The Burial Ground
The original Chapel building was built on the plot of land part way up Bell Lane, Northchurch, officially described as Northchurch Baptist Chapel Burial Ground, commonly referred to just as the Burial Ground. All the old buildings were demolished in 1920 leaving just the plot and a handful of surviving graves.
But what was this burial ground?
How many people are buried there, and over what period?
Church records and other sources give a fascinating insight into this small piece of Northchurch.
The first Chapel building was opened on this site in 1840. The first burials recorded in the Chapel Minute Book were from 1842; the latest one known was in 1939. Every year when voting for deacons, Treasurer, and Secretary at the AGM, members would also elect one of their number to be Sexton.
Members, their families and some others associated with the Baptist Chapel were, on death, interred in the small plot of land surrounding the building in Bell Lane. The names of about 50 different people are known to have been buried there but there are almost certainly many more whose names have not been preserved. In the 1840s 13 different burials are known to have taken place, the next busiest period, as recorded, being the 1870's with 11 burials. There are even three interments known to have taken place in the late 1930s each of these being within existing family graves.
The burial ground is not a large area, especially when the centre was dominated by the Chapel building and its adjacent schoolroom. It does not seem to have been long before they began to run out of room for these burials. The privilege of burial in this plot seems to have been mainly restricted to Members of the Church and their families but some exceptions were allowed.
In February 1870 the body of John Fountain, a well known 96-year old former blacksmith, was allowed to be interred in the Chapel Yard, as it was often called. His gravestone survives to this day, but permission for his burial required a vote of the church meeting.
In 1883 this was formalised, Church Minutes stating that
An alteration of the burial rules was passed to the effect that "Any application for interment for a person who is not a member shall be brought before the Church, discussed and voted upon, for or against as the case shall demand."
In 1888 when Church Rules were drawn up, Rule 7 stipulated
That the burial ground be used for the members and their families, except the church by a direct vote sanction the interment of a non member.
This, of course, resulted in a number of urgent Church Meetings called hastily when requests from non-members were received. Grounds for allowing an interment to take place included someone who was well known to the church for many years (but not a member) or that a child's mother had previously attended the Sunday School. Each case was discussed on its merits, sometimes it would seem, at some length.
In 1893 Mary Tomlin died in Northchurch, aged 86. Her relatives asked if there would be any objections to her being buried in the Chapel Yard. There were. A Church Meeting called on 22nd January turned down the request "space of room forbids". Worries were clearly increasing that the available space was being used up. In a discussion in 1889 the Pastor had been asked whether there was sufficient ground for all the members and families to be buried – worryingly for the membership his reply was "no". If someone left the church their right to automatic access to the Chapel Yard was forfeited.
Nevertheless some burials continued to take place for at least another 50 years, the last ones we know about being for members of families, such as the Baldwins or the Shermans, which had been closely related to the Baptist Chapel for many years.
On Friday 8th April 1892 a Dr Hoffman from the Home Office Burial Department, together with the local Medical Officer carried out an Inspection of the Bell Lane Burial Ground. This arose following complaints from Bell Lane residents made, without the Church's knowledge, to the quaintly named Inspector of Nuisances. Quite possible these complaints were provoked by the burial in January 1892, of Martha Strange in a corner grave extremely close to the adjacent cottages in Bell Lane, overlooking the graveyard.
This was a serious situation. Had the complaints been upheld, it could have led to an injunction preventing further burials on the site. The gist of the objection was that the burial ground was "insanitary" and that the presence of graves so near to cottages could present a threat to public health such as from the gases given off from the dead bodies. It emerged during discussions that one grave was a mere 9 feet away from one of the dwellings.
The local church leaders had marshalled their arguments well. A petition had been collected in favour of burials continuing on this plot, the Pastor and leaders of the Chapel attended the meeting in force and they emphasised what care they took over interments and how now there were only two or three each year. Their sexton (also the church treasurer) had long also been the grave-digger for St Mary's Churchyard. He compared the Bell Lane plot favourably with the larger site where he said he had seen "numbers of skulls dug out". There, dwellings were, if anything, even closer to the graves.
In the end a happy compromise was reached. No more interments were carried out close to the three nearby houses but they could continue at the further end of the Burial Ground. A report to that effect was submitted to the Home Office and a smattering of burials in the Chapel Yard continued for another half a century.
When the Chapel was relocated to the High Street in 1900, the old burial ground although still sometimes used, began to fall into disrepair. In particular the old Chapel buildings, now no longer needed, became very dilapidated until at last in 1920 they were pulled down and the materials sold off. This generated a profit of £141 of which £100 was invested in a government bond to offset the ongoing maintenance costs. This clearly was insufficient: in 1941 the church agreed upon an annual collection to help cover the upkeep costs of the cemetery.
Stories from the graves
Some of the most interesting characters linked to the Baptist Chapel in the 19th and early 20th centuries, lie buried close to its original building.
Four of the eight founder members from 1840 are buried here, although their deaths span nearly 40 years.
William Norris died on 29 September 1853, aged 78, the cause of death being given as "Natural Decay". He was the Berkhamsted man who first gave a property in Northchurch for the church to meet in and then donated the very plot of land where the first chapel was built and where he now lies buried. A headstone still survives remembering both him and his wife. Elean Jane Norris, another of the original eight, survived her husband for 16 years before herself dying in 1869. She was Irish, born in Belfast in 1788.
No grave survives for Lydia Green but church minutes record that she too was interred in the Chapel Ground. Lydia survived until 20 November 1891, 50 years from when her church was opened, missing its Jubilee celebrations by just a few days. Born in Northchurch, she was 87 when she died having lived most of her life at Dudswell, or Dudes Well as it was known in the mid-19th century. "Her walk was very consistent" church records state, "and she being dead yet speaketh".
The fourth founder is John Bryant – or Briant. Confusingly it is only in the Minute Book that he is given the name John and then not always. All official references in censuses and registrations show him as George and the Church's own burial records in 1849 and 1876 do so too. On August 19th 1876 George Bryant of London was allowed to be interred in the plot of ground, without question or church vote, his burial fee being paid by the Church Treasurer (James Sear). Early membership records show that John Bryant, who with William Norris in November 1843 was made one of the original two deacons, died on August 15 1876. John and George are one and the same person. This Mr Briant was born in Stoke Hammond in Bucks in 1801 and married Elizabeth who was born a year later in Syresham, Northamptonshire. They must have lived for a time at Syresham, with at least one of their children (Thomas) being born there around 1823. Some time before 1838 John/George and Elizabeth had moved to Dudswell. They had at least ten children, three boys and seven girls, almost enough to start the Sunday School on their own! At least three of these girls were born to them between 1838 and 1844 whilst they were in Dudswell. Two of their older children Thomas and Ann, were amongst the very earliest members of Northchurch in their own right. Ann was baptised and joined first, on 6th March 1842, her brother Thomas following on 29 September 1844.
The whole Briant family was shortly to move away to London. They transferred their membership (we do not know where), but it suggests there was an amicable parting. This happened in April 1848 for the parents and in June of the same year for Thomas. They all moved to Kentish Town, including Ann although we have no record of her transfer. In 1841 George had his occupation listed as agricultural labourer, by 1851 in London he is a porter (by then aged 50) and 10 years on he is an office porter. He died aged 76 in 1876 being buried, as stated, back in the Chapel Yard. At least two of his children predeceased him and were already buried there: Jhon, an infant, in February 1849 and Ann, the 1842 member, in July 1858.
Thomas married in Berkhamsted in December 1847 but within a year followed his parents to Kentish Town, where he and his wife and son lived next door to the Briants senior. Thomas himself was to die in 1853 although we have no record of him also being interred at Northchurch.
By 1881 we find Elizabeth Briant, George's widow, now aged 79, living in Regents Park in the home of Emma one of her younger daughters, her son-in-law and three grandchildren. Elizabeth died later that year. Before marrying, in 1861, Emma and her sister Elizabeth (junior) were described as artificial florists – presumably this being the making of artificial flowers.
Amidst all the comings and goings of this large family, it is clear that they retained strong links with Northchurch and as ex-members, they and their family members, at this time still retained the right to be buried in the Chapel Yard of the Church.
Near the back of the plot on the left, a single headstone commemorates William Sherman and his wife. Born in nearby Frithsden in 1832, William Sherman was a local farmer.
The Sherman family history is intertwined with that of the Chapel. William's older brother Jeremiah had, in 1845, married Elizabeth Lawrence. This was Elizabeth's second marriage, her first husband being James Lawrence, nearly 30 years her senior, the member of New Mill Baptist Church who had first started the prayer group in the 1830's that led, in time, to the founding of Northchurch Baptist Chapel. Elizabeth Lawrence (nee East) was transferred to New Mill Baptists from Chesham in July 1835, this presumably being just after the marriage. Her new husband, James, a grocer and straw plait dealer died on 13 October 1839 of a paralytic stroke, so was never to see the new chapel that his efforts had done so much to bring about. Six years later she remarried and her second husband Jeremiah Sherman was also a grocer in Northchurch.
William Sherman was 11 years younger than Jeremiah but also married an Elizabeth. He and his wife lived together on Shootersway Farm where William in 1881 was employing 6 labourers. (He took pride that almost all were teetotal). Elizabeth (wife of William) was born in 1835, in Chenies and although living to 67 it was after her death that she hit the headlines. She died in April 1902 but immediately after her funeral service in the new Baptist church building on Northchurch High Street, a traffic accident occurred. Her coffin had been placed in the hearse ready to be transported the short distance up Bell Lane to the Burial Ground; the mourners were getting themselves into two broughams for a similar journey when a pony and trap came careering along the narrow road. Driven at speed past the funeral cortege it caught the back of one of the broughams and overturned, throwing out the reckless drivers; two young men and two young women. Fortunately no-one was injured nor the trap damaged but it must have been a somewhat unseemly incident on so solemn an occasion.
William himself was a Deacon in the Chapel for many years, certainly from before 1884 through to his death in 1913. At church meetings, when present, his name, "Brother Sherman", was always recorded first after the Minister, suggesting a certain standing in the community. Sometimes the annual Sunday School Treat took place on his farm, the children and church members retiring to one of the barns if it began to rain. In 1890 it was more than rain that interrupted proceedings. The children were delighted to find a kangaroo in the meadow where they were playing. This was an escapee from Tring Park where the Rothschilds had a large group. Although the children gave chase the kangaroo made good its escape and headed off in the direction of Champneys!
William remarried four years after Elizabeth died. In 1906, aged 74, he married Octavia Emma Carpenter in Aston, Warwickshire who soon, herself, became a church Member at Northchurch. It was she who commissioned the headstone, still to be seen in the Burial ground, when William Sherman himself died in 1913 aged 81.
On the right hand side as you enter the burial ground are a series of graves holding members of the Baldwin family. Joseph and Mary Baldwin (ex-members of New Mill Baptist Church), were amongst the very early members of the Chapel, joining in December 1843. These graves belong to a different line, possibly related, the oldest of which, (buried), are James, a farm bailiff, and his wife Phoebe. They became church members in 1862 as, in time, did their three daughters, Lucy (who married Joseph Nash), Sarah and Ellen and one son (James) William. Another daughter Mary Ann, also interred in the family grave, was a school teacher in Hampshire. Although James himself had been born in Pitstone, they lived in Northchurch, first in Orchard End but then on the High Street. Stalwarts of the church, the family habitually provided hospitality and sometimes it would seem accommodation to visiting preachers. William was organist for many years. He was a Deacon for 30 years from 1889 to his death; Treasurer (from 1901); Secretary; and even Sexton (from 1906). In 1918 he was carrying out all 4 of these offices at the same time. In 1906 he had also become Sunday School Superintendant. He never married, nor did his sisters Sarah or Ellen, the family all living together throughout this period. Their mother Phoebe died in 1898 just before the new Church opened, their father James staying a widower until his own death in 1911 aged 80. William, whose occupation was a farmer, died suddenly aged just 52 in March 1919, whilst at a local Temperance Meeting. A well known local figure, "he was" it was recorded "a good man". Sarah (or possibly Ellen), in a rather bold move, took over as Church Treasurer on William's death, surviving until 1935. Her younger sister Ellen lived on another 4 years until her own death aged 76, hers being the last known interment in the Chapel Burial Ground on 28 January 1939.
The whole family were clearly musical. William, then a humble young labourer, is singled out repeatedly for his fine voice and harmonium playing in newspaper accounts of various church events in the 1880's. In April 1889 at the reopening of the Chapel building after restoration work, "a notable feature was the singing" which emanated from a choir of eight people. Half of the choir was from the Baldwin family, William and his 3 sisters.
One further headstone is worthy of note, referring as it does to Anne Sear and her husband William James Sear. It is undated but William James Sear died in 1907 aged 77. James Sear as he was known, a carpenter by trade, appears to have been quite a character. The inscription on his headstone reads "for over 50 Years Superintendant of the Baptist Sunday School". As early as 1883 at a Church Meeting he was specially recognised for his long service in the Sunday School – only to continue for more than two decades more! He must have taken on the Sunday School leadership before 1858; in 1876 he became Church Treasurer and by 1884 (possibly well before) he was Sexton, responsible for the upkeep of the Burial Ground including grave digging – duties he also seems to have carried out for the Parish Church. It was only in 1905 and 1906 that he gave up these varied duties on the grounds of "serious illness and age". In February 1906 he was made Honorary Superintendant of the Sunday School with a vote of thanks for past services.
James Sear was clearly proud of his book-keeping. In 1875 he claims to have been the Treasurer "for over 15 years and never a farthing wrong".
The Sunday School seems to have been his passion though. By 1878 seventy scholars and their teachers were occupying one room measuring 18 feet by 12 feet. James was one of the prime movers (with William Sherman) in raising funds for a new two-storey schoolroom on the site. There were different pressures in those days. In 1886 a special meeting of the Sunday School teachers led to the temporary closure of the School “for a time on account of the Measles which were so prevalent just now and have caused so many deaths”.
Happily this does not seem to have disrupted the Sunday School children for too long.
At times the Sunday School seems to have been semi-autonomous; it had its own accounts with James Sear the treasurer for the School as well as for the Church. Certainly in 1897 James Sear was very reluctant that school funds be used to contribute £1 towards the £11 cost of a new harmonium, even though the children themselves would benefit from the new instrument. This was to provoke a mini-crisis, leading in the end to the Church Meeting formally writing to their own Church (and Sunday School) Treasurer threatening his dismissal unless the School accounts were produced. In the end the accounts were produced, one suspects with bad grace, although it must also be noted that the actual content of these accounts was completely acceptable. It seems to have been something of a power struggle but as he remained Sunday School Superintendant for a further 10 years it seems to have blown over.
The Sear family headstone also mentions Thurza Sear. Thurza, born in 1859 was one of James' daughters who lived in Northchurch until her death in 1938 at the age of 79, whereupon she was also buried in the Chapel Yard (the second to last interment). In the 1880's she had been a teacher in the Sunday School run by her father. Also mentioned, again without dates, are John and Sarah Sear, two more of at least 6 children of Ann and James. John was born in 1872, Sarah in 1861. Sarah also helped in her time in the Sunday School. Neither Sarah or her sister Thurza ever married.
Commonwealth War Grave
Today, on the right hand side of the burial ground stands a single War Grave.
This commemorates Private W Sear who died on 8th April 1917. William Sear, of Northchurch, who was in the 12th battalion of the Bedfordshire Regiment, died in Newhaven, Sussex in 1917 but is buried in Northchurch.
It is not known whether he is related to the previously mentioned Sear family.
He is one of 6 men named on the War Memorial Tablet erected 6 June 1920 and now in the church porch.
Burials recorded in Church Minute Books
James Green [died 6 April 1842 aged 3 months, of Fits, son of Thomas Green]
Jhon Pocock [child] 0.2.0
Wood [child] 0.2.0
Job Pudaphat [3rd] March 1843 [died of inflammation of the chest
son of James Puddefoot, Northchurch labourer and Phoebe]
Mary Ann Walden November 1844 0.2.0
Mrs Rebeckah Norris April 18 1846 [wife of James Norris]
Henry Norris April 20 1846 0.2.0
Thomas Crook April 271846
S Norris infant August 1846[Selina, newborn on 4 August was daughter of
Thomas, a Founder member]
Saunders, ditto died 31.7.1846 0.2.0
Infant Son of W Norris March 15 1847 0.2.0
Mrs Lydia Norris June 1848 0.6.0
Mrs Lydia Pocock January 1849 0.6.0
Jhon Briant – Infant February 25 1849
Son of George Briant
George Dickin January 1853 0.1.6
Mr William Norris October 7 [1853 Founder member and provider of plot of
Grave 2. 0.0
Mrs Whitnal March 1858
Ann Briant July 16, 1858
Emma Aling August 1 1858 0.3.0
Mrs Ann Pierce May 29 1861[Pearce, a church member formerly Ann Hatchett.]
Jan 15th 1876 Mr John Fountain Aged 96 years & 10 months
He was buried in front of the Chapel Mr George Clark of Tring
Officiated. Grave 6ft Deep & Ministers fees 11.6
April 2nd 1876 Mrs Mary Cutler was Buried close by the side
of Mr John Fountain her Age being 23 years grave 6ft deep 6.0
Buried by Mr George Clark of Tring
April 2nd 1876 Herbert Joseph King Infant son of W D King
Aged 5 months, Was Buried at the back of the Chapel by the side of
Mr Taylors was Buried by George Clark of Tring 5.0
Grave 3ft 6in Deep
May 7th 1876 Frances Ann Storr Aged 1 year & 8 Months
was Buried on the lower side of the Chapel at the front
corner Row second from the Edge Buried by Mr Geo Clark 2.6
of Tring Grave 3ft 6in Deep[causes of death: measles, whooping cough]
June 25th 1876 Mr John Storr father of the above Aged 26 years
was buried close to the Edge by the side of his Daughter’s Grave
6ft Deep [aged 37 yrs, cause of death: tb]
Buried by Mr George Clark of Tring free of Charge
August 19th Mr George Bryant of London was Buried
at the back of the Chapel by the side ofJohn Randalls little one,
Grave 7ft Deep to allow for Burying his Wife on the top of him
his Age being 76 Years, 7.6
Buried by George Clark of Tring his fees being 4.0
Paid Sept 21st ’76 Sear
William John Storr died August 30th Buried Sept 3rd 1876,
Aged 14 weeks [causes of death: atrophy, tb]
Buried in the Same grave as his Sister Frances Ann Storr 3.0
Florence Sear Died April 16th 1878
Buried 21st Apr in John Randal’s Childs Grave Paid 3.0
Rupert Storr Died July 7th 1878 Buried on the 11th July 3.0
At the Foot of William John Storr & Frances Ann Storr
Buried by Mr George Clark of Tring
[aged 6 weeks, cause of death: atrophy] Paid
Richard Emmery Died July 22nd 1879 Aged [he was 64]
Buried Jul 27 On the upper side of the Chapel opposite the Second
Window from the front of Chapel close to the Edge 7.6
Grave 7ft Deep to receive his Wife
Buried By Mr George Clark Paid
James Kempster Died July 24th 1879, Aged 43 Years
Buried July 27th at the foot of John Storr close To the Edge
Grave 7ft deep to admit another on the top 7.6
Buried by Mr George Clark
Mary Woods Died Sep 10th 1880Aged 23 Years
Buried Sept 14th in the third row from the front Edge
close to the side Edge.
Grave 7ft Deep To admit another on the top of her Paid 7.6
Buried by Mr Young of Tring his fee Paid 2.6
William Taylor Died Oct 22nd 1880 Aged 76 Years
Buried Oct 27th on the right Hand side of his Son George
Grave 7ft deep to Admit another on the top of him Paid 7.6
Buried by Mr Le Fevre of Berkhamsted
Eliza Davis Died April 17th 1881 Aged 71 yrs
Buried April 21st in the same Grave has [as] her 5.0
Husband next to Mrs Pearce
Buried by Mr Le Fevre our own Minister
Other known burials
October 1883 Hannah Keen aged 56 of Cow Roast. Wife of James. Needed vote of Church Meeting.
March 1884 Carrie King nee Richbell. Wife of Nash King, mother of 7 children died suddenly of cerebral apoplexy. Church member.
Infant child of Mr and Mrs Osborn d September 1889. Needed vote of Church Meeting. [Reginald John Osborn born in same month, grandson of James Sear]
Emily Sear aged 36 wife of Walter d 14 Sep 1890. Needed vote by Church Meeting.
Surviving Names on Memorial Inscriptions in Northchurch Baptist Chapel Burial Ground 2013
Emma Pocock d Feb 1882 Aged 23
Anne Pocock d 1906
Anne & William Sear for 50 Years Superintendant of Baptist Sunday School
John and Sarah Sear
Thurza Sear d 1938
Reginald John Osborn d 27.9.1889 [infant, needing agreement of church meeting before burial could take place]
War Grave: 36345 Private W Sear Bedfordshire Regiment d 8 Apr 1917
To the Memory of James Baldwin who departed this life 11 July 1911 Aged 80
In loving memory of Phebe the beloved wife of James Baldwin who departed this life Nov 5th 1898 aged 72 years
Also of Joseph Nash who died Feb 14th 1925 aged 73 years
Lucy Jane Nash b 18 Nov 1832 d 7 Mar 1900 age 47
Sarah Amy Baldwin d 9 May 1935
Mary Ann Baldwin d 8 Sep 1908 age 57
Ellen Baldwin d 28 Jan 1939 age 76
James William Baldwin d 15 Mar 1919 age 52
William Norris d 29 Sep 1853 age 78
Eileen Jane Norris d 29 Nov 1869
Elizabeth wife of William Sherman d 13 Apr 1902
William Sherman d 25 May 1913 age 81 Husband of Octavia Emma Sherman
Ann Pearce d 29 May 1864 age 24 [a member, Ann Hatchett who married James Pearce in 1862, cause of death tb]
Henry Hastings Pearce son of above d 29 Jun 1864 age 13 months [cause convulsions, effusion of the brain, died in Chesham]
George Taylor [died 1868 aged 24 and probably his father William Taylor d 1880 aged 76 but headstone is very badly worn. William was sole deacon of NBC in 1869]
John Fountain formerly of Aston Clinton d 7 Jan 1876 age 97 [a former blacksmith]
John Strange d 26.8.1887
Martha Strange d 19.1.1892