A History of Preston in Hertfordshire
Mrs Maybrick’s Preston Scrapbook (1953): Part one
When writing the history of Preston was just a twinkle in one’s eye, I mooted the idea to two Preston ladies in a cottage beside Preston Green. Somewhat sniffily, the reaction of one was, ‘Why would you want to do that – it’s already been done’. She was right. Mrs Ann Maybrick (shown right) lovingly compiled a scrapbook history of the village in 1953. I feel a certain affinity with Anne. Her husband, Frederick Maybrick, was the tenant of Preston Hill Farm and employed my father in the 1940s. Ann and her husband moved into what is known today as Reeves Cottage which had been Mum and Dad’s home for almost four years – and where I was fleetingly bred. I had already seen and photographed a poor duplication of the scrapbook at Hertfordshire Archives and Record Office (HALS). There, I also found a news report about its publication which is here reproduced
The history of Preston and Langley has been put on record – mainly thanks to the efforts of one woman. Pictured here, with the unique village book she compiled in 1953, is Mrs Ann Maybrick of Crunnells Green, Preston. Mrs Maybrick was asked to produce the book for a competition held by the WI to mark the Coronation – and was very surprised at the time when it beat all the other Hertfordshire entries! Since then, the book has become a treasured possession in Preston. It has been in such demand that four copies have been made and the villagers take it in turns to look after the original. ‘It is enormously popular’, admits Mrs Maybrick, ‘It has been round and round the village’. This isn’t surprising, since the work is a readable and fascinating account of Preston and Langley village life from Domesday times (when Preston was called ‘Wedelee’) until 1953. It uses paintings and drawings done by people in the villages, old maps carefully copied by Mrs Maybrick and old photographs.
It’s beautifully bound with leather from Russell’s tan yards in Hitchin – and an inscription records the fact that Russell’s also supplied the leather used to bind the Queen’s Coronation prayer-book and Bible. ‘I went to see Mr Percy Russell and asked him for some leather’, recalls Mrs Maybrick. ‘He said I could pay him later – and he never sent us the bill’. Mrs Maybrick started writing and compiling the book during the Second World War. ‘I used to sit in the old village farm office by the phone on fire- watch,’ she said. ‘There were always several people with me who had lived in the village and I used to pick their brains for information.’ Compiling
the book also meant trips to St Mary’s Church in Hitchin where Mrs Maybrick would spend hours in a ‘little dusty room’ looking through parish records. Some of the photographs in the book are old postcards copied at the old Andrew’s Chemists in Brand Street and others were taken later. All the Coronation festivities have been faithfully recorded on camera – there’s the wonderful photo of all the Preston village people gathered around as the Coronation sapling was planted on the village green. The ‘sapling’ is of course now a large flourishing oak tree opposite the Red Lion pub. The book also tells the story of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee – held on June 22, 1897 when a total of £31 18s 4d was collected from which a mug, an orange and a bun was presented to every school child. Records like these are supremely important to a village like Preston where many of the older people find that village life is declining. Mrs Maybrick is very sad that the WI exists no longer – it closed a few years ago as there was no-one left to be on the committee. But Mrs Maybrick can rest assured that she has provided her village with something that will always remain.”
