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The Birmingham Necropolis

When we think of great cemeteries names like Highgate and the Necropolis spring to mind, but here in Mercia, in our largest city of Birmingham, there are some impressive cities of the dead too.

Warstone Lane Cemetery lies on the edge of Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter. How did it get the name? Next to the pedestrian entrance is a large boulder, black in colour and mounted on a plinth. This is the War Stone. If it had anything to do with war I can't find any evidence, but it might have come from the Old English “hoar stan” stone meaning boundary marker. The War Stone is a lone boulder of volcanic felstone, carried into the area from Wales by a glacier thousands of years ago. When Birmingham “was all fields round here” it stood proudly as a boundary stone but as the city grew into Britain's industrial heartland the War Stone became a piece of heritage and urban folklore, giving it's name to the street and indeed the cemetery.

The cemetery was actually a church graveyard once but the chapel is long gone, however the impressive Gothic looking gatehouse built in the mid 1800s is still in fine condition, now a listed building.. The most famous feature of Warstone Lane is the catacombs, this impressive semi circular structure has three rows of vaults on top of each other, but the doors to each are now sealed completely. During the last century the coffins were just placed on shelves in each one but the sheer amount of them, coupled with the atmospheric conditions, led to anyone opening a vault door being knocked flat by the overwhelming smell! This made Birmingham Council bring in laws to ensure any coffin going into a vault was to be sealed with tar and any case the vaults, as previously said, are sealed forever with concrete. The interesting architectural style of the catacombs gives it a real feel of an ampitheatre, you stand at the bottom as if in an arena...with death as the audience. An extreme memento mori idea perhaps.

At the very top of the catacombs is the barely marked tomb of John Baskerville. The printing and laquering tycoon was a lifelong atheist who designed and built his own burial vault and lead coffin, considering religion to be “the most impudent abuse of common sense which ever was invented to befool mankind!”. Interred in a standing position within a cone shaped vault, Baskerville lay in peace in his old home for 46 years before a canal was built straight through the land. Repeated digging and excavating revealed his corpse buried now beneath a huge amount of gravel. He was in remarkable condition as the airtight lead casket had preserved his cadaver to an amazing degree, and as no church would have the atheist on it's grounds the canal builder put poor John on display in one of his warehouses, charging for the experience of seeing him! A sketch was made of the corpse during this time which survives today but the condition of it was only maintained by keeping the coffin closed as much as possible. It was noted that Baskerville had been buried in a Roman style toga with a laurel wreath on his head!

Baskerville was then sold on to a a painter who kept him on permanent display, thinking him fully mummified. This was the beginning of the end. The cadaver began to ooze and stink and at this point was close to being thrown away like rubbish. The Baskerville family stepped in and moved him to their nearby family vault at Christ Church but there was little rest – the church was sold and demolished – yet again John was disinterred and moved. This time he was laid to rest forever at Warstone Cemetery. The chapel he lay under was demolished but he has been left deep under a broken slab, now in the open air and partially grassed over, finally at peace.

Other notable graves include two Victoria Cross recipients and a large memorial to all of the local men who died in the First World War from all three services. One more curiosity caught my eye though. The apparent grave of a druid...some locals unkindly refer to it as “the Spinal Tap grave” but there it is – a mini megalith, a tiny reproduction of a neolithic dolmen placed on top of the grave of George Manley, a brother of the Ancient Order of Druids of Mercia. Before we get too excited, a little research tells us that this was a fraternal order along the lines of the masons or Odd Fellows, but a fascinating piece of Birmingham urban folklore and what a way to be remembered. Come to think of it...that's not a bad idea...

Warstone Lane gatehouse

The Catacombs at Warstone Lane

The catacombs - death's arena

The War Stone

The grave of George Manley the druid - passed away in 1935 aged 90

Inscription on George Manley's megalith

Stone tree monument to the Suttcliffe family

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