St Peter's Churchyard
The churchyard on the north side of St Peter’s Parish Church was the original burial ground in Berkhamsted. For centuries, the deceased of Berkhamsted had been interred in this churchyard. This is essentially where the story of Rectory Lane Cemetery begins.
History of the churchyard
Burials in churchyards are mostly located on the south and east sides of a church. The north side is in the shadow of the church during the day and traditionally, there were no burials here, possibly because of associations with darkness and the Devil, a belief that may date from pre-Christian times when the sun was revered. St Peter’s Berkhamsted is located right on the corner of the High Street and Castle Street, and so it has always been constrained by the road layout. As a result, nearly all of the burials are on the north side of the church, although there were a small number of burials on the south side. Over time, the highway was widened, and today, we onhly see only two 18th-century coffin tombs on the High Street side.
The graveyard has been in use for many centuries, but the oldest recorded headstone here dates from 1722. Many graves were marked with simple wooden graveboards, and these have since been lost. The 19th-century historian John Edwin Cussans describes older burials here. Bubonic plague swept through Europe throughout the 14th to 17th centuries, most recently in The Great Plague of Berkhamsted in 1643, and during these pandemics, the graveyard was almost certainly filled with the bodies of Black Death victims.
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 the church began a four-year search to find a suitable plot for a “New Burial Ground”.
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. She was a generous benefactress, and donated an acre of the land to St Peter’s Church. “St Peter’s Churchyard (Detached)” opened in 1842, with an entrance on the little lane leading up to the Rectory of St Peter’s. Rectory Lane Cemetery was born.
St Peter’s old churchyard was closed as a burial ground by an Order in Council dated 19th October 1855. Almost all of the headstones there have since been laid flat, and it is now a peaceful green space. Many of the gravestones can still be seen lying flat in the grass. Most of the inscriptions have been eroded, but a record is available on St Peter’s Church website.
The Dorrien Cross
The only monument standing in the churchyard today is the tall stone cross on the eastern side overlooking Castle Street. This dates from 1910 and was erected in memory of Mary Ann Smith Dorrien who lied buried in Rectory Lane Cemetery.
Today, townsfolk can come and sit in the peaceful green space next to the churchyard, and occasionally the churchyard hosts parish events and fairs.
Look around the Churchyard
Discover the memorials in Rectory Lane Cemetery with historical links to St Peter's Churchyard
4 burials are found — click on a burial below to find out more: