In the centre of Birmingham, flanked by pubs and fashionable wine bars, stands a dinky cathedral and a handful of sporadically placed headstones. The grounds are busy, with commuters, teenagers and a large homeless population using its paths as a thoroughfare and its flat-topped tombs as tables. There are bus stops at each corner, benches filled with tired shoppers, and in 2017, hundreds of Brummies gathered to sing a rendition of Toto’s ‘Africa’ and raise money for charity. The space, St Philips Square, is ingrained in day-to-day Birmingham life. The building and headstones, however, seem to be an afterthought.
The cathedral church of St Phillip was built between 1710-1725 and, despite its tiny stature, is the seat of the Bishop of Birmingham. As the population of Birmingham was booming in the 18thcentury, churches were running out of space to hold parishioners and, after a donation of land to Robert Philips in 1710, planning and building began in earnest.
While Birmingham is one of the UKs largest cities today, it didn’t achieve city status until 1889. Six years later, in 1905, St Philips became Birmingham cathedral, with its first bishop, Charles Gore, now standing front and centre in statue form, outside the doors.
Edward Burne-Jones, the famous Birmingham-born artist, features heavily in the cathedral’s interior. While he is mostly known through his association with the latter part of the pre-Raphaelite movement and his intricate, beautiful paintings, he was also a renowned glass designer. Burne-Jones donated several large glass windows to the cathedral, designed by himself and produced by Morris &Co, which continue to be a draw to tourists, worshippers and art-lovers alike.
“The Ascension was installed in 1885 and the Nativity and the Crucifixion two years later. Burne-Jones records “it was in the year 1885 that visiting my native city Birmingham I was so struck with admiration at one of my works in St Philips’s church [that] I undertook in a moment of enthusiasm to fill the windows on either side. He was paid £200 for each of his designs. They are considered characteristic of Burne-Jones’ later style – elongated bodies with small heads in relation to body length and designs which divide in two equal halves, horizontally. This technique separates heaven from earth in each of the windows. The Last Judgement was installed as a memorial window to Bishop Bowlby in 1897.”
To cover all architectural points of interest would be a very tiresome task, and I believe some of the most exciting points of interest to be outside the church walls.
But of course, beneath the tasteful baroque architecture and floral displays, lies a mire of other bizarre and exciting stories.
The churchyard surrounding St Philips holds around 60,000 burials, most of which (as with most city cemeteries) were unmarked. Those who could afford headstones have, over time, experienced a similar fate, as only around 100 remain intact today.
The churchyard was closed to burials in 1858 as it quickly became a danger to public health with the sheer amount of bodies crammed in to such a small area. An 1849 report cites that “the effluvia from the yards and graves is said to be very offensive to the surrounding neighbourhood, especially in the summer months.”
These overcrowded graveyards were not only a public health risk, but were impossible to maintain and burials were poorly recorded. As so many internments were made, the graveyard became a jumble of headstones, with burials frequently disturbed by the boring rods that were inserted to find space below the ground for yet more bodies.
After the creation of Key Hill and Warstone Lane Cemeteries in 1835 and 1848 respectively, some of the pressure was taken off St Philips and its rising ground level.
Aside from traditional headstones and monuments, the churchyard plays host to several family burial vaults, many of which were backfilled and paved over during regeneration projects in the late 1990s. In the 1999 archaeological report, it is recorded that the burial vault of the Baldwin Family (among many, many others) was accidentally discovered following heavy plant work overhead. Works caused a partial collapse in a brick archway, leaving a 0.3 metre square hole in the path. The report continues ‘it was possible to view the interior of the vault from the hole and initial inspection showed the vault to be in good condition and containing several lead coffins.’
The Vault of the Harrison Family was similarly disturbed to ensure the stability of newly installed metal pillars and gates. The remains within this particular vault were intensely researched and studied, to such an extent that biographies and past health conditions are published online. (Samuel Harrison owned and operated the Exhibition Gin Palace in the 1860s, for example.)
While most of the Baldwin and Harrison coffins were identifiable, due to waterlogged conditions and the displacement of name plates, only four Baldwins could be recorded accurately. Similarly, most other burials unearthed during building and conservation work, were unidentifiable and merely recorded as ‘adult inhumation’, ‘disarticulated remains’ or by the integrity of the soft tissue within the less waterlogged sites.
Occasionally, new monuments are added to commemorate significant deaths, such as that to commemorate the 21 victims of the 1974 pub bombings. Also, large monuments are occasionally (unofficially) repurposed as a platform for contemporary displays of grief and loss. The large, squat, cut column beside Temple Row is a popular and prominent choice. The original monument commemorates the deaths of John Heap and William Badger who were killed during the construction of Birmingham Town Hall. On a recent visit, a large display of floral arrangements, cards and laminated newspaper reports were visible beside it, commemorating a young man’s tragic death which had recently come to court. While the churchyard may not be a contemporary burial site per-se, its purpose and visibility as a high-traffic public site is evident through displays and commemorations of deaths such as these.
The remaining 18thand 19thcentury headstones display a wide range of professions and stories of Birmingham’s past. However, my personal favourite is easily overlooked. Standing alone, a tiny, lichen-covered headstone commemorates the life of ‘Nannetta Stoker.’ While the carving is faint, the following inscription can be deciphered:
“In Memory of
who departed this Life
Aged 39 Years
The smallest Woman ever in
this Kingdom pofsefsed
with every accomplifhment
only 33 Inches high
a native of Austria.”
Nanette (incorrectly recorded as ‘Nanetta’ on her stone) is a forgotten music hall star who died with a huge following. Nanette was a musician, a dancer and a truly fascinating woman. Born in Austria in 1797, her physicality meant that she was forced (or ‘encouraged’, depending on the source) into show business at a young age. As I’m sure we are all aware, the only way for many people such as Nanette to make a living wage in their society was to exhibit themselves. After teaming up with German-born John Hauptman (who stood at 3ft 6inches high), the two extensively toured together, Nanette playing the pianoforte, John, the violin. They would also waltz together, which proved incredibly popular to 19thcentury audiences. In Birmingham alone, Nanette was the headline act at the annual Onion Fair carnival in Aston; a huge event, at which she triumphed.
Nanette is said to have enjoyed sewing and needlework and was ‘engaging and personable’. She was also of remarkably strong character. Her touring partner, Hauptman, proposed to Stocker, but was rejected ‘for reasons known only to herself.’
Nanette is but one of thousands of stories held within the cathedral’s grounds, and while most are lost to time, I do recommend taking a trip, should you ever find yourself in the area.
All photographs my own unless otherwise stated.