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14. THE CATACOMBS


Explore the Birmingham Jewellery Quarter

THE WALK

THE INFO

For safety's sake, return to the traffic lights and cross back over to the Mint side of the road. Turn left and walk along in front of the Mint. Just past the end of the buildings, turn right into the cemetery and continue roughly straight ahead towards the catacombs (1). 

A. The catacombs

John Baskerville


 

 

 

 

 

 

(1)  The catacombs

This is Warstone Lane Cemetery, which was established by a private company in 1848. It was reserved for Anglicans, nonconformists having been catered for some years previously by the nearby Key Hill Cemetery. These cemeteries were built to ease a severe case of overcrowding which had arisen in the older burial grounds in the town centre. At St Philipís the surface of the graveyard was by then several feet above the surrounding ground level, so that the dead were laid to rest overhead rather than underground. And it was no better at St Martinís, where as William Hutton put it, instead of the church burying the dead, the dead were burying the church.

The catacombs are an unusual feature of the cemetery. They were actually created because there was a sandpit (another one!) on the site, and building catacombs was a neat solution to the problem of tidying up the sandpit. But of course they also provide added capacity by creating a triple-decker burial ground. Until quite recently the tunnels were open and those who were brave enough could venture into them, but they have now been bricked up, as you can see. (See right-hand column.) By far the most celebrated occupant of the catacombs is the world-renowned typographer and printer, John Baskerville, and the story of how he came to be there is a shameful one.

John Baskerville was a confirmed atheist and, as such, he left strict instructions in his will that on no account was he to be buried in consecrated ground. When he died in 1775 his widow saw to it that his wishes were carried out, and he was buried in a small mausoleum which he had erected in the grounds of his house, which was where the modern Baskerville House stands, in Centenary Square. There he rested peacefully for several decades until, in 1821, his coffin was discovered by workmen digging for gravel. Since nobody claimed the coffin and Baskerville could not be reinterred in consecrated ground on account of his atheism, it was deposited in the warehouse of Thomas Gibson, then owner of the land on which Baskerville's house had stood. From time to time the coffin would be opened to reveal to curious visitors, whom Gibson charged 6d (2.5p) a head, that the embalmers had done their job so well that the former printer was still in an excellent  state of preservation. After eight years in the warehouse, Baskerville was moved to the shop of John Marston, a plumber and glazier, who seems to have been less cautious than Gibson about opening the coffin, with the result that the corpse quickly began to putrefy and Marston became anxious to rid himself of it. His application to bury it in his own family vault at St Philip's having been refused, he resorted to a bit of conspiracy to get Baskerville buried in the catacombs at Christ Church, which used to stand at the top of New Street, where Victoria Square is now. When Christ Church was demolished in 1899 John Baskervilleís remains, along with the 600 or so other internees of the Christ Church catacombs, were moved in the dead of night to the Warstone Lane catacombs, where he remains to this day, still in the consecrated ground that was anathema to him.

A detailed account by Deborah Cooper of the events that followed John Baskerville's death can be found here. The above is a brief summary of her account.

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THE BRICKED-UP CATACOMBS

I am grateful to Rachel Bannister of Birmingham Ghost & Graveyard Walks for letting me know what happened to St Michael's Church, and that the catacombs were closed because they had become the haunt of drug users and rent boys. Apparently there are plans to regenerate the cemetery and re-enable access to the catacombs.

© 2001, 2002, 2004 Bob Miles