Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies holds Reginald Hine’s annotated and type-written manuscript of his book, Hitchin Worthies. It is significant for Preston because there is a chapter devoted to Captain Hinde of Preston Castle. But there is another episode recorded by Hine which features Preston.From clues in the account, the incident probably happened in the 1860s - C E Prime, who is mentioned as a churchwarden of St Mary’s, Hitchin, was first elected to this position in 1857 according to a letter he wrote in March 1863; Francis Lucas, to whom reference is also made, was at a Hitchin Church meeting in 1862.Hine firstly writes of a Hitchin ‘witch’, old Mrs Piper (“Pipus”) of Sterlings Bridge, who had a ‘feathery bird-like face, malevolent eyes and claw-like fingers’. During the time she was alive, the Corrie family of Corrie’s Yard were said to be bewitched. A father and daughter committed suicide; the mother and a baby also died. A daughter sank into a disreputable situation as the bar-maid at The Sun hostelry, Hitchin (shown right). We now take up Hine’s account:
“One gathers from Francis Lucas, who narrates this tragedy, that the daughter would have been better to die too; and certainly about then there were some strange doings and misdoings at The Sun. “One Christmas Eve - it is just before evensong on a Sunday - a wild-eyed, red nosed person sidles into the bar. The girl, Corrie, recognises him for he is staying at the hotel until he gets a lodging and he is the new locum tenens at St Mary’s. He asks for a brandy and soda; tosses it off like a horse dealer, and orders another glass. By the time the
five-minute bell has begun, he has swallowed ten. She does not go to church but she hears later that in his sermon he did no more than wish them all a very Happy Christmas over and over again.
“A few days later, the same locum is baptising a child at St Mary’s, when one of the godfathers who is a magistrate and comes from a distance recognises him as a man he had once committed for trial for stealing church plate. There is a great fluttering in the dovecots afterwards and Churchwarden Prime, who is just back from hunting, strides into The Sun in a scarlet coat, crop in hand, and deals with the criminal. “It is awkward to dismiss him then and there for as it happens there is no-one else to take the duty at Preston hamlet. perhaps after all it will be safe to pass him off on those simple people (!).Off to Preston he goes accordingly on the following Sunday evening. At the service, all passes off well, but when he returns he tells an alarming tale. He had been attacked by a ruffian in the dark at the bottom of Preston Hill and at last, in self defence, he had drawn his knife and left it in in his adversary’s body. The police, being informed, drove furiously to the spot, and at the sharp turn of the road, they found the knife - sticking in a tree.”Postscript: On 23 November 1867, during a debate about a Hitchin clerical scandal, there was probably an allusion to this saga when someone declared, “Once a drunken man was left in charge (of St Mary’s)”. Between 1857 and 1867, Christmas Eve fell on a Sunday once only - in 1865. On Christmas Day, there was a baptism at St Mary’s of a couple who hailed from Lewisham, Kent. The father was a solicitor. When the baptism was recorded, the man who wrote the name of the officiating minister was not the same as the person who made the entry - and might well have been a member of the baptismal party - as his name was also Hawkins. Perhaps this indicates that the episode took place in December, 1865. Or maybe the details cannot be relied upon too closely…