A History of Preston in Hertfordshire
The cottages of Preston - an overview to 1920
An Act of Parliament in 1589 meant that cottages in England could only be built if they had four acres of land assigned to them. This Act was repealed in 1775. There were two other factors that impacted on the housing situation at Preston: (1) Local farm labourers and tradespeople together with their families had to live somewhere. (2) Weekly wages of labourers were low (around 10/- a week in the early 1800s), which affected how much rent could be charged. This made buying or building new cottages an unattractive project for speculative landowners and businessmen - buying land and building a cottage for a return of about £5 pa in 1894 made the construction of new homes a poor investment. As a result, local house building did not keep pace with demand. In 1800, all of Preston’s cottages were owned by tradesmen (such as the Joyners and the Pedders), labourers (many of whom inherited their properties) and a few landowners (including Thomas Dashwood). Surprisingly, none of the homes were owned by the Dartons of Temple Dinsley. To maximise their income several owners divided their property into two or more homes, thus increasing the rent they received, while reducing their tenant’s gardens where produce might be grown. The evolution of one cottage and garden at Back Lane provides an example of this process of maximising rental income. It was ‘formerly one cottage’ which at ‘sometime past was divided into two dwellings’. Two more cottages were built in the garden of the original cottage. Four households were thence living in what had been one cottage and garden. In 1816, a Hitchin grocer bought the plot of four dwellings. He sold them to Elizabeth Darton of Temple Dinsley on 31 March 1830 for £130. Following Thomas H Darton’s death in 1858, his son William Henry Darton acquired this holding. When William sold Temple Dinsley, he sold the four cottages as a separate lot to the illiterate Preston labourer, Henry Jeeves, on 25 March 1874 for £125. In turn, Jeeves sold the four tumbledown homes to Ralston de Vins Pryor for just £97 10/- on 27 June 1899. When the Inland Revenue Survey was conducted in 1910, all four dwellings were assessed as being in a poor condition. They had been demolished by 1916. The Darton family (Joseph jnr, his wife Elizabeth and their son, Thomas Harwood Darton) pursued a deliberate policy of buying local cottages as they became available: Back Lane (10 cottages); north side of Church Lane (9), Crunnells Green/School Lane (6) Hitchin Road (2) and Preston Green (2). The result was that from owning no cottages in 1810, when the Dartons sold the Temple Dinsley estate in 1873 they were landlords of ‘nearly the entire village...about forty cottages’. Even with hindsight, it is difficult to say why the Dartons bought these homes. Was it for a measure of control of the hamlet and its inhabitants by the Lords of the Manor? Was it a philanthropic gesture - despite the run-down state of the cottages? Did the Dartons consider them to be an investment - a cottage which cost £100, produced an income stream of about 5% pa, less repairs? Probably, it was for a mix of all three reasons that the family bought so many properties. One might ask, why did the Dartons build only one new houses in the hamlet? Despite their windfall, possibly there was a lack of funds with which they could finance the construction of new homes as their fortune was divided among several beneficiaries according to the terms of the wills of the deceased landowners. They were continually seeking to let Temple Dinsley - and at least two of their tenants spent large sums of money improving the property rather than the Dartons having to pay huge bills. Then there was the undoubted ill-health suffered by male Dartons (followed by early death) to be considered. Did this impinge on their ability and/or desire to care for the plight of the community over which they lorded? The reality of their portfolio of run-down dwellings becomes even harder to understand when Thomas H Darton snr’s will stipulated that his surviving wife should, at her own expense, ‘keep (her inherited properties) in good, substantial and tenantable repair’. A further mitigating consideration is that soon after the Dartons inherited Temple Dinsley, England was embroiled in war with France from 1792 until 1815 - and immediately after this was a time of economic recession. The stark message of history is that if the Dartons had demolished some of their mouldering properties and built new replacements, their income from rents would not have increased significantly and the construction programme would have cost them thousands of pounds. Take as an example the six houses along School Lane, all of which were acquired by the Dartons during the nineteenth century but were in a ‘poor state’ of repair in 1910. Ten households lived there, paying ten lots of rent. If these were pulled down and replaced at some cost, the income from them would have been about the same as was being received. In the final analysis this apparent lack of consideration for the plight of their tenants points to a possible deficiency of social conscience on the part of the male Dartons who were happy to have their own property improved by others, while their own tenants lived in squalor. After becoming the hamlet’s main landlords in 1873, the Pryor family continued the policy begun by the Dartons of buying-up old properties. But as so many properties were assessed as being in ‘poor condition’ in 1910 during their tenure, to what extent did they too accept their responsibility as landlords to repair and maintain their holding? After 1910, many of these homes were demolished.
