Until the 19th century, specialised cemeteries were practically unheard of in Britain. Their inception was, firstly, to ease the pressure on churchyard burials. The second, and probably not so important reason, was The Free Churches' objection to the strict C of E ceremony that went with these burials.
By the end of the 19th century Handsworth was a prosperous urban district of Staffordshire, but in danger of being swallowed up by an ever-expanding Birmingham. Fearing that Handsworth's wealth would be squandered on Birmingham projects, the leaders decided to embark on three major projects to ensure Handsworth profited by their own enterprise. These were the building of an extravagant town hall (now Handsworth College/library on Soho Road), a beautifully landscaped park and, to cater for a growing demand on St. Mary's churchyard, the cemetery.
Although Birmingham had opened its main cemeteries at Warstone Lane and Key Hill as early as 1836, it wasn't until 1904 that the designer, W. H. Bidlake was commissioned to oversee the building of Handsworth Cemetery, in Camp Lane/Oxhill Road. He was given full responsibility for designing everything from the landscaping of the grounds to the building of the chapel, the fencing and the gates. The chapel and lodge are now Grade II Listed Buildings, as is St Andrew's church on Oxhill Road (another of Bidlake's works).
Built on the site of a large 18th-century house called the Leveretts (the entrance from Holyhead Road is the original drive to the house) Handsworth Cemetery was opened for the first burial in 1909. In 1911 the cemetery finally became the responsibility of Birmingham City Council when the District amalgamated.
At the time of completion, this was not only a place to bury and remember the dead but also a place of quiet recreation. Old photographs of Handsworth and other cemeteries often show the well-dressed middle-class taking their Sunday promenade around the grounds.
Visitors today can still see the magnificent job Bidlake did. No expense was spared. Each pathway, unlike those of its contemporaries, is aesthetically sculptured with curves and each is lined with a different species of deciduous trees. Utility buildings are hidden from obvious view by being sited in depressions in the landscaping and surrounded by hedges. The fences and gates were of top quality wrought ironwork and extravagant flights of stone steps were built between levels.
The chapel is a tall slender building in gothic style fronted with two pointed spires. Inside is a magnificent pillared ceiling, featuring red, Cumbria roofing tiles, while brilliant stained glass windows make the most of the natural light. There is a mortuary with large windows enabling the coffin or corpse to be viewed without actually entering the room. A small balcony is also incorporated in the chapel to accommodate a choir.
There are only two constructions in the whole development which were not directly designed by Bidlake. The office building was added in 1919 when the chapel vestry proved to be too small for the purpose. Although not Bidlake's work, extreme care was taken in the construction to ensure it fitted in with the rest of the complex.
The war memorial was then added in 1921. It includes the names of two teenagers. They were not killed in action but in an aeroplane accident, when they were being treated to a flight in an R.A.F. plane, during WWII.
Today, besides catering for all denominations of Christian burials, there is a Muslim section to the cemetery. However, because of increasing labour costs, most new sections are green lawn areas, where headstones only are allowed and set into a lawn. This makes maintenance far easier, allowing mowers to be driven between the lines of headstones (similar to the landscaping of Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries).
With the grounds and views across Sandwell Valley and as far as Barr Beacon, Handsworth Cemetery is still a tranquil place to promenade. These days you don't have to be well dressed or middle class to enjoy the sense of history evoked by these beautiful surroundings.
I would like to thank David Fairhurst (former superintendent of Handsworth Cemetery) for his assistance in writing this short history.
Paul Holmes 2003