The Friends of St. Peter's Berkhamsted

Friends of St Peter's, Great Berkhamsted

Amy Chowns (1921 – 2014)


Amy Chowns was one of Berkhamsted’s keenest gardeners. There is a footnote to Amy in the book “Flora Britannica” by Richard Mabey as rare Bee Orchids were found growing in her lawn in Berkhamsted; this caused a stir for a time and pleased Amy no end as she so loved her garden.

Where had Amy cultivated an interest in gardening? Her working life was far removed from ‘nature’, having devoted all 45 years of her working life (having joined aged 15) to the Gas Light and Coke Company, later the South Herts Gas Company.

However, both of Amy’s parents – Irene (1886-1975) and Harry Chowns (1882-1969) had been born in the countryside – Irene at Startops End, Marsworth and Harry at Gubblecote in Pitstone. They married in 1916 – unusually they were first cousins.

Irene and Harry moved at first into Charles Street with Irene’s parents. Amy was born after Irene had worked her way up to become forewoman at the Mantle Factory (where Waitrose now stands). Harry had worked on the Great Western Railway at Paddington but by 1927 he had set up as a bookseller and newsagent in Lower Kings Road.

Amy was born in 1921 at Spey Cottage, Doctors Common Road, Berkhamsted but moved across Kings Road in the late 1920s to ‘Russley’ at 37 Ashlyns Road. This bungalow had been built by her father and grandfather John Wright (1860-1936), and Amy lived there until 2001 before moving back across Kings Road to Kilfillan Nursing Home in Graemesdyke Road until her death in 2014. ‘Russley’ had a generously-sized garden and this was where the rare orchid was found.

Amy’s keen interest in nature may well therefore have been fostered and nurtured by her maternal grandparents, John and Lizzie Wright. John’s roots were firmly set in the countryside. He hadn’t received any formal education, but worked as a straw plaiter and agricultural labourer in Marsworth, before moving to Berkhamsted around the turn of the twentieth century. He found work in the town as a brewer’s labourer. His wife Lizzie (1862-1933) who had also worked as a straw-plaiter in Marsworth, used to relate a tale that her husband had been out with his horse and cart one day and had stopped off at one too many wayside inns on his way home and was sleeping it off in his cart. The horse, being used to his journey, set off for home with John asleep in the back and returned him safely. The photograph taken by Newman of Berkhamsted of John and Lizzie Wright, who are both buried in the Rectory Lane Cemetery, indicate the couple had by this time made a complete transition from a rural to a more comfortable urban lifestyle. Their substantial and carefully tended garden at ‘Russley’ reflected their agricultural roots, and perhaps Amy’s green fingers rubbed off from her childhood growing up in her grandparents house, with plenty of time spent playing in the garden.

Amy’s relatives contacted the Rectory Lane Cemetery Project to enquire whether her ashes could be interred in John and Lizzie’s grave. This was the first request of this nature that the Project had received, and after liaising with the family and executor, the Rector, Parochial Church Council and Funeral Directors, a date for the interment was fixed.

One of the key features of the graves in Rectory Lane, particularly in the upper sections, are kerbings to the graves with neglected stone urns that have toppled or been displaced. Compared to its current monotone and largely neglected appearance, the Cemetery would once have been an explosion of colour with many flowers placed on individual graves.

Amy herself was an active campaigner who wrote to the local papers and Local Council on many occasions when she felt enough wasn’t being done to improve her beloved town of Berkhamsted. So, as part of Amy’s interment, it has been agreed that the neglected grave of her grandparents should once again be populated with flowers. The strongly-held association of the ‘grave as garden’ will be re-established in the Cemetery and hopefully will encourage other families to begin caring and maintaining their graves once again.

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