A History of Preston

in Hertfordshire

Thomas Currell

and his two wives

Thomas was baptized on 18 September 1831 at Kings Walden.  His parents were Joseph Currell (a shepherd) and Susan (nee Fairey) who had married four months earlier and were living at Hill End, near Preston. In January 1833, Joseph declared on oath that Thomas was then about a year and a half old.

 

In 1841, Thomas was at his widowed grandmother’s home in Preston, which was two houses away from his parents’ dwelling. Ten years later he had left home but was still living in Preston and working as a horse-keeper at Poynders End Farm.

My great grandfather, Thomas Currell was conceived out of wedlock, illiterate, had two wives and eight children and then disappeared without trace.  His story, and that of his second wife, Mary Fairey, is extraordinary

 

He lived within a radius of two miles of Preston, Hertfordshire all of his known life and was

usually described as a labourer apart from one occasion when, aged twenty, he was called a

‘horse-keeper’. He had a child by each of his two partners before they married and his first wife was pregnant for a second time when they wed.  Like many ordinary country-folk, he was unconcerned with the formalities of having his children baptized - his first three sons

were baptized at the same time.

Mary Ann Currell (nee Watson) (1834-1862)

By 1850, he had met and courted Mary Ann Watson.  She was the daughter of John (a labourer) and Sarah (nee Dollimore) and was living in Gosmore, a village between Preston and Hitchin.  

 

In December 1950, an order was made on Thomas Webb of Preston to pay 1/6d a week to support Mary Ann’s illegitimate child whose birth as William Watson was registered in the Spring of 1850 when Mary Ann was about sixteen years old. I have been unable to find Thomas Webb in the 1851 census, though there was a Webb family living at Preston in 1841 and a Thomas Webb married Emma Bottoms late in 1859 in the Hitchin area.

 

Thomas and Mary were married on 28 January 1855 at  Ippollitts Parish Church. A few months later a son, George, was born but he died when only one year old.  There was some compensation because a third son, John, was born shortly afterwards. On 16 August 1857, Thomas and Mary Ann decided to have William, George and John baptised. All were named as Currell and Thomas was declared as father of each child (see below). William was also noted as Thomas’ son in the 1861 census.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Mary Ann was heavily pregnant she was involved in an altercation with a neighbour: ‘ASSAULT. Robert Beech was charged with committing an assault on Mary Ann Currell. It appeared from the evidence that both parties resided at Gosmore and lived next door to each other and that the assault arose through a child of one being on the other's premises. Fined 10s including costs.’ (Hertfordshire Mercury - July 1862)

Shortly after this altercation, tragedy struck. Thomas’ wife, Mary Ann, died on 28 August 1862 from puerperal fever. This is an infection of the placenta site which occurs shortly after a woman has given birth. In those days, the infection was often transmitted by the mid-wife who introduced life and death. Mary Ann left behind four children, the oldest of whom was nine years old.

 

In the meantime, Thomas had his first brush with the law. The Hertfordshire Mercury carried this report in May 1856: ‘William Winch and Thomas Currell of Preston were charged with setting snares to take hares on land belonging to Charles Chomley Hale Esq. at Kings Walden. Winch who is an old offender and was seen to set

the snares, did not appear. Currell was seen by one of Mr Hales’ keepers to follow Winch to where the snares stood. Both the defendants had been at work in the same field. Currell having borne a good character, the

Bench ordered him to pay 5s and issued a warrant against Winch.’

 

By 1859, two daughters had arrived - Mary Ann in the Spring of 1858 and Clara who was born on Christmas Day 1859. The family were living at Gosmore and Thomas was a farm labourer. However, in the Spring of 1861, another of their childred died in infancy - Harriet.

Thomas did not grieve for long.  He began a relationship with his first cousin, Mary Fairey.  Mary was born in Preston in the summer of 1842 - the first daughter of Samuel Fairey (an agricultural labourer) and Elizabeth (nee Ward). She was baptized on 7 May 1843 in the parish of Kings Walden. Mary was a straw plaiter at the age of nine when the family was living in Back Lane, Preston.

Rather predictably considering Thomas’ track record a daughter, Emily (my grandmother), was born 22 December 1863 at Preston.   

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Early history

of Currells

 

Two months after their marriage on 21 November 1909, their first son, Frederick William Currell was born at Preston. In 1911, the small family were living in three rooms in a small house at Maidencroft Lane, Gosmore and Frederick was a gardener.

 

Frederick and Harriet then moved to St Albans after 1912, returning from there in April 1918 and living at Hitchwood for a month (when they sent their son to Preston School) before they returned to St Albans. The family were then based at St Albans - Frederick snr died there in the June Qtr of 1955 and Harriet in July,1991.

