A History of Preston in Hertfordshire
Thomas Harwood (1729 - 1787)
Thomas Harwood was born on 21 September 1729 at Benington, Herts., a small rural village two miles east of Stevenage. Although of a humble background, when he was buried, he was a Gentleman.
Thomas’ meteoric elevation from (gentleman’s) servant to Esquire is traced by the Herts Militia List (see below). It was the result of the gift transferred by Martha Ithell’s will. Link: Martha Ithell
Thomas’ older brother, John, was a servant/ labourer in Hitchin parish:
But tongues were wagging - why had Thomas received this windfall? When he left his estate to a Joseph Darton, even in the twentieth century, a newspaper reported, ‘some suggested that Joseph Darton was his son by a secret marriage to Martha Ithell or that he was a nephew or cousin’. An earlier Preston Village web-site relating to St Martin’s Church stated that Joseph Darton was the ‘secret son’ of Martha and Thomas. Even Preston’s historian, Nina Freebody wrote, “(When Martha died) in 1767, the (Temple Dinsley) estate was inherited by Thomas Harwood her faithful friend and steward and from him by his and Martha’s secret son, Joseph Darton’. Link: Dartons
When Martha’s will was challenged by a distant relative, Thomas was happy to help - perhaps in the knowledge that he had a cast-iron case:
The achievement of arms (or heraldic insignia) of Thomas Harwood in St Mary’s, Hitchin. The motto means, ‘There is peace in heaven’
I have not seen any documents which support the claim that Joseph was Thomas and Martha’s son. This was possibly tittle-tattle that has been handed down in the hamlet. However, there is irrefutable evidence that debunks these rumours - Thomas most certainly had a close relation named ‘Darton’. A cursory check of Hertfordshire marriages reveals a marriage between Michael Darton and Ursula Harwood, Thomas’ sister, in 1749. Any sons from this union would have been Dartons and Thomas’ nephews. Joseph Darton married in 1776. He was therefore probably born in 1751, give or take a few years. There was time for Michael and Ursula (who settled at Walkern, Herts) to produce son(s) in the period between 1749 and, say, 1755. Circumstantial evidence also points to Michael being Joseph’s father. Perhaps following a naming pattern, Joseph christened his first son, Michael Darton. There was also a document, raised after Thomas Harwood’s death, which linked Joseph to Michael’s parish of Walkden in the form of a Warrant of Satisfaction by Joseph Darton of Temple Dinsley, gent, to the stewards of manor of Walkern. At this stage, I felt there was substantial evidence that Joseph was Thomas’ nephew as the latter declared in his will (as shown below) but I hadn’t found the baptism records of any children of Michael and Ursula. As Joseph Darton married a Quaker, I wondered if these children might have been baptised as Quakers and were therefore not in Church of England records. Final conclusive proof that Joseph Darton was Thomas’ nephew was the discovery of Joseph’s baptism record and the Joseph’s wife’s will, the details of which can be seen at this link: Dartons 1
There is one further curious detail: the Court Baron for Maidencroft Manor on 20 April 1787 recorded that Thomas Harwood had begun the process of buying an arable field of four acres in St Ippollitts
This happened about six weeks after Thomas’ will had been proved in which his heir was not his brother, John, but Joseph Darton. John was described as a labourer, a brewers servant and a gardener between 1758 and 1778 in the Militia Lists. Now, in 1787, he was a ‘yeoman’. One might conclude that Thomas had given his brother a piece of his inheritance to explain this aggrandisement.
Thomas’ burial at St Mary’s Hitchin in 1787
Thomas Harwood’s early life
Thomas’ baptism at Benington, Herts in 1729
parish, but that the transaction had not completed before his death. His brother, John Harwood, (now a yeoman!) completed the transaction as Thomas’ ‘only brother and heir’ (see below). John promptly surrendered Thomas’ property to Joseph Darton.
The main fact which gave rise to the belief that Joseph Darton was the son of Thomas and Martha is that the majority of middle names given to children are derived from their immediate ancestors. So, our son has his maternal grandfather’s surname, Courtney, as a middle name. Some of the later Dartons had ‘Harwood’ and ‘Ithell’ as middle names and it has been reasoned that this is proof that they descended from Thomas and Martha. However, that is not the sole reason for the choice of a middle name. It can also be assigned to honour a completely unrelated person, such as a locally or nationally prominent figure. I recently investigated a client’s family history which included an ancestor with the middle name, ‘Jellicoe’. This was not an ancestor’s name, but a way of honouring the prominent naval commander of World War One - the father of the child being a serving sailor. To assign the middle names ‘Harwood’ or ‘Ithell’ might be viewed as simply remembering the people who had elevated the Darton family’s social position.
Thomas Harwood’s will was drawn up on 10 January 1786. It was witnessed by William Wilshire, Isaac Coxall and Joseph Halstead. Thomas left annuities (from his property at Shadwell, Stepney, Middlesex)  to his brother John Harwood (£100) and his sister, Ursula Darton  (£50). He bequeathed his manor and property in Hertfordshire to his ‘nephew, Joseph Darton’.  Legacies were left as follows: nephew, Thomas Harwood - £100; the other children of brother John Harwood - £30 each; niece, Sarah Kitchener (‘wife of Benjamin’ - Benjamin Kitchener married Sarah Darton at Knebworth, Herts on 19 January 1782) - £400; friend, Edward Kitchener (a farmer at Preston) - £100; Robert Heathcore - £20; his servants at the time of his death - £10 each ‘for mourning’. The residue of his estate was given to Joseph Darton (see below). Thomas signed a codicil on 9 February 1787. He left further legacies to Thomas Harwood - £100; the other children of John - £20 each; Edward Kitchener - £100; Robert Heathcote -£20. New legacies were given to William Wilshire - £20, ‘for a new wig’ and to housekeeper Mary Roberts - £40. The will and codicil were proved on 5 March 1787.
Thomas’ Memorial Ring
When my greatx5 grandfather, William Dee, died in 1771, his will stipulated that his unmarried daughter, Mary Dee (who was living with him in 1768), was left £5 to ‘buy her mourning’ (clothes) and a guinea to buy a ‘mourning ring’. These rings were worn in memory of someone who had died. It often bore the name and date of death of the person and sometimes an image of them, or a motto. They were usually paid for by the person commemorated, or their heirs, and often bequeathed to intended recipients in wills. Stones mounted on the rings were usually black, and where it could be afforded jet was the preferred option. Two examples of memorial rings are shown below:
In 1908, Frederick Arthur Crisp published a book which described his collection of memorial rings. It includes one that remembered Thomas Harwood. It was not mentioned in his will, so perhaps a grateful beneficiary or beneficiaries had it made:
The people listed were those mentioned in his will. The ring’s inscription is recorded. This is evidence of the gratitude felt by the Darton family towards Thomas for his generosity to them.