The tranquil life of Preston was not untouched by the Second World War. German bombers and fighter escorts droned overhead en route to Luton, Birmingham and Coventry. The village saw many new faces - evacuee children, Land Army girls, soldiers billeted nearby and prisoners of war working in the fields. In the distance, to the south, a glow in the sky after nightfall announced the latest blitz of London - and ‘You could see the searchlights in the sky over London’. Two of Preston’s sons died in the conflict. This is an attempt to describe life in the village during these years. If anyone can add some information, please contact me.
The menace from the skies
During the six years of war, the Hitchin Rural District (which included Preston) received eleven VI Flying Bombs, four V2 rockets, 6,527 incendiary bombs, 27 oil bombs, 8 parachute mines, three phosphorous bombs and two fire pot bombs - ‘a formidable total for a rural area’. 792 homes were damaged, but only nine were beyond repair.The precautions adopted in towns also applied to Preston - Rebecca Brown, of Pond Farm Preston:‘We were told we must now blackout every window...my sisters had made black curtains and dark curtains and we had a big board we put up over the kitchen window...we were very careful about that....(there was) an Air Raid Warden coming around and checking up just to see that there were no chinks of light showing anywhere. In the old farm house we didn’t even have any electricity so standing on the landing and we used to take candles to bed. We’d read by candle light making sure that the curtains were well drawn.’Ann Fenton (nee Middleditch): ‘Oh yes the black out - all windows were covered in black material, and tape criss-crossed over the windows. Lights were not allowed to be shown - cars and bikes had to have their light showing only half a black cap like contraption was fixed so that lights only shone directly in front of where you were going. Candles were at a premium everywhere. Fuel for lamps was a scarce commodity for those who didn't have wood stoves to cook on or electricity, the latter was not in every house in the village.’Rebecca: ‘There was one air raid warning at Hitchin, another at Luton and another somewhere else and we got to know them by their names because they all made different noises. I remember calling one Wailing Willie and one Screaming Lizzie and so we’d hear the Hitchin one go up and then the Luton one...it was just part of our life, the air raid warnings and then you sort of wondered if the bombers would come over and quite often they did. Sometimes as we were cycling home (from Hitchin) the air raid sirens would go and we would pedal like fury to make sure we got home.’There were batteries with searchlights lighting up the night sky at Whitwell and Chapel Foot (on the Hitchin to St Pauls Walden Road).Rebecca: ‘My brothers did start to enthusiastically dig us an air raid shelter but it never got finished. No, we didn’t do anything to shelter during an air raid...’At Princess Helena College, Temple Dinsley, although Preston had been designated ‘safe’, the school took precautions, Its Tudor cellars were cleared of junk, swept clean and whitewashed making bomb-proof shelters where girls could sleep and gas masks hung. Two hundred and ninety-seven windows and nine skylights now had to be blacked out. The headmistress, Miss Prain, herself sewed all the curtains.After France fell, the gardeners roofed over a chalk pit in a wood nearby, to be known as Hitler’s Hall’ where the girls and staff and plenty of tinned food could be housed, and they installed electric light.Rebecca: ‘I remember sitting at night when it was dark and the aeroplanes going over - we could hear ours going, you could almost count them as they were going to war. Then sometimes you would hear a plane with quite a different sound and Dad would say, “That’s a German” and we would wait and pray “let it go over” and (it) kept going....Then sometimes we would...hear a bomb come whistling down and it sounded just as if it was coming on the house....The next morning, my brother said, “Come on, lets go look where the bomb landed” and we went across and there was this enormous hole in one of our fields and we found that quite exciting....One fell on the local blacksmith but not on his house. I can’t remember anyone being killed....we had two or three on our farm, but none on the house.At PH College, it was reported that three bombs landed on fields not far away - one burst, the rest were duds - and an abandoned German plane or two and three V1 rockets.Ann: ‘I remember watching the German planes coming over in broad day-light and bombing Luton Airport and Vauxhall Motors and the dog fight and anti aircraft guns shooting down the enemy. The Doodle Bugs - one fell in a field not far from Keepers Lodge and on the way to Kings Walden - made quite a crater! The VE bombs were scary as well, doing lots of damage everywhere they landed.’Dad was in the Home Guard, like most of the men who were too old to go into combat’Rebecca: ‘My father was in the Home Guard. They were all given their tin hats and their uniform and had drill. I suppose it was on the playing field....Then they would have turns in fire watching. All the older men in the village who weren’t called up, they would go and watch for incendiary bombs being dropped all over the place and they had sand bags with which to put them out. They used to have...a sort of crossed barriers. They put them across the road so if anyone was coming along they would say, “Who goes there” and stop them in the dead of night and see who they were...Every single sign post was removed.