Heritage Category: Park and Garden
List Entry Number: 1001612
Date first listed: 16-May-2002
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.
District: Birmingham (Metropolitan Authority)
National Grid Reference: SP 08194 92255
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Reasons for Designation
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A mid-C19 cemetery laid out to the designs of Richard Ashwell of Coventry, with buildings by R Clarke of Nottingham.
In 1857 the Corporation of Birmingham applied for an Order in Council to close the existing overcrowded churchyards in the borough, which, apart from the commercial cemeteries at Key Hill (qv) and Warstone Lane (qv), were the only places of burial in the rapidly expanding town. The Order for closure made on 3 February 1858 (but not carried into effect until 1861) also allowed for the setting up of a Burial Board for the borough (Bunce 1885). The newly constituted Burial Board advertised for suitable land for the construction either of a single cemetery or four smaller cemeteries to serve the north, south, east, and west districts of the town. By August 1858 the Board had determined that a single site should be obtained at a distance from the town such that it would not in time become 'intra-mural'. The proposed cemetery was to be served by rail, following closely the model of Brookwood Cemetery (qv) at Woking, Surrey. This scheme, submitted to the full Council for approval on 5 April 1859, was rejected. Instead, a site comprising 105 acres (c 42ha) at Witton, north of Birmingham, belonging to Mr Wyrley Birch was selected in August 1859 (Minutes; Bunce 1885). The purchase was approved by the Council and completed in November 1859 for £15,750.
The Burial Board invited schemes for laying out the new cemetery and for the construction of the necessary buildings. The Board had itself identified the general disposition of the site, instructing competitors where the principal entrance and the two chapels should be built, together with the allocation of ground to Anglicans and Nonconformists (Minutes). Of the plans submitted, that of Richard Ashwell, superintendent of London Road Cemetery, Coventry (qv) and former assistant gardener to Joseph Paxton at Chatsworth (qv) was selected in preference to schemes by William Davidson of London (fl 1850s), designer of the City of London Cemetery (qv) and Ipswich Cemetery (qv) and a former head gardener at Shrublands Park, Suffolk (qv), and Paxton's son-in-law G H Stokes. Designs for the buildings, including the lodge, railings, gates, boundary walls and the two chapels were accepted from R Clarke of Nottingham; the buildings were constructed by the Nottingham builder C Wright (The Builder 1861; Bunce 1885).
Ashwell's original scheme appears to have been modified jointly by Ashwell and the Borough Surveyor, but its final implementation was overseen by Ashwell (The Builder 1861). In 1861 The Builder noted that:
The ground has been laid out into squares as far as practicable, and the cemetery will be entered from Moor-lane, by avenues on either side, 24 feet wide, leading to the two chapels about to be erected. The whole ground is intersected with walks from 8 feet to 10 wide, the united length of which is 31/2 miles, and planted with hollies, scarlet thorn, weeping ash, etc.
The new cemetery was consecrated by the Bishop of Worcester on 23 May 1863, and opened for burials on 28 May. In 1863, the Roman Catholic community, which had been allocated an exclusive area of ground for burials in the cemetery, obtained permission to erect a chapel, while in February 1868 a parcel of ground comprising 21/2 acres (c 1ha) at the north-east corner of the cemetery was sold to the Jewish congregation for use as an exclusive burial ground (Bunce 1885). A separate entrance, lodge, and prayer hall were constructed and the site planted with ornamental trees. As originally laid out only the central section of the main site was used for burials, the areas to the north and south being held in reserve. Additional land for the use of Anglicans was consecrated as early as June 1868 (ibid), and by 1886 (OS) the whole site had been taken into use. An additional lodge was constructed at the south-west corner of the site in the late-C19 (OS 1904).
The Roman Catholic and Nonconformist chapels were both demolished c 1980; the nursery with its glasshouses was abandoned and subsequently cleared. A new cemetery office was constructed in 2000. Today (2001), Witton Cemetery, also known as the Birmingham City Cemetery, remains municipal property.
LOCATION, AREA, BOUNDARIES, LANDFORM, SETTING Witton Cemetery is situated c 4.5km north-north-east of the centre of the city of Birmingham. The c 40ha site is approximately rectangular on plan, and is bounded to the north by the A453, College Road, and to the south by the A4040, Brookvale Road. The eastern boundary is formed by an early-C20 residential road, The Ridgeway, and to the west by Moor Lane which was formed before the construction of the cemetery in the mid-C19 (Corporation Plans 168, 1860). To the south-west the cemetery is adjoined by a raised section of the M6 motorway which follows the line of Moor Lane. The cemetery is enclosed from the surrounding roads by red-brick walls c 2.5m high which are surmounted by stone copings. The western wall bounding Moor Lane is broken by a series of stone piers surmounted by stone spires which echo those adjacent to the principal gates. The boundary walls were designed by Clarke in 1859-60 and form part of the original layout of the cemetery (Minutes).
The cemetery is situated on a west- and south-facing slope overlooking the valley of the River Tame which is today developed with late-C19 and C20 industrial and domestic premises. In the mid-C19 this outlook would have been more rural with views west and south-west across farmland, the grounds of Aston Hall (qv), and the northern suburbs of Birmingham; the city centre remains prominent in southerly views from high ground to the south of the Anglican chapel. To the east of the avenue running north from the Anglican chapel to the site of the Nonconformist chapel the site is predominantly level.
ENTRANCES AND APPROACHES Witton Cemetery is entered from Moor Lane to the west, at a point c 750m north-west of its junction with Brookvale Road. The entrance is flanked by low stone quadrant walls surmounted by ornamental cast-iron railings which terminate at their junction with the boundary fronting Moor Lane in monumental buttressed stone piers surmounted by spires (all listed grade II). The walls, piers, and railings were designed by Clarke in 1859-60. The space between the quadrant walls and the entrance drive is filled by lawns and geometric flower beds for seasonal planting. Mid or late-C20 wrought-iron carriage gates flanked by a pair of pedestrian gates supported by C20 brick piers replace the mid-C19 entrance gates designed by Clarke. Within the cemetery the entrance is flanked by two lodges (listed grade II). The larger lodge to the north, intended for the occupation of the cemetery registrar or superintendent, is approximately L-shaped on plan with a three-storey tower surmounted by a pyramidal roof with wrought-iron cresting and a weathervane set at the inner angle. Constructed in Hampstead stone with lighter stone details and ornaments, the two-storey lodge is conceived in a boldly asymmetrical Gothic style with canted bay windows, gables with wrought-iron finials, and gargoyles. To the north-west a Gothic-style arcade overlooks a garden which is separated from Moor Lane by a low stone wall surmounted by cast-iron railings (listed grade II). The lodge was designed by Clarke in 1859 and formed part of the original layout for the cemetery. To the south of the entrance is a further single-storey porter's lodge of similar but simpler form to the principal lodge, also designed by Clarke in 1859.
To the north-east of the principal entrance and aligned with it, a wide flight of stone steps in four sections flanked by an avenue of silver birch ascends to a war memorial in the form of the Cross of Sacrifice. The memorial forms the south-west termination to an avenue of limes which extends c 300m north-east across the site to reach the east entrance which is set approximately at the mid-point of the eastern boundary formed by The Ridgeway. The east entrance comprises a pair of mid-C19 cast-iron gates with Gothic-style panels and fleur-de-lis ornaments which are supported by a pair of tall stone piers surmounted by stepped pyramid caps; the gates and piers were designed by Clarke. A further entrance is situated at the south-west corner of the site adjacent to the junction of Moor Lane and Brookvale Road, now overshadowed by the mid-C20 elevated section of the M6 motorway. The entrance is marked by a Vernacular-style timber lych gate containing a pair of solid timber gates with ornamental iron hinges. To the south-east of the entrance stands a late-C19 two-storey tile and half-timbered lodge. The entrance and lodge were constructed in the late-C19 as an addition to Ashwell and Clarke's original scheme for the cemetery, possibly as the southern section of the site was brought into use; the lodge is first shown on the OS map of 1904. A pedestrian entrance comprising a single cast-iron gate of gothic form with a spiked top-rail is situated at the mid-point of the northern boundary leading to College Road. This entrance is first shown on the 1938 OS map, but the gate, which appears to be of mid-C19 origin, may have been relocated.
The Jewish Cemetery has a private entrance from The Ridgeway c 80m south-south-east of its junction with College Road. The entrance comprises a pair of mid-C19 cast-iron gates with fleur-de-lis finials supported by a pair of stone piers with pyramid caps. The entrance is flanked by low brick walls surmounted by wrought-iron railings. Within the Jewish Cemetery is a single-storey, red-brick, Gothic-style lodge with blue-brick and stone details. The entrance, railings, and lodge appear to be contemporary with the construction of the Jewish Cemetery in 1868.
