A History of Preston in Hertfordshire
Three books published 2015 - 2021 featuring Preston
Helen Batten studied history at Cambridge and journalism at Cardiff University. She then worked as a producer and director at the BBC. Today, she works as a writer and psychotherapist. She is a direct descendant of the well-known Swain family of Preston, Charles and Clara (nee Swift) Swain being her great grandparents and her greatx3 grandparents, Charles (1790 – 1837) and Catherine (Kate) Swain. Link: Swain family
During the last six years three books have been published that feature Preston and some of its past inhabitants. They are Helen Batten’s The Scarlet Sisters (2015) and The Improbable Adventures of Miss Emily Soldene: Actress, Writer, and Rebel Victorian (2021), and The Conscientious Objector’s Wife (2018) edited by Kate Macdonald.
“When Helen Batten’s marriage breaks down, she starts on a journey of discovery into her family’s past and the mysteries surrounding her enigmatic nanna’s early life. What she unearths is a tale of five feisty red heads struggling to climb out of poverty and find love through two world wars. It’s a story full of surprises and scandal – a death in a workhouse, a son kept in a box, a shameful war record, a clandestine marriage and children taken far too soon. It’s as if there is a family curse. But Helen also finds love, resilience and hope – crazy wagers, late night Charlestons and stolen kisses. As she unravels the story of Nanna and her scarlet sisters, Helen starts to break the spell of the past, and sees a way she might herself find love again.” The five sisters are the children of Charles (1878 - 1940) and Clara Swain. This book has been well received, I understand from Helen that it has been in Amazon’s top ten of books downloaded during ‘Lockdown’. Amazon shows, to date, more than 1,700 ratings - 58% five- star and 23% four-star. (A typical review): ‘This is a family memoir of one woman's investigation into the lives of her grandmother and her sisters. The family aren't particularly unusual or notable but they are a normal working class family and the book is stronger because of that. The author switches between her own life and that of her family and although her own struggles are interesting, at times sad, and often relevant it is the lives of the sisters, all of whom had red hair, in the early part of the twentieth century which are the focus of the story. The author is looking at the different traumas which the family faced and especially at the women's role, often when they are forced to cope without male help. The book is really readable - I read it quickly and easily. The book avoids being sentimental and is clear when something is definitely known and when it is surmised, however, this is a memoir and not a biography so the impression and over all story are most important.’
“Emily Soldene's life spanned the entire Victorian era. As both leading lady and a formidable impresario with her own opera company, she was a darling of London’s music halls and theatre land, later reinventing herself as a journalist and writer. From humble working-class beginnings a star was born. Emily's fiery ambition would see her counting the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and Charles Dickens as friends and mingling with the Rothschilds, Oscar Wilde and aristocrats. She even alleged that she had a close encounter with Jack the Ripper. Charting her international triumphs and calamitous disasters, from taking Broadway by storm and touring the Australian outback, Batten vividly recreates the era and a riotous life that has faded from the limelight. Putting Emily Soldene firmly back in centre stage, this is a portrait of an irrepressible character who trod the boards, travelled the globe and tore up the rule book, often scandalising London in the process.” Two articles on this website have been devoted to Emily’s connection to Preston and her life-story Links: Emily and Preston and Emily’s life-story. Preston and the Swain family are featured in some detail in the early chapters as Helen establishes Emily’s background from which she emerged as such an international singing star. Helen also explains how her interest in her relation was piqued: “I happened to come across her while doing a piece of research into our family history…I made a phone call to a local historian of the ancestral village in Hertfordshire. He told me that I had a famous actress in the family, that I should talk to a renowned historian of musical theatre who lived in New Zealand. He gave me Kurt Ganzl’s address.” Although the book is still freshly off the presses, it has already garnered some enthusiastic reviews. Fascinating and hugely enjoyable biography Reviewed in the UK on 26 September 2021 Helen Batten’s fascinating book explores Emily’s eventful journey from country girl, to music hall artiste, to doyenne of opera bouffe, to theatrical producer, novelist and journalist. She also brings out of the shadows Emily’s