‘I remember one hot summer afternoon (at Hitchin)...suddenly we heard planes up above. We looked up and there was a German plane and English fighter planes sort of dodging round it, I think they were Hurricanes, and we looked up in horror because they were just above us and we could see them...And they did shoot the poor chap down and then of course, my brothers, being big brothers, went across to find the aeroplane and all the pieces of it.’A Wellington bomber crashed and burnt out at Sootfield Green. The RAF cleaned up the site but local lads searched the spot for ‘odd bits like bullets’.Rebecca: There was a lot of bombing over Luton - the Vauxhall works and so on. We used to hear them, the crashes. And we could see late at night looking down towards London and actually see the sky red at night from the Blitz.On 30 August 1940, the Germans flew a sortie of around twenty Heinkel bombers escorted by thirty Messerschmitts against Luton airport and the Vauxhall works. Just short of Luton, they were intercepted by fighters from Northolt and North Weald. During the ensuing dogfight, a Messerschmitt crashed at Whiteway Bottom, Kimpton. Its pilot was killed and was buried at Hitchin. According to eyewitnesses, a British fighter crashed in a garden at Harpenden.At 20.00 on the night of 8 April 1941, a Defiant fighter out of Biggin Hill, opened fire on another Heinkel (part of a raid on Coventry) above Whitwell. The bomber was shot down and crashed at Bendish House but not before the surviving crew bailed out and parachuted down in or near Kings Walden Park. They were quickly rounded up and taken prisoner. The body of the plane’s observer was found the next morning at Duxleys Wood, Breachwood Green still attached to its parachute. He too was interred at Hitchin.Then on the following night, a Junkers 88 crashed at Preston Hill Farm. It was making a bombing run on Fort Dunlop at Birmingham when it was fired on by a night fighter. It was ‘like someone throwing a handful of stones against a tin wall’. The pilot turned towards the nearest point on the continental coast - which took his plane over Hertfordshire. Unable to keep air-bourne, the pilot ordered his crew to bail out. The ‘line of washing’ came down in a line from Hartling to Kings Walden Park. One of the crew was picked up by a bus running between Hitchin and Luton. A RAF officer on the bus took charge of him and ordered the bus driver to Luton Police Station. Three others of the crew landed at Hartlington, Butterfield Green and Frogmore. Mrs Fisher, who lived at Bendish Lodge on Lilley Bottom Road, spoke of her fright as a German walked past her home shouting at the top of his voice.The last man to bail out was found by Hitchin Fire Brigade who were trying to put out the fire of the burning Junkers.Some wreckage of the Junkers was recovered from Preston Farm, including the engines, but it was believed more was to be found. Several years later, Peter Stanley of RAF Henlow (seven miles to the north of Preston) rang David Steadman to enquire where he might hire a JCB locally for a dig at the crash site. When the new excavation began, it was discovered that the subsoil was chalky, but grey where the plane had burnt out. Most of the wreckage found was jangled pieces of aluminium sheet, some pierced by bullets. The dig lasted three hours, guided by Stanley’s metal detector. They found live bullets, hydraulic gear for operating the flaps and the armature from a motor or a generator.
Of soldiers based around Preston
At Hitchwood, about a mile south-east of Preston, two camps (‘North ‘ and ‘South’) were established to train soldiers for fighting overseas and the D-Day landings. A local builder in Hitchin built huts in there, which housed some of the men. The remains of the brick ovens can still be seen (below) and are the subject of occasional enquiries even today.
Frank Thomas has recorded his experiences at a Hitchwood Camp: ‘About the middle of August 1942 a number of us younger soldiers were posted to 39th L.A.A. Regt which was in camp at Hitchwood, a wood about 3 miles from Hitchin, Herts. The regiment was preparing to go overseas, but where no one knew. When I joined the 39th Light A/A (Anti-Aircraft) Regiment..... I was allocated to 111th Battery D Troop. I arrived at Hitchwood in time for 6 weeks of infantry training before more serious A/A training for overseas. The infantry training stood us in good stead when in August 1944 we were ordered to leave our Bofors guns behind us and go into the front line as an infantry regiment. At the time I joined, intensive training was going on, not just with anti-aircraft guns, but also infantry training in case we had to resort to this. There was a large common opposite our camp where this training was carried out. Not only was there the usual assault course, and training in tactics, but also at times we would form a line in a clear part of the common, and be ordered to proceed straight ahead. Whatever obstacle lay on our path we must not deviate from a straight line. Our motto was “Get through it”. I have been thankful for that tough course many times in my life when things had been difficult. What did St Paul say? “I have fought the good fight, I have kept the faith” Yes he went straight ahead. Alas I have often failed, and yet often in difficult times I am thankful for Hitchwood.’Meanwhile PH College remained unscathed until April 1942 when some Canadian soldiers took down and made away with a lead gazelle - one of two mounted on the main gate pillars.In 1943, Temple Dinsley was almost requisitioned until it was saved by an outbreak of measles. However, the Lodge and some land next to the games field was filled with army vehicles and mobile guns. Then, girls and soldiers ogled each other during lacrosse, tennis and gun practice.Rebecca: ‘Army lorries used to come down our little road and then it divided at the bottom and we’d go out to wave to the soldiers....We had the Military Police - they were actually stationed only about two miles away, yes we did see quite a lot of them about.’
