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A History of Preston in Hertfordshire
Analysis of the 1921 census
Between 1911 and 1921, there was a significant change to Preston’s landscape of buildings. Because much of it was orchestrated by Edwin Lutyens, there is a pleasing and unifying architectural theme which, beginning with the alterations to Temple Dinsley, runs through the breadth of the village and even spills over to Hitchwood and Hill End. The village housing stock was increased by seven or eight buildings when compared with 1911. Almost a score of dilapidated, tumbledown cottages had been demolished and replaced by the Fenwicks at Temple Dinsley and Major Harrison of Kings Walden Bury. This reflected a social conscience not displayed tangibly in bricks and mortar by previous owners of Temple Dinsley.
Houses demolished
Replacement houses
New houses
Crunnells Green Cottage Kiln Wood Cottage School Lane - 4 Castle Farm Lodge (after a fire in 1912) Chequers Lane N/E side - 6 Back Lane - 5 or 6
3 Crunnells Green Kiln Wood Cottage School Lane bungalows - 3 Castle Farm Lodge
Hill End 1 & 2 Hitchwood Cottages - 2 Chequers Cottages, Chequers Lane - 6 Crunnells Green House Holly Cottages - 8 Homes at Home/Minsden Farm - 2
(Notes: * (1) One of the School Lane Bungalows was Preston’s Women’s Institute. (2) Holly Cottages were not built on the site of the demolished cottages at Back Lane. (3) The process of knocking down homes on the N/E side of Chequers Lane and building council houses had only begun in 1921. The new houses were not completed by then and a few old cottages still stood. (4) The thirteen homes known to have been designed by Lutyens are shown by a blue font.)
Total 18/19
Total 6
Total 20
Unlike earlier censuses, the 1921 count revealed that the core names at Preston featured only two family names that had more than ten examples: Jenkins (18) and Peters (13). This is an indication that old, established Preston families had been disappearing during the previous twenty years or so. For the first time employers were noted on the census. Unsurprisingly, thirty-three villagers worked for Douglas Vickers at Temple Dinsley and his farms, eight for Major Harrison at Kings Walden Bury, eight also for Hugh Seebohm at Poynders End and five for Mr Priestley at the newly-built Tatmore Place. There were thirty-nine farm labourers and ten gardeners in the village. Several occupations reflected the fact that the modern age was impacting on Preston’s twentieth century development, particularly changes in modes of transport. The village now had a lorry driver, a lorry driver’s mate, a coal carman and a garage labourer. Thirteen villagers travelled between three and seven miles to work at Hitchin, Stevenage, Letchworth and Luton. How did they commute? There was probably no bus service from Preston (the earliest I’ve seen in operation was during WW2) - and using buses would have involved impractical changes for many. Cars were probably not available to most of the working class. Some may have walked. Others perhaps travelled to work by bicycle. My aunt, Maggie Wray, cycled from Preston to her work at Letchworth and my father and a friend cycled to greyhound races at Purwell near Hitchin in 1932. However, one resourceful woman used a motor-bicycle to travel to Preston School from Chiltern Green, near Kimpton, in the 1920s. Another aunt, Flossie Sugden, used a Quickly motor-bicycle to get to work from Preston to Stevenage in the 1950s.
Preston and poultry farming
The war effort of 1914 - 1918 concentrated minds on how to feed the nation and at the end of the war other minds focused on how men returning from military service might earn a living - whether they were Privates or Majors. Many men who had been involved with agriculture before 1914 had been lost and land could be readily purchased at low prices - ‘between 1918 and 1922, a quarter of the land in Britain changed hands’. Suitable properties were bought with optimism; but often soon sold with disillusion. Poultry farming was an attractive solution to several problems - but it was not without its own peculiar issues often caused by putting all one’s eggs in a single basket. The 1921 census revealed that at Preston alone there were four poultry farms. Imagine then, how many there now were throughout the realm! A House of Commons briefing report estimated that there were around 30.75 million heads of poultry in the UK in 1925 - a figure that rocketed to more than sixty-one million in 1934, and this was before intensive farming methods were introduced. Some of the countryside’s landscape was altered as hen houses were dotted around fields.
The writing was on the wall in April 1906 when the Hertfordshire Advertiser printed an article which had this prelude:
The article that followed featured a poultry farm occupying thirty-two acres at Kings Langley, Herts which produced 207,106 eggs (sold for £1,039), 780 stock birds and 4,000 pure bred birds (to be sold) in one year. It highlighted that it wasn’t just the production of eggs that was involved but the breeding of hens for future egg production. It was the combination of work (it was not for idlers) and brains that was the difference between success and failure for poultry farmers. The ‘brains’ were needed in the breeding decisions, the buying of the best feed and opening access to the best markets. One expert believed that it would take an apprenticeship of two years before someone could venture successfully into poultry farming - there was more to it than met the eye.
This was poultry farming on an industrial scale, but the basic principles were the same for the smaller egg producer, even if they bought their stock of hens. These were regularly advertised in newspapers such as the following example from my uncle, Arthur Wray, at Gosmore:
Hitchin had its dedicated poultry market which was in operation in November 1912 and there were weekly reports of trends and prices in various newspapers such as these from January 1915 and 1929:
Poultry farming was well and truly in the public eye in the 1920’s. The Herts and Essex Observer ran a weekly page-length column by Gallus (Latin; rooster, cock, male chicken) which informed readers about a variety of subjects - how to build light, airy, dry hen houses; warnings about avian diphtheria epidemics, the Government’s Chicken Distributor Scheme; avoiding early
laying birds and overfeeding; the importance of grit; dealing with seasonal fluctuations in egg prices; small flocks meant more eggs and leg marking with colour rings to identify the best birds for stock. Clearly, poultry farming was a complex subject. One article suggested that a good set-up would be twenty-five houses for twenty birds in a ground space of 100 square feet occupying an eighth of an acre and space for ten breeding pens. To illustrate how mismanagement of a poultry business might occur, there was a salutary case at Willian, Herts in 1916, when corporation managers of a poultry farm were accused of cruelty to birds. The corporation had been formed two years earlier and included prominent agriculturists and Members of Parliament. The initial stock was sixteen hundred head of fowl. After a successful start-up, ‘diseases (such as consumption and roup) crept in and many birds had been lost’. Visits by a RSPCA inspector in December 1916 found large numbers of weak birds (estimated at 1,300), piles of dead fowl which were ‘skin and bones’ and birds which should have weighed five or six pounds, being little more than two. They had been starved of food because of lack of funds. This extreme example outlines some of the potential pitfalls of poultry farming - disease, lack of capital and poor administration.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, there were signs that after being the Cinderella of the farming community, there could be opportunities for entrepreneurs to develop poultry farms
The oldest inhabitant was eighty-seven-year-old William Scott, who was living at Church Road. The youngest residents were Barbara Kathleen Cook (whose parents, William and Jessie, were living at The Bothy in the grounds of Temple Dinsley) and Joan Irene Boston (daughter of Ezra and Daisy Boston who were living near Hitchwood) both of whom were both born three months before the census was taken. When examining to where families at Preston moved between 1911 and 1921, those who were working at Temple Dinsley or who were in transient work (such as policemen) have not been included. The following describes where established Preston family heads relocated: Jessie Smith (six people) moved to Hitchin; Josiah Prutton (four), to Kings Walden; Wallace Cannon, to Chertsey, Surrey and two moved back to their homes: the Andersons (seven, from the Red Lion) to Canterbury, Kent and William Thrussell (seven) to St Albans. Of the 255 residents, 120 had been born at Preston (47%). A further thirty-one were born in local villages: Kings Walden (21), Langley (6), Offley and Whitwell. A total of 171 of Preston’s people were born in Hertfordshire (67%). Twelve had been born in the neighbouring county of Bedfordshire. Seventy-two Prestoners were born outside Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire (29%), including nineteen Londoners.
