Grand Junction Canal
One of the driving forces of the early Industrial Revolution was the widespread construction of a network of canals throughout Britain, enabling for the first time the mass transportation of coal, materials and goods and spurring the advance of manufacturing and technological development.
A well known figure in the history of Berkhamsted is the Francis Egerton, 3rd Duke of Bridgewater (1736–1803), who lived at Ashridge. He is famously known as the “Canal Duke” or the “Father of Inland Navigation” because he made (and later lost) his fortune in building Britain’s first canals in North West England.
However, the canal we see today in Berkhamsted was not his work, but was constructed by his rivals, the Grand Junction Canal Company 1793-1805. The company drove a new canal between the Midlands and London, reaching Berkhamsted in 1798. The canal brought new employment and business opportunities to the town – townsfolk found themselves working in boatbuilding, coal and timber delivery and gas supply. Farmers could transport their produce to be sold at much higher prices in London. Wharves and boatyards sprung up around the canal. Boats were hauled by horses, which meant new trade for the town’s blacksmiths.
In 1927 the Grand Junction Canal Company was bought by the Regent’s Canal Company to form the Grand Union Canal.
There are some hidden connections between the canal and Rectory Lane Cemetery. The first dates back to the foundation of the burial ground in 1842. The large Foundation Stone in the middle part of the cemetery records the donations by numerous benefactors to the establishment of a new burial ground (chief among them Charlotte Catherine Anne, Countess of Bridgewater). Two corporate donations are also recorded, one being a gift of £6 and 10 shillings by the Grand Junction Canal Company. This early example of corporate sponsorship perhaps reveals the dwindling fortunes of the canal in the face of competition from the new railways: the London and Birmingham Railway Company donated a generous £40.
At plot 947 in the upper section we find the grave of James Short and his wife Florence. James, who died in 1951, was a general labourer for the Grand Junction Canal Company and he and his family lived in the canal cottage which once stood at lock number 53, next to Lower Kings Road bridge. Their son, Wilfred James Short, also buried in Rectory Lane, served in WWI with the Canadian Pioneers and died of wounds sustained at Ypres in 1916.