Ann: ‘Preston was also one of the places to which evacuees came, to get away from the destruction of London. The children were scared, lonely and some had lost everything from the bombing and were outfitted with clothing, shoes, etc., for the changes of weather. They were treated well in the village and some stayed after the war and made the area their home together with their parents who survived the bombing and destruction of their homes.’ (See the story of the Mardell family later. Link: Mardells)The Preston School logbook provides occasional comments about the life of children before and during the war. 3 February 1939: ‘W Peters fitted gas masks’. Rebecca: ‘I remember we were all issued with gas masks. We had to go into the Village Hall to be fitted - to be shown how to put them on. And I remember I had a baby sister and that one that you had to put the baby right inside the thing, a great big thing on the table and mother looking at that and saying, ‘Never will I put my baby in there!’ She was just horrified. And then I remember one of my big sisters making cases. We used up any old things that we could cut up, old curtains or fabric, or whatever. She made us very smart cases with a strap because we had to take them to school every day and that just became part of our uniform, with our satchels and we always got an order mark if we forgot them. We used to put them on top of the cupboard when we got to school and then every Friday morning have Gas Mask Drill. Had to go through and all put our gas masks on and pull funny faces at each another and the teacher would come round testing to see that - putting their fingers in the sides to see — whether they would have been any use I really don’t know.’Ann: ‘All the children were issued gas masks and ID's. I still remember my ID number which we dutifully took with us whenever we were outside the home and especially to school where we had regular air raid drills and were taught the use of the gas mask and where to go in case of an air raid to the shelters or the safest place.’Preston School logbook: 4 September 1939: ‘School should have re-opened today, but war having begun, I have closed the School til further orders. 12 September 1938: ‘School re-opens today. We shall work in double shifts. This week the village children will attend from 09.00 ‘til 13.00 and the evacuated children from 13.15 to 17.15.’ This arrangement lasted a fortnight ‘The School will from today be open for the usual hours, the evacuated children being provided with accommodation from PHC’.In March 1940, the senior children went to schools in Hitchin and Preston School became a centre for the education of Infant and Juniors Mixed. Its students included several from nearby towns and villages like Langley and Stevenage. In all, during the six years of war, Preston School admitted 171 new children. In the following six years, there were 99 new admissions - which illustrates a remarkable turnover of scholars during the war. 2 September 1940: ‘There are now 23 village children and eleven evacuees’. First Mrs Bailey was in charge of the temporary residents, then Mrs Devlin, then Miss Saunders. Intriguingly, on 26 February 1841, there is a note that, ‘The children will be taken to Church for Ash Wednesday - the Jewish evacuees who do not wish to go, will be left in charge of a teacher’. By 15 September 1941, the School was caring for 47 children, 25 from Herts CC and 22 evacuees.Sadly for some children during this time, a deadly threat was not only from across the English Channel. Two girls, Evelyn Jane Fuller of 2 Council Cottages, Langley and Pamela Hammond (daughter of Ernest Hammond of Back Lane, Preston) died of diphtheria.Rebecca: ‘There was a boys school from London. I remember Mr. Hinds the Headmaster coming with all these boys, they were staying in a big old College in the village and they took over our school for a time....Nothing was really happening to worry them in London it didn’t start until at least the next year from I remember. So they went home. I remember then we had a lot of evacuees came to live in the College and they were very harum scarum and they used to put this gas mask in it’s box but put an apple or their lunch or conkers, anything, they were all in the gas masks. What it did to them I can’t imagine! They used to fling them about. Yes, there were quite a number of evacuees. We, being such a big family, there were eleven of us, just hadn’t got any room to take any more but any families that had got a spare room the children were just left there, poor little things. And mother used to feel so sorry for them and we used to invite them and take them along to Sunday School and mother used to say, ‘Bring them home to tea.’ So invariably we would have extras to tea from the village and to us they were just other children and sometimes we laughed at them and their funny ways, they were Londoners and they seemed to almost speak a different language to us and we were country children. But we were kind to them. Yes, I remember taking them for walks, primrosing and so on around the fields.Margaret Waller, nee Harper: ‘We had one evacuee stay with us, but the people who placed her, decided being in (Wain) wood was too lonely and she was then housed with a family in Ickleford.’The following is a list of children who moved from London to Preston. Many were evacuees. It includes their name, their month of birth, when they arrived at Preston School and left, their father’s name, their home or home school and where they stayed in Preston:TOMLIN, Clifford Harold, May 1933, 12/9/1939 - 6/1942, Harold Tomlin, Chisham St., Stepney Crunnells Green.GODDARD, Dennis,April 1935, 12/9/1939 - 12/1940, Harold Goddard, Johnson St., Stepney, Vicars Grove.LEWIS, Norman Edward, April 1935, 12/9/1939 - 11/1940, Edward Lewis, Johnson St., Stepney, Vicars Grove.YARWOOD, Yvonne, June 1930, 14/9/1939 - 11/1940, Evelyn Yarwood, Preston Green.WHEELER, Peter Frederick, June 1932, 14 /11/1939 - 11/1940, Charles Wheeler, Church Road.HODGES, Enid Frederica, August 1930, 18/9/1939 - 7/1941, Frederick Hodges, Mile End, London, Preston Grn.WORTHINGTON, Joan E, Dec 1932, 21/10/1940 - 7/41, Walter Worthington, Croydon, Preston Stores.BUTLER, Eunice, Sept 1935, 29/10/1940 - 11, 1940, Winifred Butler, London, 2 Hitchwood Cottages.WIGLEY, George Reginald, Oct 1932 5/11/1940 - 12/1941, Mrs Lambert, Battersea,Temple Dinsley Lodge.WIGLEY, Patricia Mary, Oct 1935, 5/11/1940 - 12/1941, Mrs Lambert, Battersea, Temple Dinsley Lodge.FRANCOIS, Eric James, June 1933, 11/11/1940 - 12/ 1940, Mrs Sismand, Edmonton, Codicote.LOWDON, David, Feb 1935,11/11/1940 - 7/1944, Ewart Lowden, Southgate, Rush Green Farm, Langley.OLNEY, Daphne, June 1935, 11/11/1940 - 3/1942, Oswald Olney, Muswell Hill, Rush Green Farm, Langley.KIRBY, Thomas CE, April 1931, 13/1/1841 - 8/1941, Thomas Kirby, West Ealing, 5 Council Cotts, Preston.CATTLE, Richard H, Jan 1936, 14/1/1941 - 2/1941, —-, London, 1 Council Cotts, LangleySENDALL, Gillian, June 1932, 27/1/1941 - 7/1941, Mrs Nash, Hornsey, Preston Green.CHERNOFSKY, Rhoda, May 1930. 