The detailed Topographical Map of Hertfordshire (1766) shown above gives an impression of the cottages at Preston of the time - although, judging by the way the farms are portrayed, some outbuildings have also been included. Also, homes that adjoin other homes are shown as one rectangle. Nevertheless, an informative picture is given of Preston’s housing stock - it is a view that hardly changed for 134 years between 1766 and 1900 because I believe only three new cottages were erected in the hamlet during this period: Kenwood Cottage (built 1861 - 1871) and The Laburnums (1891 -1901) at Preston Green and also a ‘newly erected cottage where a barn had previously stood’ on the north side of Church Lane, which was constructed in 1811. This lack of house building had serious implications for Preston folk. Firstly, as time moved on, their homes (built pre-1766) became more and more run down and unfit for habitation. The nineteenth century censuses recorded an increasing number of empty cottages in the hamlet - not because of a decrease in demand, but because of their tumbledown condition which culminated in thirty-six cottages (approximately half of the housing stock) being pulled down and replaced by thirty-three new homes between 1905 and 1925 - not to mention those demolished before 1900, such as the six derelict cottages along Hill Farm Lane. The second result of the lack of new houses in Preston was that although some cottages were subdivided to increase the number of homes in the hamlet, several hundred children were born at Preston during those 134 years. Most grew up and married but were forced to move away from the hamlet because there were simply no houses in which they might live. From the evidence of the censuses, my rough estimate is that every ten years between 40% and 60% of Preston folk moved away from the hamlet! Many of these were young men and women. They left behind an ageing population and several families living in overcrowded, insanitary conditions. Preston was “beginning to rot from the centre”, as Nigel Agar once wrote. In 1901, Mary Currell, was living in a two-up-two- down hovel beside Back Lane with seven children and grandchildren, while my grandparents, Alfred and Emily Wray, with their eight children, inhabited a home with a ‘lamentable’ three rooms at Chequers Lane. Both houses were said to be ‘in poor condition’ in 1910.
Temple Farm
Home Farm
Preston Farm
Castle Farm
Pond Farm
Red Lion
Chequers Inn
Back Lane
Hill Farm Lane
Crunnells Green
School Lane
Preston Green
Hitchin Road
Chequers Lane
Butchers Lane
Typical Preston cottages in the nineteenth century
Three examples of common Preston homes are shown above. Roofs were thatched or adorned by small, red/orange tiles or slates. Walls were mainly constructed of brick - not flint which was locally available. This might be surprising until we remember that ‘brick earth’ was dug around Preston and that there were brickworks in Hitchin. Interior walls of older cottages were of daub and wattle (one has been exposed at Rose Cottage, Butchers Lane). Barns were made of overlying clap-board, such as can still be seen in the village today
Why were only three new homes built at Preston between 1766 and 1900?
Acts of Parliament to improve housing conditions of the labouring classes in the late 1800s
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, central government began to react to the promptings of social reformers to alleviate the atrocious conditions in which its non-voting people were living - particularly in the slums of towns and cities. This spawned The Artisans and Labourers Dwelling Improvement Act (1876) which for the first time empowered local councils to take out loans to compulsorily buy up areas of slum housing in their authority area in order to clear and rebuild. This was followed by The Housing of the Working Classes Act (1890), which allowed councils to buy up surrounding agricultural land and vacant urban land. Now the plight of country-folk living in squalid conditions might be addressed. A contemporaneous local newspaper article in February 1894, Labouring Classes Housing, provides some illuminating comments about the housing situation in many Hertfordshire countryside villages.
1) Owners of large rural estates found cottage property a very expensive possession. That their labourers, after amassing savings, could get cottages somewhere else and relieve them of the worry and expense connected with housing them was in the days of the unenlightened conscience something to be thankful for. 2) Many of these rural cottages were built on small plots of ground filched from the waste, or on other tiny plots of ground (for land has always been difficult to acquire) so small as to be utterly incapable of forming a garden for the cottage and of growing vegetables sufficient for the requirements of the occupant. The owners also, tempted to obtain as large a return as possible for their outlay, in some cases sub-divided the garden and cottage so as to get two rents: in other cases, they built another cottage adjoining the first and divided into two a garden which was not nearly large enough for one cottage. In most cases the owners have been unable and in many cases unwilling to spend any money on repairs with the result that the roofs, ceilings, walls, floors not to mention the windows have been allowed to get into a shameful state of repair. Of these cottages, many have only one bedroom: most of the rest in addition to the one decent bedroom (if it can be called such) have a little make-shift bedroom on the landing at the top of the stairs where often two or three sons and daughters sleep. 3) It appears a simple matter to condemn a house as unfit for human habitation and cause it to be closed. But it must be remembered that there are a certain number of persons in the district who must be housed and must be housed too within a reasonable distance of their work and that a cottage pulled down or closed is not necessarily rebuilt or repaired and made fit for habitation, because the rent which an agricultural worker can afford to pay does not make the erection of houses, such as would in these days be considered fit to live in, remunerative as a speculation. 4) There was an additional problem: The erection of cottages by the Statutory Authority not only means a heavy burden on the rates but it is a burden which must be felt to be unjust and iniquitous by most of the ratepayers. So why are additional cottages necessary? Simply because one or more landowners have not on their own estates cottages sufficient to house the labourers whose work is a necessity if their estates are to be worked as they ought. And it is these landowners who would be specially benefited if cottages are built. In other words, the rest of the ratepayers are to be taxed in order that these may be able to have cottages for their labourers to occupy. 5) Suppose it was agreed that that every farm contained a sufficient number of labourer’s cottages, how is this reform to be carried out? The impoverished land owner is not in a position to do so. His burdens at present are greater than he can bear. What then would be the cost of carrying out such a scheme as this and what might reasonably be expected of the landlord? It may be taken for granted that an agricultural labourer in most parts of Hertfordshire is unable to pay more than £4 10/- as a yearly rent of his cottage. Good cottages, and such only ought to be erected, containing three bedrooms with sitting room and kitchen can be built for £300 a pair. This is simply the cost of building and includes neither the value of the site nor the expense of fencing. 6) Re: the exodus of the young country labourer to the large towns. How many such would remain in the villages were the condition of their homes improved? And how many having tasted the disappointments which await them in the large towns would gladly return but for the thought of their overcrowded homes and the uncertainty of always finding work? But with more room and decency in their homes and a garden of a size which would enable them to employ their labour profitably should work on the farm become slack, many would be thankful to get back once more to their native village. 7) There is another aspect of the question. At present the best girls in the families of labourers go into service and having acquired habits of decency, comfort and self respect can seldom be induced to return and settle down in the wretched cottages to which they were once accustomed.
Preston’s housing stock gradually decreased between 1851 and 1891 from 82 homes to 77 cottages - and in 1891, twelve cottages were unoccupied. The number of abodes was at its lowest in 1901 (64) - which suggests that dwellings were becoming uninhabitable and were being demolished. The situation changed dramatically after 1900 when thirty-six hovels were demolished at Back Lane, Chequers Lane, Church Lane (overlooking the Green) and School Lane (from Crunnells Green Corner to the Red Lion). They were replaced between 1905 and 1925 by 33 new homes, which were financed by local landowners - James Barrington-White (two semi-detached homes at Crunnells Green, 1905), Fenwick Harrison (eight - Holly Cottages circa 1918) Benedict and Violet Fenwick (probably eight, including six - Chequers Cottages circa 1913), Douglas Vickers (three - bungalows along School Lane) - and the Hitchin Rural Council (twelve Council houses built on the north-east side of Chequers Lane. All but four houses were built for habitation by labouring families. It’s possible that one of the cottages at Crunnells Lane built by Barrington-White was intended to be occupied by the village policeman. Crunnells Green House and the house at Lower Crunnells Green (on the corner with Back Lane) were built by the Fenwicks for the estate manager of Temple Dinsley and the Temple Dinsley estate bricklayer, respectively.
Rents of cottages at Preston in 1873
When the Temple Dinsley estate was sold in 1873, a detailed picture of rents of many cottages at Preston emerged:
Housing stock at Preston at the turn of the nineteenth century
Holly Cottages, Back Lane
Chequers Cottages
A breakthrough for new housing at Preston in 1913
Even after what appeared to be a positive move to upgrade farm labourers’ cottages, an episode in 1913 illustrated the dilemma which faced local authorities - in this case, at Hitchin, re: Preston. On 3 March 1913, a long news article headed “The Problem of Rural Housing” reported on a special meeting of the Hitchin Rural District Council to discuss housing accommodation in the village. Members met at Preston and inspected the working class housing. Before interviewing the residents, their opinion was that ‘good, substantial, sanitary houses were urgently required’, that the ‘community was very inadequately provided for’ and that if better cottages were available, they were confident ‘they would be readily taken up’. A site was identified along Chequers Lane in a ’good central position’ and with a frontage to the road of 240 feet, a depth of about 400 feet and containing 2¼ acres. After discussing the possibility of building eight, six or five cottages, the financial implications were debated. Each cottage would cost £150 to build. If six were built, the total cost would be £1,000. The annual balance sheet looked like this:
Receipts: Rental at 3/6d a week £54 12s 0d less allowance for vacancies 1 7s 6d Total 53 4s 6d
Outlays: Repayment of interest at 4% on £1,000 £40 Repairs and insurance 9 Rates and taxes 6 Collection of rents etc 1 17s 6d Total 56 17s 6d
The proposal was not self-supporting as there would be an annual deficit of £3 3s 0d which would have to be funded from the total rates collected by the local authority. Despite this, the duty of the Council to provide adequate housing was paramount. The existing cottages at Preston were ‘more or less insanitary and lamentably deficient in accommodation for the present population’ and overcrowded. Building the new homes would partly stem the flow of the rural population to towns. The recommendation was to buy the whole plot from Mr Pugh for £160 and build six houses on it to be let to Preston families. A debate about the rent ensued as there would probably be more than one wage earner in the households. One speaker thought that the project would kill private enterprise, adding that the main reason why there were insufficient cottages in rural areas was that land could not be bought at a reasonable price. Another said it was because of the failure of private enterprise that there was a gap in housing accommodation. It was also stated that the de-population of rural districts was the most serious matter that they had to face. However, young men couldn’t marry because they couldn’t find accommodation. They moved to towns (partly to enjoy ‘town life’), which became overpopulated, or moved to Canada or Australia. A Miss Seebohm added “they had had the difficulty of Preston people coming to live at Hitchin”. In the event (and ironically, in view of some of the comments noted above), private local landowners stepped in to improve the housing stock in the village. In September 1913, RJW Dawson wrote to Council suggesting that Mr Fenwick of Temple Dinsley build six cottages on the site to save the expense (to the Council) and to ensure people would be getting better houses. It was noted that since the inquiry at Preston, two new cottages had been erected and would shortly be ready for occupation and that Mr Fenwick Harrison intended to build seven cottages for men who worked on his Kings Walden estate and lived at Preston (these were Holly Cottages at Back Lane). So, incredibly, fifteen new cottages were planned for the village. A month later, Fenwick’s guaranteed his offer for the six cottages to be built with a rent at the proposed rate of 3/6d a week - although he asked for the land then in the possession of the Council to be made over to him. And so Chequers Cottages were built. One cannot help but contrast this state of affairs with what has happened to Preston housing stock since 1925. Although more council houses were built at Chequers Lane as well as the Swedish Houses which were assembled there, and bungalows have been erected at Templar’s Lane, most of the new-builds have been detached homes. Preston has now become a desirable place to live. This is reflected by the price of houses in the parish. One of the oldest-standing homes, Reeves Cottage (where my parents lived with their young son for a few years when Dad was a labourer at Preston Hill Farm) was sold for one million pounds in 2019. Six new affordable homes were built in the village during 2015 and a further six dwellings were incorporated into the site of the former Dower House/The Cottage in 2020/21.