Birmingham Cathedral; a personal reflection by Joseph Roberts

My wife and I were one of the rare ones; we both worshipped in the parish of St. Philip’s and also lived within it.  The Church of England today is a broad church and gone is the day when you would traditionally attend your local parish church because it was near by and the done thing. There is diversity, choice and ‘pick and mix’ and neither is a bad thing.

However we were fortunate. During the eight years of living in the city centre of Birmingham we lived only ten minutes away from the cathedral. This was no bad thing especially when finishing a shift in a pub late on a Saturday night. It made getting to church ‘on time’ on Sundays so much easier! Now for both of us, the fact that St. Philip’s is the cathedral church of Birmingham didn’t play a part as to why we worshipped there and got involved. Yes the architecture is nice and the stained glass exquisite but it’s the people that make the church. “Where two or three are gathered together there I am in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20). Yet the décor does also add something ethereal.

When attending the cathedral Jaime and I felt at home. For us there was the ‘three W’s’: Worship, warmth and welcome. For us the beauty of Birmingham Cathedral is it’s ‘parish’ feel. It’s relational. It’s local, intimate and in my opinion easier to connect with others and the Lord, than in other more ancient and grandiose cathedrals. At its heart it is a church. A church that serves its people; in worship, prayer, reflection, support and action.

The cathedral is much more than just a place we went on Sundays. We were active in the life of it. I was even privileged to work there as a part-time Verger. We felt such a strong connection that Jaime and I even got married there. Both the support, nourishment and encouragement from the cathedral clergy and the congregation has been immense. It has been especially important in sustaining and nurturing me through my discernment to the priesthood.


Joe and Jaime’s wedding at the cathedral in 2011

Birmingham Cathedral has played such a huge part in both our lives, that we really can’t explain it and put it into words. This blog post doesn’t do the cathedral and what it has given us over the years justice. However if someone by reading this, is encouraged to come along and see what Birmingham Cathedral does and is, then that is a step in the right direction. And so now as my wife and I live in Cambridge (Jaime works in a bookshop and I am training for ordained ministry at Westcott House), we both know that we will always be a part of Birmingham Cathedral and importantly Birmingham Cathedral will always be a part of us.



The Burnaby Memorial by Canon Nigel Hand

It is almost impossible to say anything of any depth about Frederick Burnaby in such a short article, but if interested, you’ll find quite a lot about his life online. Throughout any week, thousands of people pass across Birmingham Cathedral square. Many of them will go past the Burnaby Memorial. Few will take that much notice of it. Fewer still will take on board the words on it. There is a relief bust with the name BURNABY, and the dated place names of KHIVA 1875, and ABU KLEA 1885. All names that stood out at a particular time in history. But who was Burnaby? What is a memorial to him doing on the square?

NPG 2642; Frederick Burnaby by James Jacques Tissot

Frederick Burnaby by Jean Jacques Tissot, oil on panel, 1870, courtesy of National Portrait Gallery.

Most of us think that celebrity is a modern notion. It’s not! Colonel Frederick Gustavus Burnaby to give him his full name and title was in every way the biggest celebrity of his day. A larger than life character who was known by many across the country. No mean feat considering the lack of modern communication methods.

Fred Burnaby Books

The son of a clergyman, Fred, as he was known, was a tall man with a big physique. He joined the army at 17. He was known as the strongest man in the British Army with party tricks that included jumping from a standing start over a snooker table and also picking up under his arms two donkeys. On top of this, he was an insatiable traveller (his books ‘On Horseback Through Asia Minor’ and ‘A Ride To Khiva’ are still available today and well worth a read) and also the first man to cross the English Channel in a Hot Air Balloon. He was intelligent; he spoke several languages. He found life in the officer’s mess somewhat boring and he managed to combine his love of travel with a bit of spying on the side. Fred was in every way a national name and a national hero. But why Birmingham? He had a brief and unsuccessful flirtation with politics and stood for parliament here in Birmingham against Joe Chamberlain. It’s worth pondering how things may have been different had he won! There certainly wouldn’t have been any problem of putting Birmingham on the map if he had won!!!!! Politics was not the sanitised stage-managed thing that it is now in those days. Several times on the platform when he spoke he had to contend with mobs. He didn’t need minders. He was more than able to handle himself!