26/5/1941 - 6/1941, Louis Chermofsky, Bow, Miss Peters, Chequers Lane.SUGARMAN, Helen, June 1930, 26/5/1941 - 8/1941, Maurice Sugarman, Bow, Mrs Dobbs, Holly Cottages.LEIGHTON, Alexander, April, 1934, 26/5/1941 - 8/1942, David Leighton, Stoke Newington, Langley.KIRBY, Yvonne, Nov 1932, 17/6/1941 - 8/1941, Mrs Longley, Ealing, Council Cottages, Chequers Lane.KIRBY, Robert, Feb 1934, 17/6/1941 - 8/1941, Mrs Longley, Ealing, Council Cottages, Chequers Lane.OWEN, Leonard, Aug 1931, 7/7/1941 - 7/1941, Mrs Eaton, Worcester Park, Langley.CHALLIS, Peter Allan, Dec 1936, 24/3/1942 - 6/1945, Arthur Wm Challis, Potters Bar, Rush Green Fm, Langley.MARDELL, Raymond, Feb 1934, 18/4/1942 - 7/1943, Leslie Mardell, Edmonton, Preston Hill Farm Cottage.MARDELL, Julia, April 1936, 18/4/1942 - 7/1943, Leslie Mardell, Edmonton, Preston Hill Farm Cottage.O’SULLIVAN, Patrick, Sept 1937, 14/4/1944 - 5/1944, George Gates, Hornsey, Temple Dinsley Lodge.SAWYER, Pauline, March 1837, 26/6/1944 - 5/1945, George Sawyer, Wandsworth, 1 Chequers Lane, Preston.HOLMES, John, February 1935, 10/7/1944 - 10/1944, Mr West, Bethnal Green, Offley.HOLMES, Gerald, March 1938, 10/7/1944 - 10/1944, Mr West, Bethnal Green, Offley.PLUMB, Kenneth G, Jan 1939, 17/7/1944 - 2/1945, Mrs Plumb, Barnsbury, 6 Council Cotts., Chequers Lane.CRAMP, Brenda K, Jan 1939, 28/8/1944 - 10/ 1944, Arthur C Cramp, Surbiton, Langley.LEONARD, Tessa, Sept 1936, 28/8/1944 - 9/1944, Mrs Gates, Kenton, Temple Dinsley Lodge.NORTON, Margaret, June 1938, 28/8/1944 - 9/1944, Mrs Gates, Kenton, Temple Dinsley Lodge.ALLBON, Jennifer, Ann, Aug 1939, 2/10/1944 - 1/1945, Croydon, Preston Green.It is worth noting how young many of these children were when they arrived in Preston - and the number who had no father. I have included these details knowing that many of these ‘evacuees’ may still be alive. Perhaps they or their children will discover where they were during this time.
Despite the war, crops still had to sown and harvested and many of the local labourers were in the trenches or otherwise engaged in the war effort. A motley work force was pressed into service.Many single young women, including my mother, were swept from the towns and cities of England to do men’s labouring work. In all, there were ninety thousand Land Girls. Mum was No. 37,296. She worked at Home Farm, now known as Ladygrove. One minute she was at St Barts in London, the next, ‘I found myself in winter-time wearing wellingtons, grading potatoes in the snow, with a tarpaulin over us in the middle of a field in Hertfordshire - our hands were awfully cold’.When the world was turned on its head, the Land Girls learnt the equality which was thrust upon them. Farmers tested them by assigning them routine, menial and back-breaking jobs such as muck-spreading, sowing potatoes, cutting thistles before the harvest and topping and tailing turnips. Working in the chill of winter and the summer’s heat, they battled against mud or dust all year round.The main challenge was keeping their femininity when dealing with with corns on their hands, muscular arms and weather-beaten faces. They were issued with a uniform (often the wrong size) which was alien to wear at first: breeches, shirt and tie, long woollen socks and heavy brogue shoes. In some ways the clothes were a blessing in those days of austerity and dwindling wardrobes.Many found the biggest hurdles were the stench of the farmyard and how to take a natural break when working in the fields during winter-time: searching for a sheltered spot far away from masculine eyes and then peeling off several layers of clothes
The Land Girls, prisoners of war at Preston and youth workers
Ann: ‘There were Land Girls from London and other bomb targets who came and worked on the farms, both in the fields and dairies. Some of them had never been to the country before, so were teased quite a bit but they were essential, as the men who were old enough, were called up to serve in the various forces to fight the enemy and help protect England.’Margaret: ‘My sister (Doris Harper) joined the Land Army and worked at Castle Farm’Rebecca: ‘And then of course we had the Prisoners of War, the Italians and the Germans to help us on the farm. The Italians were always so cheery and singing and quite happy and tried to talk to us if we went down the field. You know now-a-days they would look on that as highly dangerous. I remember once, my sister and I we just were a bit late and we said, ‘Oh, let’s take a day off’ and we actually played truant. We went down to the field and there was this gang of Italians, they were cutting hedges down and having a bonfire and burning it and they talked to us. Then they realised what we were doing and they raised their eyebrows and said, ‘Oh, you stay from school?’ you see and we went and got some potatoes and roasted them in their bonfire! ‘They were brought to us in lorries each day. Some of them were a bit resentful I’m afraid. I remember having a German one and well of course they would be resentful but some of them were perhaps thought they were a cut above doing menial farm work. I remember we set them hedge cutting, at least my father did, and they cut it nearly down to the ground in their sort of fury I suppose at being set to work. But we treated them well. My mother always used to send them out some extra pudding or cake or something when they were having their lunch and we’d give them apples, we had fruit around the farm. Compared with how our poor men … I remember seeing a picture in the daily paper of poor skeletons of our prisoners and Belsen and so on. Then a picture of the German prisoners and the Italians alongside looking so fat and well and well fed, well happy I suppose some of them because they were out of the danger.’Margaret: ‘My father, Frank Harper, used to have Italian and German POW's working in Wainwood cutting trees down for logs. ‘The Headmaster of PHCollege recalls that year by year, a party of boys from Watford Grammar School were employed to harvest crops on nearby farms. They wore holes in their trousers and socks which Miss Prain patched. (See below an illustrated account of the boys from Watford Grammar at Temple Dinsley. Link: Watford Grammar.)One of these boys was Richard Hughes. He writes: ‘I was a pupil at Watford Boys Grammar School until 1943 and to help the war effort, the School arranged to assist in the harvesting at local farms near Preston for 4 weeks during the summer holidays commencing in 1940/41.As our base, we stayed at Princess Helena College for either 2 weeks or 4 weeks depending on one’s choice - the first two weeks were for cutting and the second two weeks for threshing. Each boy was allocated a farm with other boys and I believe my farmer was caller Mr. McKinley (this may not be correct due to memory failure). One farmer's name was, I am certain, Francis Appleyard. During the time we stayed at the College, we slept in the dormitories and were well looked after by the staff. During our spare time, we played cricket against the local village team, and joined in local village dances. We formed a little band at the College and it was called the Dinsley Footwarmers. I remember one thing and that was seeing my first Flying Fortresses as they flew over the farm where I was working. I cannot remember whether it was 1942 or 1943 but I will never forget the sight of these fantastic aircraft (there were three to be exact).The girls of PHC helped out on the farms, uprooting charlock, thistles and other weeds competing with turnips or clover. Each summer term for a week, a lorry returned them to the fields to pick potatoes. All the way there and back they yelled a song about pink pyjamasRebecca: ‘School girls were given a week off in the autumn to help with potato picking. Instead of half term everybody went potato picking and lorries used to come and pick them up. I mean we helped our own father but lorries used to come into town and take you out to which ever farms wanted you. I don’t know how much use we were but I hope we were good. Because there were no farm workers you see. We used to get pocket money I think for doing it.