ruins. Roaming around cemeteries is a fascinating thing to do. Thanks for providing the history. of this particular one – if I ever get back to the UK I'll have so many things on my to see list!

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  8. How interesting! Some cities have historical groups that do nothing but raise monies for ongoing restoration and landscaping, historical research, and tours of their cemeteries. There is so much history in these sacred places!

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  9. I can not imagine moving 600 formerly buried bodies and at night.
    Interesting history. I wonder before why catacombs instead of ordinary cemetery. Your blog answers my question.
    Very nice photos.

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  10. Brona, if you do revisit the UK, do go to Birmingham. People think it's all modern, and industries, but it's not – apart from the catacombs there are incredible canals, a Georgian church with all its box pews (the Jewellery Quarter again), two cathedrals (one, designed by Pugin, is the most ornate building inside I've ever seen), and a museum and art gallery with an amazing pre-Raphaelite collection… and lots of other stuff as well!

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  11. There is a group of of volunteers who do maintenance, and they have logged the graves and monuments at Key Hill, but I'm not sure how much research has been done at this site in Warstone Road. At one point I believe they were part of some kind of ghost tour, but again, I'm not sure if this is still done, or how often, and there doesn't seem to be a lot of information in them in the publicity leaflets produced by Birmingham City Council.

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  12. Thank you Edgar. I think moving the bodies sounds very bizarre indeed – I'm not surprised it was done at night. Apparently the church they were transferred from had its own catacombs, so perhaps they were quite common, but it's not something I've encountered before. Presumably, as well as saving space, the Catacombs must have been cheaper as well – like the unmarked graves for paupers perhaps.

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  13. Thank you, I really enjoyed reading this post 🙂 it's so considered and well researched. I love places like this, but I wish they were better preserved because one day they will simply disappear and take all their history with them. It's a shame that it's all bricked up too – even though it would be pretty spooky to walk inside, but imagine how interesting it would be?! Anyway, I wanted to comment because I've not been in the area for long and I came across this post while looking for filming locations for my friend's music project. This looks like a really good place and it's not far from our Birmingham apartment as it happens! So I wanted to thank you and say carry on writing. This was a great help 🙂 Layla x

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