Burnaby London Illustrated

From The London Illustrated News 

He eventually went back to soldiering serving in the Blues (The Royal Horse Guards). When the authorities finally sent help to the siege at Khartoum, where General Gordon was holding out, Burnaby was part of the initial force sent to relieve them. It was too late and on their way there they were to face overwhelming odds at a watering hole named Abu Klea. Burnaby died a hero’s death at the age of 42. There was national mourning with a rumour that even Queen Victoria had fainted on hearing the news. The London Times had an obituary of some 5000 words. In such a short life, Burnaby had become a national hero. I walk past his memorial every day and often think of this extraordinary man. I ponder too, as the memorial is often a meeting place of many different groups, some who sadly treat it with disrespect, leaving their graffiti on it what the great man would do? I like to think he’d simply pick them up like donkeys and drop them somewhere else!

Colonel Frederick Burnaby. Traveller, man of letters, adventurer, soldier, almost politician, national hero and adopted Brummie!

Family Connections with Birmingham Cathedral by Guest Blogger David Veale

Some time ago, I went to a meeting where the Dean of Birmingham Cathedral, the Very Revd Catherine Ogle, gave a very interesting presentation about the proposed 2015 celebrations at the cathedral and asked people with family connections with the cathedral to contact her. I remembered, from some family history research that I had done, that my grandfather on my mother’s side had been born in Birmingham and that his family had connections with St Philip’s Church before it became the cathedral.

St Philips 1819 (david veale


                                   Print of the cathedral published by Richard Davies

My great great great grandfather, Samuel Willis was born around 1780 and was probably baptised at St Philips on 29th December 1780.  He became a button maker and lived in Colmore Row with premises in Livery Street.  His wife’s name was Maria and they married around 1809.  They had two daughters: Maria Jane (my great great grandmother) and Louisa Susanna, baptised in 1811 and 1812 respectively at St Philips.  Samuel’s wife, Maria, died March 3rd 1840. Samuel  moved to a house on the Bristol Road and then to the Hagley Road where the 1851 census lists him living with his daughter Louisa, 3 granddaughters, and two servants. Samuel died July 31st 1853.  He suffered from chronic illness towards the end of his life and his death certificate lists diabetes (21 years), paralysis (10 years) and erysipelas (16 days). Samuel and Maria are commemorated in St Philip’s churchyard together with two grandchildren who died in infancy but the stone (lying horizontally near the statue of Bishop Gore) is now badly corroded.

Maria Jane Willis married Richard Davies at St Philip’s on July 25th 1848.  Richard was a bookseller and printer and lived close by (40 Temple Row). It was his second marriage.  We have a print of St Philip’s published by Richard (see above).  Richard and Maria had two children: Emily Jane (my great grandmother) born 1849 and Willis Richard born 1854.    The family moved to 266 Monument Lane, Edgbaston (which still exists).  Richard also suffered from chronic illness and his death certificate lists chronic bronchitis (15 years) and cerebral softening (5 years). Richard died in on 18th October 1869 aged 57.    Maria Jane lived to 1887 but was taken ill suddenly at teatime on 1st May of that year  and died the next day aged 76.  She is commemorated on a stone in St Phillip’s churchyard next to her parents’ gravestone.

Maria and Richard Davies David Veale

Family album: top Maria and Richard Davies, bottom George and Emily Jane Smith

My great grandmother, Emily Jane Davies married George John Elmore Smith in 1875.  She was an accomplished artist and, at one time, gave lessons at the Grand Hotel, Colmore Row.  My grandfather, Raymond Francis Elmore Smith, was born at the Monument Road house on 16th December 1879.  Although he later moved to London, he would still refer to St Philip’s as “the Parish Church”.

David Veale

People from the Past Guest Blog by Dr Mike Hodder

Archaeology and Birmingham Cathedral: People from the Past by guest blogger Dr Mike Hodder
Most archaeological work investigates things people left behind them- what they built and the objects they used- from which we can deduce how they lived. When the remains of actual people from the past are affected by new development, we can show them due respect by properly recording their remains before reburial. Archaeologists recorded burials, vaults and memorials during landscaping works around the Cathedral in 2000-2001. Only those burials that would be disturbed by the landscaping works were excavated and examined; the others were left in place.