‘We ploughed up all our dear old meadows (at Pond Farm) that we loved and suddenly everything went under the plough. And then tractors came into being because up until then we’d had had horses and then tractors came. And, yes every inch was ploughed up and you know we were really self sufficient then. Often ships bringing in food would get bombed and anyway they were all used for the war, transporting troops and so on, all the ships … so we never saw an orange or a banana or any of the citrus fruits that were imported, grapes, unless they were home grown. We farmed mainly sheep and cattle.‘My brother left school the minute he could and he took over the farm and I had a younger brother but he wasn’t, well he could help but he couldn’t drive a tractor because he was too little. We girls learnt as soon as we could manage, my brother taught us how to. I remember starting a tractor. Yes we used to help all through the harvest. Especially in the holidays and I used to be envious when I went back to school of hearing of what my friends had been up to because we were just helping all the time, working all through the end of July and August and into September. But it was just a way of life. I think we only had the one tractor at first. But it was when you were carting corn, you see in those days we didn’t have the combine harvester, that didn’t come until towards the end of the war. So we cut the corn with a binder, then they were sheaves and then we had to go round and set them up in what we called shooks or in some parts they called them stooks. Then you came round with a tractor and trailer, well we used to do it with a horse and cart then when we had a tractor, with a tractor and a trailer and stop at every stook so we girls were roped in for that. As soon as you were strong enough, there was a very hard clutch that you had to hold down to stop and as soon as you had strength to sit on the seat and reach to hold this clutch down we were roped in to drive the tractor. ‘We quite enjoyed it in the end. And then sometimes it was quite a long way back to the rick yard and then perhaps one of the men would come and take over then or let us drive and they would sit with us and see that we got safely through the gates and things. But as soon as we were big enough, when I think of ‘little old girls’ of fourteen because some of us weren’t very big necessarily or strong! But we were always roped in for anything that was possible, whether moving the cattle from one field to another or from one farm to another, we all used to go out and help.’
Ann: ‘Coupons were issued for each household for essential food like butter, sugar etc., and clothing coupons for essentials.‘Rationing hit every one. Some food stuffs were hard to come by and garden allotments sprang up all over the place, so that we could grow vegetables. There were quite a few up Back Lane where the School is now. Each family were allotted so many feet - the harvest was shared by all.’Rebecca: ‘Our rations were sufficient and we used to eat lots of vegetables. Sweets were rationed. First of all they were just none existent and then it came in so we had one choc bar a week, you imagine! One little two ounce bar a week. I think most people could afford their bar of chocolate. We used to eat raw carrots and lots of apples and pears because being on the farm we were more fortunate than most because we did have all that free fruit. Lots of people in the country, I think most people had some sort of fruit tree.‘Farmers I had to admit came off better than most people because also we had our own eggs and rabbits to help out the rations. My brothers went shooting. They would shoot rabbits and pheasants if one happened to come across. So the rations were helped out. It was easier to make a bigger joint go round a lot of people rather than trying to eek out because we had two ounces I think of butter each, a week! Yes, we had these coupons, coupons for clothes. ‘There was a good little village shop. But we used to go into town for our main grocery shop. Well, he used to come out one day on the Monday, I can see him now, and he used to sit at the kitchen table and take the order and it would all be delivered by van on the Tuesday. Then if there was something extra in the week, or even after school because we went into town by then, we would go down and collect anything mother wanted. And the baker called, that was the local baker. We knew everybody and the local butcher and they would call. I don’t know how they managed because the bread was rationed. It was easier certainly with a big family and there was always yesterdays bread that they could bring which we could use up for toast or whatever. I never remember going hungry. It got a bit boring, especially as the years went on and when it came to Christmas, how mother - well we just couldn’t make a Christmas pudding towards the end or a cake, there just wasn’t the dried fruit. ‘At Christmas….one of my big sisters had made two of us nursing outfits, had managed to get white fabric and made aprons and caps and got some bandages and things. And there was a wood work teacher lived in the village and he made dolls house furniture for one of my little sisters and there was also a couple, they were book publishers, and they would bring books for our stockings. Everybody helped, it was so kind and they used to make things and we all helped each other. We made so many things. Fancy hair bands for our school friends. I remember making a very frilly apron for somebody, yes and tea cosies. Then I suddenly had a thing for making toys and I’d make a stuffed rabbit or a teddy bear or something but you had to raid mother’s cupboard and see what there was that you could cut up and make use of. Yes, we were great improvisers you see and it taught us to ‘Make Do and Mend’. There were posters everywhere, ‘Make Do and Mend’ and ‘Careless Talk Costs Lives’, what were all the other posters...?’Margaret: ‘There used to be sales held in the Village Hall to raise funds for the war effort. Derek Seebohm donated lots of things to sell. My father, Frank Harper, bought a set of wooden candle sticks, which I still have. The villagers also used to collect clothing and house hold goods to help families in London who had lost everything in the bombing. Phylis Waller used to knit socks and jumpers for the marines and the wool used to make her fingers sore and bleed, as it had a special coating on it to help it to be more waterproof.’