(Above) The crocheted cover and leather binding of the Scrapbook
(Above) Title page and preface beautifully drawn and penned by WM (Billy) Moffoot
Preston in times past was known as Wedelee. It seems to have been tied up with the manor of Temple Dinsley and was presumably the village part was mentioned in Domesday Book, but all under the heading of Deneslai. "Nineteen villaines, seven cottagers and two mills. One meadow, common pasture and wood to feed 300 hogs." Which left the Manor, "Seven borders, six servants and one French Almswoman of the King." The first mention of Preston as such was in the time of the Knights Templars and there is an unsubstantiated theory that the priest in charge of the Chapel of Ease attached to Temple Dinsley may have had a house in the village - the Priest's Tun or House. Cussans in his History of Hertfordshire says, "at Preston there formerly existed a chapel of ease to the church of Hitchin, served by chaplains from the monastry of Elstow. No trace of this building now remains, but in its place is a plain brick edifice which was built by the late Thomas Harwood Darton Esq. Divine Service is held in this chapel every Sunday by a curate from the mother church. On weekdays it is used as a school for the benefit of poor children living in this outlying district of the Parish of Hitchin." This building is still used as a school by the children of Preston and Langley. Preston grew from the small hamlet of Domesday times until, in 1894, an old map shows it as a complete village with its own church-school, miller, bakehouse, butcher, two shops, a tailor, a wheelwright, a carpenter, a carter and several flourishing farms. Names of families still in Preston appear in the Churchwardens' Overseers' books of collections of rates for the poor law as far back as 1714 when a Burr is mentioned. In 1821 when a census of the village was taken, there were 70 dwellings and among the occupants were Currells, Walkers, Dartons, Jeeves, Palmers and Sharpes. The people of Preston were employed in the village, at Temple Dinsley and on the farms and the women supplemented the wages, in 1884, 10/- a week for a farm labourer, by plaiting straw for the Luton Hat Industry and picking stones off the fields for the farmers. Within living memory, the village has changed a great deal. Ease of transport to Luton and Hitchin killed the local trades and the only employer of labour was the Lord of the Manor once again. At the beginning of the century a great many of the cottages and also two of the farms were pulled down, and it is only recently that more people have wanted houses in the village when it is possible for them to get work further afield. Since the war, a row of Swedish timber Council Houses have gone up and several new houses have been built privately. The Village Green The centre of village life. Here was held annually, on the last Wednesday and Thursday of October, a Sheep Fair and the many paths across the Green are said to have started as sheep tracks. The fair developed later into a purely fun fair until it stopped at the beginning of the first World War. The men of the village today remember their zeal in picking up acorns to sell to the pig-keeping villagers to gain a penny or two to spend at the Fair. The Well on the Green was the gift of William Henry Darton, son of the Thomas Harwood Darton, who had built the school. It was dug up in the hot dry summer of 1872 when most of the ponds had dried up. It was bored in the rock 226 ft. down. Before that all the water in the village was drawn from the many ponds by the side of the road. The stones used in making the roads acted as a filter and the water was said to be always clear. The pond at the edge of the Green when cleaned out was discovered to be so deep that to anyone standing in the bottom the chimneys of the Red Lion were not visible. There are other stories of dead kittens floating in ponds from which water was being drawn to boil the cabbage but no one seemed any the worse. The water from the new well was considered to be very good. One young man, ill in Hitchin Hospital, asked his old father to bring some water from Preston as he could not drink the Hitchin water. His father spilt it on the way down so filled up his can in Hitchin, never thinking the son would know, but when he drank it he just turned over and died! A map of 1884 shows the position of houses now demolished and gives an idea of the village activities. The bonfire site was on the Green opposite the present Preston House. The Carpenter's Shop was used for concerts by the young Pryors. Mr. Smith, the carpenter, owned one of the first threshing and dressing machines in the district. When the engine drawing the machine was on the road, it was preceeded by a man carrying a red flag. The straw plaiting schools were kept by a Mrs. Peters and a Mrs. Stratton. Here, the children were taught the different types of plaits, after school hours, and were very strictly kept to their work, though they were none of them very old. Tom Sharp, the butcher, killed pigs for the villagers and also cut their hair. Mr. Robinson, the tailor, lived almost next door to where his daughter, Mrs. Harry Worthington, lives today. The Proprietor of the Red Lion also extracted teeth.
