A History of Preston in Hertfordshire
Nina K Freebody - Preston’s Historian
Nina’s parents, Ernest Walter Coleman and Laura Maria (nee Tansey) lived in the Leicestershire village of Sapcote. This community lies near Hinckley and between Nuneaton and Leicester. When teenagers, Ernest worked as a labourer at the stone quarry where his father was a blacksmith and Laura was a ‘runner-on’ in a hosiery factory. Ernest and Laura married in the spring of 1915 and Nina Kate was born four years later on 2 April 1919 at Sapcote. She attended Hinkley Grammar School and then graduated at Leicester University achieving a BA in history which prepared the way for a busy and productive life in local and general history. In 1938, when she was 19, Nina married Robert Freebody at Stockton- on-Tees in the north-east of England. The couple had four children.
Following her teacher’s training, Nina taught at schools in Leicester including the city’s Collegiate Girls School for several years. This academy was of particular and personal interest to Nina as she wrote a history of the school for the century between 1867 and 1967. (See above) Her book contained 64 pages together with eleven photographs. It took three years to research and Nina harnessed the energy of sixth-form girls who wrote letters of enquiry, conducted interviews and studied historical material. In a forward, the director of education for Leicester, Elfred Thomas, made this comment about Nina’s book: ‘...it has been written with a scholar’s conscientious regard for accuracy in every detail, but its strength lies in its sensitivity to atmosphere, its flair for catching that deep, abiding love and loyalty which has motivated all who “belong” to the Collegiate....’
‘Red Roofs’, Back Lane, Preston
In 1967, Nina and Robert moved to ‘Red Roofs’, a bungalow at Back Lane, Preston (shown above). Nina was appointed as Head of History at Collenswood School, Stevenage while Robert, a lecturer in Engineering, worked at Letchworth and Hatfield Polytechnic. It was while she was working at Stevenage that Nina studied for her MA degree. At some stage she also took an English Local History Course. Then, Nina retired from teaching in 1979. Nina passed away in January 1996, aged 76. Robert died in October of the following year.
Nina’s published work
Between 1971 and 1990, her consuming fascination with local history inspired several articles in magazines such as, ‘Hertfordshire Countryside’ and ‘Hertfordshire Past and Present’, the journal of the Hertfordshire Association for Local History. Sifting through this mass of material reveals Nina’s fascination with education and local history. Indeed, she was included among the patrons of the book, ‘Hertfordshire in History’, a collection of eighteen essays edited by Dr Doris Jones-Baker. The first of her pieces fittingly focused on the village she had made her home – Preston. Entitled, ‘A Typical Hertfordshire Village 100 Years Ago’ (1971), Nina compared the hamlet recorded in the census of 1861 with life there in 1961. Twelve years later, in 1973, she wrote two further articles about the village featuring its public houses – The Red Lion and the Chequers. Some of these articles appeared in serial form in Preston’s monthly newsletter. Priory Gardens in the nearby town of Hitchin were featured in ‘Hertfordshire Countryside’ in 1981 and, making the most of her research, Nina wrote on the same subject in Volume One of ‘Old Hitchin Life’, the journal of the Hitchin Historical Society, in the same year. Spending her working life in Stevenage triggered a series of articles in ‘Hertfordshire Countryside’ and ‘Hertfordshire Past and Present’ about somewhat unusual and obscure aspects of the town’s history:
‘The Stevenage Giant’ (1977) ‘When the First Railway Train Passed through Stevenage in 1850’ (1978) ‘Schooling in Shephall: From the Eighteenth Century to the Coming of Stevenage New Town’ (1980) ‘Did the Exiled King of Portugal live in the Rookery?: Some Interesting Residents of a Stevenage Home’ (1982)‘ ‘Clocks and Clockmakers of Stevenage’ (1983) ‘The Throckmartins of Chesfield Manor’ (1983) ‘Brickyards and Brick-makers in Stevenage’ (1990
Nina’s prolific pen also composed: ‘Stories of the Broadwater Smithy: Fact and Fiction’ (1975); Home from Home: Sue Ryder Home, Stagenhoe’ (1984); ‘Industrial Archaeology in Schools’ (1974); ‘Teaching Local History’ (1981) and ‘Leicester Collegiate Schools: Links with Hertfordshire’ (1980).