Of food and rationing
At St Pauls Walden Bury, the house was used to accommodate convalescing soldiers. Girls from PHC gave concerts there to entertain them.Rebecca: ‘We used to collect rosehips and take them to school and we were paid a penny a pint I think it was. They used to make syrup out of them, Rosehip Syrup. That provided vitamin C to nursing mothers. Oh yes, expectant mothers. Somehow, I don’t know if shiploads of oranges did get through, but they were allowed the oranges you see anything with the extra vitamin C in, they were allowed. I think all babies were born in the Maternity Home then, I think they were. I don’t know though, I take that back, I can’t remember. But on the whole I seem to remember seeing the home between Preston and Hitchin where these young mothers were.’
Local buildings pressed into service
Preston men who fell in World War Two
Ann: ‘My other brother Derek (Middleditch) went to Malaysia, jungle fighting. A number of young lads of Preston served overseas both in Europe and Far Eastern areas.’In St Martin’s Church, Preston there is a small memorial that records the local men who died fighting in the last war. They were Jack Freeman, the son of Betsey Freeman of Sootfield Green who was born on 19 January 1920, and the promising cricketer (and my first cousin once removed) William ‘Willie’ ‘Dillor’ Jenkins, born 20 January 1913 and the son of Herbert and Phyllis (nee Currell) Jenkins of Castle Farm.
The story of the Mardell family - evacuees at Preston
Leslie and Frances Mardell were born and married at Edmonton in North London. They had three children there and their last home in the district was at 16 Hertford Road, N9. They had moved from London by the late Spring of 1941 as their daughter, Peggy was born then in the Hitchin Registration District. In 1942, their eldest children were attending St Stephens School in St Albans, Herts. Then, in 1943, there is a note that the children were staying at Knebworth.By April 1942, the family had made their home at Preston Hill Farm Cottage - Leslie was possibly working as a farm labourer. They were still there on 14 September 1945 when Peggy began attending Preston School. (This raises an interesting personal question: my parents were married in March 1945 and I have believed that they began their married life at this cottage. Clearly this is not the case, so where were they living - with Dad’s mother at Chequers Lane?)By September 1948, the Mardells had moved to the newly-built 1 Council Cottages, Chequers Lane Preston. A further three children were born there, including the twins, Elizabeth and Philip in 1953.
A group of Land Army ‘girls. My mother is standing far left.
Their son, Raymond (21) (shown right, when aged 13) was killed in a cycle accident at the bottom of Preston Hill in the Spring of 1955. Leslie Mardell died in 1965 and a year or so later, his widow, Frances, remarried and evidently moved away from the village - she is no longer noted in the Preston electoral registers and was living in the Stevenage registration district when she died. However, Frances kept an affection for the village as she was buried at St Martin’s, Preston on 16 May 1980 (her gravestone is erroneously inscribed ‘nee Mardell’). Her children, Peggy and Anthony Mardell, are also buried at St Martin’s.Frances and her daughters. Elizabeth (Liz,11) and Leslie (8) are shown in this photo below from 1960.
Watford Grammar Boys at Temple Dinsley during World War Two
Ann Petty, librarian at Watford Grammar School for Boys and James Bentall, bursar at Princess Helena College, have kindly provided more information and photographs of the work the Watford boys undertook at Preston during World War Two.
