Rectory Lane Cemetery was established in 1842 on land that once belonged to Egerton House.
This small mansion house stood on the High Street on the corner of Three Close Lane – the site occupied by the Rex Cinema today. Egerton House was built sometime during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, probably by the nobleman and Lord Chancellor Sir Thomas Egerton, an ancestor of the Earls of Bridgewater.
It is known that by 1627 the house was the property of Edward Kellet. In the late 17th century, the house was occupied by Rev Dr Robert Brabant, who was Rector of St Peter’s Church 1681-1722. In 1840, Egerton House was bought for £700 by Wesleyan Methodists who opened it as a preaching house in 1841. The land behind the house may have been surplus to the Methodists’ needs, and the land was gifted by the Countess of Bridgewater to the Parish of Great Berkhamsted for use as a cemetery.
The Methodists sold Egerton House in 1846 to the eminent surgeon Dr Thomas Whately, who lived there until he died in 1868. Thomas Whately and his wife Jane are buried in Rectory Lane Cemetery.
Egerton House was auctioned in 1895, and then purchased in 1904 by the Llewellyn Davies family. Arthur Llewelyn Davies, a barrister, and his wife Sylvia moved with their five sons to Berkhamsted from Kensington, London. The family were close friends with the Scottish author and playwright J.M. Barrie, who often visited the family in Berkhamsted and played with the children in the garden overlooking Rectory Lane Cemetery. Barrie is best known for his play, Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, which debuted at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London that year. He based it on stories he had made up for the children, and named his Peter Pan character after the eldest child, Peter Llewellyn Davies.
The Llewelyn Davies were struck by tragedy; Arthur died of cancer at Egerton in 1907, and after returning to London, Sylvia too died of cancer in 1910. Barrie supported the family financially throughout, and became the orphaned children’s guardian. The boys’ lives were also troubled; during WWI, George Llewelyn Davies was killed in action in 1915; Michael drowned in the River Thames with his male lover at Oxford University in 1921; and Peter, plagued by his lifelong identification as “the real Peter Pan” and other personal troubles, committed suicide in 1960.
In 1936, Egerton House was bought by the Shipman & King cinema circuit and demolished to make way for a new cinema, bringing to an end 400 years of local history. While Berkhamsted lost a piece of it heritage, it gained an architectural gem in the form of the sumptuous Art Deco Rex Cinema, designed by the architect David Evelyn Nye and opened in 1938. After being rescued from demolition in the 1990s, the Rex today is a thriving art house cinema, with a sumptuously decorated auditorium restored to its 1930s glory, while the opulent entrance lobby is now The Gatsby restaurant and cocktail bar.
It is still a touching thought to imagine that where cinema-goers are now entertained, a classic of children’s literature was once acted out; and that perhaps on blissful summer’s days, the original Peter Pan once played in Rectory Lane Cemetery.
Discover the memorials in Rectory Lane Cemetery with historical links to Egerton House
1 burial is found — click on a burial below to find out more: