Churchyard and Cemetery | St Peter's Great Berkhamsted

The Church of St Peter Great Berkhamsted

Churchyard and Cemetery

St Peter’s has two burial grounds. The churchyard on the north side of St Peter’s had been the town’s burial ground from medieval times until it was closed in 1842. On the other side of Berkhamsted High Street hidden behind the Rex Cinema, is Rectory Lane Cemetery, St Peter’s Victorian burial ground. Many noted parishioners lie buried here. This cemetery has since closed. 

Both the churchyard and the cemetery are no longer in use for burials (although interring of ashes is still carried out), and they are now enjoyed as community green spaces.

A pleasant green space for all to enjoy

The churchyard at St Peter’s is today a pleasant and green space, but in previous centuries this area was full of gravestones and in use as a burial ground.

 
St Peter's churchyard c.1870.

In a photograph which was taken around 1870, we can see that the there were headstones and a number of wooden graveboards still standing. At the right edge of the photo can be seen scaffolding covering the west end of the building. This was  probably erected during the renovations by William Butterfield

Sometime after this date, the majority of the headstones were laid flat and accompanying footstones removed. Some stones were re-used as paving by the south door. 

 
Flattened headstones appearing in the snow

The levelled headstones still lie hidden under the grass today. They are mostly not visible, but after a winter snowfall, they can be seen more clearly in the snow, as this picture reveals. 

 

Traditionally, burials in churchyards were mostly made on the south and east sides of a church. The darker north side of the church had associations with the Devil, a belief that may date from pre-Christian times when the sun was revered.

At Berkhamsted St. Peter, however, the churchyard has always been constrained by two roads which existed when the church was built in the early 13th century – on the east side is Castle Street and to the south is the High Street, the route of the Roman road called Akeman Street.

 

As a result of this confinement, nearly all of the burials here are on the north side of the church. A few burials were made on the south side, but as the highway gradually widened, burials were limited. Today, only two 18th-century coffin tombs are in evidence.

 
One of the surviving 18th-century headstones

The graveyard has been in use for many centuries, but the oldest recorded headstone here dates from 1722, although the 19th century historian John Edwin Cussans mentioned a small stone dating from much earlier. Other names listed by Cussans have been lost, possibly because they were inscribed on the several wooden graveboards shown on the 1870 photograph. Two broken headstones showed evidence of repair with iron staples.

 

Smith Dorrien Cross

Despite its medieval appearance, the tall monumental stone cross on the eastern side overlooking Castle Street dates from 1910.  It was erected in memory of Mary Ann Smith Dorrien, mother of General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien.

Carved figures on the top depict the Crucifixion of Christ, St Anne, St Peter and St John the Baptist.

 

A New Cemetery

With the onset of the Industrial Revolution, Britain experienced rapid population growth. As a result, many graveyards were no longer large enough to accommodate burials and new cemeteries were opened to provide new burial space. St Peter’s graveyard, like many others in Britain, was overcrowded and a new burial ground was needed.

 
Consecration of the 1920 extension to Rectory Lane Cemetery

In 1842, and a new burial ground was established at Rectory Lane on land donated to the parish by Charlotte Catherine Anne, Countess of Bridgewater (widow of John Egerton, 7th Earl of Bridgewater). 

 
Commonwealth War Graves

Many local people have family graves in Rectory Lane Cemetery, and several notable historic figures are buried here, among them General Horace Smith-Dorrien, a veteran of the Second Boer War and World War I and a former Governor of Gibraltar. There are also a number of Commonwealth War Graves from two World Wars. 

 
Overgrown graves

Over the years, Rectory Lane Cemetery began to fill up and was extended twice. After the Second World War, it was decided to close Rectory Lane and open a new civic cemetery at Kingshill Cemetery. Rectory Lane Cemetery officially closed to new burials in 1976, and gradually became neglected and overgrown.

 
Landscaping work in the cemetery, 2021

After years of neglect, a cemetery restoration project was launched in 2014 by the Friends of St Peter’s Berkhamsted, a registered charity. Volunteers cleared overgrown graves, and with a Heritage Lottery Fund grant, broken memorials were restored and the cemetery was re-landscaped.

 

 
Rectory Lane Cemetery today

Today, like St Peter’s churchyard, Rectory Lane Cemetery is a cherished community green space, abundant with wildlife and historic monuments.