The estate of Dinsley was given to the Knights Templar in the twelfth century AD. They were a group of wealthy warrior monks dedicated to keeping the highways of the Holy Land safe for pilgrims. The Knights built a preceptory on the site - Temple Dinsley. This was a cross between a monastery and a manor. It became their most important estate in south-eastern England. They were succeeded by the Knights Hospitalier.Later, in 1542, the manor was granted to Sir Ralph Sadleir - a servant of Henry VIII. In the sixteenth century, Temple Dinsley was sold to Benedict Ithell. On his death, it passed to his sisters, one of whom bequeathed the estate to her steward, Thomas Harwood. The Hertfordshire Militia List s provide striking evidence of Thomas’ social elevation. From 1758-65 he is described as a servant, gentleman’s servant, and even, labourer. Then from 1768-73, he is Thomas Harwood - Esquire!When Thomas died in 1786, he left Temple Dinsley to a young nephew, Joseph Darton. In turn, Joseph was succeeded by his son, Thomas Harwood Darton.
Residents of Temple Dinsley 1800 - 1900
Joseph Darton - he let the house to tenantsHenry Crabb (1795-1830)Thomas HalseyThomas Harwood Darton (1812-1858)Maria Elizabeth Darton - (wife of above died 1869)John Weeks (retired builder d.1879)Henry Brand (magistrate and MP)
The sale of Temple Dinsley in 1873
When the estate of Temple Dinsley came onto the market in 1873, the sale particulars provided a wonderful description of the estate and its various parts (even allowing for the agent’s enthusiasm). Illustrating the way in which Temple Dinsley dominated Preston is the statement that for sale was ‘nearly the entire village...about forty cottages and The Chequers Inn public house’. The estate occupied 560 acres of ‘very fertile land’ nearly all of which was freehold and tithe free. The estate included three farms:
Temple Farm (in the grounds of Temple Dinsley) Poynders End Farm (90 acres) Austage End Farm (41 acres)
These farms together with the mansion provided employment for many of the villagers. The house was described as a ‘fine, old mansion’. It had a spacious hall, drawing room, billiard room, dining room, morning room, study and gun room on the ground floor - all of which were centrally heated (in 1873). On the next floor were seven bedrooms, three dressing rooms, a bathroom and two toilets. The roof space was occupied by six attics. Attached to the house was a large pavilion, a butler’s pantry, a kitchen, dairy, laundry and wash rooms. The outbuildings included stables (above which was an eight-day turret clock with four faces, shown above), two carriage houses, a mushroom house and a small homestead.The ‘Temple Clock’ (as it was known ) regulated the lives of the villagers. During the Preston Hill Robbery case of 1864 there were no less than three references to the clock, which helped to establish time frames. From these comments, we learn that the clock could be seen from Preston Green - ‘It was about five minutes to nine by the Temple Clock’ - and that it could be heard at the bottom of Preston Hill. The clock was destroyed by fire in 1888.
Notes on hunting and shooting
When the sale of Temple Dinsley was advertised, its agricultural potential was not promoted - it was a time of depression. The selling point was the opportunity for field sports such as the hunting and shooting of foxes, pheasants,partridges, rabbits and hares. ‘It is in a favourite hunting district....the sporting capabilities are of a high character and afford excellent partridge and pheasant shooting’. This emphasis on hunting explains in part why the woods around Preston survived. While there was some revenue from the sale of rights to coppice trees, the woods were mainly preserved as the haunt of wild-life which could be hunted.
Major Pryor of Clifton, Beds. purchases Temple Dinsley in 1873
Temple Dinsley was sold to Major Henry Pryor of Clifton, Beds. His sons, Ralston de Vins (RDV) and Geoffrey Pryor (GIE) were later involved in the running of the estate and collecting rents. It is interesting that according to the 1871 census, Major Pryor’s household at Clifton included a visitor, William H. Darton, who was born at Kings Walden, Herts. Henry Pryor (31) and William (28) were serving as Captain and Lieutenant in the 7th Bedfordshire regiment. Two years later, Henry had purchased Temple Dinsley from William’s father, Captain Thomas Darton.
Extensions and alterations to Temple Dinsley 1908 - 1909
In 1908-09, the renowned architect, Sir Edwin Lutyens was commissioned by a later owner, Herbert Fenwick, to remodel and enlarge the house and then add further extensions in 1911. The challenge was to ‘maintain with pious care the ancient fabric’ and not dominate the old house with the extensive alterations. This work was largely financed by Herbert’s wife, Violet.
The Cottage aka The Dower House
The Cottage was built on the north-east side of the estate, near to the Hitchin road. It was occasionally inhabited by the owners and relatives of Temple Dinsley. Today it is known as ‘The Dower House’.