 

In 1949 when his brother Frank Currell died, Frederick dealt with the administration of his estate when he was still noted as a gardener.

Phyllis Currell (1875 - 1959)

About Thomas and Mary Ann’s children

George Currell was living with his parents in 1861 and 1871. He was described as a labourer in 1871. Then he cannot be traced (although there is a marriage of a George Currell in the Hitchin registration district in the September quarter of 1877).

 

Mary (Ann) Currell was also with her parents in 1861 and 1871 and with Thomas and his second wife in 1881. She then married William Fairey at St Mary, Hitchin on 26 September 1885 when my grandfather Alfred Wray was a witness.

William and Mary had five children (their dates and places of birth indicate the families movements):

Albert Currell born 1882 Preston

Annie Fairey born 1886 Preston

Margaret Fairey born 1887 Preston

George Fairey born 1890 Kings Walden

Daisy Fairey born 1895 Kings Walden

In 1891, the family were at Leggatts (a four-roomed farm cottage), Kings Walden where they were still living in 1911. The farmer was Alfred Brown who had also been living at Preston and William was one of his labourers - he was described as a horse keeper in 1911.

 

William was buried at Kings Walden on 12 April 1934 and Mary on 16 February 1942.

 

Now the sad tale of Clara Currell. Remember that she was only two years old when her mother died. She was with her cousin, George Watson and his wife, Elizabeth at Corries Yard, Hitchin in 1881. The couple had a new baby and Clara deswcribed herself as a ‘monthly nurse’.

 

She next appears in the records as giving birth to a son, Alfred Walter Currell, in the Hitchin Workhouse. He was baptised at St Mary, Hitchin on 31 March 1885. Clara was still in the Workhouse in 1891 - but of Alfred there was no sign. Mother and son have not been traced after that time.

 Thomas Currell – a witness in a court case

In early January, 1864 (when he walked from Gosmore to Preston to the home of his uncle, Samuel Fairey, probably to visit Mary Fairey and his newly born daughter) Thomas was involved in an incident which was widely reported in the news (Link: Preston Hill Robbery). He passed a dying man at the bottom of Preston Hill. The case is fully recounted on another web page, but I have amalgamated his witness statements to give an impression of Thomas Currell, the man.

Thomas Currell (aged 33): ‘I am a labouring man, living at Gosmore. On Monday evening, the 11th January, I was going from home up to Preston. I started about 25 minutes past 7. I looked at my clock before I started out of the house. It is about a quarter of an hour’s walk from my house to the bottom of Preston Hill. When I got to the bottom, I saw a man lying by the side of the road with his feet on the rails and his head on the road. He seemed quite a strange man to me. He was lying on the left hand side of the road coming from Preston to Hitchin. His head was next to the road. He was lying across-wise and his feet were next to the rails. He was then lying on his side. I went up to him and hallooed loudly three times - as loud as I could call and he made me no answer. I said, “Wake up, don’t lie here.” He made a moaning noise; I thought he was snoring. I stopped with him about two minutes I took him to be drunk and fast asleep. The first man that I met (was ****.  I said to him) “You have to bind some hay up tomorrow at Hill End.” and he said he would be there towards night. I said to ****, “There is a man lying at the bottom of the hill fast asleep and I can’t wake him.”

When I got to Preston, I told my uncle and John Jeeves’ son (aged 25, a straw plaiter in 1861). I did not interfere with him at all and the reason why I did not do so was that I helped a drunken man a few weeks ago and when I got him up, he abused me and I said I would never help another drunken man. I stopped at Preston about an hour and a half. It was about five minutes to nine by the Temple clock when I started from Preston. In a little better than five minutes, I got down to the bottom of the hill. The man was lying there still on the side of the road, only he had been moved and his head was turned towards Hitchin and his feet towards Preston and he was lying on his back. I called to him again and he was making the same noise as before, but he did not answer me. I didn’t stop more than a minute and went on towards Gosmore. I did not touch the body the second time that I passed. I should not have seen the body if he had not had on white trousers. When I came from Preston the second time, I met a person leading a horse I spoke to the man and said, “Goodnight.” and he answered me. I said, “There is a man drunk as a pig at the bottom of the hill.” That was an hour and a half after I first saw the body. I thought the man was drunk because he was snoring. His hat was lying in the middle of the road; it looked like a billy-cock.’ (Jan 1864)

This statement gives an insight into the world of Thomas – even including some of the expressions he used. The most striking characteristic was the reason he gave for not helping a man he thought was drunk. He had recently helped an inebriated man, but as he had been “abused” he had decided he would never give such assistance again. Once crossed, he would not forget the slight – holding the injury close to his chest. When I read this account to my wife, she said, ‘That’s your Dad talking!’ - family trait which manifested itself more than a century ago.

