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Key Hill Cemetery: The Living Among the Dead

Key Hill Cemetery is one of those urban spaces that is easy to overlook; I have lived a short train journey away for most of my life, yet it went unvisited until June this year. I had come across references to the place in books and Wikipedia rabbit holes; it being the resting place of the Chamberlains, arguably Birmingham’s most influential family and major players in the politics of the early 20th century. Neville Chamberlain (Prime Minister between 1937 and 1940) isn’t buried here—he lies in Westminster Abbey—but his father, Joseph, and many of his relatives lie in Section K. Other notable internments include the Tolkeins (that is, J.R.R. Tolkein’s grandparents), Marie Beauclerc (first female reporter in England and first female teacher in an English Public School), and Alfred Bird of Bird’s Custard fame. Apart from the Chamberlains, I knew few of these names before I visited; in fact, most of them I came across only during subsequent research. This is reflective of the way in which the cemetery has been preserved and presented; it’s not advertised as a big tourist attraction, it doesn’t have a great deal of infrastructure, and information boards are unobtrusive.

These things—that the place is easy to miss, and that I knew little about the internments until after my visit—introduce one of the aspects about Key Hill that interested me straight away: the idea of ‘abandonment’ or ‘neglect’. Because the cemetery is somewhat overgrown, and many of the graves are dilapidated, it makes sense to argue for Key Hill as an untouched relic. This is particularly relevant given the work of the Jewellery Quarter Cemeteries Project,[1] which performs ongoing, long-term restoration work on both Key Hill and Warstone Lane cemeteries. The very notion of ‘restoration’ entails deterioration, but I wanted to explore whether there was any truth in the idea that the Key Hill we see today is the result of neglect.

above: tombstones in the north of Key Hill; the fortification wall can be seen in the background

My other interest in the place is the contrast between what might be called ‘organic’ and ‘executive’ curation; the former referring to the accumulation of personal choices (such as the landscape created by individually designed graves), and the latter to top-down decisions to significantly revise a space. Naturally there are blurred lines; for instance, when a council decision is taken after consulting individual opinions, or if different people affect personal choices for a shared vision. Nonetheless, the contrast is a beneficial way of thinking about somewhere—it draws out just how eclectic most places are.

Part of what makes Key Hill unique is that because it was non-denominational, it has Muslim and Jewish burials from the 1940s in addition to the predominant Christian ones. It’s interesting to consider the integration of these communities at that time, particularly given that the city is now home to much larger Muslim populations which have made their mark on its topography, from places of worship to community centres and schools. This process is itself a typical example of the organic curation outlined above. Though ‘non-denominational’ might imply an exclusion, the inclusion of burials from minority faiths affirms their place in society. The way in which their burials share space with those of the predominantly white, Christian culture, and contribute to the construction of Key Hill is a prime example of immigrant communities being legible in the urban fabric at a time when religious hostility was more prevalent. And they are indeed legible— my editor points out that names with non-British cultural associations have in the past been changed or manipulated in burial contexts; here some appear to have been complete and unaltered, also providing the names of relatives such as ‘Ghulam Hassam, son of Jaker Ali’.

A broader aspect of the Jewellery Quarter’s physical makeup, of which Key Hill is a part, is the dominance of industrial architecture, a result of both organic and executive curatorial processes. Factories were often set up by individual companies manipulating the space for their own needs, but so too were executive decisions made about which areas were to be industrial, and how these productive centres were integrated into the city’s infrastructure. The process of ‘regeneration’ (or ‘reclamation’ depending on your proprietary leanings) is fraught with the same ambiguity—yes, groovy micro-breweries and trendy espresso bars might pop up in old factories of their own accord, but much of the old manufacturing fabric in Birmingham was torn down on the advice of executive bodies. Though industrial architecture most often refers to factory buildings, there are numerous other structures and creations that are implicitly linked to industry. Walking to Key Hill from the Jewellery Quarter station, the visitor passes the ‘Temple of Relief’, the intricate façade of one of the first public urinals in England,[2] and a Banksy piece right next to it. The former is reflective of the size of the area’s population at that time, and the latter, like all Banksy(s), has a didactic message: here it is highlighting the homelessness epidemic in Birmingham, something which has historically been linked with the decline of prevailing industries and the communities that depended upon them.

