A History of Preston

in Hertfordshire

The main characters:

Charles Stevens - the son of Preston “schoolmaster” Simon Stevens, baptized in 1827 and aged 19 in 1844.

John Ward – born 1811, the son of William and Ann Ward. Living at Preston in 1844 and 1851. Poacher.

William Crew - born 1823. Living at Chequers Lane, Preston in 1861.

Winch. (Several Winches lived at Preston)

 

FIRE AT PARSONAGE FARM, KINGS WALDEN  9 December 1844   Hertfordshire Mercury

 

On Monday night about half-past eleven o’clock a fire broke out in the farmyard of Mr George Roberts of the Parsonage Farm, Kings Walden which destroyed several barns and their contents. Mr Roberts had not long returned from the fair at Lilley Hoo and had only just retired to his bedroom when a cry of fire attracted his attention and he immediately proceeded to the window from whence he perceived that his own farm buildings were on fire. He instantly went down stairs and assisted by some of his men and others who had been attracted to the spot succeeded in getting out the greater portion of his livestock. The fire however extended with such fearful rapidity, being favoured by the direction of the wind, that it was found impossible to save the poultry and they consequently fell a prey to the flames.

 

The fire originated in the neighbourhood of the cart shed from whence it extended on all sides with great fury. Two powerful engines from Luton and Hitchin were soon on the spot and rendered the most valuable assistance. Some difficulty had to be encountered in the endeavour to keep up a sufficient supply of water, in consequence of the distance it had to be brought; this difficulty, however, was to a certain extent surmounted by the admirable arrangements made. A double line of labourers and others formed from the engine to the spot where the water was situate and the buckets were handed up and down the lines with great facility. The adoption of this plan and the activity and judgement of the persons managing the engines were at last successful in preventing the extension of the fire. A very large barn in the farm-yard, full of grain, was thus saved and also the dwelling-house and rick-yard which at one time was considered to be in great danger. The farm-yard, with the exception of the barn alluded to (and a few sheds), was entirely destroyed. The cost is estimated at £1,500. The farm belongs to W. Hale Esq. of Kings Walden Park. The buildings are insured in the Sun Fire Office and the stock in the Phoenix. Too much praise cannot be awarded to the conductors of the engines and the men who worked them and the officers of the constabulary police for the exertions which they made upon the occasion. No clue has been obtained as to the origin of the fire.

 

A LETTER TO THE HERTFORDSHIRE MERCURY

 

Dear Editor,- I am induced to address you concerning the late fire at Mr George Robert’s farm, Kings Walden in order to disprove an uncharitable statement which appeared in the County Press last week, assigning the cause to reduction of wages.

 

Whether this was an ideal offspring arising out of the fertile imagination of your contemporary or a statement founded on itinerant report is known best to those who have submitted it to the public. That general or individual reputation should be thus assailed, unsupported by respectable evidence must appear to every well regulated mind, a gross innovation of the sacred claims of British character. In order that the public mind may be relieved on this subject, I have felt it my duty to submit matter of fact to its notice.

 

At the period of this incendiary fire, Mr Roberts had no less than 16 labourers in his employ, a number far more than adequate at this season of the year, to the extent of the work, several of whom were receiving 2/6d per day, others 2/- and some (which charitable feeling suggested, rather than a suitable return) 9/6d per week, simply on account of his aversion to the practice of availing himself of the services rendered by the industrious labourer during the summer months and then turning him over to the tender mercies of the English Bastile during the inclemency of winter.

 

And to prove still further his highly reputable position as an employer, one third of his men have served him twenty-five years and the remaining two-thirds average ten years. A reciprocity of kindly feeling existing between Mr Roberts and his men; in fact (to use his own words immediately after the fire) he said they had always been a united family, seeking to promote each other’s good; nor could he for a single moment entertain any suspicion with regard to his labourers on this serious matter – no reduction of wages having taken place or even contemplated by Mr Roberts.

 

This is practical evidence – and it is to be hoped for the future, when journalists undertake to define cases involving general, or individual character, they will be supported by TRUTH.

 

From an Advocate.  Ashwell, Herts 17 December 1844.

 

The Hertfordshire Mercury added a further comment: “The County Press stated generally that the conflagrations which have just occurred in that district were attributed to the reduction of the labourers’ wages by the neighbouring farmers. No such reduction, it appears has taken place and Mr Roberts himself is a very liberal employer. The County Press well deserves our correspondent’s censure for circulating such unfounded and malicious reports. We regard the giving utterance to such statements, unless they are known to be true, as a species of moral incendiarism because the minds of the ignorant and the vindictive amongst our rural population are thus supplied with dangerous suggestions and some are probably induced to commit crimes they would not otherwise dream of.”

 

On 27 January 1845, Charles Stevens was tried with starting the fire.The trial was reported thus:

 

Mr G W Roberts – I occupy the Parsonage Farm at Kings Walden. Mr W Hale is the owner. On 9 December 1844 there was a fire at my premises and between £600 and £700 worth of property was destroyed. The fire broke out at the back of a barn in the direct road from Frogmore to Ley Green. The prisoner lived at Ley Green at the time. He had been in my service but was discharged for misconduct at the harvest preceding. The fire broke out at twenty-five minutes past eleven.

