Introduction by Alec Chillingworth

I knew Percy Birchnell from 1964 until his death a few years ago. This article was written about 1969. He was the undisputed Berkhamsted Historian and I dedicate this page to his memory.

The Historic Town of Berkhamsted

The date everyone remembers - 1066 - is a very important one in the history of Berkhamsted. Two months after winning the Battle of Hastings, the Normans skirted the Chilterns, causing havoc wherever they went, and were ready to advance on London. The Saxon leaders, anxious to save further destruction, rode out from London to talk with the invaders and offer William the Crown of England.The meeting took place at Berkhamsted, and here, on accepting the submission of the Saxons, William of Normandy became William the Conqueror. He rode on to London and was crowned King of England at Westminster on Christmas Day, 1066.

In sparsely populated West Hertfordshire, Berkhamsted was a place of importance. It is estimated that the population of the manor was about 500 at the time of the Domesday survey in 1068. Work was already proceeding on the Castle. The vast earthworks, thrown up nearly 900 years ago, survive almost intact, but broken walls are all that remain of the stone buildings which, in the second half of the 12th century, replaced the original houses and palisades.

Shortly after the death of Prince John, whose queen spent much of her time at Berkhamsted, the castle was besieged by Prince Louis of France, who was trying to gain the English Crown by leading the barons to victory against John's nine year old heir, Henry III. Mangonels were installed to hurl great stones against the castle, causing much damage. The garrison held out for two weeks, and their surrender was only a local defeat: it was not long before the French prince was driven from the land, and Henry III remained firmly on the throne.

King and queens, princes and princesses, court favourites and distinguished foreign visitors stayed at the castle. That is why the early history of the town is studded with famous names. Thomas a Becket held the lease for several years and was responsible for the first stone buildings. The Black Prince was especially fond of his home at Berkhamsted and spent a lot of his later years here, also supporting the construction of St Peters Church. One of the most famous residents of Berkhamsted Castle was Geoffrey Chaucer.

The castle was abandoned in 1495 and destroyed by builders who helped themselves to the masonry. After centuries of neglect the site was carefully preserved by the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works, but now by English Heritage.

Berkhamsted received several royal charters. The first, granted by Henry III in 1216, freed the men and merchants of the town from all tolls and taxes wherever they went in England, Normandy, Aquitaine and Anjou. A charter given by Edward IV in 1477 directed that no market was to be set up within eleven miles of Berkhamsted, and that the inhabitants were not to be summoned for jury service.

In 1618 James made Berkhamsted a "free borough towne", its government vested in a bailiff and a common council of twelve chief burgesses. But for a variety of reasons the Corporation was allowed to lapse, and an attempt to secure a fresh charter from Charles II was unsuccessful.

An interesting reminder of the town's former civic status is the coat of arms, granted to the borough in 1619. The castle design was chosen "after deliberate consideration that the glory of that place hath proceeded from the ancient castle there".

Today the chief citizen is not His Worship the Mayor but the chairman of the Urban District Council, which came into being in 1898 after centuries of local government by the Vestry. (In 1974 the town became part of the Dacorum District with a Town Council for minor local administration. Today Dacorum Borough Council administers Hemel Hempstead, Berkhamsted and Tring together with all the surrounding villages.)

The demands of a busy and often overcrowded castle must have helped to make Berkhamsted a good market town at a very early period. The weekly street market, for many years held on a Saturday, is by far the oldest local institution. It was old even in the 13th century, when market day was changed from Sunday to Monday. Greater respect for the Sabbath may have been inspired by the building at that time of our two ancient parish churches which pre-date by at least three centuries any other building which is still in regular use.

Walls of a Saxon church have been traced in St Mary's, Northchurch, which was virtually rebuilt between 1200 and 1220 and further enlarged in Victorian times. The list of rectors of St Mary's starts with Hugh de London, 1221: in the following year Robert de Tuardo was instituted the first known rector of St Peter's. This, one of the largest ancient parish churches in the Home Counties, was built for the growing number of townspeople who lived in the vicinity of the Castle. It contains a number of monuments to local worthies, two of whom, Henry of Berkhamsted and John Raven, were soldiers and servants of the Black Prince. The east window is a memorial to William Cowper, the poet, and there is an interesting monument in the Lady Chapel to his mother, Ann Cowper, wife of an 18th century rector of Berkhamsted.

