A History of Preston in Hertfordshire
A reappraisal of the identity of my paternal great grandfather
For several years I have believed that my paternal great grandfather was Thomas Currell (1831 - ?) of Preston. This article outlines a new discovery which casts doubt on this conclusion
The accurate identification of one’s ancestors is an essential part of tracing one’s own family - even if they are elusive. This statement is patently obvious - yet time and again family trees are uploaded to the internet which are inaccurate and therefore worthless. It is easy to take a wrong turning and investigate a completely erroneous bunch of unrelated strangers because of making a wrong conclusion about the identity of a forefather. Enthusiasm, wishful-thinking and decades spent searching do not guarantee one finds truth. On the basis of available facts, I had concluded that my paternal great grandfather was Thomas Currell. I wrote on this website, ‘there is no doubt that he was Emily’s (my grandmother) father’. My new discovery means that subsequent delvings into the identity of Thomas’ forefathers - which occupied many hours and visits to Record Offices - were totally irrelevant because he was not my great grandfather. The information that exposed my error was lurking in a newspaper for more than 150 years. It was uncovered by chance, when I was whiling away a little time with some random browsing.
Why I believed Thomas Currell was my great grandfather
My grandmother was Emily Wray (nee Fairey), who was born at Preston on 22 December 1863 - as recorded in the 1939 Register:
She was baptised as Emily Feary (sic) at St Mary’s, Hitchin on 26 June 1864, being the daughter of the single woman, Mary Feary. An indication that Mary was connected to the Currell family is that she was accompanied during her visit to the parish church by another single mother, Catherine Currell, who was Thomas’ sister.
Thomas and Mary then married at St Mary’s, Hitchin on 2 November 1867.:
In the 1871 census, Emily was named as Currell (see below). This, however, is not conclusive evidence that she was indeed Thomas’ daughter as there are countless examples of census enumerators being given the wrong surname of step-children.
The background to this census entry is that Thomas’ first wife had died in 1862 . George, Mary and Clara Currell were his children by his first wife. Henry and Albert were Thomas and Mary’s children. The most persuasive evidence that Emily was Thomas’ daughter was provided when she married my grandfather, Alfred Wray, and stated that her father was ‘Thomas Fairey’ (sic):
Emily probably felt obligated to give her surname as Fairey when she married - because her birth was registered as Emily Fairey (see the record of the birth index below). She also avowed that her father was Thomas Fairey. This achieved two objectives - it camouflaged her illegitimacy and also seemed to point to the fact that the main father-figure in her life, Thomas Currell, was indeed her father.
It appears to be common knowledge that Emily was Thomas Currell’s daughter. I’ve checked the notes I made in around 2002 when my mother recounted Dad’s family history. Her knowledge was accurate, even naming Emily’s fourteen children and their spouses and children (if any) and where they settled. She told me that ‘Alf Wray married Emily Currell’. This was the note I made:
I should mention that Mum was notoriously adept at scrambling names - it wasn’t that she forgot them, rather that she was prone to muddle them. For example,She knew the maiden name of her uncle, saying she was ‘Herring’ - she was actully Catherine J Mackrell. So for her to remember these names accurately testifies to clarity of thought (for once). Note that I mis-spelt Emily’s maiden name (hardly surprising as I hadn’t come across this surname before) - and was corrected by Mum. She would have heard this information from Dad and/or his siblings and maybe Emily herself as Mum lived at Preston on and off between 1941 and 1949 and would have visited Emily’s home on several occasions. Either this was a deliberate falsehood on their part or it was what they genuinely beleived to be the truth. My notes also show that Mum told me of Emily’s sister, Phyll’s illegitimate children. If this information was revealed (and Mum would have known Phyll at castle Farm) I see no reason why Emily’s background wasn’t also disclosed. (In passing I’ll also make one other point of interest: she said my grandfather, Alf(red), was from Luton. This was commonly believed by my family. I recall my Aunt Maggie looking at her daughter with perplexity when I said Alfred’s father was from Tewin, Herts. “I thought ‘e was from Luton”, she said.) Corroboration of the belief that Thomas was Emily’s father was provided by D E Frost (who arrived in Preston in 1916) when he wrote his History of Preston Cricket Club and assembled his best ten performers, he wrote, “Finally, there is one interesting feature (which was not noticed until the team had been selected); the two Wrays (my father, Sam, and his brother, Frank) and the two Jenkins all had the same maternal grandparents, although it is not thought that Grandfather Currell ever played cricket”. (The Jenkins mentioned were the children of Phyllis nee Currell, Jenkins [daughter of Thomas and Mary] and Herbie Jenkins of Castle Farm.)
