A History of Preston

in Hertfordshire

Offley Holes Farm

The first reference found that relates to Offley Holes Farm is by JEB Glover in Place Names of Hertfordshire. He asserts that a document at Trinity College, Cambridge (dated 1650) mentioning ‘Offleyholes’ is a reference to the farm.

 

On 20 April 1664, there was a survey of the holdings of the Manor of Temple Dinsley. Included were several of the fields and springs that were mentioned later in the early 1700s in connection with Offley Holes Farm – Sutfield with two springs of wood (100 acres); Westwood (119a); Westwood Closes (32a); Cherry Tree Closes (16a), three springs lying near Cherry Tree Closes; Offley Holes (260a) and Lodge Close (6a).

 

This property was included in the ‘anciently reputed parcel of the said Manor of Dinsley’. It was not included in the list of copyholders – which indicates it was not leased out at the time but was part of the Lord’s demesne.

 

The survey also noted John Hurst (who was living in Windmill Field in the parish of Kings Walden) as renting forty-five acres at Offley Holes and Pitchley.

The existence of a farm at Offley Holes is confirmed by a run of documents from 1654 to 1701 when Sir Edwin Sadleir, Lord of the Manor of Temple Dinsley, sought to confirm the title of the ‘capital  messuage (i.e. main dwelling) or farm house called Offley Holes’ and its associated land. Sadleir had a crushing debt-mountain (which required a solution by Act of Parliament) and that resulted in the sale of Temple Dinsley and Offley Holes Farm. The documents provide valuable information about Offley Holes Farm.

 

At the turn of the 1700s, the farm was owned by Sir Edwin Sadleir. It’s lease was held by the triumvirate of Richard Buckby, Benedict Ithell and Huntley Bigg. The farmers past and present included John Hobbs (who paid an annual rent of £148 11/-) and the incumbent, John North (£170). Sadleir had also raised a mortgage of £2,000 on part of this property from James Oades.

 

Sadleir urged the lessees to sell the property ‘for the best price’ and ‘with all convenient speed’. The purchaser, for a price of £3,050, was Richard Petty of St Paul, Covent Garden, London.  

 

Offley Holes Farm included barns, stables, out-houses, dove-houses, buildings, yards, orchards, gardens etc. The holding comprised Offley Holes Grounds, Cherry Tree Closes, Lodge Close and Scotts Close (these four closes had 300 fields); Suttfield (100 fields) and Westwood Closes (five fields totaling fifty acres). In addition, several copses and springs were made up the holding – Scotwick Spring, Suttfield Spring, Dell Spring in Suttfield, Round Spring (lying at the end of Pinnacle Hill), the spring by Dearmers Ground (which fed Cherry Tree Close) and Long Spring ( which lay next to Colliers Bank).

 

Even today some of these names appear on Ordnance Survey maps - Pinnacle Hill (north-west of the farm); Scotswick Spring (west) and Sootfield Springs (south).

 

North Herts DC estimates that Offley Holes Farm was built in 1700. Today’s owner was told that the present building was erected in around 1710. Yet, as shown above, there was a farm at Offley in the 1650s, so either it was pulled down and replaced or it was modified early in the eighteenth century.

 

Offley Holes Farm in the eighteenth century

The run of Hitchin Rates Books provides the names of four occupants of the Farm in the eighteenth century:

 

       1725 – 1732 Joseph Roberts

 

Joseph also leased Hunsden House (Castle Farm) with its land which he sold to Robert Hinde in 1723. Robert Sutherland (a previous resident of The Wilderness, Chequers Lane) mentions that his family understood that The Wilderness and its associated land which lie beside Castle Farm, were originally part of the Offley Holes Estate.

 

       1733 – 1752 John Field

       1751 – 1778 Edward Kitchener

 

There were links between the Kitchener family and Thomas Harwood and the Dartons of Temple Dinsley. Edward Kitchener (described as a ‘yeoman’) married Mary Larkin at St Mary, Hitchin on 12 April 1752. He served as a churchwarden of Hitchin parish in 1759. In 1787, Thomas Harwood left a total legacy of £200 to his ‘friend’ Edward Kitchener and £400 to his niece, Sarah Kitchener, ‘wife of Benjamin’. Sarah’s maiden name was Darton and she married Benjamin, the eldest son of Edward Kitchener (baptised in 1753; therefore likely born at Offley Holes) at Knebworth on 19 January 1782. The couple settled at Stevenage.

 

Edward Kitchener died at Stevenage aged 92 in February 1818.

Rose Beckford

The next name to appear in the Rates Book at Offley Holes is Rose Beckford in 1781. Rose was born in 1750, probably in Jamaica. He was the illegitimate son of William Beckford (1709 –1770). His mother was Hannah Maxwell, his father’s ‘favourite mistress’. William was a well-known political figure in eighteenth century London who twice held the office of Lord Mayor. His vast wealth came largely from his Jamaican sugar plantations. On his death, William left Rose a legacy.

 

In 1791, Rose added to his estate by purchasing ‘Crosswick’ (a house at Preston) and Pitchley Close (a field of three acres in Kings Walden parish). In 1798, the Offley Holes estate included land in three parishes - Hitchin, Ippollitts and Kings Walden.

 

It transpired that in 1791, while at Offley Holes, Rose fathered a daughter (later named as Rose Hannah Beckford) who was secreted away ‘unprotected and unprovided for’ in a ‘remote Bedfordshire village’.

 

In around 1795, Beckford transacted business that was to have lasting repercussions on the ownership of Offley Holes Farm. He mortgaged the estate (which was valued at £7,000) to Robert Curling (who also had interests in Jamaica).

 

A remarkable episode in 1799 adds to our knowledge of the estate (and the times!). At the Old Bailey, a fourteen-year-old boy, Robert Walker, was found guilty of stealing nineteen wether sheep (valued at £25) from Rose Beckford on 22 March and driving them to London! They were identified by Beckford’s bailiff, William Willis from the brand, ‘R B’.

 

The following year, Beckford leased a plantation at Jamaica with its slaves for one year for £10,000.

 

The Preston census of 1801 shows Beckford at Offley Holes with one female also in residence, who was possibly a housekeeper. Then, Beckford died on 28 August 1801 and was buried at St Mary, Hitchin on

4 September.

 

Now arose the vexed question of how to administer his convoluted estate. These murky waters were created by his illegitimacy, and his apparently being childless and intestate. However, it later became evident that there was a daughter and that Beckford had made a will - dated 15 November 1770. In it, he left £3,000 to his mother, Hannah Maxwell, and his full brother, Thomas Beckford and £2,000 to his sister, Susanna. The residue was bequeathed to his mother. Three executors were appointed.

 

This will was not administered immediately because not only Hannah but also the three executors had predeceased Beckford. It wasn’t until 13 January 1863, more than sixty years after his death, that Beckford’s will was finally executed when the effects were less than £5,000. By this time, his daughter, Rose, had died (in 1836) after marrying and producing five children.

 

Robert Curling - owner of Offley Holes Farm 1795c - 1809

There remained the matter of Beckford’s debt of £4,000 to Robert Curling from 1795. The legal solution was that the estate became the property of the Curling family and with them it remained for around 164 years when Major HME Harrison of Gosmore End acquired the property in 1959.

 

When Robert Curling (aged 69)  died at Camberwell, Surrey in November 1809, there was an obituary published in Gentleman’s Magazine. It mentioned that he, as mortgagee, had entered into possession of ‘an estate worth £12,000 vesting in the mortgage of £4,000’.

 

What followed reads like a Dickens’ novel. The assertion in the magazine so unsettled Robert’s son, Edward Spencer Curling that he wrote to the magazine and also had his solicitors prepare a statement. It might have appeared to the interested observer that the Curlings had acquired the Offley Holes estate ‘on the cheap’. However, the correspondents went to great lengths to assert that when Robert Curling discovered the existence of Beckford’s daughter, after a ‘diligent search’ he found her, committed her to the care of a responsible person, sent her to a ‘respectable boarding school’ and provided an umbrella of protection by the Curling family. Curling had also made some calculations - estimating the current value of the estate less the mortgage (and interest) and ‘the expense incurred in the improving of the Estate’ and invested the net figure of his reckonings into Public Funds to provide for the girl’s future.

 

Offley Holes Farm in the nineteenth century

Offley Holes Farm and outbuildings circa 1811. Note that The Lodge at the junction of the roads to the north had not been built.

N

To Charlton

To Preston and Sootfield Green

After Rose Beckford’s tenure, Offley Holes Farm was owned and occupied by John Curling - in 1807, the farm had 8 inhabitants. In 1821, there were fourteen people living there, ten males and four females as the newly-born Curling children were now included.

 

The story of the first two decades of the nineteenth century is that John Curling remained at the farm which gradually increased in size:  1812 - 390 acres arable, 10a sward; 1814 - 446 acres of ‘land, down arable and pasture’; 1825 - 22a pasture, 18a plantation and wood, 422 arable. However, by 1832, there was a new occupier of the farm - Thomas Hailey. John had moved to Gosmore House (aka Gosmore End)

 

 

The Tithe Map and Award of 1844 provide a snapshot of the farm and its lands in the parish of Hitchin which was now occupied by J Popplewell. It comprised around 320 acres:

Offley Holes Farm House

Three Acres

Two Acres

Various plantations

Five Acres

Four Acres

Kingwood Hill

The Down

Lodge Close

Home Close

Pinnace Hill

Hither and Middle Cotton Close

Collins Bank

Eighteen Acres

Hither and Middle Cherry Tree Close

Scotswick Spring

Westwood Close

The Curling family around Preston in the nineteenth century

 

This Curling family tree is not intended to be definitive. Rather, it features those members of the family who were associated with Offley Holes, Preston and Gosmore. These have been highlighted. The marriage of Kate Curling to John Harrison in 1839 should be noted.

When Robert Curling died in 1809, he bequeathed Offley Holes (the freehold farm with timber, houses, barns, land and implements of husbandry) to his son John Curling (1783 - 1863). In consideration of this, John was to pay his mother, Ann, £100 each year. The copy of the will held in the National Archives states that Offley Holes was at Hetthen (sic) in the county of Kent, which I assume to be a transcription error.

 

John lived, and farmed, at Offley Holes (see link: Memorial Plaque) until around 1830 - Thomas Hailey is noted as the occupier of the farm in 1832 and 1835. As John’s daughter, Kate, once told a census enumerator that she was born at Offley, probably all his children who were baptised at Hitchin were born at Offley Holes Farm.

 

John and his family had moved to Gosmore (between Hitchin and Preston) by 1840. He was described in censuses as a Magistrate and a Commissioner of the Peace  and regularly sat at Hitchin. John and Jobina were still living at Gosmore in 1861.

 

Robert Curling

(1741 - 1809)

Ann

(1748c - 1833)

John’s daughters, Harriet and Mary Forbes Curling, remained at Gosmore after their father’s death. Harriet died at Hindesmount (right) on 5 November 1885 and Mary at The White House on 13 March 1895. It was  Mary who penned the article in MacMillan’s Magazine, “Traditions of Sterne and Bunyan” (Link: Traditions) which demonstrated her knowledge of the history of Preston.

 

William Curling snr (1773 - 1842) purchased Castle Farm in 1820 (Link: Castle Farm). Its ownership was passed down to his son, William Curling jnr and his daughter in law, Flora Jones Curling, and thence to their son Edward Spencer Curling. Edward was living at 3 Chiltern Road, Hitchin in 1911. When he died on 1 July 1927, he was resident at The White House, Gosmore.

Kate Harrison’s (nee Curling) (1819 - 1888) grandson, Major Hubert English Harrison and his wife Nellie were living at Gosmore End (right) when they died on 21 February 1958 and 26 December 1957 respectively.

On 12 February 1842, there was the following newspaper report : “Mr (John) Curling of Hitchin was recently shooting near Preston and observed the remains of a rabbit which his gamekeeper suggested might have been killed by a dog belonging to the shepherd of Mr Wright of Preston. Mr Curling without making further inquiry proceeded to the field where the man was attending his master’s sheep and in spite of his remonstrances shot the poor man’s dog on the spot – and not satisfied with this summary act of vengeance commanded Mr Wright, who is one of his tenants, to dismiss the man from his service. The poor man called upon Mr Curling to endeavour to obtain some compensation for the loss of his faithful and valuable dog but after waiting two hours was refused an interview.”

