A History of Preston in Hertfordshire
The Pryor family
The Pryor family were prominent in Preston in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, as they owned the majority of the village! Their lasting legacy to the village is Pryor House near Preston Green and the land around St Martin’s Church.
Brewers and maltsters
We begin this brief account of the family with Robert Pryor who died in 1744. He established a substantial malting business in Baldock, a town five miles north-east of Hitchin. Malt is produced from fermented barley and the local fields yielded fine quality grain - ‘the town was noted for making the most excellent malt, the quantity made being exceeded but by one town in the Kingdom’. As a result of his business acumen, Robert owned property in the villages of Willian, Weston, Bygrave and Clothall which surround Baldock. Following his death, the main portion of his estate, the brewery, was left to his son, John Pryor (1741- 1819). Although the Pryor malting business continued to burgeon – leasing another brewery and acquiring tied public houses - the family fell out of love with Quakerism because its formality and superstition. As a consequence, all of John’s eight children were baptized as Anglicans. However, the Quaker precepts of peace and philanthropy were deeply planted and guided the family during the nineteenth century.
The Pryor’s business continued to expand as John purchased yet another brewery for £12,000 and by 1813 his empire included 50 pubs and inns. John’s eldest son was the brewer and magistrate, John Izzard Pryor, who was born in May 1774. John Izzard retired from brewing in 1826, aged fifty-two, and the next year he purchased Clay Hall at Walkern, Herts (a modest estate of 500 acres which became known as Walkern Hall) with the intention of living the life of a gentleman. He wrote a diary which has been transcribed and arranged by Gerald Curtis in a book entitled, A Chronicle of Small Beer – a wonderfully detailed account of the life of the gentry in Hertfordshire between 1827 and 1861. (see right)
The purchase of Temple Dinsley - 1874
Skipping a generation, John Izzard’s third grandson was Henry Maclean Pryor (1839-1904). After attending Eton College, Henry made his reputation as a soldier. In 1861, aged twenty-two, he was an ensign in the 60th Beds Regiment – which illustrates how far the family had drifted from their Quaker ideals - the faith frowns on warfare, believing ‘how can one kill another child of God, a potential channel of truth’. Henry married Margaret Frances De Vins Wade in 1862 and the couple settled at Clifton Lodge, near Biggleswade in Bedfordshire. They had six children. The eldest was Ralston de Vins Pryor (RDV) (bn 1864) and their youngest son was Gerard Ithel Eade Pryor (GIE) (bn 1868). The 1871 census noted that Henry, a Captain in the 7th Bedfordshire Rifle Volunteer Corps was at home and had a visitor, William H Darton, a Lieutenant in the same Regiment. William’s parents owned the Temple Dinsley estate at Preston. A further strand tying together the young men was that they received their commissions on the same day: 2 March 1871. When Temple Dinsley was sold by auction in 1874, Henry Pryor (who had recently received bequests and legacies from relatives) bought Lot One (of eight lots, see below) of the estate evidently intending that his two young sons, RDV and GIE would manage it when they grew older. The villagers referred to the brothers either by their initials or as “Squire” and “Long” Pryor respectively.He paid £19,000, and a further £1,902  was added to the price for timber rights. This outlay was possibly a stretch for Henry as he arranged to pay a cash sum of £9000 and raised a mortgage for the remainder at 4%.
The Pryors apparently never lived in the mansion of Temple Dinsley. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the house was let to John Weeks, then Henry Brand (MP and magistrate) and Frederick MacMillan.  
Ralston de Vins Pryor
In 1881, RdeV, aged 17, was continuing his education at St Paul’s College, Stony Stratford East, Bucks. Ten years later in 1891, he was living in The Cottage beside the Hitchin Road on the outskirts of Preston. This had a drawing room, dining room, library, kitchen, scullery, cellar, dairy, eight bedrooms and two dressing rooms. Close by were stables, coach-house and a small farmyard and buildings. There was a garden with greenhouses and hothouses. Ralston described himself as an ‘estate agent’ – which referred to his duties in connection with his father’s property and his work as an estate surveyor. Clearly The Cottage was too extensive for Ralston’s needs so it was decided to also let this property - Henry Anstruther, Lord of the Treasury, was residing there in 1901. Between 1891 and 1901, the Pryors built The Laburnums (now Pryor House, right) in the field behind the Red Lion public house. It was described as a brick-built house with tiled roof. Inside were a drawing room, dining room, kitchen, scullery, laundry and w.c. and on the first floor, a bathroom and four bedrooms. In 1915, GIE was renting the first floor from RdeV, his landlord. The transcribers of the 1901 census mis-labelled the house, Labour-in-vain!
