Our local historians
Burials connected with this article
Places of interest
The following local places of interest are linked to this article:
Historians: those writers and researchers who keep our heritage alive for future generations. They document a world gone by and help us to appreciate the landmarks we see around us every day. In Berkhamsted, names like Birtchnell, Cobb, Norris and Nash are revered by local history buffs. Their enthusiasm has left us with a canon of absorbing books about our local heritage. However, these celebrated historians were not erudite professors in lofty academia, but ordinary working people with day jobs, amateur enthusiasts who analysed and documented the past just because they loved it.
But what happens to historians when they themselves become history?
Rectory Lane Cemetery is steeped in the history of Berkhamsted, and buried here are several historians who wrote about that history. Here are the heritage enthusiasts whose books have told us so much about this little town and about many of the people buried here. We owe them our gratitude.
Henry Nash (1816 –1899)
Henry Nash — the “Grand Old Man of Berkhamsted” — was a passionate campaigner for education, and believed that everyone should have access to knowledge regardless of social class, wealth or gender. This may sound like a modern politically correct agenda, but in 1840s Berkhamsted, this was the talk of the town. Nash sat on the local School Board and campaigned to set up the Berkhamsted Girls’ Grammar School.
He also got together with some local philanthropists to set up a Mechanics’ Institute for Berkhamsted. Originating in Edinburgh, Mechanics’ Institutes were a philanthropic Victorian movement for promoting adult education among the working classes by providing libraries, classes and lectures, with the aim of improving their prospects in life and distracting them from gambling and drinking!
Nash lived out his passion for intellectual self-improvement through his activity as an amateur historian. He recorded details of Berkhamsted society and architecture throughout his life, documenting the changes to the town and the contributions to town life by noted local personalities. In 1890 he published this collected work in a book, Reminiscences of Berkhamsted, which today provides us with a fascinating documentary record of 19th-century Berkhamsted.
Nash lies buried in Rectory Lane Cemetery, near the Rectory Lane gates, along with his sister, Sarah, and niece, Annie Louisa. His headstone (restored in 2019 as part of the Cemetery Project) commemorates his service to the community. Perhaps his passion for self-improvement influenced his niece – she went on to become a published author and playwright, under the pen-name “Louisa Sahn” (“Sahn” being an anagram of Nash).
Rev John Wolstenholme Cobb (1829-1883)
Rev John Wolstenholme Cobb was a Yorkshireman and Church of England priest who served as Rector of St Peter’s Church for 12 years. Here we have another passionate auto-didact who devoted his spare time to researching the history of St Peter’s and Berkhamsted Castle in great depth, immersing himself in the Hertfordshire history books of Chauncy and Clutterbuck. Like Nash, Cobb was also devoted to the ideals of educating ordinary people, and often gave history lectures to the Mechanics’ Institute.
Cobb’s lectures were later collected and published in a book, The History and Antiquities of Berkhamsted. This fascinating work draws on earlier antiquarians such as Clutterbuck, and records much detail about Berkhamsted Castle and St Peter’s Church over 900 years. Cobb is still cited by Hertfordshire historians today.
Richard Arthur Norris (d.1937)
Another name familiar to students of the history of St Peter’s Church is Richard Arthur Norris. He was a committed churchman and served as a churchwarden of St Peter’s 1918-22. Like Cobb, he was an amateur historian and got a reputation of being something of a sleuth, tracking down obscure bits of information about church monuments. His 1923 book The Parish Church of Berkhamsted, St. Peter, Hertfordshire is a valuable and thorough record of the ancient monuments and architecture of St. Peter’s, from its foundation in 1222 up to the early 20th century. It is a lovingly compiled study of the church Norris cherished so much.
Norris lies buried in Rectory Lane Cemetery with his sisters, close to the memorial arch.
Special mention: Percy Birtchnell (1910-1986)
One name we cannot omit from our reminiscences is Percy Birtchnell, well known among local history fans – although Percy is not actually buried in Rectory Lane Cemetery. We do, however, have some of his family graves here, including his grandparents, Mary Ann Birtchnell (1850-1914) and William Birtchnell (1846-1908).
Percy Birtchnell, well known locally as a menswear shop owner (his old shop building famously collapsed one night in 2011), published local history books including A History of Berkhamsted and Bygone Berkhamsted, both published by Clunberry Press (the publishers attached to Coopers factory). His books have been hugely popular and have brought the enthralling details of local history up to the late 20th century. He was also for many years a writer for the Berkhamsted Review, publishing under the mysterious pen-name “Beorcham” (an archaic name for the town).
Percy Birtchnell died on 12 March 1986. His ashes were interred in the east corner of the churchyard of St Peter’s Berkhamsted, his beloved parish church where he had worshipped his entire life and served for many years as churchwarden.
Percy’s grandparents’ grave:
The books by Nash, Cobb, Norris and Birtchnell are all now out of print, but you can usually pick up a copies in our wonderful local Oxfam bookshop on Berkhamsted High Street.
- Nash, Henry, Reminiscences of Berkhamsted (1890)
- Cobb, John Wolstenholme, Two Lectures on the History and Antiquities of Berkhamsted (1883)