|Looking down on the Catacombs at Warstone Lane Cemetery|
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.
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.