A History of Preston in Hertfordshire
Reginald Hine and Preston
This article is not a biography of Hine, nor does it speculate about the triggers for his suicide. Rather, as he wrote so much about Preston and its environs, this piece explores his research methods, examines appraisals of his writing, attempts to establish his connection with Preston and includes his essays featuring the village - some of which are unpublished.
‘Can you picture him, tall, thin Hine?’, wrote Gerald Ceunis, ‘The strongly moulded head, thrust forward on a slightly bent frame, the bronzed face, the ironic curved mouth ready to unfold into a cheerful and engaging smile, the keen blue eyes and the grey longish hair flowing in the wind?’ The flamboyant extrovert, Reginald Leslie Hine, was born at Newnham Hall, Baldock, North Hertfordshire on 25 September 1883. He was a reluctant solicitor; his all-consuming passion being researching and writing the local history of the market town of Hitchin, its surrounding villages and its people. Hine was afflicted by acute depression and tormented by real and imagined demons so it was perhaps unsurprising that he should take his life by leaping in front of a train at Hitchin Station on 14 April 1949. Hine’s zeal for local history was fired when, as a schoolboy, he browsed Chauncy’s Historical Antiquities of Hertfordshire (1700). He described how he ‘pored over its pages...and memorized all I could. I was twenty years of age before I was able to purchase a copy for myself and by that time I knew some of the best passages by heart’.
Hine trumpeted that his research was based on original documents – as far as possible: ‘The History of Hitchin is a work based not so much on printed matter as on hundreds of thousands of charters, feoffments, Court Rolls, Close Rolls, Patent Rolls, account books, minute books, diaries etc. that had first of all to be discovered and disinterred; and not in one parish or county and country, but in many parishes, counties and countries...the records of your parish will be scattered over the face of the earth...small things and tiny parishes, slipping more easily through nooks and crannies of time, sink deeper into oblivion. ‘When at last the materials are brought up to the light, you must work, as it were in mosaic; no longer an historical artisan but an historical artist,,. Building up if you can, an authentic picture of the past; assembling your innumerable isolated facts of every conceivable colour, fitting, joining, compacting them together into a pre-ordained design’. In 1934, Hine was commissioned to write a History of Stagenhoe. What he then wrote confirmed the essence of his earlier comments noted above: ‘... of course the main labour and cost of research would lie in examining the stacks of manuscript material relating to this county and sifting them again for Stagenhoe: Patent Rolls, Close Rolls, Domestic State Papers, Assize Rolls and Papers, Pipe Rolls, Inquisitions, Charter Rolls, Quarter Session Rolls, Manor and Court Rolls, wills, feoffments and Title Deeds, Household Account Books, Diaries, letters etc. It means turning over some thousands of documents, but I am inclined to think it would be worth-while and you would at any rate know that every possible avenue of information had been explored. A mere casual or surface browsing over the obvious sources would hardly be worth undertaking.’ (With this level of research, one can only wonder at the work involved in [and the crushing physical and mental burden of] producing a definitive History of Hertfordshire.) One of his first tasks was to contact the curators of Hertford, St Albans, Welwyn and Letchworth Museums to ask for a listing of their holdings relating to Stagenhoe in their card indexes. The Stagenhoe commission provides some information about his working practices. He started his research in February, 1935 promising not less than 100 pages of foolscap for £250. By November, his enthusiasm for the project and his findings resulted in 120 pages being written. The piece was completed by July, 1936.
An example of Hine’s work-in-progress
Hine’s books
Hine’s main literary output was History of Hitchin (two volumes 1927;1929); Hitchin Worthies (1932) and Confessions of an Uncommon Attorney (1945). There were also shorter books such as The Story of the Sun Hotel (1937); A Short History of St Mary’s Church, Hitchin (1930) and volumes of which he was effectively an editor: The Natural History of the Hitchin Region (1933) and Hitchin Countryside (1947). Although he is best known for Confessions, it is probably his trilogy of History of Hitchin Vols 1 & 2 and Hitchin Worthies that is his most important contribution to local history.
