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Change is necessary, change is good, but sometimes change brings sadness.

 

As part of my family history research I’ve come across a lot of churches that are no longer standing and graveyards that have long since been lost in the mists of time and buried under decades or centuries of change. Sometimes they’re flattened by war, sometimes they’re demolished simply because they’re in the way.

 

I just came across St Mary’s Church in Birmingham whose churchyard was the last resting place of my great x 5 grandmother, Mary Moseley. She died in March 1833.

 

St Mary’s Church and General Hospital off Whittall Street, Birmingham, 1921.
Source: Britain from Above

The same scene today – now Birmingham Children’s Hospital. Source: Google Earth.

 

Looking at the two images above you can see that the old hospital with its two towers (slightly distorted by the Google Earth’s rendering) is still standing but the unusual octagonal church and surrounding gardens that lay beyond it are no longer there. St Mary’s is long gone.

 

The website A History of Birmingham Churches by William Dargue tells us the story of St Mary’s:

 

At the beginning of the 18th century Birmingham began to spread northwards from its ancient centre around the Bull Ring. One of the earliest estates to be laid out was that of Dorothy and Mary Weaman. However, housing development here was slow, and so the ladies decided to build a church, not so much to cater for local residents, but rather to attract new residents. At a time when most pews were rented and the best pews had been taken in the other churches in the town, this would prove an attractive proposition to newcomers to the estate. They would live close to their place of worship and, if they subscribed towards the building of the church, they would be guaranteed the rent of a prestigious pew near the pulpit.

St Mary’s was built in 1774 in Whittall Street by Joseph Pickford, an architect from Derby who had worked on the Palladian Horse Guards building in Whitehall. A chapel of ease of St Martin’s, St Mary’s took its dedication from the Christian name of Mary Weaman, for, although the cost of building was raised by subscription, Mary Weaman gave the site for the new church and £1000 towards its construction, by far the largest single amount. The final cost was around £4700.

When first built, the church stood in open ground on the north edge of the town, but the creation of a new church here had the desired effect and the area was soon built up around it. St Mary’s was an octagonal brick building with a small tower and spire, in a neo-classical style and surrounded by a large churchyard. The importance of being assured a place of burial was probably of equal rank to that of having a guaranteed seat in the church.

The octagonal shape of the church was considered ideal for preaching and there was only a small apsidal chancel. There was a tower of three stages, the first round, the second octagonal with Doric columns at each angle, and the third octagonal with a clock face and pediment on each alternate side. There was a slender spire.

In 1776 part of the gallery collapsed during the morning service. Although there were no injuries other than the loss of some ladies their handkerchiefs and some gentlemen their hats, this was a serious matter. The trustees had difficulties in arranging a meeting with the architect. In the end the matter was settled by Pickford’s offer of £400 in settlement.

One of the Hiorne brothers (it is not known which one), the architects of St Bartholomew’s in Masshouse Lane, was consulted. He suggested using cast-iron columns to support the gallery. If this is not the first example of the use of cast-iron this way, it is certainly one of the earliest.

St Mary’s had a Methodist connection (Methodists were part of the Church of England until after John Wesley’s death in 1791). In 1786 John Wesley attended a service at the church to hear ‘an admirable sermon’ from the curate.

The church remained a focus of evangelical preaching until the end of the 19th century.

Around the beginning of the 19th century the district became a focus for gun manufacture. The rear gardens of the large Georgian houses were first used to carry out manufacturing processes, and then the houses themselves were used. And the area quickly lost its high-class status.

In 1841 St Mary’s was assigned a parish out of that of St Martin’s. In 1857 the building was renovated. The tower and spire were found to be unsafe and were rebuilt in 1866 to a very similar design, but with pilasters instead of columns and a balustrade on the second stage. In 1888 400 of the 1700 sittings were free. At some point the tower and spire appear to have been rebuilt yet again.

In 1882 the churchyard, presumably now full, was taken over by the Corporation and laid out as a public garden, known as St Mary’s Garden.

In 1897 the General Hospital was rebuilt in Steelhouse Lane close to the church. Because of need for land for the expansion of the General Hospital, St Mary’s was closed in 1925 pending demolition and the parish united with that of the Bishop Ryder Memorial Church in Gem Street.

The sale of the land paid most of the cost of £20,415 to build a new St Mary’s on the new housing estate at Pype Hayes in 1929. St Mary’s 18th-century silver communion service by Boulton & Fothergill now belongs to Pype Hayes church.”

St Mary’s Church. Image from R K Dent, 1878, ‘Birmingham Old & New’.
Source: Sally Lloyd

 

I know the burials were reinterred elsewhere before the building work began, some in Witton Cemetery around 1927, and the rest in Warstone Lane Cemetery around 1952-53. In 1882 a record was made of all the monumental inscriptions in St Mary’s churchyard but sadly there were no Moseleys listed. This could be because no stone was ever placed on the grave or because the one that was had succumbed to the ravages of time. This, of course, means that Mary’s new grave wherever she was reinterred will also be unmarked.

 

Mary is not by any means the only ancestor I have whose last resting place is forever lost and each one saddens me. I know that it would be impossible to preserve all graveyards and cemeteries forever but I still find it sad that so much of our heritage has been lost to the unceasing march of progress. Change and progress are and always will be inevitable. But sometimes it just makes me sad …

 

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