Local History

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.

Local historian Percy Birtchnell wrote articles for the Parochial Review and Berkhamsted Review for over forty years from Jul 1941 to his Memoriam article in Apr 1986.

“… a talented local writer has generously offered to contribute to the ‘Review’ a series of articles on Berkhamsted’s links with by-gone days. His nom-de-plume is particularly appropriate – ‘Beorcham’ is a very early way of writing the town’s name.” 
(Berkhamsted Parochial Review, Jul 1941).

Here is an index to Birtchnell’s articles (use Ctrl-F to search for particular items). Check out the links available from the index to see the original articles, or Facebook posts related to them.

We are fortunate that many members of Berkhamsted Local History & Museum Society are keen to share the results of their local research and we have produced a wide range of articles in the pages of the Chronicle for several years now; here is the index. My own articles are detailed below…

The parish chest of St Peter’s church in Berkhamsted once held churchwardens’ accounts, vestry minutes and the details of births, marriages and deaths. Amongst these old documents, there was a constables’ accounts book with entries from 1748 to 1819. For some reason, by 1885 it had come into the possession of William Philbey, the boot-making son of a local laundress. The book now resides in the museum store and I had the pleasure of transcribing the names and activities of the people of Berkhamsted, including the notorious highwayman Snooks. The resulting article Parish Constables of Berkhamsted was published in the local history society Chronicle volume III (2006).

The glamorous coaching age left behind physical reminders, especially the inns in Berkhamsted High Street. Until 1889, the Red Lion Inn provided stables and accommodation for travellers, but behind this façade was a story of deprivation in Red Lion Yard. Read about the plight of some of these folks in Red Lion Yard, published in the Chronicle volume XII (2015).

balh-award_2016

I was delighted to receive this award for my article on the church rates…

The church rate was an ancient tax required of all ratepayers, regardless of denomination, for the upkeep of parish churches. This meant that dissenters and other non-Anglicans paid for the support of the established church. Inevitably, there was strong resistance in towns where there was a high proportion of dissenters (49% of church goers of Berkhamsted) and there were seizures of property in lieu of church rates. Berkhamsted was one of the last, if not the last town, to reject church rates, so it was fitting that the history of this painful process was recorded in The Church Rates Controversy for the Chronicle volume XII (2015).

For the Chronicle volume XIV (2017), Hoo-Ha over Gaddesden Hoo is an investigation of a family mansion in the neighbourhood of Great Gaddesden, and especially highlighting a dispute about an access road, revealing divided loyalties, but also the importance (particularly to older inhabitants) of “tradition, community and custom [which] historically provided a sense of permanence, independence and security”.

Challenging the myth that medieval cooks and food-sellers disguised their food with spices, Food Standards in Berkhamsted investigates steps taken locally to enforce public health rules and regulations. In Health hazards in Victorian Berkhamsted, this also meant attending to the water supply and sewerage system, and dealing with industrial effluents, malodorous animals and dung-heaps. Both of these articles were published in the Chronicle volume XV (2018).

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. Also, here is a Heritage leaflet 2009 and High Street survey 2011.

Berkhamsted Castle

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.

Bayeux tapestry

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.

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