Behind the text of these articles lies a prodigious amount of study, research and expertise. Consider, for example, her pieces describing the history of Preston’s public houses. What were her sources and how much fact-finding formed the bedrock of her paragraphs? For her articles about Preston, Nina interviewed local residents, acquired their photographs and viewed the interior and loft-spaces of the inns. Also, she would have travelled to Hertford and trawled through the following holdings at Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies (HALS): Temple Dinsley Manorial Rolls from 1710, wills, census returns, the Preston militia list, Piggotts Directory, Preston Rates Book, Hertfordshire newspapers, the Register of Licences in Petty Sessions Records, Victuallers Recognizances and Sales Particulars of Temple Dinsley. Many of these records are in handwriting difficult to decipher; some are in Latin. One long page of a manorial document might give up just a few scraps of relevant information after cutting through the verbiage. Nina would have been a familiar figure at HALS as she pored over papers for hour-upon- hour, painstakingly jotting copious notes of her findings. One article in ‘Hertfordshire Past and Present’ contained no fewer than 32 reference notes! ‘In later life, Nina was happiest at HALS than anywhere else’. Then, the fruits of these studies had to be assimilated and processed to create the finished articles. Nina also used her imagination to ‘flesh out’ her story – the Preston robbery case of 1864 ‘was rare but it no doubt provided a source of conversation for many weeks afterwards. Life was uneventful and the most serious crime in Preston was poaching for rabbits’. As well as her magazine and newspaper articles, Nina also lectured for the Stevenage Society. One subject was ‘Local History in Schools’ which was delivered at Stevenage Museum. A news release commented that she had built a large collection of local material which would illustrate her talk; ‘particular emphasis would be placed on how original documents can be presented to suit the capabilities of children’. She was also ‘an active member of a number of working parties (connected with the County Education Department) and was devising an environmental study course for local schools’.
Nina’s research and methodology
A profile of Nina
Along the lanes of Preston, Nina found a soul-mate with a similar academic background and a passion for local history – Liz Hunter of ‘Rose Cottage’, Chequers Lane - ‘someone on the same wavelength with whom she could share her enthusiasm’. Often Liz would return home to find, in her porch, notes or a photocopy of some data that an excited Nina had left thinking that Liz would find the research of interest. Liz remembers Nina as a ‘loyal, honest friend; a discreet person who thought of others before herself’. Nina was a humble academic with no arrogance; seeking no glory for herself despite her prolific output. Occasionally, she would ask Liz to proof- read her articles before submitting them for publication. She was a ‘determined person’ – ‘when she wanted to do something, it went onto a mental list which was acted upon’. (There is evidence of this, for in one article Nina comments that the story of the Swains of Preston ‘will be told elsewhere’. She also advised the Herts Local History Council of work-in-progress: ‘The Whittingham Family in North Herts: 18 and 19 Cents.’.)
Nina and Robert
Nina was ‘conscientious – everything had to be done properly. She took a pride in doing things well; whether it was providing tea and biscuits or her research’. Her work was tidy and structured. ‘Papers were tucked into folders and files which were deposited into a grey filing cabinet in her study in the front room together with an extensive card system’. This organization reflected her teacher’s training and experience. Liz also recalled that ‘in the days when heads of departments were allowed to devise their own CSE courses, Nina took advantage of this option and gained accreditation for a local history and archaeology course at Collenswood School. This was the only such course in a Hertfordshire secondary school. She realized that the less able student needed the stimulus of local fieldwork, local museum artefacts and photos and local archive documents to motivate them to learn the methods and the results of a junior historian’.
After her retirement, Nina spent more time in her garden. In the 1980s, she entered the Harkness Rose Competition (organized by the Stevenage Gazette) for the first time – and won the second prize of three roses from a new collection by Peter Harkness. Entrants of the contest had to submit three names for newly-bred roses and Nina’s choices were ‘Gracious Lady, Petit-chou and Roseto Beauty’. Typically, when she was interviewed by the Gazette reporter, she said that she was hoping to compile ‘a major work on the gardens and nurserymen of Hertfordshire’ Although this tome was never written, Nina did produce an article for the Royal National Rose Society’s magazine in the autumn of 1983 entitled, ‘Hitchin Priory Roses’.