above, left to right: terrace view to the south; alleyway en route between Key Hill Drive and Hylton Street; broken urn of the Lowe family; the 'Temple of Relief' (detail); view from the Metro platform to the north, overlooking Key Hill

These landmarks are not extraneous to the discussion of Key Hill—the route by which one approaches it alters the way in which it is perceived. Approaching the cemetery from the station, surrounded by factory shells and narrow alleyways, staggered boxes and the cemetery’s monumental wall, the visitor is exposed to a largely Victorian creation. This casts Key Hill as more intrinsic to its broader setting—this isn’t simply an anomaly from a bygone era, but something much more constitutional to the area’s character. The cemetery gates are peculiarly modest in comparison to the colossal wall which runs around the east side of the plots; this is likely practical in function, fortifying the surrounding hills and earth.

The first information board supported my inclinations about fragile ground—it states that Key Hill is built on old sandy mining land. This contributes to the landscape: there are uneven terraces, epitaphs half-sunk, and in tandem with the fact that the cemetery has not had any new internments for the best part of a century, and has been considerably reclaimed by nature, the whole place has the hint of an untamed idyl about it. This idyllic concept is itself an illusion, being heavily influenced by aesthetic schools, in this case, the Picturesque ideal immediately comes to mind. The vistas are evocative and have been engineered to make gravestones look like they embellish the view, rather than constitute it. This is a fallacy—the space has been curated with internments in mind. The staggering of the land is heavily influenced by its former function as mining ground but has also been adapted with consideration of viewpoints. Though Key Hill was once termed ‘the Westminster Abbey of the Midlands’, it is important to remember that this was said at a time when the cemetery was in frequent usage and taking new internments. The reality is that Key Hill is now much closer to the Necropolis in Glasgow or Père Lachaise in Paris, performative and monumental spaces which heavily influenced Key Hill’s original designer, Charles Edge.

above: monument of the Cox family

On the terrace of the cemetery, worn monuments fight for the eye. I stood for a while at one of the biggest, an hexagonal vault crowned with an urn, belonging to the Cox family. It got me thinking about audience; exactly whom are the Coxes speaking to? The scale of mortuary monuments is historically representative of status—in the cemetery, this hierarchy continues, uninterrupted; those most prominent in life are most prominent in death. Yet, as I strolled down to the lower levels of Key Hill, I was presented with a challenge—finding the grave of Joseph Chamberlain. The Chamberlains being such an illustrious Birmingham family, and extending the scale/status logic, one would expect to find a protruding monument with relative ease. The industrial architecture dominating the quarter, I anticipated the tombs of industrial families to be parallel, and therefore straightforward to find. But the search for the grave was more difficult than I envisaged; the plot number given on the information boards did not align with the divisions of the cemetery, so I was stuck. I pulled out my phone and had a look at a picture I’d saved of the gravestone. I then studied the silhouettes of the headstones in the background of that photo and clambered as sensitively I could over the century old slabs, covered in leaves and dust and twigs, until my view aligned with that of the photograph, and the names of the Chamberlains glared at me from the ground.

Though not exactly the Ark of the Covenant, Joseph Chamberlain’s grave is certainly furtive—it doesn’t stand at any real height and is situated amongst countless other names and graves. This is in contrast to his perceived importance as an historical figure, and certainly his prominence in the local and national politics of the early 20th century. Though some epitaphs trumpet aspects like property ownership ‘Of Manor House’, ‘Of Brunswick House’, therefore ensuring that even post-mortem, their wealth and social standing remain fresh, other such as those of the Chamberlains have very little information other than a name. The scale theory is not, therefore, completely watertight, even for its period. What we have in a cemetery like Key Hill is an eclectic mix of self-presentation rather than a straightforward reflection of societal status; it’s a principle that more closely resembles our current cemetery decorum, in which personal choice, the driving force behind organic curation, arguably outweighs social pressures. The explanation for the monument fabric lies somewhere between larger scale = higher status, and a free-for-all in which factors like money and background play no part. This creates an intrinsically curated space, even before later generations have begun tinkering with the layout of the place, the removal of remains, and the redefining of the landscape.