In 1895, Henry Pryor made a Deed of Gift to Ralston, of land occupied today by Chequers Cottages and their gardens. This Deed may well have included the entire estate that he purchased as when the Inland Revenue conducted its survey of Preston in 1909/10, Ralston was recorded as owning twenty- seven cottages clustered in the middle of the village together with the Chequers Inn and odd plots of land including the allotments and the rail pond with its adjoining land by Preston Green.  This indicates that the Pryors had sold none of the homes originally bought by Henry in 1874 and that RdeV’s portfolio at Preston now included the newly-built The Laburnums and four small cottages at Back Lane (see below).
The area shown in light and dark blue on the map above was dealt with apart from the Temple Dinsley estate by Thomas H Darton. He raised a mortgage on it of £400 from Thomas Perkins which was repaid by Thomas’ widow, Emily, shortly after his death in 1885. She then sold this land to GIE for £900 in 1908. In turn, the following year, GIE sold the area coloured in light blue to his brother Ralston for £200. Temple Dinsley mansion and The Cottage together with other plots of land were sold to Mr James Barrington White in 1901 together with land sandwiched between Blacksmith’s and Back Lane. Shortly afterwards, Henry Pryor died intestate in the summer of 1904 leaving an estate of £23,148. Although the Pryors owned the majority of the cottages at Preston, most of their portfolio were in a poor, dilapidated condition. Perhaps the prospect of demolishing and replacing their housing stock was daunting but five years or so after the death of their father, Henry, the Pryors sold all their properties at Preston, retaining only their home, The Laburnums in which the two brothers were living in 1911. However from news reports it appears that RdeV still owned some property on his father’s Clifton estate. Margaret Pryor, Henry’s widow, died on 25 June 1915 at a flat at 38 Gunterstone Road, West Kensington. She left an estate of £2,908 which would seem to indicate that Henry’s holdings had already been distributed. RdeV was his mother’s executor.
Preston benefactor
Perhaps the major enduring contribution RdeV made to Preston related to St Martin’s Church. In early 1898, he was approached by the Revd Switzer of St Marys, Hitchin to see if he would sell a parcel of land for a new church in the village. RdeV agreed with the proviso that the necessary funds should be raised and he was part of the committee which administered the Church Building Fund. In 1908, he was instrumental in the opening of a new village club room on Church Lane opposite St Martin’s lych gate. He gave the site and ‘collected most of the money required’. The building still stands today. RdeV was the Chairman of the Parish Council from 1901 to 1915. He was also one of Preston school’s managers and regularly visited the school, often checking the register and sometimes even taking some lessons in arithmetic, drawing and history. In particular he encouraged children with their gardening pursuits. He took charge of the school garden in 1908 and sometimes took a party from the school to show them his rose garden. In 1926, he coached the boys in cricket. Ralston also had an interest in three leisure pursuits: rose growing, amateur dramatics and cricket. There are several newspaper reports of concerts which were organised by RdeV around his first home, Clifton, Beds in the 1890s. At Shefford in January 1890 he organised and acted in the farce, Freezing a mother-in-law. “The room was well filled on both evenings and the performers were loudly applauded’. Profits were donated to the local cricket club and reading room. The following year, an entertainment was given for the purchase of kneelers for Sunday School children at Clifton.  Ralston played Dearest Love Waltz as a piano solo and sang The Carnovale. That same year at another concert, it was reported that ‘the humourous songs of Mr R de V Pryor greatly amused the audience...and the comic finale, a banjo duet by RDeV and GIE Pryor created roars of laughter’. The pair also performed ‘their new and original Kentucky march and twist, never before performed in England (encore)’. In addition, Ralston played a harp solo of The Ashgrove. Then again in 1895, at an amateur dramatics show on Ralston ‘devolved the very responsible duty of stage manager and by his clever manipulation of the curtain and scenery it was obvious to all that he was a perfect master of the art’. He also had a leading part in the farce. He and his sister Beryl ‘brought the house down by their rendering of the various comicalities and passages of pathos in the piece’. Ralston also put on ‘cheerful concert parties at Preston using the carpenter’ shop on the Green (which became Peters’ shop Link: Carpenters shop). The Preston Scrapbook has photographs of some of the productions (Link: Scrapbook). The Pryors toured neighbouring villages in a wagonette with their concerts. In 1899, at Kings Walden Parish Church, a missionary lecture was delivered with RdeV ‘manipulating photographs with his magic lantern to illustrate the scenes’. In the years leading up to The Great War, RdeV won several awards for his prize roses. Typical of the news reports was this from a Hertford Rose Show in July 1913: ‘In Class 1 for twelve distinct roses the first prize was carried off by Mr R Pryor of Preston who had in his collection the best bloom in the show - a very beautiful specimen of Yvonne Vacherot. Amongst his other blooms the most conspicuous were Her Majesty, Mrs Arthur Coxhead and William Shean’. Ralston and his brother Gerard also encouraged village cricket. RdeV’s interest in the game was shown in 1894 when he and his brother Armitage turned out for the Rev H E Lury’s side against Silsoe in 1894. That same year, he and GIE played for Kings Walden cricket team and for a Hitchin XI against Christ College, Cambridge. In 1902, he was part of the Preston team who visited Kings Walden along with P Barrington-White, R Ashton, E Robinson, S Elgas, Arthur Wray (my uncle), W Clinch, H Thrussell, A Gresty, W Thrussell and W Sharp.
