Preston, like most villages, was quite peaceful in the nineteenth century. As a small community, everyone was aware of the ‘goings-on’ and effectively policed their neighbours - there were few opportunities for serious crime. Cases of poaching, drunkenness, petty theft, arson and assault in the village occasionally came before the magistrates at Hitchin. But unlike other areas, the villagers did not rise up in protest at low wages during the Swing Riots of the 1830s - possibly because of the assuaging effect of their straw plaiting income. The most sensational case in the nineteenth century was the robbing of a dying miller at the bottom of Preston Hill in 1864 (which was first treated as a case of suspected murder). In the early nineteenth century, Preston was policed by an unpaid parish constable. He was mentioned in a news report as late as 1863. In those days, there was less restraint on criminals and because of this farmers took it upon themselves to protect their land and stock. One farmer at Preston Hill Farm in the mid -1800s was before the magistrates on several occasions charged with assault and actually said that he “would take the law into his own hands”.
Capital punishment and transportation
For those unlucky to be caught, there were often draconian sentences - the punishment did not fit the crime. Only in 1832 was capital punishment abolished for horse, sheep and cattle stealing. Transportation overseas was a common sentence for minor misdemeanours. Ken Griffin has published a reference book, ‘Transported Across the Seas’ which lists those from Hertfordshire (1784 -1866) who suffered this fate. In 1825, my second great grand uncle was convicted of the crime of stealing two wether sheep worth £2 10/- in Ippollitts. He was sentenced to death but received clemency and was transported to Australia. Not all criminals were transported. When a distant relative from Baldock pleaded guilty in 1876 to setting fire to stacks, he gave his reason for the offence: he wanted to be transported - as though it was a pleasure cruise. To his chagrin, the magistrates decided not to indulge his wish and sentenced him instead to ten years local penal servitude
The police constabulary
The fight against lawlessness was stepped up in 1856 when parliament passed the County and Borough Police Act. This made professional rural constabularies compulsory. The constables, knowing the lie of the land and the lawbreakers in their community, were far more likely to ‘collar the criminals’. In 1871 and 1881, Preston had its own constables living in the village, Daniel Farr and then Abel Day.The constable would patrol the muddy or dusty lanes on the off-chance that he would come across an ‘incident’ which
would enliven his day. It was tedious work - bringing boredom and blisters - but the sight of his top hat bobbing above hedges would alarm the guilty. Constables were paid between 16/- and 21/- a week (rather more than labourers), received a free uniform and from 1873 received a boot allowance which acknowledged their tiresome trudging.To illustrate their work, in December 1871, PC Farr was walking from Preston to Ley Green one Saturday afternoon when he saw two men that he knew and suspecting they were ‘up to no good’, he watched them. He saw them take up and set snares and found a ferret concealed in their clothes. On another occasion, in 1870, he found a local 21-year-old Preston man on the road with a gun and after a search, he found powder and shot in his possession.
The sentences meted out for petty crime took into account the good behaviour or otherwise of the defendants. A typical fine for poaching was 10/- including costs - about a week’s wages. But, in December 1860, a 17-year-old and a 20-year-old man from Back Lane were charged with setting snares. As they had been committed only a fortnight earlier for a similar offence, they were sent to a House of Correction for one month each. Offenders were usually fined with costs or imprisoned by default. In fact, many either preferred a short spell in gaol or could not afford to pay the fine. If someone from Preston is mysteriously missing from a census, it may be that they were languishing in Bedford or Hertford Gaol.
Poaching was widespread in Preston, even in the twentieth century. Because of low wages, the temptation to catch or shoot game which ran or flew tantalizingly nearby and add it to the cook pot was alluring. My uncle, who occasionally fell upon hard times and received parish relief, expressed this attitude - ‘I’m not going to starve when (the local gamekeeper) Harper’s got all those’. This feeling was not frowned upon by sympathetic villagers. But there was also the outlook that poaching was a exciting contest and a battle of wits between the poacher and the police and gamekeepers. One poacher said of his pastime, ‘...once begun, no goen back - it get hold of you’. He said that the excitement soothed his conscience (if it troubled him) and spoke of his satisfaction in having ‘the Keepers and Police beat’ - which went a long way towards recompensing for the danger and risk. Perhaps this was the reason that some believed that poaching led a man ‘step by step to almost every other crime’. There is an example of this progressive spiral into crime at Preston. In January 1857, a 23-year old man who lived with his family at Church Lane (overlooking Preston Green) was fined £5 with costs or three months hard labour for shooting partridges at Offley Holes. A short time later he was again convicted in May 1858 of setting snares as he worked. On both occasions he was described as ‘an old offender’. Then, in July 1867, following a drunken argument at the Bull, Gosmore, he returned to the inn with a gun and during a struggle with P.C. Anderson, he accidentally shot a bystander. He was convicted of manslaughter and was jailed for ten years. The Game Laws were resented and caused great friction between landowners and labourers. According to the Game Act (1831), there were two categories of daytime poaching -killing game without a certificate (£5 fine) and trespass in search of game (max. £2 fine). Night-time poaching was a more serious offence. In 1862, the power of search was given to the police by the Poaching Prevention Act (‘a black day for the labourer’) which was still in force in the late twentieth century. It allowed the search of anyone suspected of poaching or of having equipment (such as a net, snares or gun) which could be used to take game. This, like the ‘Stop and Search’ powers recently given to the police, caused great resentment. As a result of searches, other pilfered items such as wood and turnips might be discovered. In May 1889, Superintendent Reynolds used his powers to stop two gypsies at Preston at nine o’clock in the morning. On searching a bundle of cloth, he found 51 partridges eggs concealed in grass.The Fox twins were notorious poachers from Stevenage who sometimes strayed into the district around Preston. Their lives are recounted at this link: Fox twins.
Petty theft and drunkeness
Other offences committed by villagers included petty larceny: theft of a bundle of wood, turnips, a truss of straw and half a bushel of coleseed tops (or rape). Excessive drinking was common among working men, who were accustomed to being fuelled by ‘small beer’ as they worked instead of drinking unhygienic water from ditches and ponds. Several cases involving Preston labourers came before Hitchin magistrates. For example, a Preston man was charged with being drunk and riotous at Gosmore by P.C. Day. He failed to appear at court and was later found at drunk again at Hitchin market. He was fined 2/6d and 16/6d costs.
Preston families had their domestic differences such as the 26 year-old man (not the Sharpest tool in the box) who stabbed his father at Preston Green. There was an altercation at Back Lane in September 1877 when a 20-year-old woman assaulted a 15-year-old boy. Another case involved a wife who separated from her husband. He subsequently refused to maintain her. She and her parents returned the cottage at Preston Hill and removed all of the furniture and other items. A list of items taken was read out in court to the amusement of all. In July 1862 there was a case featuring the heavily pregnant wife of my great grandfather: she and her male next door neighbour were involved in an assault case because the child of one was on the other’s premises. A few weeks later, on 28 August, she was dead as the result of puerperal fever.
Arson was a capital offence until 1837 and later there were two cases reported in Preston. The attraction of fire-raising was not only the thrill of combustion and witnessing the resulting charge of the Hitchin horse-drawn fire engine but sometimes incendiarism was a way of settling old scores or even making a social protest. In April 1860, a 48-year old Preston labourer was accused of setting fire to a wheat stack at Stagenhoe Bottom Farm and a year later a Luton man was sentenced to seven years penal servitude for arson at Castle Farm. Labourers could also be arrested for breaking their work contracts. In September 1862, Mr Kirkby of Castle Farm, Preston accused one of his farm workers from Sootfield Green (who had been in his employ for more than two years) of leaving without cause. The man said he thought he could earn more somewhere else. He was fined 10/- or committed for 14 days in gaol.
There was some juvenile misbehaviour in Preston. The domestic stabbing mentioned earlier was the result of a boy ‘hooting’ a slow-witted young man. In 1880, PC Day charged six youths aged between 14 and 17 with obstructing the path to Preston Chapel so that people had to leave the path. The boys were playing and talking. As he had previously warned them repeatedly, they were fined 1/6d each. There were two cases of ill-treatment to animals by juveniles: three young men threw stones at a pig, breaking a leg and two boys aged 11 and 9 ill-treated a lamb by riding it and beating it with a stick whereupon it died. One of the boys was whipped
An impression from trawling the news reports in the second half of the nineteenth century, is that a number of different labourers from Preston were involved in petty crime. The village had its ‘problem families’ and there were some incorrigible ‘repeat’ offenders. However, a contemporary first-hand report about crime at Harpenden (which is 12 miles from Preston) also appears to describe Preston well:‘I should say that the village and indeed the whole of the parish was...free from any serious crime, for I can remember nothing more startling than an occasional poaching affray, or a fowl stealing case, a public house fight, a neighbour’s squabble or maybe a few cases of petty theft.....Our police force at this time consisted of one man.’ (Edwin Grey)