One of the reasons for visiting Warstone Lane Cemetery in Birmingham was mention of catacombs, and possibly because it was within walking distance of the New Street Station. According to what I read, the catacombs were built into the sides of a gravel pit, and that sounded like an interesting concept worth investigating.
I approached the cemetery from Icknield Street instead of the main entrance in Warstone Lane. Fortunately I did because the lodge is closed up and the gates are closed.
From where I came in the cemetery sits on a rise with graves from the pavement up to the hill and the catacombs in a circular depression in that hill. Many years ago there was also a chapel above the catacombs, but that was demolished.
I will be honest though, I did not think that the cemetery was being properly maintained. There was litter strewn around, headstones were toppled, graffiti was painted on some of the graves and generally the place looked run down. The grass was cut, although in some areas I am not even sure if the ground covering was even grass!
I worked my way up the hill, keeping an eye open for any CWGC graves. There are 51 First World War 13 Second World War burials in the cemetery as well a screen wall next to the lodge on which are recorded the names of those whose graves are not marked by headstones.
I was busting a gut to get at the catacombs, although from what I could see from above there was not much to see below!
However, I persevered and continued my exploration, photographing headstones that interested me and just trying to get a feel of the place. The headstones were really all very similar, and many dated back to the 1800’s. There were not a lot of angels to be seen, and I think I only saw one still standing and two that had been toppled.
On the hill in areas around the catacombs there are flat slabs with the names of all those buried in the catacombs below. Kind of like a table of contents for a chamber. What I found odd was that many of the names did not seem to come from the same families.
It is also possible that many of the names mentioned on the CWGC screen wall tie into people buried in these catacombs. It was a bit of a puzzler and frankly I do not have any answers.
The central area of the catacombs has a number of headstones in it, although how many people are buried in this space it is impossible to tell. The catacombs did have a bit of a chequered reputation before they were finally sealed up. But in my reading I have not been able to understand what they looked like before. It appears as if they may have been tunnels, where the coffins were just stacked up in, possibly with a door, but they must have also been accessible as it is mentioned that they were often used by drug addicts and rent boys! I counted three individual marked doors to the catacombs, but apart from a number above each doorway there was no listing of who was inside, you obviously had to consult the slabs as mentioned above.
It would be very interesting to see plans of what these may have looked like, surely a plan exists? There are also two anecdotal stories about the cemetery that bear reading about. The first involves the corpse of John Baskerville (type-founder and printer), and the other involves the moving of 600 bodies to the catacombs. 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 in the “dead of night”, so residents wouldn’t be disturbed.
There is one Victoria Cross recipient buried in the cemetery and he is commemorated with a plaque and his grave is tentatively marked too.
The cemetery has a reputation as a place where things go bump in the knight, and given the circumstances and history of this place it is entirely possible. All I know is that I came away with more questions than I had answers for.
I do have this listed as place to return to, because it is a very interesting and unique cemetery in its own right. However, it may be overshadowed by Key Hill Cemetery next door!
Then it was time for me to leave this strange place. I will not say it was a great cemetery, but it is certainly a unique one. I shall leave some random images of the cemetery until I come back from my return visit. There is a Friends of Key Hill and Waterstone Lane Cemetery society that takes care of the two cemeteries, and it is worth visiting their website to see some of the historic images of these two places. There is a short write up about Key Hill Cemetery just after the images below.
Key Hill Cemetery, Birmingham.
On the 14th of April 2015, I returned to Warstone Lane and visited Key Hill Cemetery shortly afterwards. Like Warstone it has a set of catacombs built into the side of the hillside and these are a mix of public and private vaults.
The cemetery is also more densely populated than Warstone Lane, and the graves are not in too good a condition. There are a lot of toppled headstones, although I suspect that many were toppled because they are unsafe.
There are also many more trees here, and from above the cemetery looks like a miniature forest. The railway line to Birmingham Snow Hill Station runs alongside the cemetery, and a lot of graves were exhumed when additions were made to the line.
The CWGC lists Key Hill as having 38 First World War burials,and 8 Second World War burials. The First World War burials are not marked, and these graves are listed on a screen wall.
I must admit these two cemeteries were strange ones, unlike anything I had seen in my previous visitations elsewhere in the country. But then Birmingham was an industrial town, and life was very different here to what it was in the South of England, and by the same token that would hold true for death.
DRW © 2015 – 2019. Created 11/02/2015, edited 14/04/2015, added more images 03/01/2017. Moved from aas to musings 23/07/2019