Average time of walk: 2-3 hours.
I have constructed a walk to include some of Birmingham’s architectural treasures and haunted locations. The walk begins in Centenary Square outside Baskerville House.
1. Baskerville House, built in 1939 is designed by T. Cecil Howitt. There is an impressive entrance porch with two ionic columns rising up towards a semicircular arch at the roof level. Ionic columns also feature at the sides of the building. The house stands on the site of the former Baskerville House, home of John Baskerville (1706-1775) the printer.
After John’s death, the house was owned by John Ryland who took ownership on 14th July 1791 – a day that saw rioting on Birmingham’s streets, which would be known as the Priestly Riots. On that day, a mob ransacked Baskerville House and three rioters, unaware that the building was on fire, broke into the wine cellar. The three men died in the flames and these three souls still haunt Baskerville House to this day!
Also, note the domed octagonal building in front of the house – The Hall of Memory, designed by S N Cooke and W N Twist and built in 1923-4. The inside carvings are by William Bloye and there is a Book of Remembrance on a marble plinth to commemorate Birmingham’s War dead. The four bronze statues around the Hall are by Albert Toft and they represent Army, Navy, Air Force and Women’s Services.
From Baskerville House now make your way to Chamberlain Square.Notice the Museum and Art Gallery built 1884-89 by the architect H R Yeoville Thomason; with its clock tower, (the gallery houses the world’s largest collection of works by Edward Burne-Jones). Also note the Chamberlain Memorial fountain in honour of Joseph Chamberlain (1836-1914), MP and three times Mayor of Birmingham. John Henry Chamberlain (no relation) designed the fountain and Thomas Woolner sculpted Chamberlain’s head.
Now make your way the short distance to Victoria Square. The next haunted site is the Town Hall.
2. The Town Hall is by the architects Edward Welch and Joseph Hansom (who also invented the Hansom Cab) and the design is based on the Temple of Castor and Pollux in the Roman Forum. Work started in 1832 and finished in 1849, (further work was completed in the 1880’s and an additional gallery added in 1927). Charles Dickens gave his first reading of A Christmas Carol at the Town Hall on Boxing Day of 1852, and a Victorian man can still be seen in the gallery or walking along the corridors. Two notorious ghosts are those of two workers who lost their lives on 26th January 1833 during construction – John Heap and William Badger. Heap and Badger were working on the external carved pillars from a wooden scaffold, just below roof level, when a rope snapped and a large block of stone fell onto the scaffold. The workers are buried at St Philip’s churchyard, and they are said to still haunt the Town Hall.
Also, notice the sculpture of Queen Victoria, a bronze cast by William Bloye in 1951 of an original in marble by Thomas Brock R.A. in 1901. There is also Anthony Gormley’s Iron: Man sculpture, a feature of the square since 1993, and one cannot fail to notice the sculpture of a large reclining woman called ‘River Guardians, Youth and Object (variations)’, which is affectionately known as the ‘floozie in the jacuzzi’ by Dhruva Mistry in 1992.
3. The large Renaissance style building behind the ‘floozie’ that dominates the square is the Council House, built in1874-9 to a design by H R Yeoville Thomason. Above the portico is a projecting pedimented arch with a sculpture of Britannia. Behind this is the central dome that looks down upon the grand staircase. The Lord Mayor’s office is situated on the corner of the Council House, where Victoria Square leads into Chamberlain Square. It was the office of Joseph Chamberlain, or ‘Brummagem Joe’ as he was affectionately known, and it is said that his ghost still haunts this office, as a shadowy figure has been seen on numerous occasions behind the glass, accompanied by a strong smell of cut flowers, which Joe used to insist upon in his office. There are also accounts of a ghostly monk and a floating spectre, that of a former councilor who hung himself in the entrance hall of the building.
Another impressive building is visible from the entrance to the Coucil House, looking down the steps and beyond the sculpture of the sphinx-like creature, towards the right – the former Head Post Office building. It is in the French Renaissance style, built in 1891 and designed by Sir Henry Tanner. There are many architectural features to admire, including a domed tower, two lantern style domes, stone urns and Corinthian pilasters and pillars.
You may notice a sign upon the wall of a walkway from Victoria Square linking Waterloo Street to New Street, which is called ‘Christ Church Passage’. This is the only reminder that Victoria Square was once occupied by Christ Church, built 1805-13 and demolished in 1899. Our old friend John Baskerville, the wandering corpse, was secretly deposited in the crypt of Christ Church after several years in storage at a warehouse (his body was removed from his garden at his home ‘Easy Hill’, now Baskerville House, to make way for the canal). When the church was demolished, Baskerville’s corpse was removed once more, this time, to the more permanent resting place of Key Hill Cemetery.