After making some adjustments so that the same area is compared (ie extracting those living at Poynders End in both 1911 and 1921 censuses and boarders living in the village in 1911 who were working at Temple Dinsley for a short time), Preston had 255 inhabitants - twenty-six less than in 1911. (There were approximately thirty folk living in the Poynders End area, making around 285 living in Preston and its environs.) There were 136 males and 119 females. The village had sixteen widows or widowers, six of whom lived in the cottages on the north side of Church Road.
The folk who moved into the village with their families during the decade were mainly specialists in their trades, such as three game keepers (John Armour, Charles Biles and Frederick Woodrow); Temple Dinsley managers (Reginald Dawson and William Miles); the new licensee of the Red Lion (James Hedley); the latest farmer at Castle Farm (Hamilton MacFarlane) and the Corbett brothers who had a poultry farm at Crunnells Green - although the last three made only a brief appearance in Preston history.
When the 1921 census was released, many family historians must have been intrigued by and grateful for the information it revealed. For example, I knew that my grandfather, Alfred Wray, had a leg amputated, but didn’t know when. The census described him as having ‘total disablement’ - the amputation therefore likely pre-dated June 1921. I also discovered that my father had worked for Joseph Priestley at Tatmore Place, of which I had been unaware. Despite this decade to 1921 being a time of world war, there was a noteworthy upgrading to Preston’s housing stock during these ten years. Also, a new type of farming had been introduced to the village.
At Preston there were four enterprises (one hesitates to call three of them farms) where hens were kept to provide income. At 6 Chequers Cottages, forty-year-old Gertrude Armstrong described herself to the census enumerator as a ‘poultry farmer’. The land from the cottage’s barn to the far end measures approximately 38 x 11 meters (around 450 sq mtrs), although how much of that which was used to keep hens is unknown. My aunts, who lived next door, had a large hen house which still left a lot of garden to grow vegetables.
Sixty-four year-old William Sharp, who was helped by his daughter, Ida May (29), kept hens at The Wilderness, Butchers Lane. The map from 1898 (shown below, left) indicates the land associated with the house (3784) - the frontage to the road is almost thirty metres. Although again, the area given over to hens is not known, there was sufficient scope for egg production.
At Fig Tree Cottage, Preston Green there was a substantial amount of land (3767) associated with the house as shown by the map from 1898 (shown above, right). Here, sixty-six-year-old widow, Ellen Cannon, was attempting to make ends meet as a poultry farmer following her husband’s death in 1917, likely using several bales of chicken wire!
But by far the most ambitious undertaking of poultry farming at Preston was that at Crunnells Green Cottage in the hands of Ernest Oliver Corbett (born 1886) and Major Robert Wilfred Corbett (born 3 May 1877) from Warrington, Lancashire. The brothers were the sons of Thomas (variously described as foreman or manager of Orford Tannery and a Parish councillor) and Emma Corbett. Ernest’s life is described in detail at this link: Ernest Oliver. Robert had enlisted in the Army before The Great War as he was initiated into the Freemasons at Bombay, India in 1909 when he was serving as a Sergeant Major. He married Florence Burthem in the summer of 1911 and was mentioned in dispatches in January 1916 (see below).
During the war, Robert (Service No. 9788) served in the Royal Field Artillery as a Second Lieutenant, then Lieutenant (1918) and was demobbed with the rank of Major. Of the brothers, it was Ernest (a trained and qualified teacher) who first lived at Preston. On 7 July 1913, his wife, Margaret Corbett, began her first term of office as Head Mistress of Preston School. Ernest probably didn’t serve during WW1 because he was suffering with TB. In the spring of 1919, possibly to benefit from the country air, Ernest and Margaret were living at Crunnells Green, Preston (in one of two newly-built semi-detached cottages [Nos. 3842 and 3843] on the south-eastern side, see below) with Ernest and Ethel Payne as their immediate neighbours. The Paynes stayed there until around the middle of 1920.
Robert and his family probably joined Ernest and Margaret at Preston in around the middle of April 1920 as their son, John Wilfred Corbett, began to attend Preston School then. Robert’s family were then living at Church Road, which was likely a temporary arrangement because when his second son, Robert Denys Corbett, first went to the school in February 1921, his family of five was squeezed into one of the newly-built bungalows along School Lane (see later comments).
In the meantime, now that the Paynes had left their home at Crunnells Green during 1920, Ernest placed an advertisement for ‘Preston Poultry Farm’ in a local newspaper in October 1920 (see right). As he was offering cocks and hens from 1919 and 1920, it is reasonable to deduce that the farm had been established by the end of 1919. Indeed, Ernest had left his job with St Ippollitts Parish Council by August 1919. Taking some rough measurements from Google maps, the land at the rear of Crunnells Green Cottage may have been as much as 1,200 square metres - more than a quarter of an acre (see photograph above).
So it seems likely that Ernest set up the poultry farm and was soon joined by Robert who was seeking employment after leaving the Army. It may be inferred that Robert had taken over the managing of the farm as, when the census was taken, Robert stated that he (and not Ernest) was an employer (see below). In the census the sixteen-year-old son of Herbie and Phyllis Jenkins, Frank Jenkins (my first cousin once removed), was recorded as working there.
For whatever reason, Robert didn’t farm poultry for long. The school log book shows his family as moving back to Warrington around the end of March 1922. His dalliance with farming poultry lasted less than two years.
Ernest evidently soldiered on, possibly even well into 1924 as he was shown to be occupying Crunnells Green Cottage in the autumn electoral register of that year. Meanwhile, his wife, Margaret, had started her new job as head mistress of Gravenhurst Beds. School in April 1923. Without knowing precisely why the project failed so quickly, one might only speculate about the reasons for this. Lack of specialist knowledge and training in poultry farming; not understanding the hard work involved for small profit (especially as Margaret had a full time job and Ernest had TB); lack of governmental protection of agriculture, resulting in price rises of feed etc. With hindsight, perhaps it was an unwise move for someone with phthisis pulmonalis such as Ernest to immerse himself in a life of hen-keeping and its resulting respiratory problems. There would have been bacteria, fungi, spores, toxins and allergens in in the farm’s organic and inorganic dust, odorous compounds from their droppings, feed, skin and feathers. As a result, respiratory disease is an affliction commonly found in poultry farmers. Ernest was dead within four years of quitting the farm. As to why Robert didn’t stay at Preston, perhaps a further contributory factor may have been that his family of five was shoe-horned into the small bungalow at School Lane (shown on the right, below):
This row of four bungalows was built by Douglas Vickers, the owner of Temple Dinsley and armaments manufacturer, in 1920. The property on the left (which is now Preston’s Village Hall) was the meeting headquarters of the local Women’s Institute. Its neighbouring home was originally known as School Bungalow and today as Old School Bungalow - Miss Deed, Margaret’s successor as Preston school mistress, was living there in 1928. The front door and entrance area of the bungalow divide the sitting room (on the right) from the single bedroom. Behind the latter is the toilet. A small kitchen is at the rear, and a bathroom abuts the back of the property. Excluding the bathroom, the bungalow measures approximately 9.1m wide by 7.3m (ca 30 x 24 feet). Living there with three young children would have been a challenge. As mentioned earlier, the electoral registers show Robert and Florence Corbett residing at School Bungalow between the springs of 1921 and 1922 which is confirmed by the note in the school log book (see earlier). A sick Ernest (whose wife was also not well enough to work in 1922) was evidently left holding the reins of the poultry farm and which he soon relinquished. But maybe it took Ernest some time to run down the poultry business as there is an indication that he continued to live at Preston well into 1924. Thus, he farmed in the village for just four or five years.
Born at Preston
Born in local villages
0 - 10
11 - 20
21 - 30
31 - 40
41 - 50
51 - 60
61 - 70
Born in Bedfordshire
Born in London
Born in rest of Hertfordshire
Born outside Hertfordshire