The vestigial remains of the Wilderness can still be found today running from Church Lane (formerly Back Lane) down the east side of Tesco to the junction with Mill Street. Most of it is now part of a car park. Also now lost and formerly running down the west side of Tesco, parallel to The Wilderness, was Water Lane.
Local historian Percy Birtchnall observed that many people asked why the Wilderness was so named, but he could not give an answer. Whilst a wilderness might be considered to be an uncultivated or uninhabited area, he commented “certainly it was not uninhabited in years gone by.”
Birtchnall wrote that the Wilderness “had a rather unsavoury reputation” and that the people “living in the Wilderness could not afford to go anywhere else. The cramped, neglected cottages had ghastly surroundings. At the Back Lane end of the Wilderness were stables and slaughterhouses; then on the right was a burial ground, followed by the gasworks belching flames, smoke and fumes. Between two groups of cottages on the left was a gasholder; Two more gasholders were on the opposite side of the road. Farther on, near the junction of the Wilderness, Water Lane and Mill Street, was another burial ground and the Black Ditch, an open sewer.” Furthermore, “Ignorant gossipers were sure the gas-holder ‘would one day explode and blow up half Berkhamsted.’ If that prediction did not make listeners quake with fright, blood curdling tales were told of body snatchers who haunted the Wilderness at night.” Small wonder children were told to stay away.
The 1839 Tithe Map, which predates the arrival of the gas works, shows the cramped tenement cottages towards the Mill Street end of the Wilderness, the burial ground, a butcher’s shop and slaughterhouse at the other end. In 1851 38 people lived in 11 small cottages, one of which was occupied by seven people, a labourer, his wife and their 14 year old son, a widow and her 16 year old son, a labourer aged 46 and a tailor aged 20. Rents were low at a little over 1 shilling a week.
A mildly sarcastic comment in the Parish magazine of 1874 suggested the Wilderness was then showing “signs of becoming a most fashionable quarter.” The Rev. J W Cobb rented a new building in the lane for use as a Mission Room to provide a parochial library, mothers’ meetings and classes. The initiative was, however, short lived. Within the year when the Bourne Scholars had transferred to the National School at the Court House, the Mission left the Wilderness and moved to the Bourne School.
Conditions in the Wilderness were dirty and insanitary. In 1876 the Rural Sanitary Authority passed a resolution “That a cesspool be formed in accordance with the plan now submitted by the Inspector to receive the solid sewage flowing down Water Lane and Wilderness, with an outfall into the river.” (Bucks Herald, September 1876). The Black Ditch, a long open sewer running parallel to the canal remained a feature of the area until 1894 when mains sewage was installed.
Two years later in 1878 a report was read to the Rural Sanitary Authority on “…the sanitary state of Berkhampstead and especially condemning the houses occupied by Zilpha, Deeley, Mrs Lloyd, Frederick Rance, Phillip Duncombe, and William Collier respectively in the Wildernes as so filthy dilapidated and quite unfit for habitation.”
In 1887 Jemina Delderfield, who lived in the Wilderness found herself charged by her neighbour, Ellen Humphrey. Witnesses related that “…much bad language was used and blows on each side, a dispute arising about some coke. Mrs Deldefield said her hair was pulled out in handful and Mrs Humphry declared she did not know where she was for some time she was so hurt.” The magistrates bound both women over to keep the peace and ordered them to pay costs.
As if conditions in the Wilderness were not already bad enough, they deteriorated further when the gas works were built. Gas lights made their first appearance in Berkhamsted in 1849 when the local gas company was formed and the townspeople collected £106 towards the cost of street lights and gas pipes. The gas supply was manufactured at the gas works built in the Wilderness. The site of the gas works can be clearly seen on Ordnance Survey maps of 1878 and 1898. A gas holder was situated half way down the Wilderness on the east side, next to the old burial ground, and a smaller gas holder stood opposite on the west side were in 1839 some of the tenement cottages had stood. Coal was originally landed from the canal, but was latter brought by railway. The noxious smells emanating from the gas works were the subject of numerous complaints.
In 1877 Rev. E. Bartrum, then Headmaster of Berkhamsted School complained, “of a nuisance… from the foul and offensive effluvia from the Gas Works in Great Berkhampstead. He stated that the stench from the Gas Works was so bad that persons in both the houses under his charge were prevented from sleeping, in consequence of the smell proceeding from the works, and he had no hesitation in saying that the Gas Works are a greater nuisance and a more serious annoyance than the noted Muggle Pit [cesspool] or the Black Ditch; that the Governors contemplate making an extensive addition to the buildings close to the Gas Works, but, in his opinion, they would be almost uninhabitable unless the Directors of the Gas Company were compelled to do their duty, and abate the nuisance attaching to their works.” (Bucks Herald, Jul 1877).
Fourteen years later in 1891, the situation had not improved and the Berkhampstead gas Company found itself charged with committing a nuisance arising from “… the emission of offensive effluvia, injurious to the health of some of the inhabitants of Berkhampstead. For a long time there had been complaints of pestilential smells given off at the Gas Works, to the discomfort of the people living near. Dr. Fry (Head Master of the Grammar School) stated that the school was in close proximity to the Gas Works, only his garden being between. He had experienced bad smells for the last four years – a horrid stench of a sulphurous nature, which got into his house day and night at intervals. Mr. Muir: the nearest point from his wall to the Gas Works was 200 feet. He had erected a coach house, residence for his coachman, and a stable, near the Gas Works. The smell did not, he believed, come from privies and heaps of refuse in the Wilderness. The Gas Company authorities… undertook… to do their best to prevent any recurrence of any cause of complaint. The case was adjourned.” (Bucks Herald, Oct 1891).
The situation was only finally resolved in 1906 when the gas works were moved to Billet Lane, but living conditions in the Wilderness remained grim.
The situation improved in 1916-1917 when the Court Theatre was built between Water Lane and the Wilderness but even in 1918 Edward Greene, of the Hall, described as “a reproach to the town that has allowed several areas of the worst character to exist for so long in its midst.” The Wilderness, he added, was an “insanitary agglomeration of dilapidated cottages unfit for human habitation.”
No burials in Rectory Lane Cemetery are associated with this location yet.