The Friends of St. Peter's Berkhamsted

Friends of St Peter's, Great Berkhamsted

Byrne, Jessie Darley 1851 – 1908; Duncanson 1885 – 1976

Grave Number 414

Jessie grew up in Birkenhead Cheshire, the daughter of a Scottish merchant and shipowner. By 1881 she had moved down to London and was living with her sister in Mayfair. By 1890 she had moved to Berkhamsted. [1] Jessie Byrne never married but by this time had adopted Kathleen Duncanson as her ward.

They must have integrated quickly in the town, for intriguingly at the Berkhamstead School Sports which took place in the Castle Grounds in 1890 ‘In the absence of Mrs Fry, the prizes were handed to the winners by the infantile ‘Miss Kit” (Miss Kathleen Duncason) assisted by the Headmaster and Mr. Swann.’ Kathleen was five at the time.  The episode suggests that Jessie Byrne may have been drawn to Berkhamsted through a familial connection to the school.

In 1891 they were living in one part of Dean Incents House with a female servant – Kathleen’s place of birth being recorded as Kent, Rochester. It would appear Kathleen’s father was John Duncason Byrne, a relative therefore of Jessie’s.

In 1901 they had moved to the High Street. Jessie died in 1908, her address being recorded as 2 Station Road. Her effects were valued ay £734.4s.2d. Interestingly, her father who had died in Birkenhead on the 1st May in the same year left effects of only £707 19s 8d.

Kathleen, who no doubt inherited much of her wealth, was able to commission the elaborate and individualistic sunflower cross. And a  year after Jessie died, she appears to have sailed to New York. Subsequently she became a governess and was working in the Behren’s family house, Swettenham Hall in 1911. In 1918 she registered as a nurse at Kings College Hospital. She then lived in London and extraordinarily, inherited ‘a string of 77 pearls, other jewelry and £75,000 in 1941 from a lady JP, Miss Amy Evelyn Tomes, who was killed, along with five nurses and a maid in a bombing raid on the Beaumont House Nursing Home where Kathleen worked as a matron.[2] This “as a token of my love and gratitude for all that she has done for me”. Kathleen, who had been seriously injured in the blast, said she expected she would receive only about one-sixteenth of the amount’.

She clearly subsequently led a reasonably wealthy existence, and was well acquainted. She presented Winston Churchill with a gold and silver snuff box. Reciprocating, Winston C. gave her one of his paintings in April 1953 entitled ‘Painting as a Pastime’ and. inscribed ‘To Kathleen Duncanson from Winston S. Churchill 1953 April.[3] Kathleen would almost certainly have known Clementine Hosier (later Churchill) as she was living close by at Egerton Terrace – they were born in exactly the same year (1885) and may, possibly have been drawn to each other because they shared a similar familial set up, a father being absent in both cases.

By 1955 Kathleen had a house at Hudnall Park, Little Gaddesden; she went to New York again in that year. She died in 1976 possessing a Humber Snipe car, a collection of furniture that was offered to Norwich Museum, and left legacies to many charities including those caring for donkeys, horses and dogs.


Kathleen’s memorial is the limestone slab lying at the feet of the cross. Jessie’s richly decorated cross with intertwined sunflowers is, unconventionally made out of concrete.






























[1]. Bucks Herald 5th April

[2] Northern Daily Mail 9th April 1941 and Birmingham Daily Gazette 10th April 1941

[3] Swann Auction Galleries Nov. 14 2002, lot 48

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