The Law Makers and Breakers of Berkhamsted

Herts police 1841

Rectory Lane Cemetery provides a rich insight into the lives of those who lived in the town before us, a cross-section of society that includes both those who upheld the law and those who broke it.

The Hertfordshire Constabulary was founded in 1841 and Henry Coulter, born in 1804, was one of the first members of the new force, serving as a police officer for some 40 years, ending his career as Superintendent in charge of the police station in Berkhamsted.

Berkhamsted Police station c.1870A ramshackle gaol had stood on the corner of Kings Road and the High Street since 1764 and was rebuilt in 1843 to render it fit as a police station. Local historian Percy Birtchnell described it as ‘…a pleasant double-fronted house. Its antiquity was established by an overhanging upper storey which kept rain off constables when they stood outside the door in King’s Road.’

Contemporary newspaper reports give us an idea of the sort of crimes Henry dealt with and, as might be expected in what was then a modest-sized rural market town, offences included petty theft, poaching and drunken behaviour. On one notable occasion Henry pursued two suspects who had sold coal belonging to their employer to London. The search was initially unsuccessful, but on his way back to Euston station he was invited for a drink and while in the pub Henry noticed someone peering at him from behind a door. Henry recognised the man’s ‘extraordinary red nose’ as belonging to one of the men he was seeking and he found his two wanted men hiding behind the door!

Henry died on 6 January 1889 at the age of 85. His funeral procession was led by an Inspector and four police officers and a large number of spectators attended. His obituary noted that Henry ‘…was a well-known and remarkable personage… universally respected for his genuine qualities and consistent life.’

If Henry Coulter was an upholder of the law, John Batchelor was the opposite.

It must be remembered though, that crimes of the time were considered very differently, and there was little or no tolerance for small-time bad behaviour, especially for the working classes.

John, born in Hawridge in 1855, moved to Berkhamsted where he worked as a carpenter. John was also an inveterate poacher. He was convicted and fined in 1889, charged with trespassing in search of conies on land belonging to Mr T A Dorrien-Smith, whose gamekeeper said he was on Long Green and saw Batchelor scramble up a rabbit net and ferret, and put them in his pocket. John and his accomplice were each fined £1.

Only two years later, in 1891, John was again accused of trespassing in search of game. Two men were seen in a field near Cross Oak working the dogs through dells and pit holes. In his defence, John said the landowner had told him to look out on the land. He admitted that a rabbit darted across his path in front of him, and he shot it. John was fined 25s and costs.

Isaac Channer

A young man who found himself in more serious trouble with the law was Isaac Channer.

In September 1869, age 16, he stole three tame rabbits and a handkerchief! On 3 January 1870 he was convicted of stealing 3s 6d from his master, Daniel Elbourne, embezzling 3s, 5s and 5s, also from Daniel, and obtaining 10s by false pretences from Eliza Winkfield. Isaac was described as a labourer of ‘imperfect’ education. He was sentenced to four months’ imprisonment with hard labour at Aylesbury House of Correction.

More seriously, on 7 May 1870, Isaac, aged 17, was arrested for ‘Wilfully setting fire to the dwelling-house of Henry Grover, at Chesham, on 12 September 1868, also setting fire to certain farm buildings, the property of The Right Hon. William George, Baron Chesham.’ He was tried on 21 July 1870 at Aylesbury, pleaded guilty to arson and was sentenced to five years penal servitude.

Isaac married Julia Bartlett on 21 July 1878 and seems to have put his wayward youth behind him. In 1881 the Channers were living in Holliday Street and Isaac was working as a cellarman.

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