PRINCIPAL BUILDING The Anglican chapel stands on an artificial terrace in an elevated position c 300m south-east of the principal entrance. Constructed in Hampstead stone under a steeply pitched tiled roof, the gothic chapel comprises a nave aligned from west to east and a south aisle on the same alignment. At the north-west corner of the building a three-storey tower is surmounted by a slender spire. The tower and its spire is aligned on a wide avenue which extends north along the crest of the west-facing slope on which the cemetery is laid out, forming a dramatic termination which would formerly have been echoed by a similar spire on the Nonconformist chapel to the north. A vestry wing to the south of the chapel was demolished c 1988. The chapel was designed by R Clarke of Nottingham in 1859-60. The Nonconformist chapel (demolished c 1980) was of similar form to the surviving Anglican chapel.
OTHER LAND Witton Cemetery is laid out with a series of curvilinear drives and a network of straight avenues enclosing areas for burial. This arrangement is dictated by the topography of the site, with the curvilinear drives being situated on the lower, west-facing slope and the straight avenues forming square-plan burial areas on the higher, level ground towards the northern and eastern boundaries of the site.
Immediately within the principal entrance, at the foot of the flight of steps ascending to the war memorial and the principal east/west avenue, the drive divides, with branches sweeping north-east and south-east and ascending to turning circles adjacent to the Anglican chapel and the site of the Nonconformist chapel. Some 65m north-east of the entrance the drive passes the late-C20 circular brick and glass cemetery office which stands immediately south of the site of the mid-C19 Roman Catholic chapel. The site of the chapel, which was demolished c 1980, survives as a grassy area with specimen trees and ornamental shrubs to the west. Further curvilinear drives lead south-east and north-west towards the extremities of the site. These drives are planted with groups of specimen trees and shrubs; few of these trees appear to survive from the original construction of the cemetery.
The Anglican chapel is approached from the principal north/south avenue by a wide flight of stone steps. The steps are flanked by a stone balustrade formed from open trefoils extending between piers with pyramid caps. The site of the Nonconformist chapel c 500m north-north-west of the Anglican chapel is similarly approached by a flight of stone steps broken into two sections to reflect the terracing of the slope ascending from the avenue. The principal north/south avenue is planted with mature limes set on a wide grass verge, sections of which are now (2001) being used for burials. Some c 230m north-north-west of the Anglican chapel the principal avenue is crossed by the east/west axial avenue leading from the east entrance to the war memorial above the steps which descend to the west entrance. Immediately south-east of the east entrance is a mid-C19 service yard comprising two single-storey ranges of sheds and stores; a C20 service area is situated immediately north-west of the east entrance.
To east and west the north/south avenue is adjoined by a series of square-plan burial plots which are divided by a grid-pattern of walks and drives planted with mature trees forming mixed avenues. Some 150m north-north-west of the Anglican chapel, on the east side of the principal north/south avenue, is a rectangular area enclosed by low stone walls and entered through a mid-C20 wrought-iron gate; this garden commemorates civilians killed in Birmingham during the Second World War. Immediately to the north-west a group of Commonwealth War Graves headstones are enclosed within a low box hedge.
There are few individual monuments of distinction in the cemetery, but impressive groups of monuments survive around the Anglican chapel and adjacent to the site of the Nonconformist chapel. A chest tomb (1862) to the north-east of the Anglican chapel commemorates the Cattell family, while to the south-west of the chapel are situated an obelisk commemorating the Standbridge family (1869) and an Egyptian-style art nouveau influenced marble column commemorating members of the Holyoake family (1900). At the northern end of the north/south avenue, c 50m south-west of the site of the Nonconformist chapel, a granite lighthouse set among a group of granite boulders on which sits a flock of white marble seagulls commemorates Ernest Beston (d 1933). Some 50m north-west of the site of the Nonconformist chapel a red granite obelisk set within a large, approximately square enclosure surrounded by kerbs and chains suspended from bollards records the reburial of 1503 coffins removed from the burial ground of the Old Meeting House in 1882-3 in consequence of improvements to New Street Station, Birmingham; the monument was paid for by the railway companies (Bunce 1885). The cemetery also received bodies exhumed from burial grounds attached to a Congregational chapel in Summer Lane (1878-9) and Cannon Street Chapel (1879-80) (ibid).