Nina with Peter Harkness
Until the Women’s Institute produced a history ‘Scrapbook’ of Preston in 1953, villagers had written little of their home. From 1967, Nina eagerly shared the results of her research and knowledge about Preston which inspired and intrigued her contemporaries to want to know more. Her pioneering work prepared the way for this web site.
To read Nina’s articles about Preston (which are fully transcribed), use the following links:
A Typical Hertfordshire Village 100 Years Ago’ ‘The Red Lion Inn’ ‘The Chequers Inn and the Horse and Groom’ ‘Mighty Knights from the Heart of a Quiet Village’
Sources and acknowledgments: HALS. I am grateful for the contributions of Robert Freebody, jnr. and Liz Hunter.
It was thought that none of Nina’s papers or workings had survived but in July 2014 an uncatalogued holding was discovered at HALS which had been deposited by her husband, Robert, shortly after her death. The bundle is noteworthy because it contains a typed History of Stagenhoe which was commissioned by the Sue Ryder Foundation in around 1982 as well as Nina’s handwritten notes for a talk to St Pauls Walden ladies about Stagenhoe. It is clear that the talk was read verbatim from these notes. From her marginal jottings, it appears that it was illustrated with slides. Also among the documents was correspondence which reveals how Nina worked. Remember that although only thirty years ago, research aids that we take for granted today such as e-mails, scanning documents, digital photography, using a computer keyboard to produce letters and browsing distant archive collections online were unheard of. If an historian had a question, he or she had no choice but to visit or write (in long-hand in Nina’s case) a beseeching letter and trust in the co-operation and ability of the archivist. What follows is an account of how Nina gathered information about a steam car driven by Lord Caithness of Stagenhoe in 1860. The Hitchin historian, Reginald Hine, had written an unpublished History of Stagenhoe in 1935. Nina discovered his manuscript at Hertfordshire Archives and Record Office (she refers to it in her talk and in her own History) and was intrigued by one paragraph in which Hine stated, ‘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’. Nina found apparent corroboration of this story of the Earl’s careering around the local countryside in his steam carriage (top speed 10 mph; cruising speed 7-8 mph) at Hitchin Museum. She wrote, ‘Oddly, I have found a photograph of the Earl (in the car with a white-clad stoker) in Hitchin Museum...The curator at the museum has always believed that the photo he holds was taken locally by a Hitchin photographer...I have also been told that a photograph of this vehicle is in the hands of an old lady in this area’. Impetus was given to Nina’s researching endeavours as ‘Lady Ryder has expressed great interest in my work. If we could prove that the steam car was used on the estate and along local roads, the photograph could be copied and sold for their charity’.
Now a flurry of letters poured forth from Red Roofs, Back Lane from late 1981 until 1988. The Assistant Keeper of the Road Transport Collection at the Science Museum, South Kensington responded, ‘I have not seen any reference to the use of the vehicle at Stagenhoe Park’, adding, ‘Without documentary proof I would be inclined to discount stories of a journey from Hertfordshire to Scotland as such an arduous journey would surely have been well reported’ and suggested a trawl of local newspapers. Nina later wrote, ‘At present I am combing the local papers of the period to see if there are any references to the Earl’s steam carriage’, This task was doomed to failure - there is no reference to the car in Hertfordshire papers of 1860. The County Archivist at Oxfordshire County Council reported that they had no references to the Earl running a steam locomotive in the streets of Oxford in July 1860. Nina also drew a blank (albeit with suggestions for further research) at the Scottish Record Office. However, the Registrar of Royal Archives, Windsor Castle confirmed that Queen Victoria had seen “Lord Caithness’ curious steam carriage’ at Windsor” and that She had observed that he ‘has much to say for himself as he knows so much’. Nina was to include these comments in her History of