The Friends of St. Peter's Berkhamsted

Friends of St Peter's, Great Berkhamsted

John Wolstenholme Cobb (1829 – 1883)

Grave Number 345

John Wolstenholme Cobb was a Yorkshireman by birth and came first to the town in 1853 as curate to St Peter’s. He was an energetic and popular young curate and became intensely interested in the history of his adopted town and carried out extensive research, which is still respected and referred to today. In 1854 he gave two long lectures to the Mechanics’ Institute on the history of Berkhamsted. The following year he published these lectures as the History and Antiquities of Berkhamsted. By that time he had become curate of St Mary’s Northchurch, where he stayed until he was appointed vicar of Kidmore End, near Reading, in 1863. In the summer of 1861 he had married Elizabeth Mary Crofts, two years his senior, in Berkhamsted. She had been born in Painswick, Gloucestershire. At the time of the 16861 census Elizabeth Mary was staying with the Dorriens at Haresfoot. She was a fund holder, in other words had independent means.

In 1871 John was appointed Rector of Berkhamsted St Peter’s where he remained until his death in 1883. He was the first Rector to be appointed by the Earl Brownlow. From 1722 the Rector had been appointed by the Duchy of Cornwall but with the purchase of the Manor of Berkhamsted by the Brownlows in 1865 this duty devolved to them until the death of the last Earl in 1921.

In the preface of his first edition Cobb wrote ‘Compiled indeed, as they were, only in the short intervals which parochial engagements allowed for them, nothing elaborate was possible. Trouble, however, has not been spared to render them a trustworthy and connected record of the History and Antiquities of Berkhamsted’

Cobb devotes his first lecture to the Castle and its complicated history, the depth of which has scarcely been surpassed since. After the death of Cicely, Duchess ofYork he refers to Leland’s descriptions of the area, the building of Berkhamsted Place, the visit of the Prince of Wales to the School and the Murrays at Berkhamsted Place, quoting widely. He devotes time to James I and the Borough Charter. Both the School and St Peter’s Church are fully covered.

The History and Antiquities of Berkhamsted, by J W CobbEven though Cobb had written his first edition some years ago he continued his research of the history of Berkhamsted. Rather than alter the original text he added new information in the form of appendices. Many of these are copies of original documents, with translations from the Latin, He also adds later more recent research quoting from others’ work. John Wolstenholme Cobb’s book is still widely available today in the original and later editions from Ebay or ABE Books.

Cobb was appointed Rector just before the completion of Butterfield’s Victorian restoration work when the church was faced with flint and many internal alterations were made. Further improvements occurred during his Rectorate.

There are several copies of the 1st and 2nd edition of Cobb’s History & Antiquities in the Society’s Collection including one grangerised version.

Cobb died aged 54 years. Note that he had been instrumental in encouraging the establishment of the Burial Guild, so his funeral was more flamboyant involving, particularly, music and choristers.

‘As to the day of the burial. The body had been removed from the Rectory to the Church, and placed in front of the Altar which he loved so well, at an early hour of the morning (11 June 1883). There at 7 a.m. gathered 110, and at midday 45, to feed on that blessed Food, which he himself was so constant in ministering, and in inviting the faithful to partake of. During the whole morning the Church was left open , and it was visited without cessation, from 10 a.m to 3 p.m., by numbers of parishioners of all classes and denominations, anxious to pay a last tribute of respect and devotion; and in the presence of that beloved form in the chancel to bring to remembrance the words of “exhortation and instruction in righteousness,” once listened to there from the living voice (as of some sweet silver trumpet) of the faithful and good shepherd of the flock committed to him.

As the hour of the funeral (3.30) approached, the Church was seen to be filling from end to end. As far as we observed, every person, man, woman, or child, was dressed in mourning. The forethought and precision of the churchwardens and sidesmen secured the most perfect order and decorum, and no one was kept waiting, but at once shown to a vacant seat. The organ now began to stir the silence with the moving strains of the “Dead March in Saul,” and presently the whole congregation rose, upon hearing the first sentence of the Burial Service, solemnly raised to the tones of Helmore, by the clergy and the choir, as they entered the west door. Psalm xxxix having been sung the Lesson was read by the Rev A. Johnson. This concluded, any one nervous about seemly decorum with such an assembly to regulate, might have wondered how so large a congregation could leave the Church and re-assemble at the grave without confusion. But still the same beautiful order (so long characteristic of all the services under the late Rector) marked his last departure from the Church to his final resting place. The choir and clergy, leading the way out of the south door of the chancel, were followed by the attendants of the body upon its bier, as well as by the mourners and immediate friends; while the general congregation left the Church by the other doors in the nave. The whole street now appeared as closely-packed as the Church had been, and a most solemn and touching procession of the town and parish of Berkhamsted met at length, with his own dear ones, at the grave which had been prepared in the Yew Tree Walk, and which loving hands had entirely lined with moss and guelder roses. At this moment, while the lovely wreaths and crosses and flowers were being arranged, the sun, which had not shone before all day, streamed out with a most tender softness, seeming to say, as has been so beautifully said before:-

“Christ, who had been my perfect Sun by day,

      Will be my Star by night;

On my deep rest the Lord shall shine alway

      An everlasting Light.


“Dimly I see Him through the clouds that roll

       Along the darkening West;

O Lord, my Star, by Thy sweet light my soul

       Doth enter into rest!”

The Service at the grave was said by the Rev H.D. Macnamara, the sentences and anthem being exquisitely rendered as before by the choir, and all closed with Hymn No 197, “The King of Love my Shepherd is.”

On thinking over the whole scene as a worthy recognition of a devoted English Priest and Pastor, “faithful in all his house” we are not only thankful to feel how such a genuine tribute to the Rector of a Parish is the best possible measure of the value of the Church’s work and ministry in England – but also how, in each minutest detail, everything was thought of, and everything done exactly as he would have desired. May the Peace of God be evermore his and ours!  J.H Thicknesse

Another anonymous version:

It is no wonder then, that when the passing bell rang out in the silence of the early morning, proclaimimng so unexpectedly to us that in the hours of the night his Spirit had fled “to God who gave it”, there was but one feeling of love and sympathy for him and his in the hearts of all who heard its deep and solemn tones; one prayer that Peace – eternal Peace – might rest upon them. This feeling especially manifested itself on the burial-day. In the early morning, again, he was brought from his pleasant home on earth, to rest before that altar where he had so often knelt to worship, and stood to minister. And there, and afterwards at a later celebration, were gathered the many mourners who sought in the Eucharistic Service the Divine strength of eternal food for their own souls, and the refreshing grace of the “Communion of Saints”, even with his Spirit who had fled to the blissful realities, which we trust await us also, behind the veil.

Throughout the day, the Church was sought for prayer and meditation. But later on, as the funeral hour drew near, every household declared its sorrow: shops were closed; windows were darkened; the people collected together in the streets, and the Church was filled with mourners – high and low, rich and poor, young and old – to follow to his final resting-place him who had gone to his “long home”.

As the Priests and Clerks, with the many attending Clergy, entered to take their brother to his grave, the singing of the introductory sentences in the Burial Service of our Church fell upon the ear and heart of the great congregation with a beauty never, we are sure, felt by us in that Service before. The music, especially appropriate, clothed the message thus proclaimed with a majesty, and sublimity, beyond the power of words alone to convey. And at each step taken up the nave to the chancel, where the dead was waiting, each note, as it poured forth to its own plaintive utterance, intensified the deep and earnest feeling which held, in tranquil; and hallowed subjection, every heart within those sacred walls.

Divine Service in the Church, Psalm. And Lesson and Hymn, over, the long procession passed on –

“Surpliced priests their brother tended;

Loving hearts their tribute gave;

All the parish with them wended

Round the churchyard to the grave”.

But we went not to the grave only, nor did we pass on in silence. Rather we went in praise; rather in Christian hope and praise; our thoughts followed him to –

“Light’s abode, celestial Salem,

Vision whence true peace doth spring

Brighter than the heart can fancy,

Mansion of the Highest King”.

This was the place to which our faith ascended. At the grave, as in the Church, the voice of music was powerfully heard. It spoke now not so much in the accents of men as in the notes of boys. The accents of men, indeed, told us of human sorrows and decay; they offered the prayer for mercy and deliverance in death. But the sweet notes of boys were heard also. Their melody, beautiful and clear, rose like the song of angels. They sang of Life in the voice from heaven that said “Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord”, and as a heavenly song it fell upon the sorrowing crowd, assuring them, as “saith the Spirit” of “Rest.”l

“There in perfect peace we left him,

Flowers his pillow, moss his bed.”

The summer’s shone brightly as we turned homewards. The muffled peal rang out from the old Church-tower the last farewell of earth; and it seemed, in its echoes, to bear to us the notes of a welcome to heaven.

These words to his memory speak but imperfectly of his worth; but this imperfection would be immeasurably greater if they did not testify, however inadequately, to the fact that in and through it all he had the active aid, the wise counsel, the constant effort, the devoted energy, the ready skill of her who is left to mourn his loss, and who was indeed, in every sense, the “helpmeet” of her husband.


Note also the proposal for ‘raising a memorial’ to the late Rector. Earl Brownlow referred to ‘the geniality of the late Rector, his pleasantness to all’…



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