I have lived in Berkhamsted for over 30 years and became interested in local history as an adjunct to my family history research and as an antidote to my career in information technology.
My MSc dissertation explored a period of transition (1760-1825) when a number of small towns emerged from their medieval market origins to embrace the changes of a rapidly industrialising nation. Transport systems played an important role in connecting towns to wider markets and improving their social and economic prospects, and self-interested aristocratic landowners and professional gentry were at the forefront of these developments. Berkhamsted was fortunately placed at a gateway through the Chilterns, between London and the industrial Midlands.
The Sparrows Herne Turnpike Trust was a non-profit-making organisation employing local labour and materials whereas the Grand Junction Canal company was driven by the prospect of financial gain. Toll collections provided income for recouping investments and funding maintenance. Disadvantages were outweighed by reduced travel time and freight costs, made possible through efficient administration, the promotion of competition and new technologies. Both organisations were ultimately successful in establishing important elements of the national transport network.
Improved transport systems facilitated social changes in Berkhamsted. The arrival of London gentry of social standing prompted a supporting cast of local service providers to pander to their requirements for luxury items and entertainment, while the poor benefited from their philanthropy and healthier conditions attributable to the arrival of the canal. Local identity was not subsumed in the pursuit of urbane refinement and regional traditions prevailed.
Local people took advantage of new opportunities in a more efficient thoroughfare town; the wider network encouraged regional specialisation for producers, and opportunism for those with criminal intent. Further success was achieved as a canal town with its own inland port, generating economic benefits to investors, local producers and craftsmen.
The particular significance of this study is that it adds depth to past works of local historians in a period that has received relatively superficial treatment.
Berkhamsted Local History & Museum Society
Berkhamsted Local History & Museum Society aims to encourage the study and appreciation of local history, genealogy and other subjects of historical interest. Meetings are held monthly in Berkhamsted during the winter months and summer outings explore local towns and villages. In September each year, the Society participates in Heritage Open Day events to celebrate the town’s history, architecture and culture, with guided tours of the castle and other local buildings.
The Society’s collection of archives and artefacts is deposited in the Dacorum Heritage Trust Museum Store in Berkhamsted. You can find more information on the Society website, including Heritage leaflet and High Street survey.
Perhaps the most well-known historical feature of the town is the castle. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle relates the story of Duke William of Normandy, who after the defeat of Harold at the battle of Hastings “marched inland with what was left of his host, together with reinforcements lately come from over sea, and harried that part of the country through which he came to Berkhamsted. There he was met by bishop Ealdred, prince Edgar, earl Edwin, earl Morcar, and all the best men from London, who submitted from force of circumstances… they gave him hostages and swore oaths of fealty, and he promised to be a gracious lord to them.” The Bayeux tapestry reconstruction of the last missing panels by Jan Messent in 1997 shows the submission at Berkhamsted (Beorcham) and William on the throne of England.
A comprehensive display of 16 panels of information and pictures tells the story of Berkhamsted in the castle visitor room, which is open from May to the end of September each year. You can find more information on Berkhamsted castle website.