Stagenhoe. The archivist at Buckinghamshire County Council (the county in which the builder of the steam car resided) referred Nina to an informative, twenty-page article by AS Heal in ‘The Road Locomotive Society Journal’ of May 1974. She traced a copy of the piece (on which she jotted Heal’s address). The article described in some detail the Earl’s historic 146-mile journey in the steam car from Inverness to Barrogill which hugged the shoreline around the Moray Firth. It also refuted some of the myths perpetuated by Hine. It recounted that a photograph was taken during the jaunt -it is reproduced above, showing Lord and Lady Caithness. Maybe the scene has more to do with a Scottish landscape rather than one in Hertfordshire. Heal also commented that Thomas Rickett, the builder of the car, is the stoker in the photograph (one wonders how he would have reacted to being described as a ‘farm engine driver’). Heal also stated that the carriage was sent by ship to Inverness - a sentence that Nina has arrowed in her copy of the article. So, there was no journey by road from Hertfordshire to Scotland. Dilgently, Nina then wrote to Heal. A copy of her letter survives in the bundle:
Any comments on this letter would be superfluous as Nina’s disbelief in Hine’s earlier comments is clear. Heal responded with faint surprise that a Hitchin man had taken the photograph and asked to be informed of any further information that came to light from Nina’s researches. The two evidently continued to correspond - in 1988, Heal commented that Nina’s ‘electric typewriting, despite arthritis, is very much better than my mono-digital efforts on my machine’. Nina’s talk to the ladies of St Paul’s Walden is not reproduced here. As someone who struggles with proof-reading, it is comforting to note that throughout her script, Nina refers to the Hitchin historian as ‘Hinde’ ! During the lecture, Nina declared (of the photographs of the steam car), ‘Some appear to have circulated in the Hitchin area causing great confusion with a later historian who believed it had been used on local roads’. Also during her talk, Nina couldn’t resist an allusion to her findings at Welei, near Preston. Referring to the deserted, lost village of Stagenhoe she wondered whether ‘one day it will be located’ adding, ‘recently I found the site of the village of Weley (sic) north of Preston with the help of documents at HCRO and the keen eyes of the archaeologist from Letchworth Museum who found early medieval pottery and Roman-British fragments of tiles when we went field walking recently.’ Click here for a link to Nina’s History of Stagenhoe (to follow)
‘The History of the Collegiate Girls School Leicester 1867-1967’ (1967) Bib Id 548971 ‘A Typical Hertfordshire Village 100 Years Ago’ - April 1971. ‘Herts Countryside’: Vol. 25 No. 144 p 26-27 ‘When the First Railway Train Passed Through Stevenage in 1850’ - Sept. 1973: ‘Herts Countryside’: Vol. 28 No. 173 p 39-41. ‘Stories of the Broadwater Smithy, Fact and Fiction’ - Dec. 1975. ‘Herts Countryside’:’Vol. 30 No 200 p 30-31 ‘The Stevenage Giant’ May 1977. ‘Herts Countryside’: Vol. 32 No. 217 p 24-25. ‘Leicester Collegiate Schools: Link with Hertfordshire’. ‘Schooling in Shephall from the 18th Century to the Coming of Stevenage New Town’ - ‘Herts Present and Past’: Spring 1980. ‘Teaching Local History’. March 1981. ‘Herts Environment’ p 11-17. ‘Priory Gardens of Hitchin’. Dec 1981. ‘Old Hitchin Life’: Vol.1 No. 2 p 24-25 ‘Hitchin Priory Gardens in the 18th Century’: Dec. 1981. ‘Herts Countryside’: Vol. 36 No. 272 p 21-22. ‘Did the Exiled King of Portugal live in the Rookery’. Oct. 1982. ‘Herts Countryside’: Vol. 37 No. 282 p 48-50. ‘The Throckmortons of Chesfield Manor’. ‘Herts Past and Present’: Spring 1983. ‘The Clocks and Clockmakers of Stevenage’. ‘Herts Countryside’: April 1983. Vol. 38 No 288. P 33-34 ‘Public Houses of Preston (1): Early History of the Chequers and Horse and Groom’. Oct 1983. ‘Herts Countryside’: Vol.38 No. 294 p 14-15.‘Public Houses of Preston (2): History is Made at the Red Lion’. Nov 1983. ‘Herts Countryside’: Vol.38 No. 295. P 16-17,19. ‘Home from Home: Sue Ryder Home, Stagonhoe’. June 1984. ‘Herts Countryside’ :Vol. 39 p.27. ‘Brickyards and Brickmakers in Stevenage’. Spring 1990. ‘Herts Past and Present’: Vol. 28 p 35-38.
Nina’s known book and articles