Key Hill Cemetery, Birmingham :: Shared Description

Key Hill Cemetery is an example of the many non-parochial public cemeteries operated by private companies in the early nineteenth century, before the Public Health Act of 1848 empowered elected local boards to provide and manage public burial grounds. In the case of Key Hill the enterprise was facilitated by sand quarrying. The memorials are of particular local interest.

Towns and cities were growing fast during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Sanitary conditions were poor, with diseases such as cholera and typhoid affecting all classes of society. By the early nineteenth century the mediaeval parish churchyards of Birmingham, as elsewhere, were becoming seriously overcrowded and insanitary. At St Philip’s Church (now St Philip’s Cathedral) the number of interments had raised the level of the malodorous churchyard to above street level. At this time resentment was increasing among dissenters in the city, many of whom were leading figures in its commercial and industrial life, at having to pay fees to Anglican clergy for burial in parochial burial grounds. Elsewhere in England similar conditions led groups of interested or commercially astute men to form joint stock companies to run commercial cemeteries. The first of them, St James’, Liverpool, was opened in 1829 in a dramatic disused quarry featuring a classical chapel and landscaping. It was soon making a good financial return for its investors, and must have proved an attractive model to imitators.

Key Hill was the first cemetery to be opened in Birmingham. It was established by the General Cemetery Company, formed in 1832 and backed by a group of nonconformists. The site had been partly quarried for a valuable high-quality sand that was used in the making of moulds for metal foundries and glassworks. Quarrying had left a steep cliff-face below residential Key Hill Drive. To the southeast the proprietors continued to quarry sand, generating income and further level space for expansion of the burial ground. The company envisaged that the cemetery would be open to all creeds and denominations although in practice nonconformists mainly used it. It served the public for 146 years with the quarry providing a regular income for the cemetery until the 1930s. It was taken over by the City in 1952 and is Grade II Listed in the Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest. It lies within the Jewellery Quarter Conservation Area. In 1848 the Anglican community established its own cemetery to the south by Warstone Lane, in SP0587.

The Birmingham General Cemetery, its original name, opened in 1836. The Icknield Street entrance was dominated by a classical chapel designed by the Birmingham architect and board member Charles Edge. The classical style was favoured by nonconformists because the Gothic style had been adopted by Anglican church-builders. The chapel was demolished in 1966. Edge also designed the monumental gate piers on Key Hill and Icknield Street with their reliefs of symbolically upturned torches and serpents biting their tails. These, together with the original cast-iron gates made at the Britannia Foundry, Derby and the contemporary railings on Icknield Street are all listed and have been restored. A range of catacombs was constructed by Edge in the cliff-face on the east side of the cemetery, providing a then fashionable (and expensive) form of burial. The catacombs were used by the Council as temporary dwellings for people whose homes were bombed in World War II. They were still publicly accessible until the 1970s.

The cemetery was landscaped and planted by the Handsworth nurseryman John Pope. The grounds were laid out in two contrasting sections: the lower area around the chapel had a grid of walks planted with specimen trees; to the north a slightly higher area was planted in a more ornamental style with groups of trees and shrubs providing a setting for the monuments. The trees are predominantly London Plane. Terrace walks were constructed above the catacombs and on the cliff-face, leading to a small observatory which no longer survives. The only alteration has been to make way for the West Midlands Metro (tram) in 1995. Where land was taken, a memorial has been erected at the back of the cemetery.

