A History of Preston in Hertfordshire
Benedict and Martha Ithell of Temple Dinsley
In 1806, Rev. Mark Noble suggested that Benedict Ithell was of Welsh extraction (his estate included holdings in Herefordshire) - Biographical History of England. (See below - the engraving referred to therein appears to be the image of Ithell shown above):
The Ithell coat of arms
There was a further comment about Ithell’s family by Ralph Churton, Dean of St Pauls, in 1809, “…kinsman perhaps (to Dr Ithell Master of Jesus College) as the name is not uncommon to Benedict Ithell Esq. of Temple Dinsley who is mentioned as having a curious portrait of Dean Colet, founder of St Pauls School”. In view of what happened to Ithell’s estate after his death, it is perhaps as well that these comments were perhaps not in the public domain at the time.
It is of interest that Benedict and Ann had two sons - Thomas, born in 1706, is not usually mentioned but he is recorded in the International Genealogical Index (IGI). I cannot find a note of his burial. Also, that Ann, Benedict’s wife, was buried at St Pauls Walden, Herts, in 1830 - the rest of her family were laid to rest at St Mary’s, Hitchin. What follows are the records of Benedict and Ann’s marriage and Ithell burial records to support the tree shown above. (Note that Benedict senior was living at St Martin in the Fields, Middlesex, when he married and Benedict jnr was buried on the same day as Edward Kitchiner, the son of Edward and Mary.)
Benedict Ithell jnr was Deputy Treasurer of Chelsea Hospital. His estate included holdings in Hertfordshire, Middlesex and Bedforshire. In August 1712, Benedict bought Temple Dinsley for £3,922. Possibly he purchased the estate for the hunting potential of the land surrounding the building rather than for the house itself. The Sadleirs had evidently not been able to maintain the house in a good state of repair because two years later, in 1714, Ithell built a new mansion close to the old Temple Dinsley (evidently, the old house was left standing until the 1790s). The house had a heraldic badge in the form of a rising bird and the inscription ‘1714’ on rainwater heads. The new mansion was just to the south of the old building. Ithell also restored estate cottages in Preston. He was appointed as Sheriff of Hertfordshire in 1727 and was made a trustee of Hitchin Grammar School. He formed a bond with Ralph Radcliffe of Hitchin Priory. The pair drove to St Mary’s Church at Hitchin on Sundays in a style guaranteed to upset the church wardens. Their gilded coaches were ‘emblazoned with arms and their crests glittering in silver radiance from every part of the harness where a crest could possibly be placed’. They swung through the south gates and along the gravelled path of the graveyard to the entrance of the porch to the accompaniment of the tolling church bells. The pageant was ‘brought up in style with straining and struggling of horses, cracking of whip, glistening of harness and flashing of wheels through gravel, horses fretted into a foam, dashing the pebbles against the poor pedestrian people’. This ‘flaunting parade of petty lordings’ so incensed a churchwarden, Richard Whitherby, that without consulting the vicar or his fellow churchwardens, on Saturday night (9 November 1734) he drove a great beam into the centre of the gravelled way and girdled three chains and padlocks around the entrance gates. That would fix their little games! He reckoned without the resourcefulness of Radcliffe. He sent his carpenter to break the chains and saw down the offending beam - all this just in time for Ithell to drive through in triumph. Whitherby still had some cards to play. On the Monday morning, he summonsed both the carpenter, for malicious damage, and Ithell’s coachman, for trespass. They escaped on the grounds that no apparent annoyance had been visited on the corpses in the graveyard! While this makes for a good story, if this was typical of the man, one wonders how such a squire behaved towards the ‘poor people’ of Preston. Carriages and Benedict also featured in another historical tit-bit: he ordered the manufacture of a carriage from London. The makers requested a measurement of local ruts so that his carriage should run smoothly. Benedict Ithell snr died on 8 July 1737, aged 67. He was interred within St Mary’s Church immediately below a magnificent monument (shown below, left). This recorded details of the burials of himself and his wife and children who had also been interred at Hitchin. Benedict snr’s will was proved on 14 September 1737. He asked to be buried ‘in the vault lately made by me in the Parish Church of Hitchin’. He bequeathed to each of his daughters, Elizabeth, Mary and Martha, a legacy of £2,000. His estate was left to his son, Benedict jnr and thence, if he died without issue, to his daughters. They later died without marrying and were all buried at St Mary’s. There was another significant clause to Benedicts will. He gave his son ‘liberty to commit waste’ except in the homes and buildings in Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire - ‘waste’ being the harmful or destructive use of property. And this arrangement was to be supported by ‘my cousin’, Samuel Clark and William Ridge, a haberdasher. Here was significant confirmation (in the light of what was to happen when his daughter, Martha’s, will was executed) of Benedict’s relationship to Samuel Clark, as we will see, and may well have ensured that the old building of Temple Dinsley remained standing for several decades. Benedict’s will also specifically mentioned the ‘dwelling house and gardens at Temple Dinsley’. His son, Benedict jnr was buried at St Mary’s and a reader about his qualities which was composed by his sisters, Elizabeth and Martha, is on a wall (see below, right).
Martha Ithell (1712c - 1767)
Martha’s older spinster sisters died in 1734, 1743 and 1766 and were all buried at St Mary’s, Hitchin. It would therefore be reasonable to conclude that they lived at Temple Dinsley, a view confirmed by the burial records of two which stated that the mansion was their residence at the time of death and that it had been their mother’s home when she died in 1730. The Herts Militia List indicates that Thomas Harwood was employed as a servant there from around 1758. After Elizabeth Ithell died in 1766, Martha was the surviving Ithell who therefore inherited her father’s estate.
Martha’s will was contested by a cousin, Benedict Clarke, a butcher from St Georges, Southwark, London, who was seemingly unaware of the terms of Benedict Ithell’s will, knowledge of which would have saved him from going to some lengths to attempt to establish his family relationship to Benedict Ithell. It has been written that Clarke challenged Martha’s soundness of mind, but from the bundle of documents at Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies (HALS) which relate to the case, Clarke actually claimed that as Martha had died without issue, he, as her cousin, was her true heir. There are some pages of scribbled and partial family trees, without dates or names which, if set out, would look like this:
Martha Ithell’s will
Below is a section of Martha’s original will, dated 3 April 1787 and witnessed by Edward Kitchiner (sic), James Whitney and James Ware. It clearly states that she left everything to her ‘faithful friend and steward Thomas Harwood’ who was also to be her sole executor: Link: Harwood
The key person here is Rev Samuel Clarke who had died at East Dereham, Norfolk ‘7 or 8 years’ (before 1767) ago’ (there is a mural monument to him in the parish church) and who had been the minister of Little Brick Kiln (sic - Little Brick Kiln is probably Little Brickhill, Bucks.), about forty years ago (ie circa 1727). Samuel had an older brother who lived in London, whose son was Benedict Clarke. It was said that Samuel called an older Ithell, his ‘second or third cousin’. (By a sweet coincidence, a Thomas Harwood was installed as a curate at Little Brickhill in 1672!) There was no dispute about this, particularly in view of the wording of Benedict Ithell’s will, which mentioned his cousin, Samuel Clarke. However, Martha’s will was properly drawn up and witnessed by men who knew her. Thomas’ claim to the Ithell estate was water-tight. As a means of refuting any further disputes about his inheritance, Harwood arranged for Hitchin’s Richard Tristram to interview the witnesses to Martha’s signature and draw up an affidavit which was incorporated into an “Exemplification” of his rights as Martha’s legitimate heir, issued by the Court of Chancery (partly reproduced below):
Tristram’s itemised bill is included in the bundle at HALS. It was £6 2s 2d well spent by Thomas! This is an epitome of what was written in the Exemplification:
The three witnesses to Martha’s will were interviewed at The Sun Inn, Hitchin. They confirmed that they had witnessed her signing the will in a room in the mansion of Temple Dinsley. They were: Edward Kitchiner of Offley Holes (aged about 40), yeoman, who had known Harwood ‘many years’; James Witney, a butcher of Gosmore, Ippollitts, who added that Martha had “expressed great satisfaction in having settled her affairs” and James Ware, a gardener at Temple Dinsley (aged about 25) who had known Harwood for three years and Martha for a year and a half. Ware said that he had seen Martha make her will on 3 April 1767 on one sheet of paper marked with a letter and that the signature was in her handwriting. Other witnesses were also interviewed. James Garth, a gentleman aged about fifty years, who had known Harwood for fifteen years and Martha for ‘many years’ testified that she had owned property at Great and Little Wymondley and that there was an entry in the Manor Court book that she had ‘surrendered this property to the use of her will’. A verified copy of this was shown. Tristam Lawrence Times, a gentleman of Hitchin aged about 28 years (who had known Harwood for five years and Martha for four years) testified to a similar entry in the Kings Walden Manor Court Book with respect to her holdings there. This action confirmed that Martha intended her will to be invoked. None of these five had known Benedict Clarke. He claimed to be Martha’s ‘cousin and heir in law’ but the Court expressed their view that there were ‘many uncertainties and imperfections’ in Clarke’s case; that he was not ‘able to sufficiently answer the will’ and that his claim was ‘uncertain, untrue and insufficient in law’.
One further point of interest is that the full extent of Martha’s estate became a little clearer from these proceedings as it noted that she had holdings in the counties of Hertfordshire, Middlesex, Bedfordshire, Gloucestershire and Herefordshire.