New evidence of the identity of my paternal great grandfather
The collection of searchable historical newspapers is in constant flux as more and more editions are added. Occasionally, I browse them for new references to Preston. Some new pages of the Hertfordshire Express were uploaded. I idly perused these………and found this snippet dated 7 May 1864:
The father of the child born five months earlier (ie Emily) was not Thomas Currell, but William Cox. We can only guess at why Mary wanted the details to be heard in a cleared court. Embarrassment? Would she not have emerged in a good light? Did she not want the incident to be salacious local knowledge? Which brings us to the question, ‘How many people (ie her family and Preston residents) knew as a consequence of this court case and its news report that the father of her child, Emily, was William Cox?’ In assessing the answer, one should bear in mind some factors: the paper cost a modest one penny. The Express was a local Hitchin paper with a circulation of around 2,200. Many Preston residents were illiterate. But one reason for the success of newspapers was that people wanted to read about the activities of local folk. Mary’s case would also surely have been discussed by wagging tongues in Hitchin - especially near the plaiting stalls where she would have been known. On balance, I believe the incidence became known locally. But whether it was remembered twenty-five years later, and whether Emily knew, are debatable. The fact remains that there had been a sexual encounter between Mary and William. This was evidently undisputed. William was prepared to pay his 1/6d. One other thought bears examination: I believed that Thomas (who lived at Gosmore, a fifteen-minute walk from Preston) was visiting Mary and his newly-born daughter when he stumbled on the prone miller at the bottom of Preston Hill on 11 January 1864 en route to Preston. Thomas under oath in court said ‘I told my uncle and John Jeeves son (about the incident)’. By ‘my uncle’ I think he was referring to a ‘Fairey’ relative, not Currell - and that his uncle was probably Samuel Fairey, Mary’s father. This had appeared to be strong circumstantial evidence that Thomas was in a relationship with Mary - and I still have a nagging suspicion that this may be true. How many sexual liaisons did Mary have in 1863? If Thomas was not Emily’s father, his visit might indicate an attachment to Mary and her family which soon blossomed into his marrying her. On the other hand, if he was Emily’s father, why did he wait until November 1867 (almost four years) to marry her?
Introducing my (new) great grandfather, William Cox
From the evidence of his marriage certificate and various censuses, William was an agricultural labourer. He born at Wheathampstead (about seven miles north of Preston) - probably at Gustard Wood, which was where he and Mary were living when the 1841 census was taken in October, 1840. Ostensibly, his father was the labourer, John Cox (but see later), and his mother was Mary.
1841 Census (taken on 6 June) - at Gustard Wood, Wheathampstead
1861 Census - at St Andrews Street, Hitchin. Note Mary’s widely differing ages in the two censuses
Sarah had also been the object of an Affiliation Order in 1865:
1871 Census - William and his family at St Andrews Street, Hitchin. All of the children were given the surname ‘Cox’, though the two who were not William’s sons had ‘M’ - for Males - as a middle name. William jnr was conceived in around September 1869, about three months before William snr and Sarah married on Xmas Day 1869.
Shown above are William and Sarah’s marriage certificate and the baptism record of their two-year- old son, Charles Cox, at St Mary’s, Hitchin. He was baptised privately - usually a sign that there was a problem with the mother and/or child. The eagle-eyed will have noticed “dec’d” after William’s name on the entry. He died on 6 May 1873 at Taylors Cottages, Hitchin aged thirty-three. He had suffered from acute pneumonia for five days. The informant of death was, Hannah Cox of Port Mill Yard, Hitchin. She was William’s sister-in-law, married to his brother, John (a soldier), who was born in 1836/37 at Gustard Wood Common according to the 1871 Census. Hannah and John were living at Bristows Yard, Hitchin in that year.
1881 Census - at Post Office Alley, Hitchin
With the information gathered, we can construct a brief tree:
Now, we examine William’s life. His parents were not above the destruction of other people’s fences and his father was imprisoned for assaulting a police officer in the execution of his duty. These minor misdemeanours are probably the tip of the iceberg. We don’t find George with his family in 1841 when the enumerator called and William was farmed out to neighbours in 1851, with his mother working elsewhere. There was curious giving of wrong information when both George and his older brother John married. They declared that their father was John Cox (see later - and William’s marriage certificate shown earlier). Yet George is shown as father to both on John jnr’s baptism parish record and William’s birth certificate -and three of their siblings said their father was George when they married. This might have been a deliberate error on the part of William and John because of antipathy towards George or because he was not in fact their father. However, there is probably a simpler explanation: as George died in April, 1843 when William was two years old and John, five, they may have had little memory of their father, even believing that his name really was John (their mother referring to him as ‘your father’ or something similar). Their three siblings, who gave their father’s correct name when they married, were between fifteen and seventeen when he died.