The Jewish Cemetery at the north-east corner of the site is separated from the main cemetery by a brick wall c 2m high, and is laid out with a central walk extending west from the entrance on The Ridgeway to a centrally placed octagonal stone prayer hall. The prayer hall is constructed in a simple Gothic style under a pyramidal roof. The cemetery is planted with a wide range of mature specimen trees and conifers including limes, pines, monkey-puzzles, and ornamental shrubbery which forms the setting for an extensive group of C19 and C20 funerary monuments.
The Builder 19, (13 July 1861), 484 Bunce J T , History of the Corporation of Birmingham ii, (1885), 334-40 Victoria History of the County of Warwickshire vii, (1964), 341 Pevsner N and Wedgewood A, The Buildings of England: Warwickshire (1966), 211 Brooks C, Mortal Remains (1989), pp 54, 89, 125 McKenna J, In the Midst of Life - A History of the Burial Grounds of Birmingham (1992), 25 Brooks C, English Historic Cemeteries, (English Heritage theme study 1994) West Midlands Register Review, (English Heritage 1996)
Maps Clarke R, plans for the chapel and lodge, 1860 (Corporation Plans 99), (City of Birmingham Archive) Plan of Land in the hamlet of Witton, in the Parish of Aston, & County of Warwick, Purchased by the Corporation of Birmingham for a Cemetery, 1859-60 (Corporation Plans 168), (City of Birmingham Archive) Contract plan for cemetery walls (Corporation Plans 100), (City of Birmingham Archive) Elevation for the Roman Catholic chapel, 1863 (Corporation Plans 106), (City of Birmingham Archive)
OS 6" to 1 mile: 1st edition published 1886 1921 edition OS 25" to 1 mile: 2nd edition published 1904 3rd edition published 1914 1938 edition
Archival items Birmingham Corporation Burial Board Minutes, 1858-62 (City of Birmingham Archive)
REASONS FOR DESIGNATION Witton Cemetery is designated at Grade II for the following principal reasons: * Witton Cemetery is a High Victorian cemetery (1861) laid out for the Burial Board of a major provincial town. * The cemetery was the first municipal provision of burial space in Birmingham. * The cemetery was laid out to the design of Richard Ashwell, a former gardener at Chatsworth (qv) and first Superintendent of London Road Cemetery, Coventry (1845, qv). * The cemetery structures including a lodge and two chapels were designed by R Clarke of Nottingham. * The layout of the cemetery combines a grand formal terrace linking the chapels, and curvilinear walks dividing burial plots on sloping ground to create a picturesque ensemble. * The layout of the cemetery survives substantially intact, with only the Nonconformist Chapel (Clarke, 1861) and the later Roman Catholic Chapel (1863) having been lost. * The cemetery contains an enclosed Jewish section (1868) with ornamental planting, lodge and octagonal prayer hall. * The cemetery contains a collection of monuments which reflect the development of Birmingham during the second half of the C19; this includes a monument commemorating the re-interment of 1503 coffins from the Old Meeting House in 1882-3, as well as other re-interments from inner urban burial grounds. * The cemetery contains a small military section.
Description written: August 2001 Amended: September 2001 Register Inspector: JML Edited: December 2009
This List entry has been amended to add sources for War Memorials Online and the War Memorials Register. These sources were not used in the compilation of this List entry but are added here as a guide for further reading, 10 July 2017.
The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.
Legacy System number: 5091
Legacy System: Parks and Gardens
War Memorials Online, accessed 10 July 2017 from https://www.warmemorialsonline.org.uk/memorial/238645
War Memorials Online, accessed 10 July 2017 from https://www.warmemorialsonline.org.uk/memorial/241318
War Memorials Online, accessed 10 July 2017 from https://www.warmemorialsonline.org.uk/memorial/238646
War Memorials Online, accessed 10 July 2017 from https://www.warmemorialsonline.org.uk/memorial/238649
War Memorials Register, accessed 10 July 2017 from http://www.iwm.org.uk/memorials/item/memorial/28356
This garden or other land is registered under the Historic Buildings and Ancient Monuments Act 1953 within the Register of Historic Parks and Gardens by Historic England for its special historic interest.
End of official listing