The Friends of St. Peter's Berkhamsted

Friends of St Peter's, Great Berkhamsted

Henry Nash (1816 – 1899), ‘The Grand Old Man of Berkhamsted’

Grave Number 51

For those familiar with books about Berkhamsted the name Henry Nash is immediately associated with his ‘Reminiscences of Berkhamsted’ but in his modest way he did a great deal more for his native town, helping others to make their way in life.  John Wolstenholme Cobb in the preface to his second edition thanking those members of the Mechanics’ Institute, to whom he passed the copyright of his book, History and Antiquities of Berkhamsted [1]mentions ‘most especially my old friend Henry Nash, still the Secretary.’ Indeed it is as a founder of the Mechanics’ Institute that it could be said that Nash made his greatest contribution to the life of Berkhamsted.

In writing his Reminiscencesof Berkhamsted, published in 1890, he looked back over the years of his lifetime and drawing on an excellent memory and an intimate knowledge he gives a fascinating account of Berkhamsted life and all the changes that had taken place. Not only was he a founder of the Mechanics’ Institute but also a member of the School Board and probably did more than anyone else to establish the Berkhamsted Girls’ Grammar School. By trade he was a leather cutter and from his little shop in Castle Street he supplied leather to the boot makers and cordwainers of Berkhamsted. Little more than 5 feet tall he had been a cripple from birth. In late Victorian times he was known as ‘The Grand Old Man of Berkhamsted.’[2]

Not only do we have a vivid description of the houses and buildings as we walk through the streets of Berkhamsted, starting with the Hall, ‘a plain but massive building, presenting no special attraction beyond the suggestiveness of plenty within,’ but many people, who were only names, come to life as we pass through. We meet the aged patriarch of the Pocock family in his eighties whose memories go back to the time of George III, as we pass by his smithy. Changes to buildings receive mention and Nash bemoans the destruction of the birthplace of the poet William Cowper and the neglect of his memory.[3]

At the centre of the town, ‘especially on the South side, the houses were all of very ancient date, and would have served as models for the artist, but all have been modernised so as to destroy their picturesque and antique appearance.’ Nevertheless the ancient structure was not destroyed in every case as the discovery of the late thirteenth century timbers at 173 High Street in 2003 shows. We learn too that in earlier times far more trees existed in the town centre and many were removed even during Nash’s lifetime.

We become very conscious of the many changes that have taken place in Victorian times, especially in the field of education, the British School, the Board School, the National School, the development of the Grammar School, not forgetting the Girls’ and the establishment of the Mechanics’ Institute. Nash mentions the various trades especially the large firms, which employed many, Lanes’ Nurseries, Coopers and Easts. The demise of lace making and straw plaiting and its accompanying employment of young children, the introduction of gas street lighting are all noteworthy developments.

He mentions some of the myths and legends, which existed at those times, especially the false assumption that Oliver Cromwell was responsible for the Castle being in ruins! Any newly educated Berkhamsted citizen who attended Cobb’s lectures would know better. All in all, Nash’s Reminiscences of Berkhamsted give us a most comprehensive picture of Victorian Berkhamsted, the most important events and the developments which took place. 

In 1844 two lectures were held, entitled ‘The Philosophy of the Human Mind’ with the support of the Revd. Wilcox, Headmaster of the Grammar School, who provided the premises. This attracted a sizeable audience, including several gentlemen of education and influence, among them one John Hyde. At the close of the meeting a  discussion ensued on the desirability of establishing a Mechanics’ Institute for Berkhamsted. John Hyde expressed his support for the principle of Institutes but he was of the strong opinion that it would be hopeless to try to establish one in Berkhamsted. ‘ It is a soil on which a Mechanics’ Institute cannot live and flourish’. Fortunately for the people of Berkhamsted others present took a more hopeful view and a resolution was passed at least to attempt the setting up of an Institute.[4]

At the meeting was a newcomer to the town, one John Tawell, who lived in the Red House. He appeared to be interested in all good works and wished to support the resolution. A provisional committee was set up including John Tawell, Mr Leete, the surgeon, Mr Daniel Norris,[5] [6]Mr Richard Littleboy[7] [8] and Henry Nash. The first meeting took place at the Red House. A date was fixed for a follow-up meeting, which never took place, for John Tawell[9] was arrested and charged with murder.

Matters fell into abeyance for the time being, but a group of young men, which included Henry Nash and Thomas Read[10] still felt there was a need for such an institute. With the help of Daniel Norris they obtained the use of the parochial school-room and called a public meeting. This elicited little response, partly on the grounds that it did not have the support of the Rector, who considered such institutions entirely unnecessary for working men. This appeared to be the opinion of many of the clergy who felt that Institutes were ‘nothing better than hot-beds of infidelity.’ The group of young men took on a small room in the High Street, where M& Co now is, where they met and read magazines and newspapers. Their numbers grew and they moved to larger premises in Castle Street to what later became the Gardeners’ Arms. After that they moved to a room in Mr William Nash’s yard where the Civic Centre now stands.[11]