Details of William’s short life
The family lived in two parishes at this time, Kimpton and Wheathampstead. When they moved, they didn’t move far - Gustard Wood is about a mile from the centre of Kimpton and George and Mary could have been living nearer the parish boundary.
In 1837 when John was born, the family was living at Gustard Wood and as we have seen, Mary and four children were living there in June 1841.
George was living at Back Street, Hitchin when he died in 1843. By 1851, having to fend for her family using her skills as a needlewoman, Mary was at the centre of Hitchin. and William was lodging at Lyles Row. He and Mary were at St Andrews Street, Hitchin in 1861. Today, Back Street (a poor part of town) is called Queen Street and St Andrews Street is the bottom section of Hollow Lane. This and Lyles Row are opposite St Marys Car Park. So, William and his family were living in this area from at least 1843 to 1851.
Lyles Row
St Andrews Place
In 1861 and 1871,William and his mother were living at St Andrews Street, Hitchin. But when he died in 1873, he and his family were living at Taylors Cottages, Hitchin. These were situated parallel to and behind the west side of Old Park Road (now the A505: the cottages were close to the junction with West Hill and only 350 metres north-west of St Marys Church.)
Taylors Cottages
Old Park Road
There is anecdotal information of life at Taylors cottages. They were built in the 1840s - and so were only thirty years old when William and family moved in. Access was via a passage from Old Park Road. The row consisted of seven cottages - two-up and down, with entry only by a front door. There is a extant photograph of the end of the terrace (No 7) which is of solid brick construction so perhaps the front of the houses was originally brick before being rendered and painted as shown above. The (interior?) walls were of plaster and lathe. During heavy rain, the front door had to be opened to sweep away water which had permeated through the walls. They had a single outside tap and a toilet at the bottom of the garden. These both froze during cold snaps. Shortly after William’s death, Mary moved even nearer Hitchin town centre and, in 1874, when their son Charles was baptised, she was living in Post Office Alley (see following map) which ran north- west from High Street. Today, this is West Alley. Mary worked as a charwoman and a straw plaiter. She and William jnr were still residing there in 1881, but ten years later she had moved back to 7 Taylors Cottages. By 1901, William had married, started a family and was working as a blacksmith’s labourer. In 1911 William jnr, was a fully fledged blacksmith and was living with his family at Letchworth together with his mother, Sarah ,at 47 Green Lane. Sarah died at Letchworth in 1918.
Map of Post Office Alley - 1881
1911 Census - 47 Green Lane, Letchworth, Herts.
Of my great uncles, William and Charles Cox
Of my great uncles, William and Charles Cox
Almost as an after-thought my attention turns to William and Sarah’s children who were my great uncles.
William Cox 1870 - 1923
In 1911 the widower, William, was residing at 47 Green Lane, Letchworth (left, below). Next door at No 45 were Charles and his family. This was a Garden City that began to be built in 1905. William moved there in 1908/09 moved. Here William’s mother, Sarah died.
The years after 1905 were a traumatic time for William. A daughter was born in the late Spring of that year and his wife died - probably due to complications associated with childbirth. Then in 1908/9, he and his young family were uprooted from Hitchin to Letchworth. News reports suggest family problems followed:
Lest we conclude that Sidney was an incorrigible villain, six years later, the newspapers were singing his praises. Pirton village scrapbook reports that Sidney (who was baptised at Pirton) enlisted in August 1914, so he was one of the first to do so, and served in the Bedfordshire Regiment. At the time of the report, he had been out at the Front for ‘one year and eight months’ and ‘is twenty-two years of age’. Sidney had been in the thick of the fighting and had been wounded. As a result, he was hospitalized in Felixstowe. During the war both sides often attempted to tunnel under their enemies’ lines, packed the end with explosives and attempted to blow up the front line of the opposite side. This was usually followed by soldiers rushing forward to take the position before the confusion had died down and reinforcements could be deployed. Sidney and his comrades suffered such an attack, probably many of his comrades were killed and certainly many were buried alive. Sidney was responsible for digging out, unaided, seventeen men, saving the lives of fourteen of them. For this ‘conspicuous act of bravery and life-saving’ he was awarded the Military Medal. Sadly his brother, Frederick (Reg nos. 5462 and 266835) who had also enlisted (in the Hertfordshire Regiment) was not so fortunate, being killed in action at Flanders on 31 July 1917.
7 February 1908 at Hitchin
6 August 1909
26 September 1909
9 July 1909
10 September 1909
4 October 1910
23 July 1909 at Letchworth
Charles Cox 1872 - 1940
In 1939, Charles was working as an agricultural labourer and was living at 161 Common View.(shown below) - which joined Green Lane -