Personal reminiscences of RdeV Pryor -  by David Peters
My family had an association with Mr. Pryor and The Laburnums for as long as I can recall. I am not certain how it all came about, but it may be that my mother was in service there before her marriage. Additionally, my great aunt, Christobel Peters was Mr. Pryor's housekeeper. From an early age, my sister Queenie and I had free reign to play in the grounds and it was always Saturday afternoon tea in the kitchen with both Mr. Pryor and aunt Chris right up to the time of his death. It is worthy of note that all the photographs concerning any of the Peters family weddings had The Laburnums as a backdrop. Ralston de Vins Pryor could best be described as a quintessential English gentleman. Well educated, he had inherited wealth and still held parcels of land around the village. A bachelor, his only known relative of whom I was aware was a sister, Beryl, who I believe lived in Bristol and was an artist of some repute. I never knew him to travel anywhere but in his younger days he would have got about by pony and trap. He had been a rose grower of some note and his trophies were displayed in his dining room. He kept the rainfall figures for the Meteorological Office which may explain why he had such a valuable collection of barometers. He was an avid crossword solver but he never had the good fortune to win the Telegraph Saturday prize crossword, despite his many attempts over the years. I can conjure up memories of him toddling off to The Red Lion at noon each day dressed in his country tweeds and plus-fours. He was back by two o'clock for a light lunch in the kitchen with my aunt. He dined alone each evening except for Sundays which was aunt Chris's half day off. When the weather was warm of an afternoon he could be found sitting on an upturned wooden box doing a little light weeding of the footpaths around the lawns. He eschewed the benefits of electricity and mains water; lighting was by paraffin lamps and heating by open fires. Drinking water was drawn from a pump over the kitchen sink - good taste, too. RdeV had a piano and my parents bought it at the house sale and later it went to my sister via Glasgow and finally Brentwood. I never heard him play but I am not surprised that he at one time entertained with some ditties. I recall that he had a very good sense of humour. He died at The Laburnums in March, 1945, at the age of 81, following a short illness. The house and contents were put up for auction ,and Aunt Chris went to live with George and Bertha Nash at Laburnum Cottage. So ended (at 14) a happy era of my life.
Final thoughts
Ralston took my father under his wing. My mother said that Dad was helped by ‘a local squire who taught him the rudiments of cards and snooker’. To my surprise, in 2005, I discovered confirmation of this relationship in my garden shed! I have an old woodworm- riddled fork (shown left) that was used by Dad which has ‘RdeVP’ etched into its handle. It is now a dibber. David Peters mentioned that he remembered Dad tending Ralston’s kitchen garden at The Laburnums.I was told by an aunt that, when he was dying, Ralston asked to see my father but was prevented from doing this by his housekeeper.
Ralston (described as a retired land surveyor) died of cancer of the rectum on 7 March 1945 at The Laburnums. His death was notified by his housekeeper, Annie Christobel Peters who was present at the death. Four days later, he was buried at St Martin’s Church opposite the door (above right). RdeV’s will bestowed £50 to two of his three nominated executors. Annie Christobel Peters was to have his antique chest of drawers and a sum which was equal to five years cash wages. He left his gold signet ring with crest to his nephew, Harford de Vins Lury; his grandfather clock to Bertha Emily Nash (nee Peters); his Sheritan corner cupboard from the drawing room to Philadelphia Constance Peters. The residue was to be divided between his siblings, Lilian Amy Lury, Margaret Beryl Pryor and Armigel Henry Pryor. The net value of his estate was a surprising £540. It seems that he spent his inheritance ‘flying small planes and enjoying life’. All that was left was to sell Ralston’s home and contents. The Laburnums was sold by auction at the Sun Hotel, Hitchen on 17 April 1945. It was described as having ‘ two reception rooms, four bedroom, bath, detached billiards room (across the courtyard from the house DP), rose and flower gardens, land with outbuildings including orchard, rose garden, paddock and three acres of meadow’. The house contents were sold separately: ‘oak and iron bedsteads, tables, chairs, four-feet walnut wardrobe, antique mahogany club-foot table with oval leaves, antique eight-day clock by Field of Hitchin, iron-framed piano by Chappell, three-foot oak bureau, mahogany dining table, aneroid with clock and chart,antique and modern silver and plate, half-size billiards table and a large quantity of carpenters and garden tools’.
I am grateful to David Peters and Ann Crouch for providing the photographs of RdeV and to David for taking the time to write his memories.
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