Harrison vault

Excavated Harrison Vault
Methods of burial at the cathedral tell us about social standing, grave memorials tell us about attitudes to death, and analysis of skeletons tell us about living conditions in eighteenth and nineteenth century Birmingham. In some cases actual individuals are known from name plates on their coffins. The information from burials at the cathedral can be compared with that from burials excavated at St Martins as part of the Bull Ring. They also show what might be derived from archaeological excavation of Park Street Gardens Burial Ground which is affected by the new Curzon Station for HS2 High Speed Rail.
Birmingham Cathedral lies outside the historic centre of Birmingham, a medieval town around St Martin’s church, where all Birmingham’s dead were buried from the 12th century until the construction of St Philip’s Church (later to become the cathedral) in the eighteenth century. About 80,000 people were buried in the cathedral churchyard. It was closed to new burials in 1885 because of crowding and insanitary conditions, but new interments could still take place in existing vaults and brick-lined graves. The burial ground originally extended beyond its present boundaries before the widening of Temple Row and Temple Row West.
People were buried in coffins alone, in brick lined graves or shafts which contained coffins stacked on top of each other and were covered by stone slabs, and in brick vaults. The coffins could be wooden, wooden with a lead lining, or lead between two layers of wood.
The Harrison family vault on the Colmore Row side of the churchyard was emptied because it was to become the location of a new entrance to the churchyard. It contained eight coffins and the people buried in them could be identified from name plates or deduced from the location of the coffins in relation to each other, and written records of the family. The older family members had poor teeth and osteoarthritis.

Harrison tomb

Harrison Vault
Skeletons from other burials included bowed bones resulting from rickets and teeth with a groove from clenching a pipe. Burials included adults and children, and there were many loose bones resulting from later burials being dug through earlier unmarked graves.
Burials continued at St Martin’s after St Philip’s was built. 857 burials dating from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were excavated here in 2001 as part of the Bullring development. Park Street Gardens was in use during the nineteenth century as an overspill burial ground for St Martins. People buried here lived at the time when Birmingham rose to international significance. Most of the burials are still in place.

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERASt Martins excavation_2

Park Street Burial Ground and HS2 Curzon Street excavations
The archaeological work around the Cathedral in 2000-2001 was carried out by Birmingham University Field Archaeology Unit on behalf of Birmingham City Council and was directed by Chris Patrick. His detailed report is at:
Dr Mike Hodder, Archaeologist
Archaeological Advisor to the Birmingham Diocesan Advisory Committee

War Memorial Birmingham Cathedral

An attractive and unusual war memorial commemorates the role played by the 1/5th and the 2/5th as well as the 1/6th and the 2/6th battalions of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment in the First World War 1914-18.
These battalions of The Royal Warwickshire Regiment had their headquarters in Thorp Street, Birmingham. They had only just departed for their summer camp when war broke out in August 1914 and they were recalled immediately. By the second week of August they were mobilised for war service and commenced training. They went from Southampton to Le Havre in France on the 22nd of March 1915.

In 1916 they were in action at the Battle of the Somme and suffered heavy casualties. They were also in action at The Battle of Bazentin Ridge, capturing Ovillers, The Battle of Pozieres Ridge, The Battle of the Ancre Heights and The Battle of the Ancre. In 1917 the Division occupied Peronne during the The German Retreat to the Hindenburg Line and were in action in the Third Battles of Ypres. On the 21st of November 1917 they entrained for Italy. In 1918 they were involved in fighting on the Asiago Plateau and The Battle of the Vittoria Veneto in the Val d’Assa area. At the Armistice the Division had withdrawn and was at Granezza. Demobilisation began in early 1919.

During the course of the war the Royal Warwickshire Regiment raised 30 battalions of soldiers. Many of them came from Birmingham. They served in France, Belgium and Italy as well as Gallipoli (Turkey) and Mespotamia (modern day Iraq). Many gallantry medals were awarded to men serving in the regiment including six Victoria Crosses.
This memorial was installed in 1920 and was designed by a leading local arts and crafts architect Arthur Stansfield Dixon. He was the architect behind the Guild of Handicrafts in Great Charles Street, Birmingham. The guild published a booklet entitled “Memorials: The Work of the Architect in the Design and Execution of War Memorials.” As one might expect the memorial in the cathedral is an unusual design with four diamonds to represent each battalion made from white and green marble. It incorporates delicate floral and leaf motifs in a border painted red and green as well an Indian antelope, the regimental badge of the Royal Warwickshire.

Memorials were often placed in places of worship. It is recorded that the armistice service at the cathedral was so well attended in November 1918 that it had be conducted on three separate occasions.

War Memorial Robert Jones