 

Somewhat bizarrely, the news was also reported in The Times newspaper - the only instance of anyone from my paternal family being mentioned in its pages. Ironically, his name was misspelt.

Thomas Currell marries Mary Fairey - 2 November 1867

In 1871, Thomas and Mary (nee Farey) were living at Gosmore where they stayed until 1880.  They had a total

of four children. But when Mary was aged about 42, she had a son.

 

Now comes a twist to the tale. Until March 2015, I believed that Mary had one child born out of wedlock, Frederick, on 13 September 1884. Then at the launch of the Preston History book, a cousin gave me a wad of certificates which included Phillish (sic) Currell’s birth certificate. This had a blank where the father’s name and occupation should be written. Thomas (despite what she avowed at her marriage) was not her father. I then ordered Frank Currell’s birth certificate and sure enough his father’s name and occupation were not completed. This means that between 1874 and 1884, Mary had a total of four children by a partner other than her husband Thomas! One can’t be sure if her partner was only one man, as she moved from Gosmore to Preston in 1880. As my grandmother, Emily was eleven when the first of these was born and twenty when the fourth came along, I’m sure she knew the identity of Mary’s partner(s).

 

There is another consequence to this catalogue of events. I had thought that the last known record of Thomas was in 1880 when he had evidently sired his son, Frank. As this was demonstrably not the case, the last sighting of Thomas Currell was in 1874 when he was incarcerated in Bedford gaol. More about this later.

There was evidently a certain amount of subterfuge when Mary had Frank and Albert baptised. She stated that re: Frank’s birth, she was a single woman but re: Albert, he was the son of Thomas and Mary - though it is obvious if the earlier entries are checked that Thomas’ name has been added by the curate as an afterthought. AS mentioned earlier, when the official birth certificate was produced, no father was included. Mary was prepared to mislead the curate but not the registrar.

 

Thomas Currell - vagrant

There was a strange incident in 1874 which may explain what happened to Thomas later. On 13 March, he was convicted of vagrancy and sentenced to one calendar month of hard labour in Bedfordshire County Gaol. It was also noted that he had previously served a sentence in Hertford Gaol.

 

The Vagrancy Act of 1824 made it an offence to sleep rough or to beg. Anyone found homeless or trying to cadge subsistence money could be arrested and punished with up to a month of hard labour.

 

In 1874, Thomas was just forty-three years old. He had been married to Mary for a little more than six years. He had eight children for whom to care. So why on earth was he either sleeping rough or begging in Bedfordshire? In time no doubt I’ll track down a news article about this. And what was the occasion of his previous spell in Hertford Gaol? The 1856 poaching episode only resulted in a small fine. Did he fail to pay this and was imprisoned as a result?

 

And what was the trigger for this odd and antisocial behaviour? From the Preston Hill case, we know Thomas would bear a grudge. Had Mary grossly offended him?

 

 

 

 

However we speculate, the bald fact is that from 1874, Thomas is untraceable.  In the census of 1881,  Mary Currell (who was then living in a ‘two-up, two-down’ cottage at Back Lane, Preston) stated that she was the head of the household in the census. A Thomas Currell does not appear in that census. In a mini-count of Preston held in 1886 Mary tersely commented ‘husband away’ (see below)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What does this mean? That Thomas had left home; was back in gaol; had emigrated; was in an asylum. Yet his family had some contact because Mary described herself as a widow in 1891 and when her daughter, Lizzie married in 1897, she said that Thomas was ‘deceased’ - so they had received news of Thomas’ demise. I note that when his daughter Emily married despite saying that her father was Thomas Fairy (sic) she did not add that he was deceased (although she was not duty bound to so do). Despite repeated searches, frustratingly I cannot find a note of Thomas’ death anywhere. Optimistically. I write, ‘Watch this space’.

 

 

Mary moved to a small house at Church Lane where she died on 1 December 1924 from ‘senile decay and chronic bronchitis’.  The death was registered by her daughter, Emily.    She is remembered as a ‘tiny, slight, little lady’ and as being ‘very poor’.  She was one of only two village families who were exempt from paying school fees because of her poverty - a sad epitaph.

X marks Mary Currell’s home at Church Road.

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Sometime between 1901 and 1910, Mary moved to a small cottage near Bunyan’s Chapel at Preston Green. It had two bedrooms and one living room.  This had a polished, bare-brick floor. There was a little table and a

chest of drawers in the room and on either side of the kitchen range (on which she sometimes cooked small birds skewered on a poker) were two chairs. She shared this home with her son, Frank.

The children of Mary Currell

Emily Currell (1863 - 1951)

See link: Alfred and Emily Wray