Following the passage will take you to New Street where New Street Railway Station is situated.
4. New Street Station was opened in 1848, and to do so, an area of the city which was full of slum housing, known as the ‘froggary’ had to be demolished, including a Jewish Cemetery. The station is host to many ‘spectral visitors’, including suicides and the departed spirits of a fatal train crash in 1921. Platform 4 seems to have the most activity, with at least four deaths occurring there.
Now walk along Stephenson Street and down Navigation Street to John Bright Street, and to the Alexandra Theatre.
5. The Alex Theatre opened as the Lyceum in 1901 and closed in 1902; it was re-opened as the Alexandra Theatre. One of the ghosts reputed to haunt the building is that of Leon Salberg, manager of the Alex until his death there in 1937. Another ghost is that of the Master of the Wardrobe Department who also died in the building; there is also a military man in a top hat and a previous stage manager named Dick Turner who likes to jingle his keys, but there are other countless phenomena at this very haunted location.
Now continue along Station Street to the Old Repetory Theatre.
6. Built in 1912-13, the Old Rep was the first theatre built specifically as a Repetory theatre in England. Sir Barry Jackson (1879-1961) who designed the theatre for his company of actors ‘The Pilgrim Players’, is said to haunt the Old Rep, and he seems to prefer the staircase from the front Reception to the balcony as this is where the most activity is recorded. However, the top floor offices also have a ‘strange’ atmosphere. Footsteps and shadowy figures, doors opening and closing are just some of the other activity.
Now walk to Hurst Street and to the Hippodrome.
7. The Hippodrome first opened in 1895 as assembly rooms and in 1899 a stage and circus ring was added. It became the Tivoli in 1900 and then the Hippodrome in 1903. The exterior was rebuilt in 2001.
Now continue your walk to Edgbaston Street, and to St Martin’s Church.8. St Martin’s Church is built on the site of a 13th century Parish Church. The church was rebuilt in 1883-5 and designed by J A Chatwin. The tower and spire date from an earlier church of 1781. The South Transept has a Burne-Jones stained glass window (1875-80) made by William Morris.
From here, you may choose to detour from the walk and continue along Digbeth High Street to the Old Crown Inn, Deritend. The building is a timber-framed wattle and daub, two-storey structure dating from the sixteenth century. There have been sightings in the cellars of a man and a young boy and a woman with a long flowing dress, near the well in the courtyard (now a covered passageway between the bar and the restaurant). In fact, there are numerous accounts of sightings at this decidedly haunted location.
Re-join the walk from St Martin’s Church and continue through the Bull Ring Shopping Centre to Queensway and then to New Street.The Victoria Law Courts (Magistrates’ Court) on Corporation Street are also worth visiting. The red brick and terracotta building, 1887-91 by Sir Aston Webb and Ingres Bell is in the French Renaissance and Arts and Crafts style; above the main entrance arch with its octagonal turrets, is a statue of Queen Victoria by Harry Bates. On the other side of Corporation Street, you can also see the Methodist Central Hall of 1903 by the architects E and J A Harper. Also, notice the House of Fraser on Corporation Street, which has a ‘haunted lift’ that has a will of its own and does not seem to like stopping at the 5th floor.
Walk along New Street and turn right into Temple Street.
9. The Trocadero – behind this beautiful façade walks the ghost of a former manager, Henry James Skinner, who was shot dead by a former employee named Herbert Allen in the building on 5th December 1895. The Trocadero was then known as the Bodega at the time, and it became the Trocadero in 1902.
Now continue along Temple Street to St Philip’s Cathedral.
10. St Philip’s Cathedral was built between 1711 and 1715 (the tower was completed in 1725) and it is the seat of the Bishop of Birmingham. It is built in the Baroque style by the designer Thomas Archer and is the third smallest Cathedral in England, after Derby and Chelmsford. The structure is a seven bay rectangle with an apse at one end and the tower at the other capped with an octagonal dome. The church has two internal side galleries. In the churchyard, notice the monument to Heap and Badger (whom we met at the Town Hall) and nearby is the grave of Sarah Baskerville, wife of John Baskerville.
After being bombed on 7th November 1940 the church was gutted and not restore until 1948. There are several stained glass windows by Burne-Jones. It is one of the jewels in Birmingham’s crown!
Now cross Colmore Row into Church Street and on the corner with Barwick Street is the former Grand Hotel.11. Built in 1875, the Grand Hotel replaced an earlier building from the mid 18th century, built on land used for paupers’ graves, which were often the prey of grave robbers! It is no wonder the Grand is haunted by shadowy figures, who one can only guess are the souls of those disturbed graves.