 

Occupants of Offley Holes Farm and The Lodge 1832 - 1911

1832  - Thomas Hailey

1844  - J Popplewell

1851 -  William Ward Asplen (born 1817 at Willingham) who farmed 475 acres employing 15 labourers

1855 -  Thomas Postlethwaite who farmed 530 acres and had three children born at the farm

1871 -  Arthur Davis (born 1843 at Offley) who farmed 519 acres employing 16 men and 5 boys

1881 -  Charles Davis (Arthur’s brother, bn 1849 at Offley) farming 547 acres with 15 men and 5 boys.

1891 -  Nicholas Stick (born 1839, Cornwall)

1901 -  Frederick Kirkby, farm bailiff (born 1860, Steveage)

1911 -  Charles Cooper, farm bailiff ( born 1841, Stotfield, Beds)

The Farm

The Lodge

The first mention of the Lodge was in the 1861 census, which perhaps indicates that it was built during the preceding decade. However, there was field known as Lodge Close as early as 1664 which may indicate that there was a lodge standing in the seventeenth century. In 1911, the Lodge was reported to have three rooms

Reginald Hine planned to include John in his book, Hitchin Worthies, but he was excluded from the final edition.

 

I

In 1853, the Hertfordshire Mercury received a hoax letter announcing the sudden and lamentable death of John. Four days later, the editor was astounded to hear that he was presiding as usual at Hitchin Petty Sessions. As a result, the editor called for all announcements coming from Hitchin to be checked.

1861 -  George Shephard, a farm bailiff born Hitchin in around 1830 and wife, Jane.

1871 -  John Barker an agricultural labourer born at Kings Walden circa 1828 and wife, Mary.

1881 -  Joseph Brown, a farm worker born around 1828 at Kings Walden and wife, Sarah.

1891 -  Samuel E Collins, an agricultural labourer from Watton, Herts and his wife, Mary Ann.

1901 -  Walter Cryer a gardener from Warwickshire and his wife Annie.

1911 -  Thomas Whittenbury, a game keeper born at Burnham Green, Herts in 1851 and his wife, Sarah Ann.

Occupants of Offley Holes 1900 - 1980s

Offley Holes Farm

 

1906 Alfred Charles Ralph

1912 Thomas Willmington

        (Left for New Farm, Preston in 1913)

1932 Frederick Burr

1951 George and Doris Bowden

        and Frederick and Phyllis Furness

1958 – 87 Neville and Margaret Browning

1991 Peter and Julia Webber

 

 

Other homes at Offley Holes

 

1901 Charles Lawrence, coachman (Stables)

1907 William Lowery

1907 Francis Moore

1909 - 1916  Harry Barrett (aka George Henry)    

                    (Coachman/ Chauffeur in 3 rooms over the Stables)

1911 Percy Alan Shepherd (Gamekeeper)

1914 Edmund Lake

1914 Albert and Gladys Whitten

1916 Frederick Charles Cole (The Bungalow ?)

1916 Frederick George Clarke

1919 John William Plain

1919 William Thurlow Farr

1920 Frederick and Rose Perry

1920 Charles Thomas Cherry (Stables)

1940 Frank Bowden

1940 Stanley Whybrow

1949 Eric Hedley (The Coach House)

1952 The Burr family were at the Coach House and the Lodge.

1952 John and Joan Sell (caravan at the Lodge)

1952 Dennis W West (another caravan)

1958 Eric and Lillian Burr (The Coach House)

1958 Jack and Evelyn Welch (Offley Holes Farm Cottages)

1961 - 1971 Cyril and Gladys Freeman (The Lodge)

1961 Sidney and Joan Grey (1 Offley Holes Cottages)

1961 John and Joan Wake (caravan)

1963 Howard Roberts

1966 John Scarborough

1966 - 1974 Edward, Florence and Rodney Fountain (Coach House)