 

John Ward, labourer – I live at Preston, near Kings Walden. I knew the prisoner from a child. I remember the fire at Mr Roberts’. On a Sunday about five weeks ago I saw the prisoner at Styles’ public house. There were several in the house. We drank together and left about half-past two o’clock in the day. Stevens left first and I followed him to his father’s house and had a bit of dinner with him. The prisoner’s father was there. The prisoner asked me whether I could keep a secret. I told him I thought I could. He said, “Then I’ll tell you what I’ve done” I set George Robert’s farm on fire on coming home from Frogmore. I struck a whole box of Lucifer matches and stuck them in the corner of the barn and ever since I did it I have not had a night’s rest and that’s the reason I listed for a soldier”. The prisoner had enlisted that morning (note: in 49th regiment of foot) “I knew the prisoner from a child. I remember the fire at Mr Roberts’. On a Sunday about five weeks ago I saw the prisoner at Styles’ public house. There were several in the house. We drank together and left about half-past two o’clock in the day. Stevens left first and I followed him to his father’s house and had a bit of dinner with him. The prisoner’s father was there. The prisoner asked me whether I could keep a secret. I told him I thought I could. He said, “Then I’ll tell you what I’ve done” I set George Robert’s farm on fire on coming home from Frogmore. I struck a whole box of Lucifer matches and stuck them in the corner of the barn and ever since I did it I have not had a night’s rest and that’s the reason I listed for a soldier”. The prisoner had enlisted that morning. He said he could not sleep at night because the fire was always before his eyes. The prisoner’s father was in the house at the time but he is rather hard of hearing. The prisoner spoke low. I told it to Winch on the same night. I am on good terms with the prisoner”.

 

During his cross-examination, John said: “That is the way I keep a secret (laughter). I don’t recollect who were in the beer shop. There were several there – perhaps ten persons. I don’t recollect exactly how long it is since he told me. I have been in trouble three or four times, but for nothing besides poaching; don’t recollect being charged with stealing two ducks and a drake; may have been, but if so it is a long time ago and I don’t recollect it. I don’t know if I ever stole a dung fork. I know Richard Roberts. I don’t recollect saying anything to him about a reward. May have said, “If I had told a lie, I would swear to it”. I don’t know what I expect to get for this case. He said he could not sleep at night because the fire was always before his eyes. The prisoner’s father was in the house at the time but he is rather hard of hearing. The prisoner spoke low. I told it to Winch on the same night. I am on good terms with the prisoner”.

 

Re-examined – never heard any reward was offered.

 

By the Judge – Don’t know what regiment the prisoner enlisted in; don’t recollect stealing any ducks.

 

William Crew, a labourer from Bendish, Kings Walden, examined – I remember the night of Mr Robert’s fire. It was the same night as the fire at Lilley Hoo which I started to go to with two others. We could not find where it was. While looking for it, we got to Kinsell End, near Mr Roberts’s and I saw the prisoner and somebody with him coming from Lilley Hoo and going towards Ley Green. We all went together to Ley Green; left the prisoner close to his own house which is about a quarter of a mile from Mr Robert’s farm. About half-past ten, as we went on past Mr Robert’s farm, the fire had not begun. Went to Frogmore with John Bucks and smoked and drunk. Afterwards, saw the fire at Mr Roberts.

 

The learned judge in summing up said: There could be no doubt in the minds of the jury that the premises of the prosecutor were fired on the 9 December and very little doubt – judging from the position in which the fire broke out – that they were fired wilfully. It was proved that at the harvest preceding the occurrence, the prisoner was discharged from Mr Robert’s service for misconduct, but that was slight evidence against him, for it did not follow that he should, on that account, be guilty of a crime so heinous. The only other evidence against him was that of John Ward and if the jury believed he was trustworthy and accurate then there could be no doubt of the prisoner’s guilt, for he had told Ward that he was the person who set the premises on fire. It would however be necessary to see how far they could rely upon the evidence of a man like Ward.

 

It was rather singular that the prisoner should confide such a secret to him – and if he had chosen to confide to another this wasting sorrow of his heart, it was strange that he should have done so in the presence of a third person, even though that person were deaf. The commencement of the alleged confession was also rather abrupt and strange. – “I set George Robert’s barn on fire”. This certainly was a strange way of commencing the story, and the words that followed – “I struck a whole box of Lucifer matches and stuffed them in the barn”, were equally strange. Even supposing it were true that the prisoner had made the confession stated, it would be matter for consideration whether he might not have made it for the purpose of escaping from the army into which he had enlisted. Untrue confessions of guilt had been made for such purposes before and the prisoner’s admission might have been made with the same view.

 

It was stated that the prisoner was sober at the time, but people did not generally enlist at public houses without having something to drink and there was a probability that the confession, if made at all, was a drunken one.

 

The main question though was, however, whether the jury could rely on the evidence of Ward, whose memory was so infirm that he could not recollect whether he had ever been charged with stealing ducks or who was so bad as not to tell the truth on a matter like that. It was also worthy of consideration that the statement alleged to have been made by the prisoner to the witness Ward did not agree with the facts as stated by other witnesses. Ward stated that the prisoner told him he fired Mr Robert’s barn as he was coming from Frogmore to Ley Green. Now, they had the evidence of two men who came home with the prisoner and left him at his own house and then went on past Roberts’s farm to Frogmore where they smoked and drank together; the fire broke out after that time and they came back to it. They thus had the prisoner brought to and left at his own home for some considerable time before the fire broke out, instead of setting fire to it as he came past from Frogmore. At a later hour, another man picked him up at his own house and went with him to the fire. If Ward’s statement were true, then it was clear that the prisoner had told him some circumstances which were not correct – and was it likely that if he made the statement at all, he would have departed from the truth in these particulars.

 

The jury – We can’t believe in the evidence against him to say that he is guilty. Not guilty.

 

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Parsonage Farm Fire

1844