Also on Church Street is the former Birmingham and Midland Eye Hospital.
12. Built in 1883 by Payne and Talbot with its distinctive Oriel window, the building has two recorded ghosts. One ghost is that of a little child heard crying in the night and the other is a doctor who hung himself in the chapel on the top floor. It is said he removed a patient’s ‘good eye’ by mistake when he should of removed the diseased eye!
Continue along Church Street to the junction between Queensway Great Charle’s Street and Ludgate Hill.
13. It was here where public executions took place and one such hanging was that of Phillip Matsell on 23rd August 1806. Matsell was a criminal who worked the Snow Hill area. He became acquainted with Kate Pedley, a member of a rival gang who on the evening of 18th July 1806, wearing Matsell’s clothing, she shot and killed a town watchman. Kate fled the scene but eyewitnesses noted the clothes she wore and it was not long before Matsell was in the frame for murder! After his execution, rumour has it that his body was ‘secretly buried’ in consecrated ground, in the graveyard of St Philip’s Church. Does the spirit of Matsell still haunt the site of his hanging?
Continue along Ludgate Hill to St Paul’s Church.
14. St Paul’s Church is a rectangular building built in 1777-79 and designed by Roger Eykyns of Wolverhampton. Architect Francis Goodwin added the tower, with its belfry and spire in 1823; the East window designed by Francis Eginton in 1785 is inspired by Benjamin West’s painting ‘the Conversion of St Paul’. The grave od PC Moses Barber who died in 1853, aged 40 and said to haunt an area just off St Paul’s Square, can be seen in the churchyard.
Continue along Caroline Street to Warstone Lane, turning left to the Chamberlain Clock. From the clock, you will see Vyse Street.It was here, in Vyse Street, in 1896 that a terrible crime was committed, the murder of a child. May Lewis, who was ten years old, failed to return to her home in Smith Street, Hockley, from school on 10th March 1896. A search was mounted and early the next day, workers walking through wasteland next to Vyse Street, found little May’s body – her face was battered in and she had been raped.
Frank Taylor, a twenty-three year old labourer lived in Vyse Street and was under suspicion. Witnesses said they saw him lure May into his house while his parents were out for the night. Later, on the night of the murder, he had tried to drown himself in the local canal but was pulled out by a passer by. Taylor was hanged on 18th August 1896 in Winson Green Prison, Birmingham.
Continue along Warstone Lane and enter Warstone Lane Cemetery.
16. The Cemetery was opened in 1848 for members of the Anglican Church. James Hamilton designed the chapel, mortuary, entrance Lodge and catacombs in the Gothic style; the chapel was demolished in 1958 but the terraced catacombs and Lodge have survived, though now sealed up (I was informed by a man connected to the cemetery because of ‘black magic’). Some of its more celebrated inhabitants include that of our familiar friend, the printer John Baskerville, and Major Harry Gem, the founder of lawn tennis. One ghost said to haunt the area is that of a woman, a ‘grey lady’ accompanied by a smell of pear drops (to those who don’t know, it is the smell given off by arsenic after swallowing, so it is presumed the spectre died of arsenic poisoning, some time in the 1930’s).
Warstone Lane was known as ‘Dead Man’s Lane’ in the early 18th century so it is possible, that where the Lane meets Icknield Street, there would have been a gallows or place of ‘un-consecrated’ burials, which is usual at crossroads. The former Birmingham Mint is situated here, and it was later expanded, taking up some of the cemetery land. It is no wonder the building is haunted. Bodies were removed from site and re-buried – or so we are led to believe! There are many cases of ‘sightings’ in and around the cemetery, so I would advise caution and not to go there after dark – human monsters like to lurk there too!
Our last stop on the walk is Key Hill Cemetery, which can be reached via Vyse Street, and Hylton Street.17. Key Hill Cemetery was known as the General Cemetery and was opened for burial to all denominations in 1836. Casting sand was quarried in part of the cemetery until the 1930’s, which helped to fund the cemetery. The mortuary chapel, designed by Charles Edge, was demolished in 1966. He also designed the catacombs, in four stages between 1840 and 1862. Some of the cemetery’s ‘occupants’ include – Joseph Chamberlain, John Henderson, the builder of Crystal Palace, Alfred Bird of eggless custard fame and Joseph Gillott the famous maker of pens. The cemetery closed for burials in 1982.
Here the walk ends and you can return to New Street by returning down Vyse Street to the Chamberlain clock on Warstone Lane, down Frederick Street, along Graham Street into Newhall Street down to Bennett’s Hill, which leads onto New Street.