1966 Norman and Jean White (1 Offley Holes Cottages)

1966 Fred and Joan West (2 Offley Holes Cottages)

1974 Geoffrey Frank Beck (Keepers Cottage)

1981 - 1991 Clive Taylor ( The Lodge)

1981 David and Maria Jarvis ( The Coach House)

1987 John and Jeremy Mansell (The Coach House)

1987 Leslie and Avril Dixon (2 Offley Holes Cottages)

1987 - 1991 Michael, Ralph and Moira Dunn (1 Offley Holes Cotts)

1991 Thomas Hailworth and Denise Gwilt (The Coach House)

 

This information has been distilled from several sources, some of which also mention where the occupants were living. (Map right c1970)

 

The families living at the Coach House to the south of Offley Holes Farm and originally associated with the mansion are also included. It appears that there was a (Perse) hostel (run by Mr West) for children at the

Coach House during World War II.

 

In the 1950s, two semi-detached houses were built beside the Lodge.

In 2013, there are five homes occupied at Offley Holes - the Farm; the Lodge; 1 & 2 Offley Holes Farm Cottages and the Old Coach House.

Offley Holes Farmhouse in 2013 - photograph kindly provided by Howard Trinder

The Farmhouse was altered and a north-west wing was added in the early nineteenth century to give the impression of a double-fronted house as viewed from the drive to Offley Holes House. The front elevation is red brick in Flemish-bond - which is painted. The roof is comprised of steep old red tile and the wing has a slate roof. The window pattern has been changed with several blocked or altered openings. The present pattern has three windows to both floors: flush box sash windows with six by six panes; two gabled dormers on the roof-slope with three-lights leaded casements. The main entrance is between the first and second windows with a projecting Tuscan porch on 2 columns with a triangular pediment.  


 

 

Owners of Offley Holes Farm in the twentieth century

During part of the twentieth century, Offley Holes Farm was owned by the Harrison family who descended from Kate Curling. In 1950, Hubert English Harrison adopted the surname of Curling by Royal Licence. His son, Major ME Harrison of Gosmore End owned the farm in 1959.

 

It was later purchased by the Pilkington Estate and sold on in 1987 when it was in ‘a dilapidated state’. The new owner carried out refurbishments and the farm was last sold in 2006.

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Offley Holes in 2013

The Lodge

(Above) The Lodge and 1 & 2 Offley Holes Farm Cottages*

Three views of the Pump House that supplied Offley Holes House

Approaching Offley Holes from the north

Beside the lane are two barns. The nearest one is an open barn; the larger one is known as Kestrels Barn. Both barns are listed buildings. Kestrels Barn dates from the seventeenth century and was thatched until 1928. Its roof is now corrugated sheeting. The smaller barn is an open-fronted cart shed built in the early nineteenth century.

 

To the right of the road-side barns are two more barns. These were built in the seventeenth century according to North Herts DC. All the barns are constructed of timber frames on brick sills with dark weatherboarding.  The steep roof of the barn on the right was altered in the early nineteenth century and is of old red tiles while the barn on the left has a roof of corrugated iron. One was a milking parlour.

 

Between the two sets of barns, the brick-built stable area can be glimpsed - part of which is given over to a one-bed-roomed annex

 

 

The Curling family and Kent

LucyAnn Curling has been researching the connections between the Curlings of Hertfordshire and Kent. She has kindly supplied the following information and photographs that feature some of the Curlings in this article.

 

In the mid-nineteenth century, William Curling, the brother of John who owned Offley Holes Farm (Link: John Curling), was living at Kingsdown, near Deal in Kent. William was a London-based whalebone merchant. He generously paid for the construction of a local church, St John the Evangelist, which was completed in 1853. Three Curling brothers, William, John and Edward Spencer Curling were buried beneath the church which features memorial plaques and stained glass windows devoted to the brothers.

St John the Evangelist, Kingsdown, Kent

John Curling’s memorial plaque (which was created by Warren and Son of Hitchin)

A view of fields at Offley Holes circa 1940s

 

Fire at Offley Holes Farm Cottages, October 2015

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In the early hours of Sunday morning, 18 October 2015, a fire swept through Offley Holes Farm Cottages. A family of four were made homeless and a woman’s body was found in the neighbouring house.