Having looked at Key Hill as an eclectic curated space, it’s now appropriate to consider broader diachronic changes and executive decisions. The writ-large revision of Key Hill is a fascinating process that has essentially been ongoing since fresh internments ceased in the 1940s. The most extensive changes were made in 1995, when a section of the cemetery was removed as part of the West Midlands Metro line. Though maps from the 1950s show railway tracks running along the cemetery perimeter, the Jewellery Quarter Metro platform reduced the space further and now directly overlooks Key Hill. The noughties reworking of the cemetery is a good example of how curation can be confrontational; a decision needed to be made about what Key Hill would look like after the alteration, and what’s more, the question of grave relocation.

A dual approach was taken; descendants and relatives of the interments were traced, and if this could not be done, the remains were reburied in Witton Cemetery, another historic cemetery adjacent to the M6. This process serves to show that although organic curation comes to mind when we think of cemeteries, executive rearrangements often have to be made, particularly in urban settings in which space is at a premium. Our relationship with revision has changed over time, and it is easy to fall into the trap of progressive illusion—that the decisions we make today are more decorous and appropriate than those that would have been made a century ago, for example. There is a warning here to be taken from archaeological sites and their ‘restoration’; perhaps Sir Arthur Evans did believe he was restoring Knossos to resemble its glory days, but now there is no doubt that there we are looking at an early 20th century fantasy on the theme of Minoan Crete.

Arguably, the ‘executive’ decisions taken at Key Hill have been handled well. The most notable product of the process is the ‘Metro Memorial’— three slabs of slate engraved with the names of all the reinterred. The memorial appears congruous with its setting, and particularly striking was the way in which it appeared to compliment the industrial architecture behind it. This is partly due to the exposed masonry that is very typical of this area of the city, but also the shape of the slabs mirrors the shape of the factory windows. Whether this was intentional or not does not change the reality of the current fabric, in which the imposing factory shells function partly as relevant memorials to a bygone era in a similar way to the headstones of Key Hill.

above: the 'Metro Memorial' (foreground)

But Key Hill and the wider Jewellery Quarter are areas of life and regeneration; their functions have changed over time. The burial ground is a microcosm for a particular kind of industrial curation that is most prevalent in the Midlands and North of England, in which the past continues to influence and define the urban fabric and decisions about its revision. The size of headstones and names of houses or families are not archaic detachments or relics; they contribute a great deal to our impressions of places and spaces. This is partially why Key Hill could not be anywhere else: from its reduction for the advent of the Metro to its political titans and industrial surroundings, the cemetery is complex space which showcases the multiple methods by which places can be defined. So, are the impressions of a relic from a bygone era false? Largely. Whereas it’s true that the place is easy to overlook, does not have the same level of infrastructure to comparable cemeteries (e.g., Highgate), and is somewhat overgrown, the picturesque vision against which this is judged is itself an illusion, and Key Hill has undergone waves of revision that contribute to these impressions. Arguably, Key Hill is largely the result of organic curation, but no urban area is unaffected by decisions and revisions falling under the executive umbrella. Ultimately, the way to think about these two terms is as lenses through which one can explore somewhere, rather than absolute categories. The relationship between them is what curates, and therefore creates, a space.

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[1] Their website contains a wealth of information on the history of Key Hill and covers several periods that it is impossible to do so here.

[2] Another one of these, though slightly less grandiose, can be seen near the northern wall of Key Hill; its entrance is from Cemetery Street, outside of the burial ground.


Further Links

The Jewellery Quarter Cemeteries Project —

The Jewellery Quarter Research Trust —


Vincent Jordan is an Editor and Contributor at Curation Space

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