The excitement of the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park in 1851and all that it portrayed was felt in Berkhamsted. Many people travelled to London to see it and returned with ideas for the future, especially the young men. In that same year the Revd James Hutchinson was appointed Rector of St Peter’s. Representatives of the group, led by Thomas Read [12]and Henry Nash approached him to solicit his co-operation and support. Their numbers had been growing steadily. A public meeting was proposed with Mr Hutchinson in the Chair and arrangements were made to invite Mr George Cruikshank, the artist, who at the time was at the height of his popularity. This was a great success. Cruikshank urged them to take up the advantages of an Institute and pleaded for the support of the more educated classes. The Rector responded very positively and several other gentlemen promised support. Berkhamsted at the time had a number of gentlemen of wealth and influence some possessing literary and scientific knowledge; these placed their services at the disposal of the Institute. A new spirit of progress was in the air. Several new societies were formed, including the Cottage Garden Society and the Odd Fellows’ Society. Not only did the Institute receive the support of the Rector but also the Rev. W Hodge, pastor of the Congregational Church gave it his backing. Although the numbers were small the first committee headed by Henry Nash persisted and from this point on the Mechanics Institute went from strength to strength. The basis for a library was quickly established. As well as daily newspapers, Punch and the Illustrated London News were purchased.[13] Right from the early days lectures were a significant feature of the Institute’s activities and not long after discussion groups were also established. A number of lecturers regularly gave talks on specific subjects. Henry Nash in his Reminiscences particularly mentions Thomas Whately, the surgeon, Charles Winser, a barrister, William Claridge, the artist and photographer and of course John Wolstenholme Cobb, who later published his two lectures on the History & Antiquities of Berkhamsted.

When the market house came to be rebuilt after the disastrous fire of 1854 the Mechanics’ Institute was sufficiently well established for the building to incorporate a Reading Room for the Institute, so that it now had a permanent home.[14] Initially lectures were given by local worthies free of charge but as membership increased fees were paid and lecturers obtained from further afield. Penny readings took place, exhibitions were held and attempts were made to establish a museum in 1867 but it was not a great success.[15]

In all these developments and until his death Henry Nash was involved. His work for the Institute is epitomised in the inscription beneath his portrait adjacent to the Clock Room. ‘HENRY NASH Founder of the Berkhamsted Mechanics’ Institute 1845. Successively Treasurer Librarian Secretary President Vice-President trustee.

Believing that Mr Nash’s memory will be best perpetuated by the members of the Institute striving to maintain those high ideals of its function for which he ever worked, this short record is placed beneath his portrait, from a desire to honour the memory of one who sought not honour for himself.’

Henry Nash had the advantage of having friends of all political and religious persuasion. He was respected as a modest and reasonable man. His skills were apparent in the successful establishment of the Berkhamsted School for Girls. As stated in the Golden Jubilee booklet published in 1938, ‘There is little doubt that it was he (Henry Nash) who in 1870 first had the idea of starting a school to provide secondary education for girls in Berkhamsted. He worked tirelessly in the matter and it is believed that his efforts were in no small measure responsible for the provision of a girls’ school.’ His influence in this matter was first felt in1878 when he was elected to the Board of Governors of Berkhamsted School as one of the representatives of the town, at which election he had headed the poll. Negotiations between Nash and Bartrum, the Headmaster, were long drawn-out. It took ‘a wearisome delay of years’ before a compromise was reached. It is to the credit of Bartrum and Nash that it was resolved so peaceably. Nash in his Reminiscences pays tribute to Bartrum as a Headmaster and as a public-spirited citizen.

Nash was ahead of his time in many ways. He never married but he had two nieces, one of whom became a teacher.[16] It seems he had a personal interest in the establishment of secondary education for intelligent girls. Fortuitously a building was available[17] and the new school started its life in the vacant Bourne School building. Miss Disney became Headmistress and the school opened with 14 pupils.

Nash’s influence was equally felt in the field of elementary education for the town since he served for very many years on the School Board, since its inception in1871. The Berkhamsted Board was set up as a result of the legislation of the 1870 Education Act and took over the administration of the former British School, which later became known as Park View Road School. The Board was locally elected and financed by local rates. Its religious education was non-denominational, thus following on with the principle of the former British School. One of the first actions of the Berkhamsted Board founded in1871 was to enlarge the Park View Road School to cater for the increasing population and need of the children in the town.

Henry Nash, ‘the Grand Old Man’ whose life spanned almost the entire 19th century passed away in 1899. He left behind a rich legacy in so many fields.  ‘He sought not honour for himself.’

Researched and written by Jenny Sherwood for the Chronicle, the publication of the Berkhamsted Local History and Museum Society.


[1] History and Antiquities of Berkhamsted John Wolstenholme Cobb, MA first published 1855, revised 1883, reprinted Book Stack 1988.

[2] A Short History of Berkhamsted  Percy C Birtchnell, published by the author 1972

[3] The Cowper Rectory was demolished by the Rev. John Crofts, rector from 1810-50. Cobb raised funds for the Cowper memorial window in St Peter’s Church.

[4] Reminiscences of Berkhamsted.

[5] Daniel Norris was the miller at Lower Mill

[6] 1841 census.

[7] Richard Littleboy was also a miller at Bourne End Mill, a Quaker and son of Sarah Littleboy, who later lived at Boxwell House. See the Chronicle Vol II, March 2005

[8] 1841 census.

[9] Tawell was convicted and hung in Aylesbury market place. See the Chronicle Vol IV, Mar 2007

[10] A timber merchant.

[11] ‘Berkhamsted Town Hall and Market House,’ P.C. Birtchnell.

[12] See the Chronicle Vol: III p.11

[13] The Berkhamsted Institute, 1845-1945,published by the Council of the Institute.

[14] The Town Hall and Market House was opened in 1860.

[15] This started with a collection of stuffed birds and kangaroos, a gift from Henry Costin who had established a saw mill in Victoria, Australia. This was added to by two rare Australian birds from Admiral Gambier.

[16] Censuses 1881 and 1891

[17] In 1875 the children from the Bourne School had joined those at the National School housed in the Court House.

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