Stanstead Abbotts Local History Society


Underneath every gravestone lies a body with a story to tell. This one in St. James churchyard has two stories and two bodies: It’s a grave discovery by Gerald Coppen and Brian Johnson ...

Gravestones are always sad, but the gravestone of Admiral Sir Henry Nicholson K.C.B. in St. James churchyard is particularly sad. Sir Henry was Captain of the Temeraire during the bombardment of Alexandria in the Anglo-Egyptian War of 1882, Captain of H.M.S. Asia in 1884, Captain Superintendent of the Royal Dockyard at Sheerness in 1890 and finally he was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Nore at Chatham, one of the navy’s highest appointments, in 1896-97. He received his K.C.B. on his retirement in 1897.

      Sir Henry chose to retire to Stanstead Abbotts at Newlands, Hunsdon Road, where he died in 1914. But he is not alone in his grave. Sir Henry and Lady Nicholson had a daughter, Alice Lisle, who married Major Ernest Vanrenen, Royal Engineers, Chatham, Medway in 1893 and they had a son named Harry. The boy followed his grandfather into the Royal Navy and became a cadet officer at the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth. Harry Vanrenen died at the age of 15 from making a drink of potassium cyanide and swallowing it. From notes in his diary found afterwards it transpired that the boy was experimenting with different chemicals to give him support in his training. At the inquest his father said that he was a happy boy but was fond of experimenting with chemicals.


The inquest jury found that his death was due to misadventure and he was given a funeral cortege with full naval honours after the funeral service at the barracks to escort his body to Kingswear railway station from where the coffin was sent to Stanstead Abbotts. The coffin was carried on a gun carriage, draped in a Union Jack and 20 armed seamen and some of Harry’s fellow cadet officers escorted him to the station with a band playing the funeral march. The boy was buried at St. James Church in 1910 in the village where his grandfather had retired to. His father, being an army officer, would be liable to moving every few years or whenever he was needed and to all parts of the Empire.  At least there would be someone in England to tend his grave whilst his father may have been serving in India or elsewhere. In 1914 Sir Henry died and he was buried in the same grave as his 15-year old grandson Harry, Cadet Henry Ernest Adrian Vanrenen, Royal Navy.

Admiral Nicholson 1897

Written by Ron Dale