Unfortunately, the rectory in which the poet was born in 1731 was demolished over a century ago. One after another, old buildings have been pulled down. And in modern times the town has lost two Elizabethan Mansions (Berkhamsted Place and Egerton House) and rows of half - timbered cottages. But there are still some old interesting buildings, to remind us of Bygone Berkhamsted.

The half-timbered house opposite St Peter's Church is said to have been the home of John Incent, Dean of St Paul's, London, who founded Berkhamsted School : his handsome Tudor schoolhouse, on the north side of the churchyard, sufficed for the needs of the school from the foundation date, 1541, until Victorian times. Since then the school has grown in size and fame, as will be seen by the many fine buildings in Castle Street and Mill Street.

In contrast to this school, with its Tudor, Victorian and 20th century buildings, Ashlyns School is entirely modern. But indirectly it is of historic interest: it was built in the early 1930s for the Foundling Hospital, the famous London charity school of 18th century origin. After the 1939-45 war it was acquired by Hertfordshire County Council.

The Britannia Building Society (222 High Street - formerly The National Provincial Bank before it merged with the Westminster Bank and became NatWest 199 High Street) was built for the Bourne Charity School, also an 18th century foundation. It ceased to have a separate existence in Victorian times and became the first home for Berkhamsted School for Girls, which was transferred to new buildings in Kings Road in 1902.

The half-timbered building adjoining the churchyard of St Mary's, Northchurch is of great age and has been an almshouse for many years. The row of almshouses at Cowper Road corner bears the date 1684: the owner was John Sayer, head cook to Charles II.

The Court House, much altered since it was built in Elizabethan days, formerly faced the highway, but for centuries it has been in the shadow of the shops and houses which created Back Lane, renamed Church Lane. The Town Hall and Market House, 1860, replaced a half-timbered market house which was burnt down in 1854. The Civic Centre was opened in 1938.

The first trunk railway in the world, the London and Birmingham Railway, came nearly forty years after the Grand Union Canal. The original Railway station stood at the end of Castle Street and was opened in 1837: it was replaced by the present station in 1875. For many years the only approach to either station was Castle Street: then in 1895, Lower Kings Road was made, the cost being defrayed by public subscription.

A train chartered in 1866 brought over 100 London navvies to smash down fences which had been erected to enclose a third of Berkhamsted Common. This sensational fight for common rights was initiated by Augustus Smith, of Ashlyns Hall, who is also remembered for his great work in reviving Berkhamsted School and starting the first parochial schools. Appropriately a new school in the town was named after him (though later merged to become Thomas Coram).

In early times the chief local trade was wool: several Berkhamsted wool merchants had agencies in Flanders. Later, woodenware was and remains, an important trade. Lace-making was a popular cottage craft in the 18th century: it was followed by straw-plaiting, and a weekly plait market was held in the town.

The railway gave a great impetus to local trade. In the mid-19th century, when Berkhamsted expanded beyond Castle Street, Mill Street and of course the High Street, the first industrial quarter was established in the eastern part of the town, with chemical works and sawmills surrounded by new streets of terraced cottages. In mid and late Victorian times the eastward thrust was continued by the building of Ellesmere Road and George Street.

Western development started when the Kitsbury estate was sold in 1868. Until that time there were very few houses south of the High Street. By the end of the century a pastoral hillside had been criss-crossed by new roads. Many large villas were built for newcomers who were attracted by the town's schools and by a fast train service to London. The season ticket era had started.

The rate of growth was necessarily retarded during the two World Wars, though many of the thousands of soldiers who came to Berkhamsted for training afterwards made their home here. In the 1914-18 war, 13000 men were commissioned after serving with the Inns of Courts Officers Training Corps at Berkhamsted.

Since 1945 the town has grown considerably. One after another, large houses, some standing in extensive grounds, have been pulled down, to be replaced by new housing estates.

But despite so many changes, Berkhamsted retains much of its old charm and individuality. Its most distinctive feature is a fine High Street. Part of the Akeman Street of Roman times, it is long and almost straight, a lifeline which divides the town and yet brings the townspeople together. And in every direction we have easy access to some of the finest countryside to be found in the Home Counties.




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