family – her husband, children, nephews and nieces – who are curiously absent from not only Emily’s memoirs but also largely from her life and career. The exception is the relationship between Emily and her sister, Clara, the dynamics of which the author explores in some detail. Helen Batten admits in her introduction that there are gaps in Emily’s memoirs – and sometimes downright untruths – which she has filled either with information from other sources or with speculation. The latter is always well-argued and insightful. By the way, in the introduction Helen explains her own very particular connection to Emily Soldene. Alongside Emily’s story, the author includes fascinating nuggets of social history whether that’s contemporary attitudes to marriage and parenting roles, the Victorian male’s predeliction for saucy postcards, the prevalence of the casting couch in Victorian theatre, or the beginnings of the cult of celebrity journalism. Clearly the product of extensive research, this historical detail is delivered in an accessible way that never feels heavy-handed. Helen Batten also takes the opportunity to bring other female theatrical entrepreneurs out of the shadows, such as Charlotte Cushman, a singer and actress who became the first female theatre manager in the United States. There is a great cast of secondary characters with walk-on parts for, among others, Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde (‘unconventional, not to say impertinent’ remarks Emily) and aristocratic figures such as Lord Dunraven, whom Emily describes admiringly as ‘Gay, bright, clever and full of life; and who after the opera would walk home with us, cut the cold beef, and open the oysters and stout with the unconventional facility of the man who has been everywhere…’ As it happens, oysters and stout feature prominently in Emily’s life. As well as being a fascinating, impeccably researched and hugely entertaining read, the book contains some wonderful photographs of Emily, members of her family and of locations mentioned in the book. I absolutely loved following Emily’s ‘improbable adventures’ as she criss-crosses the globe. The book is a picture of a woman who lived life at full tilt and on her own terms; an example of girl power in the Victorian age, if you like. In her introduction to the book, Helen Batten observes that Emily’s memoirs don’t tell the whole story. She writes, ‘I think she left some of the best bits out. So I’ve put them back in’. Helen, you absolutely did.”
Frank and Lucy Sunderland outside The Wilderness, Butchers Lane, Preston.
Frank and Lucy Sunderland lived at The Wilderness, Butchers Lane, Preston from 1934 following a move from Letchworth, Herts. This was Frank’s address when he died in 1956. Their son, Edward, and his family continued living at the cottage with Lucy until her death in1961. A family tree and some wonderful photographs of the Sunderlands can be seen at this link: Sunderlands This book contains edited letters which Frank and Lucy Sunderland exchanged between 1916 and 1919. The couple were English pacifists and Frank was imprisoned because of his conscientious objection to military service. The book’s introduction explains Frank and Lucy’s background in London - how Frank’s pacifist views evolved and how Lucy’s feminism was inspired during WW1. After their marriage and the birth of their children, the family moved to the Garden City of Letchworth seeking to improve the health of their children. The community around their new home was ‘predominately pacifist and Quaker’ and supported the Sunderlands during Franks imprisonment and the reasons for this are explored. The impact on the family of the loss of their bread-winner and how Lucy supported them are revealed - as well as the health problems which gradually developed and which prompted a temporary move to Devon, about which she commented frequently in her letters. This culminated with her mother being driven out of London during the air raids of February 1918 to leafy Devon, only to die from bronchitis there within a month. The reason the record of the exchange of letters is considered to be so noteworthy is that while the experiences of male soldiers during WW1 has been well documented - to the extent of creating a perception of the war mainly from a soldier’s perspective - these letters focus on the burden shouldered by the women who were left to carry the burden of bringing up a family on their own. It explains how Lucy collected insurance premiums, took in sewing and kept hens, selling their eggs to support her household. It also provides an insight into conditions in the new town of Letchworth during the war and in particular the life of conscientious families there during time of war. After moving to Preston, Frank evidently continued to air his political views, being described by his grandson, Robert Sunderland (whose article about life at Preston on this website has been so well received) as ‘the only socialist in a Tory village’.