A History of Preston in Hertfordshire
Thomas Plumer Halsey - Temple Dinsley tenant 1840 - 1844
This article describes the somewhat stormy relationship between three of the foremost people of Preston in the early 1840s. Our tale has a cast of three. Firstly, there was Thomas Plumer Halsey. He was born in 1815, the son of Joseph Thompson Whateley (who adopted the surname, Halsey, when he married into that family of Gaddesden, Hertfordshire). Thomas’ maternal grandfather represented Hertfordshire in Parliament from 1768 until 1781. On 26 January 1839, Thomas married Frederica, the daughter of Colonel Johnstone of Hilton, at All Souls, Marylebone, London. A son, Thomas Frederick, was born at Gaddesden on 9 December 1839. On 19 February 1840, Thomas leased Temple Dinsley for an annual rent of £200 (most cottagers at Preston paid rents of £4 to £5 a year) and spent an incredible £1,800 (after discount) to bring the fittings and furnishing of the house up to his standard. There is an itemised record of thirty-six pages of this refurbishment, the cost of which was equal to the annual wages of sixty farm labourers. However, the Halseys’ life at Preston was blighted by the death at Temple Dinsley of a baby son, Arthur Halsey, who survived only a few hours after his birth on 24 May 1844. His birth and death were registered in the Berkhamstead registration district and was noted as being at Temple Dinsley in The Times Birth Announcements. Perhaps it was partly for this reason that the Halseys were residing at Gaddesden in 1845. (A third son, Ethelbert Arthur Sackville Halsey, was born in early 1850 at St Georges, London.) Secondly, a fanfare for John Forster. He was born at Royston, Hertfordshire in 1791, married Mary, and the couple had at least six children. He and his family had moved to Temple Farm, Preston by 1825 when their youngest son was born. Finally, enter stage right, the widow, Elizabeth Darton, Lord of the Manor of Temple Dinsley. (See link: Elizabeth Darton)
Halsey stands for Parliament
The death in 1845 of the sitting member of Parliament for Hertfordshire prompted Halsey to emulate his grandfather and throw his hat into the ring. However, his election campaign was a bumpy ride. The Corn Laws were the political ‘hot potato’ of the day. Between 1815 and 1846, they prohibited the importing of grain below a certain price. When supply from abroad was reduced because of the Napoleonic Wars, the price of grain was high, so British farmers increased their production. But when peace was declared, farmers were alarmed, fearing that cheaper imported cereals would see prices tumble and result in their bankruptcy. The inflated cost of grain had a knock-on effect which touched every household in the land – bread, the main staple of the British diet, was artificially expensive. As a result, the Corn Laws were deeply unpopular and sparked riots on the streets. When Halsey sought election as an MP, the writing was on the wall concerning the Corn Laws. A sliding scale of cereal prices had already been introduced and the legislation was widely expected to be repealed. It was bucking this trend then that, from his home at Gaddesden Park (not Temple Dinsley) on 28 November 1845, Halsey described his commitment to the electors of Hertfordshire (many of whom were farmers and land owners): 1. He would ‘increase the efficiency of the Church of England’ and strengthen the bond between Church and State. 2. His politics were strictly ‘conservative’. 3. He would ‘resist every attempt to withdraw existing protection’. This stance did not please the editor of the Hertfordshire Mercury, who staunchly opposed the Corn Laws. Halsey had ‘youth and inexperience’. (This was not a compliment.) ‘Sundry barns and dead walls’ were plastered with the ‘ominous words’, ‘Halsey for the County’. His address was ‘full of puerilities and vacillation’ and showed a ‘clumsy and glaring contradiction’ – he favoured removing restrictions on commerce but would not weaken the protection to native industry. Was Halsey a Free Trader or a Protectionist? The reaction of the Chairman of the meeting to Halsey’s comments was that he couldn’t understand some of his views and that he should have been more ‘decisive’ in his comments. Halsey then spoke at Hemel Hempstead where he was ‘roughly handled’ and found it difficult to answer searching questions about Corn. ‘He declares himself to be a “Protectionist” to the backbone’. He was also grilled about the position of tenant farmers. He replied that they had the security of leases and agreements. His questioner disagreed – ‘scarcely one farmer in a hundred was protected by either means’. More accusations followed: Halsey believed that landlords sought to keep their tenants in ‘political thraldom’, meaning that they were intimidated to support the political wishes of their landlords. He retorted that he was ‘not aware of any case in which a tenant had been compelled or induced by his landlord to vote against his own convictions’. This was received with some incredulity. He added that in Kent, all but two of his tenants had voted against his wishes...without interference’. Another awkward subject was raised: would he vote for a modification of the abolition of the Game Laws as tenant farmers were ‘greatly injured by their operation’ – game birds were allowed to eat the growing crops of tenant farmers at the discretion of their gamekeepers? Halsey’s reply was that farmers knew the conditions of their tenancies when they entered their agreements.
Letters to the Editor from John Forster of Temple Farm, Preston
From Preston, where Halsey had lived for around five years, one of Mrs Darton’s former farmer tenants, John Forster of Temple Farm, put pen to paper with two lengthy tirades to the Hertfordshire Mercury to attack Halsey’s record in the village, asserting that it was at odds with what he had publicly declared. Foster claimed that he had been ‘used’ by Halsey during the last election as he and Thomas Darton had induced his landlady, Mrs Elizabeth Darton (Thomas Darton’s mother) to ‘turn the screw upon me and prevent me from exercising my legitimate right’. After a meeting between Halsey and Thomas Darton, he (Forster) was summoned to Temple Dinsley by a messenger. Mrs Darton had ‘always told me that I might do as I liked with it (his vote)’ but now Halsey said that it was a very hard thing that she could not command her own tenant. Forster said it was none of Halsey’s business and that it would have been ‘more manly and honourable’ for Darton and Halsey to have gone to him without involving Mrs Darton. He said that he had been deprived of the liberty of recording his vote. Forster also had something to say about Halsey’s opposition to the excessive preservation of game. He wondered, what was ‘excessive’? Game by fifties, by hundreds, by thousands? When Halsey was at Preston with his battues (ie beating woods and bushes to flush out birds), often more than a hundred head were killed in one day and added, ‘I well know from bitter experience that excessive damage was done to my crops by them’. Some of the sting of Forster’s accusations was assuaged when Halsey explicitly denied ‘turning the screw on Mrs Darton’. Forster was forced to rather ungraciously eat humble pie - it seemed now that the pressure had been applied not by Halsey but by her son, Mr Darton. Yet, Forster avowed that Halsey at least knew that interference and intimidation had been used as regards his vote. However, in a second letter, he continued his attack on Halsey’s record at Preston concerning game. From Halsey’s own keeper and his own men who had acted as beaters, he had learned that more than a hundred head were killed in a single day on several occasions. Halsey had said that he could provide the evidence of a valuer that the damage to Forster’s crops was not excessive. Forster had spoken to the valuer and had learnt that he had only looked at one eleven-acre field of barley in assessing the damage at £10. All his fields should have been surveyed – and over several years. When all the evidence was taken into account, he would be entitled to ‘a very heavy amount of damage’. In fairness to Halsey, Forster grudgingly said that he considered Mrs Darton and her son ‘the most to blame’ as they were well aware that he had hired his farm on the understanding that he was not to suffer from game while he held it. He felt that they should have given him some compensation but he had not received one shilling. From the correspondence it is clear that Forster been hasty with his accusations against Halsey, which had mostly been rebutted, but he continued to state his grievance that Halsey had kept an excessive quantity of game at Preston and that they had caused excessive damage to his crops and those of his fellow farmers. Nevertheless, he was ‘quite satisfied’ with the compensation of £10 he had sent.
Forster quits Preston
The correspondence reported above was exchanged at the end of 1845 when Forster was ‘late of Preston’. Clearly, relations between himself and the Dartons had become strained, and by then he had terminated his tenancy at Castle Farm. But another matter that moved him to write again to the Hertfordshire Mercury may also have been a factor in his leaving the village. On 1 February 1843, writing from Preston, Forster aired his tax grievances with the Income Tax Commissioners at Hitchin. He had sustained a ‘great hardship’ relating to the land he occupied in Ippollitts Parish. He therefore appealed against the assessment. He was told that as he also held land in Hitchin Parish, his case would be heard another day. Accordingly, when later before the Commissioners, he again brought up the subject of his assessment regarding his Ippollitts holding only to be told that matters relating to Ippollitts had been settled at the previous meeting. Forster considered this to be ‘a complete mockery and a farce’. Using a phrase with which he was evidently taken, he protested that ‘the screw has been turned upon me by the Inspector to the very utmost, to screw my rent up just above £300 a year, which makes it above £40 more than I actually pay my landlady’. It was all to no avail. Forster was reduced to declaring that, ‘the Income Tax Act is one of the most unjust, oppressive and arbitrary laws ever passed by this or any other country’. After being at loggerheads with his Preston landlady, Mrs Darton and her son as well as the Tax Commissioners of Hitchin and Ippollitts, (and anyone else who might have turned the screw against him!) it came as no surprise to discover that Forster had quit Temple Farm and the local parishes by December, 1845 and, in 1851, was living at Offley, Hertfordshire, three miles north-west of Preston.
The early death of Thomas Halsey
Halsey was re-elected as member of Parliament for Hertfordshire in 1847 and 1852. However, he, his wife and their youngest son perished in an accident at sea at midnight on 24 April 1854 They were voyaging on SS Ercolano between Nice and Marseilles in the Gulf of Genoa when their ship was rammed by the Sicila, ‘doubling her up’. She sank in three minutes. Halsey and his entourage were probably asleep and had no chance of escaping from the vessel. The Hertfordshire Mercury noted that while they did not always agree with his views, he was a man of ‘manly sincerity and courageous frankness’. He was remembered as the author of the ‘Small Tenement Rating Act’ which prevented property from escaping tax and removed the burden of tax from poor occupiers.