The following are extracts from ‘The Fullerton’, the magazine of Watford Boys Grammar School: 1941 “Right 'o !" With a clank, the tractor jerks forward with its half-loaded trailer. " Oy, hold on there! " comes the shout from above, " not so fast "; and the two stackers on top, being novices from Watford Grammar School are seen to stagger and disappear amid their fortress of sheaves heaped high on the trailer. The driver of the tractor ignores the request and before the stackers are able to recover from the jolting and the rocking of their bumpy ride, " Look out ! " shout those who approach with thorny sheaves balanced on hostile pitchforks and a torrent of whirling sheaves is rained upon the unfortunate stackers up above who vainly try to grapple with those prickly missiles ; and when the attack has slackened off they hurriedly disentangle the sheaves with which they build up a kind of wall around them for protection during the next assault.Such a scene brings back many memories to those who toiled on the land during the summer holidays. On August 6th, the largest party from school, about 25 in number, invaded Princess Helena College - a boarding school for girls situated some miles south of Hitchin, and were in occupation for three weeks. The College was formerly a fine old manor house with wide staircases and spacious panelled rooms and is still known by the imposing name of "Temple Dinsley" On arrival, one cannot help being impressed by the solid gateway, the long drive, the ample parkland and lofty woods and the college itself half hidden by the sheltering trees.The peace and repose of the landscape almost induced one to while away the time in idleness and enjoy oneself, as if really on holiday. But there was work to be done. Soon after our arrival, groups of two to four boys were allotted to various farms in the district and the following morning we were off to meet our farmers and begin work. As we were sent to different farms, the jobs given us varied. The two main operations, however, which we were required to do, were "shocking" i.e. setting up the sheaves in rows to look like lines of tents, which enables the wind to dry the stalks and weeds, and, secondly, "carting" which entails clearing the field when the sheaves are dry and stacking the sheaves in ricks, the purpose of which is to keep the corn dry until it can be threshed (carting being a much quicker operation than threshing). Other farm work done included (besides shocking) de-shocking, re-shocking and shock mending, turning sheaves over, chasing pigs, cleaning up outhouses and stables and gathering beanstalks left by the reaper and tying them up in bundles; and lastly - as I myself shall never forget - the great game of "cowherding" To make it interesting the cows are driven into a field with gaps in the surrounding hedges, and the fact that the cow is a most obstinate animal when left alone though an equally timid one when confronted with a knobbly stick, calls forth the highest skill - and patience - on the part of the cowherds. Two boys can play at a time and they each decide which sides of the field they will watch. The only rule is that cows may only be sworn at and shooed back on to the board if they stray, and must therefore he allowed free movement even up to and into the hedges, where they naturally prefer to graze more than anywhere else on account of the fresher and more luscious grass which they gobble and munch interminably. The winner is the one through whose hedges the lesser number of cows chooses to stray. Cowherding certainly affords a very interesting study of cows and their stupid ways both individually and collectively. On the whole, however, the work was of the utmost benefit to all; sometimes monotonous and often strenuous and tiring - for when harvesting was well under weigh 8 o'clock or after was no unusual hour for boys to return -the work was done consistently well; for we soon became accustomed and hardened to it, and when the day's toil was over, with what satisfaction we used to cycle home to the college and to the sumptuous meal awaiting us.Harvesting, however, was only one aspect of our life at Temple Dinsley. We led, as it were, a two-fold existence: during the daytime we were coarse, unbred, rough and ready farm-hands but in the evenings and weekends, we might have imagined ourselves cultured young gentlemen of society. Mr. Openshaw set a unique example in this respect, having all his time to himself. Besides visiting the various farms and taking delight in watching us do the harvesting, encouraging us occasionally with an odd sweet or two - for he was confectioner to the party - he exerted his powers as an organizer to the full and in order to encourage the growth of friendship between ourselves and the girls, began by arranging a table-tennis tournament. Thus it started. How happy were the evenings spent together, the music, the games and the dancing, the jollity, the laughter and the fun of gay younghearts! In addition to indoor activities, several matches were played in true village-cricket style on the college's crazy square. The first was against a side of harvesters from Aldenham school, whilst one was played against an Army X1 and another against a local village side. We managed to win two out of the three though none were without their exciting and tense moments. Full advantage was taken of the hard tennis-courts and two W.G.S. pairs handsomely beat the girls.Perhaps the most memorable feature of our stay at Princess Helena College however, was the party held on the night before our departure. How enthusiastically everyone joined in the games ! How ,intently we listened to the talented individual items, and to the extremely amusing sketches acted at only a few hours' notice by several of our number! It was a party which few will forget.For that enjoyable time our appreciation and gratitude must be expressed to all who helped to make it successful; and especially would we give our thanks to the cook who always provided varied yet substantial meals more than sufficient for our ravenous appetites and to Miss Prain, the principal of the college, upon whom the main responsibility, first for admitting us and secondly for caring for us, necessarily lay. The venture will not only remind us of our labours in the harvest field but also of the hospitality and friendship offered us by all at Princess Helena College.1942 Let us imagine that by the use of Mr. Wells' time machine we could have visited the village of Preston some three years ago. What a sight we should have seen! The villagers, agog with excitement, farmers pessimistically expectant; and the cause of this strange state of affairs - a handful of boys from Watford, brought there as an act of faith to help bring in the harvest.What a difference now! In 1940, some twenty hardy pioneers were blazing a trail. The life was new and exciting; nobody knew what to expect. By 1942 harvesting had become a regular part of our school programme, and there were hardened veterans to guide the inexperienced" green 'uns’. Now, the villagers were accustomed to the sight of suntanned youths cycling to work, and the proprietor of the village shop (evidently of an enterprising turn of mind) had laid in an extra stock of mineral water against our arrival.The harvesting itself went as usual with a swing. For the boys realized that they were not on a country holiday arranged for their amusement, but were engaged in a task of the highest national importance. Accordingly they set to work with a will, to the delight and possible amazement of the farmers, who pronounced the boys excellent workmen for all their comparative inexperience. There were only a few days of rain, and on these many boys found casual labour round the School grounds, so contriving keep the financial wolf from the door as many' had difficulty in doing last year.Beside the actual farm work, there was plenty of entertainment provided for us. Two cricket matches were played - one with the village team, captained by Appleyard, the famous County player, which we lost ; the other,. which