Discovering our Victorian Ancestors
Berkhamsted’s Rectory Lane Cemetery can tell some fascinating tales, as Community Engagement Office Kate Campbell explains
The previously neglected Rectory Lane Cemetery has been transformed over the past three years ‘from a dead space to a living place’ with the support of the National Lottery Heritage Fund and the work and dedication of many volunteers and professionals, shining a light on those who are buried there and providing a community heritage asset and green haven in Berkhamsted.
One of our noted Victorian burials is horticulturalist John Edward Lane senior, who developed the family’s Lane’s Nurseries business, founded in 1777 into an enterprise well-known across the country and beyond. Trains were laid on for Londoners to visit their rose gardens; they exported grapes to France and Belgium; they exhibited prize-winning plants far and wide and their nurseries provided employment to many in Berkhamsted. Fruit pickers at the nurseries are pictured above.
He also diversified into beer brewing and established a number of public houses, including the Crystal Palace (the pub which is now the subject of a campaign to save it from residential redevelopment). He embellished it with a grand frontage in honour of his friend Sir Joseph Paxton’s great exhibition halls in London, at which the Lanes exhibited. Sadly, Lanes ceased trading in the 1960s.
Next to the Lane memorials is one of our finest tombs – ‘Sacred to the memory of Mrs Anne Hewson of Woburn Place, Russell Square, London … erected by Mr William Parkins (of this town) in grateful remembrance of his aunt’s affectionate kindness to himself and family.’
Anne was the sister of the first Sexton of the Cemetery. She inherited a substantial sum of money through a relationship with a candlemaker. She put her nephew William through school and paid for his apprenticeship as a stationer, a successful career which culminated in him establishing, with his partner Mr Gotto, Parkins & Gotto, the first department store in Oxford Street.
At 46, Anne married Thomas Hewson, a London surgeon nine years her junior, undertaking to pay for all the expenses of their Woburn Place residence. Did he want greater access to her wealth? Twenty years later Hewson was acquitted at the Central Criminal Court of ‘conspiring to procure an order for the confinement of a person of sound mind in a Lunatic Asylum.’
Unfortunately, Anne didn’t escape the lunacy charge – after Hewson’s death an inquisition declared her to be of ‘unsound mind’. To repay the debt, William moved into Woburn Place to look after her and, on her death, brought her back to Berkhamsted.
There are others of humbler occupation from that era, such as Thomas Tompkins, from a long line of butchers, and Edward Kingham, a baker like his father before him. The Herts Advertiser and St Albans Times of August 1892 reported an event of friendly rivalry – a match of Bread v Meat: ‘Ye merry butchers have challenged ye jolly bakers to a game of ye old English cricket, in costume’ which attracted not ‘less than a thousand spectators, and there was much cordiality and fun and genial banter’. Accompanied by St Peter’s brass band, everyone met at the Crown Inn for pre-match drinks, having ‘appointed their two captains; he that ruled over the floury men being a jolly baker one Edward Kingham; and he to whom the knights of the cleaver gave allegiance was Thomas Tompkins a merry butcher’. They then formed a procession to the cricket ground, where ‘great multitudes of people were attracted by the noise of the instruments and the novelty of the spectacle’. The cricket match itself appears to have been pretty short before everyone returned again to the Crown for more conviviality, dancing to the band and singing.
It sounds like quite an event! We wonder what trades or occupations would be represented in an equivalent match today in Berkhamsted – estate agents and coffee shop owners, maybe?
The Rectory Lane Cemetery project is indebted to the volunteer researchers who unearth the fascinating stories of the people who lived (and died) before us and shaped this town. To discover more go to www.rectorylanecemetery.org.uk