The Parish Meeting The Preston Parish Meeting was constituted under the Local Government Act (1894). The Meeting first assembled on December 4th 1894, when Mr. MacMillan was elected chairman and it was decided not to apply for the status of a Parish Council. The Meeting was at that time responsible for appointing a representative of the hamlet on the Rural District Council and Mr. R. de V. Pryor was elected to that post. The upkeep of the roads was also the responsibility of the Parish, and in March 1895 Mr T Ashton and Mr Henry James were appointed Overseers and Mr Charles Davis, Waywarden. It is of interest to note that, in 1898, it was decided to refuse an application by the county council to make that part of the road from Ley Green to Gosmore passing through the village into a main road. The Chairmanship of the Preston Parish Meeting was held by:
Mr. Frederick O. MacMillan 1894 - 1897 Rev. Bamlet N. Switzer 1897 - 1900 Mr. Frederick O. MacMillan 1900 - 1901 Mr. Ralston de V. Pryor 1901 - 1915 Mr. Reginald J. W. Dawson 1915 - 1937 Mr. Frederick O. Blanchard 1937 - 1945 Mr. William Darton 1945 Mr. Frederick B. Geidt 1945 -
Under the Local Government Act 1894, a joint Burial Board was established for the parishes of Hitchin, Preston and Langley. Canon Hensley was the first representative of Preston and subsequently the village was represented by the vicars of Hitchin. When St. Martin's Church was built at Preston in 1900, burials of all denominations took place in the graveyard attached to the Church and the yearly fees to the Board became a burden on the village. Not until 1951 was an order made by the Hertfordshire County Council excluding the parishes of Preston and Langley from the area of the Hitchin Burial Act's Joint Committee. In 1895 a 1/- rate realized £359 4s 5d. Under the Education Act (1902), the parish was asked to elect one of the School Managers and in 1903, Mrs. Barrington-White was elected, being followed by Mr. H. E. Seebohm, The Hon. Mrs Fellowes, The Hon. Mrs Douglas Vickers, Lt. Col. Ian Denistoun, Mrs. H. E. Seebohm and Mrs. Puxley. Under the Education Act of 1944, the school was given the status of a Controlled School and in 1947, Mr. Derrick Seebohm and Mrs. F. Maybrick were appointed the representatives of the parish on the Board of Managers. In 1928, the thanks of the Meeting were conveyed to Mr. Douglas Vickers for the gift of a field to be used as a Sports Ground. It was agreed that the cost of upkeep should be charged to the Parish, but a Trust was formed, placing it under the control of the Hitchin Rural District Council (RDC). In 1945 Mr. Blanchard resigned the Chairmanship of the Meeting as a protest against the action of the Housing Committee of the Hitchin RDC. No Chairman was elected in his place so a Special Assembly had to be convened by Mr. F. Reynolds, as the Parish Representative on the Hitchin RDC. Mr. W. Darton was elected but as he left the village on short notice, the same procedure had to be followed in the same year for the election of Mr Geidt as Chairman. One of the features of the village was the five elm trees which stood on the Green . Certain of these trees were reported to be in a dangerous condition but it was decided that it was unnecessary for any of them to be felled. The Green was vested in the Lord of the Manor who was represented by the Trustees of J. Barrington-White (dec’d) with whom and with the County Surveyor and the Clerk of the Hitchin R.D.C. Much correspondence followed.
On January 30th 1946, the County Surveyor wrote, "I am not aware there is any suggestion the trees should be felled" . Before that letter was delivered, the first tree had been felled. Great efforts were made, without success, to stop the senseless destruction. The Chairman, by accepting full responsibility, was able to delay, for a few days, the felling of the historic "Maypole" tree in the centre of the Green which had been planted to commemorate the Coronation of George III.
As a result of this disaster, arrangements were made to purchase from the Lord of the Manor all the land which was still vested in the Lordship - the Village Green itself, Crunnell's Green and the verge between St. Alban's Highway and the east boundary of Temple Dinsley. The price paid was £5. A public subscription list was opened and, acting on the advice of the Conservator of the Forests of the City of London, lime and thorn trees were planted to replace the elms on the Green.
One woman’s history of two villages (North Herts Gazette: 23 August 1979)