we won, against, Colonel Rayner's XI. On another, occasion we were invited by Colonel Rayner to a gymkhana, which we all thoroughly enjoyed. At table-tennis we won a narrow victory against the girls of the college.Once more, ‘The Dinsley Footwarmers’ were revived and succeeded in making as big a noise as ever. Miss Prain at the final concert, sang a pathetic little song which must have gone straight to everyone's heart and conscience. Once more the success of the whole expedition was to a large extent to be attributed to the kindness and efficient energy of Miss Prain, the Principal of Princess Helena College, and her colleagues who earned our profound gratitude for looking after us and seeing to all our needs so magnificently. For ourselves we hope we may have done something to help the farmers get in the biggest harvest of the war.1943 Though every year brings newcomers to the Temple Dinsley harvest camp, the spirit of that company of adventurers in the now far-off days of 1940 still prevails. Then, there were no reminiscences of former years, no ‘old-hands' to show the ropes and no guarantee of a good, if strenuous, holiday. In 1943, however, everyone knew that, though there was important work to be done, they were assured of an enjoyable fortnight or month at the Princess Helena College.By good fortune the work this year was scarcely interrupted by bad weather, and in most cases farmers were well ahead with the harvest. Much of the cutting had been done when we arrived, so carting was the main task, although the term “carting" is ambiguous when one considers the work involved in pitching and loading - a strenuous job on a hot day. Before we left, threshing had begun and many were able to help in this operation. A number of boys, as in previous years, readily availed themselves of the opportunity of logging in the College grounds and there was plenty of work for all.Recreation was well to the fore and included swimming and tennis and a form of rugger was tried with same success, in spite of the heat. Some good games were seen on the hard courts and table tennis was as popular as ever, as was proved by the success of the tournaments. Local dances at Preston and the neighbouring villages provided entertainment on several evenings, and here mention must be made of the ‘Dinsley Footwarmers’ that never-to-be-forgotten band, playing yet once more in its native village. The two concerts went with a swing considering there was very little time available for rehearsing. Once again we were indebted to Miss Prain, Mrs. Holbrook and all the staff of the College for the excellent way they catered for us, and for their whole-hearted co-operation which helped considerably to make it an enjoyable time for everyone. Although, of course, we all hope that the need for intensive food production will soon be less urgent, all who can will want another period at Temple Dinsley in 1944.1945 The last wartime harvest camp was held last summer at Temple Dinsley. In fact, VJ Day occurred while the camp was in full swing, and, needless to say, there was much joyful hilarity on that account. The disciplinary authorities showed admirable restraint in not complaining about the rather noisy night we spent!The weather was not quite as good this year as last and rain once or twice made it impossible to continue outdoor work, but the spirit of the Watford harvesters was in no way damped thereby. Once again Miss Prain and her helpers provided bounteously for the inner man, and our warmest thanks are due to them for their hospitality. As usual the College woodpile was substantially increased as a result of our stay. Several impromptu concerts were given on Sunday evenings by both residents and boys. The swimming pool was again in almost constant use. The stay ended with what was an extremely good concert, in spite of the many doubts expressed as to the adequacy of the cast.The following are extracts from the magazine of Princess Helena College: 1942 For the third year in succession Temple Dinsley offered a home for four weeks to the boys who were helping the local farmers with their harvest. Again they came from Watford Grammar School and it was pleasant to welcome old friends as well as to make new ones, to hear news of those who were with us in past years and the plans of those who were helping in this way for the last time.The routine was much as before - they slept in the West wing, fed in the dining room and played in Big Hall. The weather was not kind at first, but many of the boys gathered logs when it was too wet to farm and so helped to build up our fuel supplies for the winter.One new feature this year was three very pleasant musical evenings, when those of the house party and the harvesters who were keen on music met informally to perform to each other. We much appreciated Mrs Seebohm’s goodness in coming round one Sunday evening to play to us.There were also three stimulating discussions under the leadership of Colonel Rayner and Colonel Holbrook about current events and politics and world tendencies. And this year we had two concerts, one when Mr and Mrs Sankey left and one at the very end as usual.We were delighted that Mr Bolton, Headmaster of Watford Grammar School, was able to visit us while his boys were here. The camp this year was specially enjoyable, perhaps because we knew each other better, there was a very pleasant feeling of fellowship among those concerned and we parted with the conviction that this was one side of the war for which there need be no regrets.1943 Again as harvest approached, we were asked by the Herts Agricultural Committee to help by housing and looking after a big party of schoolboys from Watford Grammar School. The usual faithful body of helpers gathered at Temple Dinsley and by August 7, we were off again. Many of the boys and masters who came with them were old friends by now and we enjoyed meeting them again.This year the weather was remarkably dry and work went on for nine and ten hours a day without interruption; the sound of the table tennis ball was rarely heard in the land, cricket and tennis matches couldn’t be organised and the concerts had to be even more impromptu affairs than usual. But we had some enjoyable music, the swimming pool was well used and food consumed as liberally as usual. Mrs Holbrook, helped by Monica and Anne, had her hands full to cope with the enormous appetites with which the boys returned after eleven and twelve hours in the open air. The harvest was record of hard work on everyone’s part - in the fields and farmyards, at the stoves and sinks and in the dormitories in the house - not to mention the patching of over fifty pairs of trousers which couldn’t stand up to the strain!
Air raid damage in Hitchin urban district (1940 -1945)
2 October 1940One high explosive bomb fell at Preston. No damage and no casualties.2 November 1940Four high explosive bombs fell between Preston and Kings Walden. No damage and no casualties.15 November 1940One high explosive bomb and 100 incendiary bombs fell at Preston. One house slightly damaged. No casualties.17 February 1941Four high explosive bombs fell in Stagenhoe Park. No casualties.5 September 1944One flying bomb fell in a field 200 yards north-east of Stagenhoe. Damage to five houses, one maternity hospital, and some outbuildings. No casualties.
This brief account has but skimmed the surface of how the folk of Preston coped with World War Two. There are many who might like to add their memories and photographs to this page. I would be grateful if you would please contact me using the form at this link: Contact me(Acknowledgements: The memories of Rebecca Brown, as gathered by the BBC in its ‘WW2 Peoples War’ archive; ‘Four of their Aircraft Were Missing’ by Anthony M. Foster - extracted from ‘Hertfordshire Countryside’, 1 February 1979, pages 16 - 17; David Steadman’s article in ‘Breachwood Times ‘1 August 1993, pages 4 - 5; the memories of Richard Hughes; Preston School logbook and register; ‘Daisy in the Broom’ by Donald Clarke; the memories of Frank Thomas, Margaret Waller and Ann Fenton)