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THE CHURCH OF ENGLAND CEMETERY - Warstone Lane

BACKGROUND
Many people do not appreciate the fundamental difference between Key Hill and Warstone Lane cemeteries or why there are two cemeteries so close together. The Birmingham General Cemetery at Key Hill Cemetery had opened in 1837 and was a non-conformist cemetery but was considered by the Church of England as not suitable by members of the “established church”. There was considerable friction between the Church of England and the dissenting or non-conformist reformation churches and even today the protestant parts of most local authority cemeteries are divided into two, Church of England and Non-Conformist. Both Cemeteries were open to people of any faith however at Key Hill non-conformist cemetery you could chose a minister from your own faith to conduct the service or use the cemetery’s chaplain whereas at Warstone Lane you were limited to the Church of England’s minister and a service approved by the bishop. At Warstone Lane the Bishop’s permission is also needed for anything that is done at the cemetery irrespective of who actually owns the cemetery. This is a situation that still continues even today.  

EARLY BEGINNINGS
A group of Anglican ‘clergy and gentlemen’ met at Dee’s Hotel on 13th May 1845 to discuss the establishment of a public cemetery in connection with the established church. They formed a provisional committee with a view to establishing a joint stock cemetery company. They drew up a prospectus with the authority of the Bishop of Worcester (before Birmingham became a Bishopric), to be called The Birmingham Church of England Cemetery Company. The costs expected to be £20,000 but by July 1845 over 100 subscribers had been allocated shares worth £22,200. The land at Warstone lane was eventually chosen and purchased from Sir Thomas Gooch and Colonel Howard Vyse for £9,600, considerably more than Key Hill reflecting the commercial success of that initiative. It was semi-derelict with a disused sand-pit in the middle but this would be turned to the cemeteries advantage.

An Act of Parliament “The Birmingham Cemetery Act” was passed in May 1846. This defined relationship between the company and the Established Church. Powers to appoint a Chaplain – a clergyman of the established church were taken. Such appointments were to be approved by the Bishop who had the power to remove anyone found to be unsuitable. He also approved the stipend. The Act also tackled the underlying problems of overcrowding by facilitating closure of certain cemeteries. Incumbents of such closed churchyards were paid fees by the Cemetery Company; 5 shillings if a buried was in a vault, catacomb or brick grave and 1 shilling and six pence for any other corpse. This emphasises the financial background being part of the reason for overcrowding. Finally the Act dealt with some of the inherent contamination problems of graveyards, nevertheless the gases building up in sealed coffins often caused them to explode. During the war when people sheltered in the catacombs they were discouraged from smoking as it was though such gases were explosive. They held a competition for design and layout of the cemetery. This was won by J R Hamilton an Architect of Hamilton and Medland from Gloucester. It, and the lodge cost together £9,500. The catacombs were not finished until 1880 and cost £2,200 and the grounds and boundary walls cost £2,800.

THE CEMETERY CHAPEL – ST MICHAELS AND ALL SAINTS
 The foundation stone was laid on Tuesday 6th April 1847. The Rector and “principal clergy” of the town were there as was the Mayor Robert Martineau – who is buried at Key Hill. On August 8th 1848 the chapel, constructed from ‘white freestone’, was consecrated by the Bishop of Worcester. The Directors had issued tickets to control the numbers who attended. A medal was struck to record the event. The chapel was built in perpendicular style and was visible from a considerable distance. It had a huge tower (116 ft), nave and Chancel. The nave had a range of carved ornamental seats along each side, as ‘fully pewed’ and in the centre an ornamental stand for the coffin - ‘Whence by means of Brahma’s hydraulic machine the coffins were let down into the vaults below and by means of a subterranean passage conveyed to the catacombs.’

There was a large painted glass window (destroyed by a gale in 1889).  The floor was paved with red and blue quarries. The building acted as a church open for divine service from 1854 but was closed in 1874 since when it was only used for funeral services. On May 1st 1861 the church was broken into, some of the alter fittings were stolen as was the contents of the alms box. The contents of the vestry were vandalised as were the velvet pulpit hangings. The base of the tower was three massive arches which served as a porch for the hearses. Either side of the nave were two cloisters or ambulatories – said to be unique in England at the time. Each was 75’ long but cut off from the nave. These may have served as shelter for waiting funeral parties but in reality served to dramatise the chapel which was in fact quite small. There were extensive views out over the cemetery and into the surrounding districts. Under the south one were 21 vaults some of which were occupied by the remains transferred from Christ Church.  The chapel was extensively damaged in the war. It was restored but demolished in 1954 reputedly just as the pair of stone-masons who had restored it completed their work. The catacombs were not finished until 1880 and were constructed from Weoley Castle red stone with rough battlements. The first interment took place on 23rd August 1848.

CEMETERY OFFICES
At the main entrance in Warstone Lane was a lodge in blue brick with Warton Stone facings. This provided accommodation for the Company Secretary and a meeting room for the board of Directors. The boardroom had brocade seats all round with a large veneered table in the centre which was much affected by damp. There were also large mirrors. The Arch gave access to the cemeteries. Towards the end of its life funeral directors refused to bring their hearses into the cemetery through it as bits were falling off and damaging the vehicles.

KEY HILL CEMETERY

BEGINS TO REVEAL ITS SECRETS


The JQRT has been working hard over the past two months to build a database of facts and statistics that will provide valuable information about both cemeteries.


You can learn more about the cemetery‘s secrets as we publish the findings of our research. This will include information about:-


 



Between 1886 and 1888 there were 601 interments in just ONE vault

Memorials Burials War Memorials

After seeing research carried out by the JQRT an expert from the Heritage Centre at Kew said “the catacombs at Key Hill are unique and of national importance”.

Warstone Lane Cemetery