Key's Timber Yard | Rectory Lane Cemetery, Berkhamsted

Rectory Lane Cemetery, Berkhamsted

Key's Timber Yard

Key's Timber Yard
44 Castle St, Berkhamsted

William Key & Son timber merchant was established by William Key (1807–1890) on the Grand Junction Canal wharf. By 1851, he was employing 22 men, importing timber along the canal. The business also bought large quantities of trees in the neighbourhood and converted them in the yard.

William died in 1890 and was buried in Rectory Lane Cemetery. His business had been highly successful and his property was valued at around £12,000. Thomas Norris, his nephew, took over the business, retaining the name William Key & Son, and in 1910 he moved the timber yard to a former canalside boatbuilders’ yard on Castle Street. One of Thomas’ sons, William Key Norris (d.1892), is also buried in Rectory Lane  Cemetery.

For over a century, Key’s Timber Yard was a thriving business, importing large loads of Canadian timber via the canal. Key’s men would regularly unload 78-foot (23m) baulks by hand.

Today nothing remains of the timber yard except for one of Berkhamsted’s more unusual landmarks: a totem pole.

The totem pole dates from after William Key’s time, but is linked with the Canada timber trade that he set up. In 1963, William Key & Son timber yard was bought by Alsfords, a family timber firm that originated in Leyton, East London. John Alsford’s younger brother, Roger, left the family firm to seek his fortune in Canada, working in the Tahsis lumber mill in Nootka Sound, Vancouver Island. Unfortunately he fell on hard times during a strike, and was rescued from starvation by the people of a Kwakiutl First Nations village. John Alsford made the voyage to Canada to bring Roger home. He was welcomed by the Kwakiutl and together they smoked a ceremonial pipe, during which John agreed to commission a totem pole from their artist-in-residence, Henry Hunt (1923–1985). The Alsford brothers returned to Britain, apparently forgetting the totem pole deal, until some months later, when an invoice arrived for a 30-foot totem pole. The pole was delivered to Berkhamsted and erected at the timber yard, a prominent memento of the Aslfords’ Canadian adventure.

Alsford’s timber yard closed and the site was used to build flats in 1994. The totem pole, however, is still standing today, a striking reminder of Berkhamsted’s thriving trade in Canadian timber, which was started by William Key & Son over 150 years ago.


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