The history of Preston is intimately linked with that of the Dinsley estate and the
exotic Knights Templar.
The order of the Poor Knights of the Temple of Solomon was set up in Europe in the
twelfth century to protect Jerusalem-bound Christian pilgrims from attacks by Moslems.
They were supported by The Popes and the Church and received large gifts of money
In 1142, King Stephen gave the Templars two mills and uncultivated land in Dinsley
– the site of present-day Preston. Here they built their Preceptory and ran a farm.
They also had a house and shop in Hitchin market.
An engraving of Temple Dinsley (following its rebuilding by Sir Edwin Sadleir) in
Chauncy’s, ‘History of Hitchin’.
Religious links to ancient farm (a secondary article by Nina Freebody)
The name Preston implies the site was once the priest’s farm. The present-day village
is part of the former Temple Dinsley estate. The site of the deserted medieval village
of Dinsley falls within the present boundaries of this attractive Hertfordshire village.
It is believed that nearby Wain Wood could have been inhabited by pagans. Some experts
believe ‘wain’ is derived from a word meaning the valley of heathen worshippers –
while others believe it means the wain or wagon-way. In the seventeenth century,
the hollow in the wood now known as Bunyan’s Dell was used for services to commemorate
John Bunyan’s visits to the area.
Local legend says that plague victims were buried at Waley Close, only a short distance
from Dead Woman’s Lane.
During the nineteenth century, the Dartons, although remaining attached to the village,
often rented the house to the gentry. Thomas Harwood Darton built a school in 1849
to replace the old dames school. It was Thomas’ son, William, who sold what was left
of the estate in 1873. The mansion, Home Farm and some cottages were bought for £19,000
by Henry Maclean Pryor of Clifton in Bedfordshire.
Little is left of the people who lived at the estate. The grave cover of a monk from
the Preceptory is in Preston church and there is a stone effigy of a medieval knight
which came from Temple Dinsley in Hitchin church.
The house, extended early this century by Sir Edwin Lutyens, is now a private school
– Princess Helena College.
The new owner was Benedict Ithell, deputy treasurer of the Royal Chelsea Hospital
who bought the manor in 1712. He immediately began to restore the manor house and
the estate cottages. Ithell became Sheriff of Hertfordshire in 1727, his status in
the county was assured, and was later made trustee of Hitchin Grammar School.
His daughter, Martha, inherited Temple Dinsley and on her death in 1767, she willed
the estate to Thomas Harwood – ‘Her faithful friend and steward’. This caused an
uproar. It was said that Harwood was only a footman and the son of a groom in London.
A cousin of Martha Ithell, Benedict Clarke of London, claimed the property on the
grounds that Martha was of unsound mind but he lost the case. Some suggested that
Joseph Darton, who inherited Temple Dinsley from Thomas Harwood, was his son by a
secret marriage with Martha Ithell – or that he was a nephew or cousin.
The Pope gave the land to the Knights of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem, but
by the time they had taken possession, the estate had been considerably depleted.
The Hospitallers leased out the Preceptory. One tenant was John Docwra who died in
1531 and asked to be buried at Temple Dinsley or Hitchin parish church. Besides leaving
goods and money to his family and friends, he left money for the upkeep of his bastard
daughter, Frances, until she was of age and married.
In 1542, the Hospitallers and other religious houses were suppressed by King Henry
VIII and the Temple Dinsley estate went to Sir Ralph Sadleir for his services to
After the reformation, the estate had a chequered history. Sir Ralph Sadleir paid
£843. 2s 6d for it in 1541 and it remained in the Sadleir family until 1690 when
Sir Edwin Sadleir was obliged to apply for an Act of Parliament to sell the estate
to pay his debts.
In 1185, the Master of the London Temple ordered an enquiry into the Knights Templar
estates in England. For the first time Preston was named in a document. Bernard Bailiol,
Lord of the Manor of Hitchin, was mentioned as benefactor and about 50 people, mainly
agricultural workers, were listed as holding land and cottages on the estate. There
was also a carpenter, a forester, a smith, a cloth-comber and a blood-letter – the
medieval equivalent of a doctor. There was no evidence of military knights living
at Temple Dinsley. From time to time, meetings of the order were held there to discuss
By the beginning of the fourteenth century, the Knights Templar were surrounded by
enemies, jealous of their wealth and critical of their prestige. The order was suppressed
in 1308 and six brothers were imprisoned in Hertford Castle.
MIGHTY KNIGHTS FORM THE HEART OF QUIET VILLAGE by Nina Freebody