Hine’s inscription in History of Hitchin
Acclaim and criticism
When History of Hitchin was published, it attracted enthusiastic reviews: ‘No mere dry-as-dust collection of documents but a vivid analysis of English country life’ (Public Opinion); ‘A very engaging story as well as a painstaking antiquarian document...The past is vivid; the bones of old account books are clothed in flesh and blood, so they fill the stage as a thrilling drama’ (Country Life) W G Hoskins (a father of English local history) described The History of Hitchin as ‘first class’. And Professor GM Trevelyan added a weighty endorsement, ‘I have nothing but admiration for the method, plan and style of it’. The Spectator, on 14 January 1928, reported: ‘Local historians seldom contrive to be both informing and readable. Mr. Hine's new work on Hitchin is a brilliant exception to the rule. He has collected a mass of most valuable details from the local and national records and other sources, and yet he never forgets that a history is meant to be read by ordinary people.’ This glowing endorsement came though with a caveat,: “We could wish that he had begun with a general account of Hitchin, its geographical position, and the reasons 'Why important enough in early times to be coveted by Earl Harold and later by the Crown.’” But disparagingly, W Branch Johnson on the occasion of the reprinting of History of Hitchin in 1966 wrote, ‘...the general arrangement of the two Hitchin volumes are curious echoes of the Victoria County History of Hertfordshire...the manor, church, the priory, all receive their separate chapters...to bind them together into a coherent picture of Hitchin development is a task left to the reader to tackle for himself. Seldom however does Hine stop to ask Why or How’. After more damning criticism of Hine’s ‘almost complete silence’ on economic Hitchin and his History of Hitchin being ‘mis-spent effort’, Johnson puts the boot in further: ‘Nature it seems to me gave Hine the ferment of a creative writer but turned niggardly when endowing him with creative ability’. This is some endorsement! Johnson himself was a Hertfordshire historian – which may go some way to explain his comments...... Evelyn Lord writing almost triumphantly in The Knights Templar in Britain comments on suppositions about Temple Dinsley: ‘In the early twentieth century descriptions of the area included word pictures of files of knights travelling fully armed down the local footpaths and the field named Pageant Field in Dinsley was thought to be where the Templars held their tournaments (see The History of Temple Dinsley link below). Pageant Field did not get this name until 1729 when it was enclosed from a larger field, and holding tournaments would have been against the Order’s Rule as encouraging competition and pride’. Whilst not commenting on the quality and presentation of Hine’s research, I would only say that in The History of Hitchin Hine states ‘For the next three years (after 1688) the Independents met where they could. In summer on the village green at Preston, then known as Cromwell’s Green.’ Two points arise from this sentence: firstly, what was the source of this information? Secondly, I suggest that Cromwell’s Green was actually what is known today as Crunnells Green – which is around one hundred metres west of Preston Green. The Hitchin Historical Society observed, ‘in recent years, questions have been raised about (Hine’s) use of sources, his inadequate documentation and his willingness to employ a mode of presentation more akin to storytelling than to academic caution’. In the light of these remarks, it may seem a paradox that the Reginald Hine Award was proposed by the Society in 1979 for those who ‘made a significant contribution through their actions, research or publications, to Hitchin Historical Society and the furtherance of the understanding of the history of Hitchin.’ Enlarging on the comments of the Society, Richard Whitmore wrote, “‘Some – myself included – have been surprised to find that despite Hine’s claims of carefully wading through ‘hundreds of thousands of charters’ and thousands of pages of Quaker transcripts’, there are a good many factual errors in his books”. One past curator of Hitchin Museum suggested that Hine ‘frequently stretched the bounds of probability in the interests of telling a good story’. A specific example of Hine’s historical inaccuracies is found in his History of Stagenhoe. He wrote: ‘At other times he (the Third Earl of Caithness) journeyed (from Hertfordshire) to Scotland by road in a steam motor car of his own inventing. The photograph of it by TB Latchmore of Hitchin preserved amongst the Stagenhoe records shows this primitive machine being stoked from the footplate by a Home Farm engine driver...the Earl...used it constantly in the Hitchin district. The smuts from the car were terrible and the sight of her Ladyship arriving after a long journey at Stagenhoe is often talked about by old people to this day’. Much of this is simply wrong. The Earl did not drive to Scotland in his steam car - it was conveyed by ship. He did not invent the car - its creator was Thomas Rickett. Latchmore of Hitchin did not photograph it - the image was taken in Scotland. The stoker in the photograph was not a local engine driver, but Rickett himself. There is absolutely no evidence that the car was driven ‘constantly in the Hitchin district’. Therefore, the stories of ‘smut’ appear to be a fabrication (at worst) or maybe a reference to the Earl’s other mechanical tinkerings (at best). These comments do not sit well with Hine’s affirmation of his rigorous research for his History of Stagenhoe which were quoted earlier. (For further details, see link: Nina Freebody) Preston historian, Nina Freebody felt constrained to write about Hine in a letter that he was ‘a local historian (not always right)’ and highlighted one of his erroneous statements with a double exclamation mark. When reading Hine’s books, a constant frustration is that many of his sources are simply unavailable to check. A typical example is a reference to a survey of Hitchin parish by John Davis in 1741 which has the note, ‘MS in the possession of Reginald L Hine.’ Where are all these documents today? This may be one of the main stumbling blocks to a new Hitchin history being written. Perhaps clues to their whereabouts are given in a Hitchin Comet article of 30 November 2006 which observed that Hine’s oldest grandson who lives in Cremona, Italy ‘holds most of the family archives’. Hertfordshire Life on 12 November 2011 reported that Hine left sixty boxes of material for History of Hertfordshire when he died. So, there is also the possibility that these papers are moldering somewhere, forgotten and uncatalogued in a facility of a local archive or a Hitchin law office.
Hine and Preston
In 1917, Hine and his young family moved to Ridley Shott on Wymondley Road, Hitchin. This was to be their home for twelve years. From here, there were ‘unimpeded views of the villages of St Ippollitts and Preston. The best view of all was from the window in Hine’s study which was one of two rooms built in the roof. It was here that he wrote most of the one thousand pages of The History of Hitchin’. (The first photograph above was taken in this study) Although his consuming attachment to Minsden Chapel (one mile from Preston) is legendary (Link: Minsden Chapel) - despite the fact that the majority of his forays to Minsden were via Chapel Foot thus bypassing Preston - Hine’s knowledge of Preston and its byways must be largely inferred. Writing of Thomas W Latchmore, Hine commented, ‘I am thinking of the rambles that I and so many shared with him. We would set out on one of those Hertfordshire lanes that seem to lead nowhere...’ Of Samuel Lucas, Hine wrote, ‘None of us could forget the long evening walks of which he was so often the leader, the walk to Offley Park...or Wain Wood...or among the green lanes in the spring’. Hine was also firm friends with the etcher and draughtsman, FL Griggs. In 1900, Griggs was asked to illustrate a set of countryside books provisionally titled, Highways and Byways. In it, he describes the walk from Chapel foot to Minsden and prefers that ‘Mr Hine should be your guide’. In the next paragraph, Grigg writes, ‘Of the many roads which memory tempts me to explore again in search of the old delights, this one from Hitchin to Whitwell and the one road which runs through Gosmore and Preston to Kings Walden always remain the first choice.’ And again, ‘From there (a hill near Charlton) to Preston, uninterrupted and unchanged, the lovely grassy way stretched. No art could design anything so utterly charming. It was a place for loitering and meditation, or for enjoyment of the views it afforded whenever it rose from its hollow snugness into prominence on a hillside. At last, if one ever got as far, was another wood—once part of the great Hitch Wood—and then one might either follow the lane, or a path through the wood to Preston.’
From this evidence of the activities and preferences of his close friends, can there be any doubt that Hine was well aware of Preston! In 1935, Hine also wrote, ‘the area between Offley Holes and Preston, especially that portion near the rifle butts, had the reputation of containing adders; the writer and others used to see them there fairly frequently’ Hine played cricket for Hitchin and Ashwell village (right). There is also a cutting from Hertfordshire Express of around 1911 which reveals that Hine was playing cricket for Preston CC in the Park of Temple Dinsley. Consider for a moment how such a selection might be made – and Hine’s familiarity with the Preston must surely be a fact.
Positive proof has been found that Hine did indeed visit Preston. There is an extant photograph of an assembly of more than a thousand people crammed into Bunyan’s Dell during July 1928 to celebrate a centenary of religious worship. Recently a news report of the occasion has been found that place’s Hine at the Dell as Chairman and as giving an introductory speech. It is surely Hine who is the speaker in the photograph
Hine and Minsden Chapel
In 1907, Hine and two young men travelled to Minsden Chapel armed with a camera, photographic plates and a tripod. They planned to catch on camera the ghost of a murdered nun which lurked amidst the stonework of the ruined chapel. The resulting photograph appeared in The History of Hitchin with the caption, ‘THE MINSDEN GHOST. From a photograph by TW Latchmore, 1907’. Clearly, this was a practical joke, although there was no ‘coming clean’ in the book. The wisdom of including this photograph in a serious history must be questioned. There was a fore-gleam of Hine’s inclination to be an elaborate hoaxer. The East Herts Archaeological Society organised ‘leisurely pilgrimages throughout the gentle Hertfordshire countryside’. During a visit to Newnham Hall, Hine casually mentioned to a member of the Society that a Roman burial site had been found in the garden some years earlier and that some artefacts had been discovered. The member eagerly returned the following day, pegged out, and started digging. A couple
of hours later he rushed to the house brandishing an earthen-ware bottle from around 320 AD. It was in fact an Italian vinegar jar dated 1840 that Hine and his sister had buried earlier. Hine was black- balled from the Society for fifteen years as a result. Unfortunately, the prankster does usually not enjoy universal acceptance as a serious person, let alone a serious historian. And perhaps Hine’s reputation in some quarters suffers because of this lack of reverence for historical matters. If he was capable of pulling these stunts, what liberties might he have taken in his writings?
References to Preston and its surrounding district in Hine’s writings
History of Hitchin Volume One Deneslai Castle and the Balliol family and the Knights Templar p 29,30 The Templars p 111, 112 The Sadleirs and the English Civil War p 210, 211 Poor Accounts: ‘1761. Spent at Preston when Peter Mallins of Stevenage came to find his prentice who had run away from him’ p 250 Condition of roads at Preston p 286, 287 and 297 History of Hitchin Volume Two Minsden Chapel including drawing 23 – 41 Sketch of Cottage by Bunyan’s Dell - facing p 56 John Bunyan p 57, 58, 73, 89 The Baptists and Congregationalists p 76, 95, 101 The King’s pageant p 239 Walking Preston’s lanes p 250 Examination of Mary Cocker by Thomas Sadleir p 292 Mary Swain’s will p 333 Origin of Preston place name p 358 Finds at Poynders End and nearness of Kiln Wood p362 Fire at Temple Dinsley p 399 Sketch of Temple Dinsley – facing p 410 Hitchin Worthies Captain Robert Hinde p165 - 184 Confessions of an Un-Common Attorney Minsden Chapel p 259 – 262 Note: The above references have been incorporated into this web site. Interest at Preston in Hine’s books may be gauged by the list of subscribers to The History of Hitchin who included: RJW Dawson of Crunnells Green House; Hugh Exton Seebohm of Poynders End (who ordered five copies); Douglas JP Vickers (two copies) and Miss Deed of Preston School (more about this copy later). The Natural History of the Hitchin Region p37 ‘Clay-with-Flints. This material covers most of the high ground to the west of the Hitchin- Stevenage gap.....here and there it passes into the brick earth and is, or has bee, worked for brickmaking as at...Preston’ p32 re: an ancient valley(possibly a river channel cut into the chalk) – ‘The boundaries of the valley were defined by chalk ridges that on the right bank pass through Almshoe, Ippollitts...and on the left bank, through Preston, Offley Holes...’ p45 Deciduous woodland: beech (Offley Holes); oak and hornbeam (Wain Wood and Hitch Wood) Coniferous plantation: pine and larch (Wain Wood and Hitch Wood). Ponds: between Preston and Offley Holes; Sootfield Green and Preston p57 ‘To the south and west (of Hitchin) we have a few larger woods such as Hitch Wood (178 acres), Wain wood and West wood representing the remnants of once more extensive forests’ p60 William Dawson (1805 – 1889) recorded ‘geranium pyrenaicum at Preston, in which district it may still be found’ p121 ‘Of the woods most prolific in Lepidoptera, the chief are....Wain Wood...Hitch Wood...West Wood p123 ‘ The Speckled Wood Butterfly (Parage aegeria) used to be seen lately in woods but is now never met with, the last recorded specimens having been found in Wain Wood c1900) p201, 202 ‘The writer has seen Slow-worms from...Offley Holes, Preston, Wain wood....’ ‘The Common Viper or Adder (Viperus Berus) has of late become nearly or quite extinct. At one time the area between Offley Holes and Preston, especially that portion near the rifle butts, had the reputation of containing adders; the writer and others used to see them there fairly frequently....GJ Buller told me that....seventy-five years ago, adders used to be common in the district, especially at Offley Holes...Preston and Wain wood....and during the (eighteen) eighties...Samuel Lucas told me he not infrequently met with adders in the Offley Holes district’ On a personal note, I note with pleasure Hine’s references to my 5xgreat grandfather, Richard Farey, in History of Hitchin Vol 1 pages 264, 264 and 284. This put me onto the scent of sources (which do exist!) and helped flesh out the story of my ancestor’s life. With such an abundance of material, one is surprised that Richard was not considered as a ‘Hitchin Worthy’!.
Hine’s twenty-first century legacy
Ian Friel FSA has written a blog article featuring Minsden Chapel, ‘The Ghost of Reginald Hine’. (Link: Ian Friel and Minsden) In it he debates the answer to a question that Hine was asked, ‘And what is the use of it (history), anyway’. Dr Friel writes ‘Hitchin played a big part in my life – I was born there, grew up in Preston, a small village just outside (he was registered at Preston School on 16 April 1959) and attended the Boys Grammar School in the town. ‘I was fascinated by Minsden Chapel from an early age. My village primary school had a copy of the History of Hitchin and as children we used to take wondering peeks at the picture of the Minsden Ghost.’ (Note earlier that Miss Deed, headmistress of Preston School 1922 – 1935, was a subscriber to History of Hitchin.)
‘However, it wasn’t just the ghost story that impressed itself on me. Hine showed that it was possible to find out what things were like in the past, and that this could be an interesting thing to do. These simple childhood lessons impressed themselves on me, and are probably at the root of why I became a historian. ‘To Hine’s three reasons (for studying history) I would add a fourth: by studying history and writing about it well, you can inspire others to look at the past. That is my debt to Reginald Hine, and I offer my thanks to the smiling ghost of Minsden Chapel, whether he is real or not.’ How many others have been inspired in their quest to discover local history by the writings of Reginald L Hine
Because they are not easily accessible and as they are relevant to the history of Preston, full transcripts of the following are included at the links below. To read them, click on the title. A History of Temple Dinsley. (Note: This chapter was originally intended to be included in History of Hitchin but was excluded because of lack of space.) Coming soon: A History of Stagenhoe Robert Hinde – from Hitchin Worthies. Minsden Chapel – from The History of Hitchin: Volume two.
(I am grateful to Ian Friel for giving his kind permission to quote from his blog)
Links to Hine’s essays re: Temple Dinsley, Robert Hinde, Minsden and Stagenhoe
Addendum: Hine’s self-penned comments in Hitchin Worthies