The origins of Rectory Lane Cemetery reveal fascinating stories about our local heritage. Here, we can trace the town’s fortunes and discover many surprising historical connections across the centuries.
Who could imagine that this hidden burial ground could be linked with poets, authors, Ashridge House, the Kings of France, sheep dip, Peter Pan, and the First World War?
Enter the cemetery and step back in time to uncover some surprising stories from Berkhamsted’s history…
In the early 19th century, the sloping ground where Rectory Lane Cemetery lies today was described as ‘rich meadow and orchard ground, well planted with fruit trees’.
It belonged to Egerton House, an Elizabethan manor house that once stood on Berkhamsted High Street, on the site that is now occupied by the Rex Cinema.
Above the Cemetery, at the top of the hill was the country estate of Ashlyns Hall.
To the west of Egerton House was Rectory Lane, which led up to the Old Rectory. Many past rectors of St Peter’s Church lived here.
In 1731 the son of Rev. John Cowper was born here, the poet and hymn-writer William Cowper, who gave to the English language the phrase “God Moves in a Mysterious Way”.
Rev John Wolstenholme Cobb, clergyman and local historian, also resided in the Rectory until his death in 1883.
For centuries, the deceased of Berkhamsted had been interred in the churchyard on the north side of the of St Peter’s Parish Church. In the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution resulted in a sharp increase in Britain’s population.
Like many burial grounds in England at the time, St Peter’s churchyard became overcrowded, and a new burial ground was desperately needed. The church turned to the local landed gentry of Ashridge House for help.
In 1841, Charlotte Catherine Anne, Countess of Bridgewater and widow of John Egerton, 7th Earl of Bridgewater, purchased land behind Egerton House when the house was put up for auction, the owners having bankrupted themselves by building the fine terrace of four town houses (103-109 High Street) to its west.
The Countess immediately donated an acre to St Peter’s Church, ending their four-year search to find a suitable plot for the ‘New Burial Ground’. Later it was more commonly referred to as the ‘Cemetery’ and also, in official documents, sometimes as ‘St Peter’s Churchyard (Detached).’
Until 1837, the Parish of Great Berkhamsted had been part of the Church of England Diocese of Lincoln, an enormous territory that stretched from the Humber down to the edge of London. This probably explains why the Bishop of Lincoln, the Rt. Rev. John Kaye, was invited to consecrate the new cemetery on Tuesday 11th October 1842.
The Countess’s generous gift is commemorated by a large stone monument, which you can see today in Rectory Lane Cemetery.
Over the next 50 years, there were few major changes to the Cemetery. Around 1873 the large octagonal brick gate piers that stand at the Rectory Lane entrance were almost certainly moved here to replace wooden gates– it is thought they were originally built close by on Rectory Lane to serve as the main gates to the Rectory
As the town’s population continued to grow, the space was also filling up with fine monuments – the wealthier inhabitants all wanting to be buried on the top terrace. By 1894, Rectory Lane Cemetery, first opened to relieve an overcrowded churchyard, was again filled to capacity.
Over the next decade, the Church therefore secured two further donations of land, each just under an acre in extent. The first, acquired in 1894, was a release of glebe land by the Rector.
In all three cases (1841, 1894 and 1903) all the construction works, such as the boundary walls, new Sexton’s hut, upper terrace and planting were paid for through public collections and donations.
Work commenced immediately on enclosing the glebe portion and this area was consecrated in 1896 by the Bishop of St Albans. With the second piece of land secured in 1903, construction and burials continued up the hill, although it wasn’t until 1921 that this upper portion was finally consecrated
In its heyday as a burial ground, Rectory Lane Cemetery became the final resting place of many local people with fascinating life stories.
Mary (Polly) Page (died 1865), a daughter of the landlord of the King’s Arms hotel, once enjoyed a close friendship with the exiled King Louis XVIII of France that gave rise to scandalous gossip across the town.
Also buried in the cemetery are the Cooper Baronets, the family of industrialists who founded Cooper’s chemical works, a major employer in Berkhamsted for over 120 years. Their famous Cooper’s Sheep Dip was exported all over the British Empire.
In the early 20th century, Rectory Lane Cemetery acquired some more notable neighbours. From 1900 to 1903, Clementine Hozier (future wife of Sir Winston Churchill) lived at 107 High Street, overlooking Rectory Lane.
In 1904, the Llewellyn Davies family came to live at Egerton House, at the edge of the cemetery. They were close friends with the Scottish author and playwright J.M. Barrie, who visited frequently. Barrie based his famous Peter Pan character on the Llewellyn Davies children.
During World War I (1914–18), 200 men and boys who were born or lived in Berkhamsted lost their lives. While many who were killed in action were interred in the large battlefield Cemeteries of Belgium and France, a number were buried in Rectory Lane Cemetery.
The 14 Commonwealth War Graves here can be distinguished by their simple, white stone design, a reminder to us today of their sacrifice.
A number of decorated WWI officers are buried here. From one family, we find two Royal Navy officers – Lieut. Commander Henry Theophilus Smith-Dorrien (d.1931); Rear Admiral Arthur Hale Smith-Dorrien (d.1933); and General Sir Horace Lockwood Smith-Dorrien, who led the 2nd Battle of Ypres and was later Governor of Gibraltar.
The 1933 grave of Brigadier General Richard Mildmay Foot is of particular note, as it is overlooked by the Seat of Remembrance, commissioned by his grieving widow, and poignantly sculpted with his favourite dogs, a pair of Irish setters.
After the war, demand for burial space continued. In 1924, Earl Brownlow made a donated nearly 2 acres of additional land at the top of the hill. It was planned to extend the Cemetery to the west, behind the present Rectory.
The strip of land at the very top of the cemetery (beyond where the brick walls stop) would have been used as a road to access the new extension, with a further strip on the west side to provide access from Chesham Road. This is the reason why the east and boundary walls terminate short of the southern boundary.
By the time the need had arisen for additional burial space, the Second World War had intervened and in 1946, a new municipal burial ground, Kingshill Cemetery, was opened at the top of the hill, beyond Ashlyns.
The additional unused land intended for Rectory Lane Cemetery was added to the Rectory grounds in 1954. Only the the top strip was retained from the 1924 land acquisition. The Cemetery had finally reached its present extent of 3.275 acres (13,250 m2)
Burials at Rectory Lane ended in 1945, although family graves in the upper two sections are still occasionally reopened for additional burials of bodies or cremated remains.
Today the entire cemetery remains in the ownership of the Rector of Great Berkhamsted, under the responsibility of the Parochial Church Council of Berkhamsted (subject to the overriding control of the Consistory Court of the Bishop of St Albans.)
The lower 1842 section was closed by Order of Council dated 9th June 1976. This section is effectively de-consecrated and maintenance is now the responsibility of Dacorum Borough Council.
The upper cemetery extensions were each approved by the Secretary of State, and are subject to section 5 of the Burial Act 1953. This means that they may not be closed by Order of Council.
In 2013, the Friends of St Peters was formed in 2013 to care for the historic properties of the church.
The Friends launched the Rectory Lane Cemetery Project in 2014, beginning a new lease of life for Berkhamsted’s precious heritage.