I’m a rotten businessman, and if I were a bookseller I would specialise in the entirely unprofitable area of old family bibles. Besides being big beautiful old books in their own right, they are often invaluable sources of information for those researching their family tree. The fly leaf of the family bible was where you recorded births, marriages and deaths, particularly if (like my forebears) you followed a non-conformist branch of Christianity, outwith the recognised Church of England. Sometimes those hand-written notes are the only surviving evidence of the lives they report.
Of course in these secular and highly mobile times it’s almost impossible to match an old bible with those who might be interested in any of the knowledge within. People die; property is dispersed; families relocate. In my wilder and even less profitable daydreams I imagine starting a central repository or database for old bibles to help genealogists find their biblical roots. Needless to say however, this stems mostly from a selfish interest. I want to find my own family’s Holy Book.
John Salter’s 1939 transcription of the family bible entries
I am however in the tremendously lucky position of not needing to, because in 1939 my uncle John borrowed the bible from its last known owner, my great great aunt Emily Katherine Salter. Although the book itself has disappeared, I have John’s carefully typed 1939 transcription of the entries in it, eighteen family events between 1728 and 1832. Regular censuses in England didn’t begin until 1841 and information of this sort from before then is priceless.
The entries name and date four generations of my ancestors from my 5x great grandfather John Salter of Coleshill to my 2x great grandfather William Augustus Salter. In several cases the notes record wives by their maiden names. This was one of the earliest documents to set me off on my family trail, and it was a comprehensive one, opening up lots of avenues for exploration.
Eight of the entries are for deaths, including the first – “Stephen Salter, son of John Salter of Coles hill near Ammersham Bucks born 5th November 1728. Died at Watford Herts 8th June 1807 and Buried in Family Vault in Watford Baptist Meeting House.” A family vault! Seven named in the bible are buried in it or in a “new vault adjoining the old family vault of the Salters.” I just had to visit, and finally arranged a trip in 2008.
Beechen Grove Chapel, Watford (erected 1878)
The first Baptist chapel in Watford was founded in 1707. My 3x great grandfather Samuel Salter, whose birth and marriage are both recorded in the bible, served as a deacon there; and his son William Augustus Salter, raised a Baptist, was ordained as a Baptist minister. (WAS's birth is also noted in the bible.) The Watford Meeting House was renamed Beechen Grove Chapel in 1868 when a second chapel opened in the town; and the original Beechen Grove building was replaced by the present grand structure in 1878.
Unfortunately the chapel’s burial ground, and all its vaults, were demolished in 1963 to make way for a very 1960s institution, the Harlequin Shopping Mall. I would like to think that someone had at least photographed the monuments before destroying them, but repeated enquiries to Watford’s archive department have not been answered. I do know that the remains of the deceased were gathered up and reburied not far away, in the town’s sprawling Vicarage Road Cemetery.
The Salter Family Grave,
Vicarage Road Cemetery, Watford.
Not a vault.
A modest plaque is engraved: “The remains of those buried between 1721 and 1860 in the graveyard of the original Baptish church, Beechen Grove, Watford, were reverently re-interred here in October and November 1963. Further remains, being those of David Salter and his family were re-interred here on the 18th March 1974.” For the record, and according to uncle John’s transcription, the Salter remains included:
Stephen Salter (1728-1811)
John Salter (1756-1812) [son of Stephen]
Sophia Salter (1807-1808) [dau of Stephen’s son, deacon Samuel]
Stephen Salter (1809-1811) [son of Samuel]
Martha Davis (c1771-1811) [sister of Samuel’s wife Sarah]
William Salter (1770-1821) [Samuel’s brother]
Sarah Davis (c1770-1832) [Samuel’s wife]
No doubt deacon Samuel, who died in Watford in 1842, is also buried here. David Salter, who died in 1848, was William and Samuel Salter’s brother – he founded almshouses in Watford. Presumably he, his unknown wife and his two children Sarah and Samuel are all interred here now. The deaths of both Stephen the elder’s wives are recorded in the bible without burial sites, but they may well be here too – Elizabeth Lewin (d.1756), mother of John; and Sarah Groom (c1733-1798), mother of William, David and Samuel.
Sarah and Martha Davis had a sister, Maria, who married John Salter. So perhaps Maria Salter nee Davis is buried here too. Martha herself died a spinster, and it’s a sign of the closeness of the two dissenting families that she was interred in the Salter vault. That’s all I know about Martha, and it’s all thanks to the entry in the family bible.