The General Cemetery

The Birmingham General Cemetery Company was founded in 1833 by a group of enterprising businessmen, who were nonconformists (protestants who did not adhere to the doctrine of the Church of England). Their aim was to solve the shortage of burial space in the city and create a place open to all. This would allow them freedom from the regulations surrounding Church of England churchyards, where the fees were paid to the church and their own ministers could not conduct funerals. Before the cemetery opened, most nonconformists had no choice but to accept burial in the Parish churchyard because very few chapels had their own crypt or graveyard. The cemetery was also envisaged as a profit-making venture, being run by a joint stock company and aiming to make money for the shareholders.

After considering several sites, land at Key Hill (sometimes spelled ‘Kaye Hill’) was selected for the new cemetery. At the time, this was a relatively rural location, providing impressive views across the countryside beyond Birmingham. The area was mostly fields and gardens but part had also been used as a sand quarry so this site would allow the creation of a dramatic terraced landscape, ideal for building catacombs. The company also continued to sell the sand, which increased the area available for burial and provided extra income until the 1930s. The location means that Key Hill is sometimes also called Hockley Cemetery.

A New Plan of Birmingham  Exhibiting its present state and progressive increase, published by James Drake, 123 New Street, Birmingham, 1825, Engraved by T. Simms, Birmingham.
This map was first published in "The Picture of Birmingham" by James Drake in 1825.
A New Plan of Birmingham Exhibiting its present state and progressive increase, published by James Drake, 123 New Street, Birmingham, 1825, Engraved by T. Simms, Birmingham. This map was first published in "The Picture of Birmingham" by James Drake in 1825.

Birmingham’s First Garden Cemetery

Birmingham Journal May 21 1836 (British Newspaper Archives, with thanks to Colin Giles)
Birmingham Journal May 21 1836 (British Newspaper Archives, with thanks to Colin Giles)

The cemetery which opened on 23 May 1836 was not consecrated and was open to all creeds and denominations. People could provide their own minister or use the services of the cemetery chaplain for funerals. The vast majority of those interred at Key Hill were Christian, mostly nonconformists, such as Baptists and Unitarians. There were also some Anglican (Church of England) burials, especially before Warstone Lane Cemetery opened in 1848. There are a small number of Muslims buried there, plus many with no formal faith such as Atheists and Agnostics.

The cemetery landscape with its winding pathways and key features like the sandstone gateposts, catacombs and chapel were designed by Charles Edge, an architect who was a board member. His design was inspired by similar garden cemeteries in other cities like Paris, Liverpool, Glasgow and Sheffield. The funerary chapel resembled a Greek temple and had a house in the basement where the chaplain and his family lived. Neoclassical buildings were popular with nonconformists in the Victorian era. This architecture was associated with civilisation and democracy, which the businessmen of Birmingham would have found very fitting for their visionary new cemetery.

Key Hill cemetery is Grade II* listed by Historic England in recognition of the significance of this landscape, including the survival of some of the original planting scheme by John Pope and Sons of Handsworth.

Engraving of Birmingham General Cemetery by A B Johnson (Birmingham Museums Trust)
Engraving of Birmingham General Cemetery by A B Johnson (Birmingham Museums Trust)

The Rise, the Fall and the Future

Although the cemetery was very successful during the 19th century, it ran into financial difficulty in the 20th century. Some of the key issues were changing funeral tastes after WWI, the lack of income from sand quarrying after the 1930s and difficulties caused nationally by WWI and WWII such as a lack of staff to maintain the grounds. In 1952 the joint-stock company who ran the cemetery was dissolved and Key Hill cemetery was compulsory purchased by Birmingham City Council. Sadly, the chapel was demolished in 1966 and many gravestones were buried or removed to facilitate easy maintenance. Since then, the importance of the cemetery has been recognised and there has been substantial work to preserve the cemeteries including repairs to the boundaries and gateposts which are Grade II listed in their own right. The Friends group, which was founded in 2004, have worked hard to raise funds for memorial restoration projects and improve the cemetery landscape. Many people have also contributed to our understanding of the cemeteries by researching the graves, including the Jewellery Quarter Research Trust.

Key Hill cemetery chapel, mid-20th century (kindly donated to the project by Peter Vickers)
Key Hill cemetery chapel, mid-20th century (kindly donated to the project by Peter Vickers)

The Jewellery Quarter Cemeteries Project saw extensive catacomb repairs in 2019. Pathway and drainage improvements took place in 2020, including the creation of a new seating area above the catacombs. A new safety railing was also installed at this time. In September 2021 the interior of the catacombs was open to the public for the first time, following the fitting of a new safety floor.

Jewellery Quarter Cemeteries Project

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We are very excited about 'Diamonds in the Rough' a unique tour with storytelling & live performance, exploring queer history in the JQ Cemeteries for LGBT History Month.
Join Sheldon K Goodman and
Sacha Coward from @thecemeteryclub
on 12th-14th February:
https://www.eventbrite.com/e/diamonds-in-the-rough-tour-tickets-251264879017

#lgbthistory #valentinesday #birmingham #jewelleryquarter #jewelleryquarterbirmingham #cemetery #tour #birminghamheritage
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Released to celebrate the Winter Solstice 2021, this video explores some of the nocturnal animals which make the Jewellery Quarter Cemeteries their home. They might be hard to spot, but we can often see the traces they leave behind.

Emily Doyle @oldbort is a multidisciplinary visual artist who moved to the Jewellery Quarter as a student in 2015 and never left. Her practice focuses on the biological, looking for comfort in the physicality that connects us all during changing times. Throughout lockdown, Warstone Lane and Key Hill Cemeteries have been a source of inspiration and respite for Emily and the sites have shaped her creative output through 2020 and 2021, Like many, she has found the JQ Cemeteries to be a place of grounding and reflection.

Sustainability is at the forefront of Emily's work. The textile sculptures in this film were all made using reclaimed textiles, including some sourced through Scrapstore Birmingham.

This film commission was funded by National Lottery Heritage Fund, Birmingham City Council and Jewellery Quarter Development Trust

#cemetery #cemeterywildlife #fox #crochet #jewelleryquarterbirmingham
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The star of the final @oldbort cemeyery seasons film of the year, which drops on 21st December has taken up residence right next to the @jqbid Christmas window at the Big Peg!
You can see this fox in his den anytime during the window trail. We can't wait for his on camera debut!
#crochet #creative #jewelleryquarter #birmingham #christmaswindow #jqchristmas #cemeterywildlife
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On 25th November 2021, Olivia Swinscoe @oliviagracephoto ran a photography workshop for Year 10 pupils from City Academy @corecity_acad. The group were each given a disposable camera with 27 shots, to capture themes of life and death such as 'movement and stillness', 'light and shadow' and 'public cemetery, private grief' while exploring Key Hill and Warstone Lane Cemeteries.
This video contains just a selection of the best photos taken by Year 10.
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This project is possible because of funding from: