A History of Preston in Hertfordshire
Grt grandmother: Mary Currell (nee Fairey)
While single, Mary Fairey had a liaison with my great grandfather, William Cox, which resulted in the birth of my grandmother, Emily Fairey. Soon afterwards, she married Thomas Currell. Together they had three children. Then, Thomas disappeared and mysteriously died. Mary continued to produce children out of wedlock (three) and moved from where she had lived in Preston at Back Lane from her birth to one of the hovels overlooking Preston Green. Here she died in 1924 and was buried at St Martin’s, Preston, Herts.
and her husband, Thomas Currell
Mary Fairey was born in July 1842 and was eventually baptised at Kings Walden on 7 May 1843. Her father was the labourer, Samuel Fairey and her mother, Elizabeth (nee Ward).
Mary was born and bred at Back Lane, Preston and the censuses of 1851 and 1861 record her as being a straw plaiter aged nine and then nineteen. In early 1863, Mary had a liaison with William Cox, probably at Hitchin which resulted in the birth of a daughter, my grandmother, on 23 December 1963. She applied to William for a contribution for the maintenance of their child on 7 May 1864:
We can only guess at why Mary wanted the details to be heard in a cleared court. Embarrassment? Would she not have emerged in a good light? Did she not want the incident to be salacious local knowledge? Emily was baptised at St Marys, Hitchin on 26 June 1864:
Three years later, she married the widower, Thomas Currell, also at St Mary’s (both marked the register):
Of Thomas Currell
Thomas was baptized on 18 September 1831 at Kings Walden. His parents were Joseph Currell (a shepherd) and Susan (nee Fairey) who had married four months earlier and were living at Hill End, near Preston. In January 1833, Joseph declared on oath that Thomas was then about a year and a half old, which means he was probably born in August 1831.
In 1841, Thomas was at his widowed grandmother’s home in Preston, which was two houses away from his parents’ dwelling at Back Lane. Ten years later he had left home but was still in Preston, living and working as a horse-keeper at Home Farm on the Hitchin Road. By 1850, he had met and courted Mary Ann Watson. She was the daughter of John (a labourer) and Sarah (nee Dollimore) and was living in Gosmore, a village between Preston and Hitchin. Mary Ann was baptised at Ippollitts on 21 August 1834. In December 1950, an order was made on Thomas Webb of Preston to pay 1/6d a week to support Mary Ann’s illegitimate child, whose birth as William Watson was registered in the spring of 1850 when Mary Ann was about sixteen years old. I have been unable to find Thomas Webb in the 1851 census, though there was a Webb family living at Preston in 1841 and a Thomas Webb married Emma Bottoms late in 1859 in the Hitchin area. Thomas and Mary were married on 28 January 1855 at Ippollitts Parish Church:
(It’s worth noting the original error in the recording of the brides and groom’s father. The first names the fathers of folk who were married at Ippollitts on 18 February 1855. This means that the details of Thomas’ marriage were kept, not in the register book, but in some other document and were copied into the marriage register at least six weeks after his marriage. This is how mistakes can be perpetuated and is another warning lesson of being aware of errors in parish records.) A few months later a son, George, was born. On 16 August 1857, Thomas and Mary Ann decided to have William, George and John baptised at Ippollitts. All were named as Currell and Thomas was declared as father of each child (see below). William was also noted as Thomas’ son in the 1861 census:
1861 census, Gosmore, Herts
In the meantime, Thomas had his first brush with the law. The Hertfordshire Mercury carried this report in May 1856: ‘William Winch and Thomas Currell of Preston were charged with setting snares to take hares on land belonging to Charles Chomley Hale Esq. at Kings Walden. Winch who is an old offender and was seen to set the snares, did not appear. Currell was seen by one of Mr Hales’ keepers to follow Winch to where the snares stood. Both the defendants had been at work in the same field. Currell having borne a good character, the Bench ordered him to pay 5s and issued a warrant against Winch.’ By 1859, two daughters had arrived - Mary, in the spring of 1858, and Clara who was born on Christmas Day 1859. The family were living at Gosmore and Thomas was a farm labourer. Then, during 1861, a daughter, Harriet , was born and died in infancy. In early July 1862, when Mary Ann was heavily pregnant she was involved in an altercation with a neighbour:
About two months after this altercation, tragedy struck. Thomas’ wife, Mary Ann, died on 28 August 1862 from puerperal fever. This is an infection of the placenta site which occurs shortly after a woman has given birth. In those days, the infection was often transmitted by the mid-wife who introduced life and death. Mary Ann left behind four children, the oldest of whom was nine years old.
Burial at Ippollitts in 1862
In early January, 1864 (when he walked from Gosmore to Preston to the home of his uncle, Samuel Fairey, probably to visit Mary Fairey and his newly born daughter) Thomas was involved in an incident which was widely reported in the news (Link: Preston Hill Robbery). He passed a dying man at the bottom of Preston Hill. The case is fully recounted on another web page, but I have amalgamated his witness statements to give an impression of Thomas Currell, the man. Thomas Currell (aged 33): ‘I am a labouring man, living at Gosmore. On Monday evening, the 11th January, I was going from home up to Preston. I started about 25 minutes past 7. I looked at my clock before I started out of the house. It is about a quarter of an hour’s walk from my house to the bottom of Preston Hill. When I got to the bottom, I saw a man lying by the side of the road with his feet on the rails and his head on the road. He seemed quite a strange man to me. He was lying on the left hand side of the road coming from Preston to Hitchin. His head was next to the road. He was lying across-wise and his feet were next to the rails. He was then lying on his side. I went up to him and hallooed loudly three times - as loud as I could call and he made me no answer. I said, “Wake up, don’t lie here.” He made a moaning noise; I thought he was snoring. I stopped with him about two minutes I took him to be drunk and fast asleep. The first man that I met (was ****. I said to him) “You have to bind some hay up tomorrow at Hill End.” and he said he would be there towards night. I said to ****, “There is a man lying at the bottom of the hill fast asleep and I can’t wake him.” When I got to Preston, I told my uncle and John Jeeves’ son (aged 25, a straw plaiter in 1861). I did not interfere with him at all and the reason why I did not do so was that I helped a drunken man a few weeks ago and when I got him up, he abused me and I said I would never help another drunken man. I stopped at Preston about an hour and a half. It was about five minutes to nine by the Temple clock when I started from Preston. In a little better than five minutes, I got down to the bottom of the hill. The man was lying there still on the side of the road, only he had been moved and his head was turned towards Hitchin and his feet towards Preston and he was lying on his back. I called to him again and he was making the same noise as before, but he did not answer me. I didn’t stop more than a minute and went on towards Gosmore. I did not touch the body the second time that I passed. I should not have seen the body if he had not had on white trousers. When I came from Preston the second time, I met a person leading a horse I spoke to the man and said, “Goodnight.” and he answered me. I said, “There is a man drunk as a pig at the bottom of the hill.” That was an hour and a half after I first saw the body. I thought the man was drunk because he was snoring. His hat was lying in the middle of the road; it looked like a billy-cock.’ (Jan 1864) This statement gives an insight into the world of Thomas – even including some of the expressions he used. The most striking characteristic was the reason he gave for not helping a man he thought was drunk. He had recently helped an inebriated man, but as he had been “abused” he had decided he would never give such assistance again. Once crossed, he would not forget the slight – holding the injury close to his chest. Somewhat bizarrely, the news was also reported in The Times newspaper - the only instance of anyone from my paternal family being mentioned in its pages. Ironically, his name was misspelt.
Thomas and the 1864 death of a miller at Preston Hill
Married life for Mary (nee Fairey) and Thomas Currell
Thomas was eleven years older than Mary when they married on 2 November 1867. There were first cousins - and they settled at Gosmore. The following was noted in the 1871 census:
This was a mixed household with children from two mothers Mary Ann nee Watson and Mary nee Fairey) and two fathers (Thomas Currell and William Cox).
The baptism of Henry Currell at St Mary’s, Hitchin
There was a strange incident in 1874 which may explain what happened to Thomas later. On 13 March, he was convicted of vagrancy and sentenced to one calendar month of hard labour in Bedfordshire County Gaol. It was also noted that he had previously served a sentence in Hertford Gaol. This is the last time Thomas appears in any record that I have found to date. The Vagrancy Act of 1824 made it an offence to sleep rough or to beg. Anyone found homeless or trying to cadge subsistence money could be arrested and punished with up to a month of hard labour. In 1874, Thomas was just forty-three years old. He had been married to Mary for a little more than six years. He had several children for whom to care. So why was he either sleeping rough or begging in Bedfordshire? In time, no doubt I’ll track down a news article about this. What was the occasion of his previous spell in Hertford Gaol? The 1856 poaching episode only resulted in a small fine. Did he fail to pay this and was imprisoned as a result? What was the trigger for his odd and antisocial behaviour? From the Preston Hill case, we know Thomas would bear a grudge. Had Mary grossly offended him? However much we speculate, the bald fact is that from 1874, Thomas is untraceable. In the census of 1881, Mary Currell (who was then living in a ‘two-up, two-down’ cottage at Back Lane, Preston) stated that she was the head of the household in the census. Thomas does not appear in that census.
The last sighting of Thomas in records
The 1881 census - Back Lane, Preston
Comparing the results of the 1871 and 1881 censuses, Mary produced three children during this decade - Lizzy (born Sept Qtr, 1872), Phillis (Sept Qtr 1875) and Frank (Dec Qtr 1880). Frank was baptised at St Mary’s, Hitchin on 14 January 1883: Now, we have to delve into murky waters - although Thomas was still alive (Mary stated she was married in 1881) and the baptism record states that Thomas was Frank’s father, who in fact were the fathers of these three children? From Lizzie’s marriage certificate (1897), her father was Thomas Currell (who was now deceased):
At the launch of the Preston History book, a cousin gave me a wad of certificates which included Phillish (sic) Currell’s birth certificate. This had a blank where the father’s name and occupation should be written. Thomas (despite what she avowed at her marriage) was not her father. I then ordered Frank Currell’s birth certificate and sure enough his father’s name and occupation were not completed. This means that between 1875 and 1879, Mary had two children by a partner/s other than her husband Thomas! They were likely conceived and born at Gosmore. As my grandmother, Emily was twelve when the first of these was born and seventeen when the second came along, I’m sure she knew the identity of Mary’s partner(s).
If Phillis lied about her father’s identity when she married, one wonders whether one can rely on Lizzie’s statement that her father was Thomas. In 1875, Thomas was aged forty-four and Mary, thirty- three. Was Mary’s infidelity the trigger for Thomas leaving home? As to when Thomas died, in a mini- count of Preston held in 1886 Mary tersely commented ‘husband away’ (see below)
The 1891 census revealed that Mary was now a widow. She and four of her children, together with her widower brother, Amos and his three children were living in a four-roomed house at Back Lane:
A decade later in 1901, Mary was still living in the same house with four children and three grandchildren. She was one of a few villagers still attempting to earn a living by straw plaiting:
What does this mean? That Thomas had left home; was back in gaol; had emigrated; was in an asylum. Yet his family had some contact because Mary described herself as a widow in 1891 and when her daughter, Lizzie married in 1897, she said that Thomas was ‘deceased’ - so they had received news of Thomas’ demise. I note that when his daughter Emily married despite saying that her father was Thomas Fairy (sic) she did not add that he was deceased (although she was not duty bound to so do). Despite repeated searches, frustratingly I cannot find a note of Thomas’ death anywhere.
The 1911 census showed Mary as still living at Back Lane. It also confirmed that Mary had given birth to seven children, one of which had died before 1911.This was Albert who was buried at St Ippollitts on 4 June 1875, aged five.
The ramshackle cottages at Back Lane were demolished in around 1916 and Mary moved to a small cottage near Bunyan’s Chapel at Preston Green. It had two bedrooms and one living room. This had a polished, bare-brick floor. There was a little table and a chest of drawers in the room and on either side of the kitchen range (on which she sometimes cooked small birds skewered on a poker) were two chairs. She shared this home with her son, Frank.
Here she died, aged eighty on 1 December 1924 from ‘senile decay and chronic bronchitis’. The death was registered by her daughter, Emily Wray. She is remembered as a ‘tiny, slight, little lady’ and as being ‘very poor’. She was one of only two village families who were exempt from paying school fees because of her poverty - a sad epitaph. She was buried at St Martins, Preston on 6 December 1924 in an unmarked grave, the position of which is shown here:
1921 census - Church Road, Preston
Photograph of Mary Currell ?
These two photographs were shown to me by Arthur Wray’s grandson, Rodney Wray of Hitchin. He didn’t know their subject’s names. Is it possible to identify them? Other photographs in this batch included Arthur Wray and his family and his wife’s parents - so Arthur (who was born in 1883, the first son of Alfred and Emily Wray) was no stranger to photography. It would be natural for him to have a photo of his grandmother, Mary Currell. I showed the photo to my Aunt Maggie Whitby (nee Wray). She would have been sixteen when Mary died. I asked her if it was Mary Currell. She said ‘Yes’. But I wasn’t convinced by the manner of her answer that it was true - she seemed to want to get the question quickly ‘out of the way’. Another reason to think that it may be Mary is that the man in the associated photo looks like a Currell to me. However, a cousin, Phyllis Fountain, who was twelve when Mary died, described Mary as a ‘tiny, slight, little lady’ - which is not how I would describe the woman in the photograph. You now know as much as I do about the provenance of the photograph.
The children of Thomas Currell and Mary (nee Fairey) Currell
George Currell (born 1855) was living with his parents in 1861 and 1871. He was described as a labourer in 1871. Then he cannot be traced (although there is a marriage of a George Currell in the Hitchin registration district in the September quarter of 1877). Mary (Ann) Currell (born 21 June 1857) was also with her parents in 1861 and 1871 and with Thomas and his second wife in 1881. She then married William Fairey, a labourer, at St Mary’s, Hitchin on 26 September 1885, when my grandfather Alfred Wray was a witness:
William and Mary had five children (their dates and places of birth indicate the families movements):
Albert Currell born 1882 Preston (before their marriage) Annie Fairey born 1886 Preston Margaret Fairey born 1887 Preston George Fairey born 1890 Kings Walden Daisy Fairey born 1895 Kings Walden
In 1891, the family were at Leggatts (a four-roomed farm cottage), Kings Walden where they were still living in 1911. The farmer was Alfred Brown who had also been living at Preston and William was one of his labourers - he was described as a horse keeper in 1911.
William was buried at Kings Walden on 12 April 1934 and Mary on 16 February 1942. Shortly before her death, she had been living alone in a cottage next to the Farmers Boy inn, Langley, near Hitchin:
Now the sad tale of Clara Currell (born 1859). Remember that she was only two years old when her mother died. She was with her cousin, George Watson and his wife, Elizabeth at Corries Yard, Hitchin in 1881. The couple had a new baby and Clara described herself as a ‘monthly nurse’. She next appears in the records as giving birth to a son, Alfred Walter Currell, in the Hitchin Workhouse. He was baptised at St Mary, Hitchin on 31 March 1885. Clara was still in the Workhouse in 1891 - but of Alfred there was no sign. Mother and son have not been traced after that time. Emily Fairey (born 23 December 1863) See link: Emily Wray Henry/Harry Currell (born 23 5 1869). Harry (a roadman in 1901) lived with his mother at Back Lane, Preston until 1903, when he died and was buried at St Martins’ Preston on 31 January, aged thirty- five:
Lizzie Currell (born June Qtr 1872) was a domestic servant at Lytton Villa, East Barnett in 1891. She then married Ernest Jenkins at St Mary’s Hitchin, on 12 June 1897:
The family was living near Lizzie’s mother in a two-roomed hovel at Back Lane in 1901 when Ernest was working as a farm labourer. By 1911, they had moved to a house with four rooms on the north side of Chequers Lane, Preston, where they were still living in 1921. Ernest was a horseman in 1911 and was working as a labourer for Mr Vickers at Home Farm in 1921. In 1939, the family were living at Castle Farm, Preston and once again Ernest was a farm labourer/horseman
Ernest and Lizzie had eight known children who were all born at Preston:
Inez Jenkins Currell - born June Qtr 1897 Herbert Jenkins - born June Qtr 1899, buried at St Martins, Preston 2 Dec 1901 Henry Jenkins - born December 1900 May Jenkins - born June Qtr 1903 Frederick Ernest Jenkins - born Dec Qtr 1905 Richard Jenkins - born 22 March 1908 Violet Jenkins - born 3 December 1910 Edie/Edith Jenkins - born Sept Qtr 1913
Lizzie was buried at St Martins, Preston on 29 January 1941. Ernest and his daughter, Violet, were at 17 Chequers Lane, Preston in 1950, one of the Swedish Cottages. Ernest died between 1954 and 1964. Phyllis Currell (born 2 July 1875) See link: Phyllis Jenkins Frank Currell (born 1880 - he didn’t know the day in 1939 - see above) Frank lived with his mother until her death in 1924. In 1939 he was a farm labourer living with Ernest and Lizzie Currell at Castle Farm. He was still living with his brother-in-law, Ernest Jenkins, at 17 Chequers Lane when he died on 18 March 1949. He was buried at St Martins, Preston on 23 March 1949.
Fred(erick) Currell (born 13 September 1885) was a gardener when he married at St Martins, Preston in 1909 and when he dealt with Frank Currell’s estate forty years later in 1949.
Two months after their marriage in 1909, their first son, Frederick William Currell was born at Preston. In 1911, the small family were living in three rooms in a small house at Maidencroft Lane, Gosmore and Frederick was a gardener. Frederick and Harriet then moved to St Albans, Herts after 1912, returning from there in April 1918 and living at Hitchwood for a month (when they sent their son to Preston School).
Frederick snr died at St Albans in the June Qtr of 1955 and Harriet in July,1991 when she was 102 years old.
The 1921 census revealed that the family was living at 51 Albert Street, St Albans and that Fred was working for the Dean of St Albans. Their children had been born at Preston (Frederick W), Gosmore (Winifred) and St Albans (Reginald). In 1939, Fred was living at 7 Pageant Street, St Albans:
This census also announced that Mary had given birth to yet another child out of wedlock - Fred (Freddy) Currell (born Dec Qtr 1884).