Key Hill Cemetery has a particularly interesting collection of funerary monuments commemorating many leading figures in Victorian Birmingham: Joseph Chamberlain and many members of his family; the unrelated Birmingham architect John Henry Chamberlain who has a particularly attractive arts and crafts-influenced headstone; the architect Charles Edge; Alfred Bird, the chemist who invented Bird’s Custard because of his wife’s intolerance to eggs; William Middlemore, one of Birmingham’s greatest philanthropists; George Dawson, preacher and educationalist, who held a successful ministry close to Key Hill for 32 years; John Henderson, industrialist and Crystal Palace pioneer, and the Reverend Edward H. Manning, the chaplain and secretary for over 50 years to Birmingham General Cemetery. He officiated at more than 15,000 burials while living with his family in the basement of the chapel. There are also monuments to many of the manufacturers who lived and had their businesses in the surrounding streets: Joseph Gillott, pen-maker to Queen Victoria returned to be buried in the Jewellery Quarter where he had originally founded his flourishing business; and nearby is buried Mr Mole, the piano-dealer from Great Hampton Street, and the local brewer George Cox. As Joseph Chamberlain remarked, Key Hill Cemetery is “the most interesting place in the world to a Birmingham man”.

Mash-up by Robin Stott, December 2013

Jonathan Lovie. Key Hill Cemetery and Warstone Lane Cemetery, Birmingham: an introduction to the sites. Warwickshire Gardens Trust, 2001. ISSN 1469-0276.

On-site interpretation board by Birmingham and Solihull Groundwork, undated. Further credits on the board.

James Stevens Curl. The Victorian Celebration of Death. Stroud: Sutton Publishing Limited, paperback edition 2004. ISBN 0-7509-3873-0

Wikipedia article: Jewellery Quarter. LinkExternal link

Website: A history of Birmingham Places and placenames…from A to Y, by William Dargue.
LinkExternal link
by Robin Stott
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38 images use this description. Preview sample shown below:

SP0588 : Carved memorial, Key Hill Cemetery Catacombs by Rob Farrow
SP0588 : Lesbro Works from Key Hill Cemetery by Rob Farrow
SP0588 : Key Hill Cemetery, Hockley: lower area, looking east to the catacombs by Robin Stott
SP0588 : Key Hill entrance to Key Hill Cemetery, Birmingham by P L Chadwick
SP0588 : Key Hill Cemetery, Hockley: view southeast into the quarry by Robin Stott
SP0588 : Key Hill Cemetery by David P Howard
SP0588 : Enormous retaining wall, Key Hill Cemetery by Rob Farrow
SP0588 : Key Hill Cemetery by Stephen McKay
SP0588 : WW1 memorial by John M
SP0588 : Reflections and graves - Key Hill Cemetery by Rob Farrow
SP0588 : Key Hill Cemetery by Stephen McKay
SP0588 : Key Hill Cemetery, Hockley: former catacombs by Robin Stott
SP0588 : 10th Anniversary Meet-up of Geographers - visiting Key Hill Cemetery, Birmingham by A. Nonie
SP0588 : Key Hill Cemetery, Hockley, Icknield Street entrance by Robin Stott
SP0588 : Key Hill Cemetery, Hockley: view southwest across the lower area by Robin Stott
SP0588 : Key Hill Cemetery, Hockley: obelisks and other memorials by Robin Stott
SP0588 : War Memorial, Key Hill Cemetery by Rob Farrow
SP0588 : Commonwealth Graves sign, Key Hill Cemetery, Key Hill, Birmingham by P L Chadwick
SP0588 : Key Hill Cemetery by David P Howard
SP0588 : Key Hill Cemetery, Hockley: war memorial, lower area by Robin Stott
SP0588 : Key Hill Cemetery, Hockley: Key Hill entrance by Robin Stott
SP0588 : Key Hill Cemetery, Hockley: the quarry sides below Spencer Street by Robin Stott
SP0588 : Birmingham City Council sign at Key Hill Cemetery, Key Hill, Birmingham by P L Chadwick
SP0588 : Key Hill Cemetery, Hockley: steps between the upper and lower areas by Robin Stott
SP0588 : Key Hill Cemetery, Hockley: obelisk and rows of headstones, lower area by Robin Stott

... and 13 more images.

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Created: Fri, 6 Dec 2013, Updated: Sat, 7 Jan 2017

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