Occasionally, glimpses of historic village life are provided by news reports and
parish news items. They record details of events and institutions as though they
were commonplace, as indeed they were
in those days. Yet now, it is only by historical research that we can understand
what part they played in villagers’ lives. Among such institutions were Preston’s
Today, we are cushioned against the financial effects of illness, unemployment and
old age. In the nineteenth century, the last-resort alternatives to loss of income
from employment were the Parish Poor Law provisions and the Workhouse.
Some villagers didn’t mind approaching Parish officials for Poor Relief - ‘They’re
allus a flyin’ ter th’ parish; they goo tew ‘um at ever little tit an’ turn’ - but
most villagers detested the thought of ‘going on the parish’ - ‘I ‘ad rather do anything
‘afore I’d ask for Parish money’. And conditions within the walls of the Workhouse
were hardly salubrious, being deliberately designed to deter folk from passing through
Many families at Preston were protected from financial emergencies by the earnings
of straw plaiting wives and children. Some were fortunate enough to be able to put
money aside for rainy days in Benefit Clubs . Though at Harpenden (a village ten
miles south-west of Preston), Edwin Grey commented ‘I could hardly see how it was
possible for them to save anything from their small wage’ until he noticed ‘that
nearly all the thrifty ones were men with only one or two children or no family at
all’ and those who were ‘not given to excessive drinking’.
These Clubs were formed in the first half of the eighteenth century (the earliest
reference to one at Preston is in 1837) by labourers who collected savings regularly
and paid sick, aged and unemployed members of Clubs from the accumulated funds. How
else were labourers to store their little hoards? Walking to Hitchin to make deposits
in banks took time and energy. If they stashed it about their hovels, there was the
risk of fire or theft. Also, as the insurance industry well knows, there is protection
in numbers - labourers bandied together could look after each other’s interests.
Clubs were able to negotiate discounts for clothing and coal due to bulk-buying for
The comparatively better off - the rate-payers - welcomed this thriftiness by the
herd. There were less demands on Parish Poor Relief and so their own onerous contributions
The rules of a typical Club
1. Contributions to the Club were made usually each month - though in some villages,
it was a quarterly arrangement.
2. Admission to the Clubs was limited to men aged between 14 and 40 and the sick
and lame were excluded.
3. There was a starting contribution of 2/6d. The monthly contribution was 1/-. In
addition, there might be a small levy for liquor on the the Club’s annual Feast Day
and a few pence was spent on drink at the inn where the club was held (the weekly
wage of a labourer in 1850 was around 9/-). This rule confirms that Clubs were not
simply financial institutions, but an essential part of village social life.
4. Perhaps in view of the last rule, there were strict rules in place if men misbehaved
at the Club meetings - hefty fines could be enforced if there was a disturbance or
if stewards’ calls for silence were ignored and for being drunk at a meeting.
5. Clubs were held between 7 pm and 10 pm in the summer and 6 pm and 9 pm in wintertime
- when the Clubroom was clean and warmed by a lit fire.
6. If a member of a minimum of one year’s standing fell on hard times, he would receive
8/- a week for six months, followed by 4/- per week providing his injury was not
caused by fighting, drunkenness, gaming or poaching.
7. If a Club member died, 1/- was paid by each member to his widow or next of kin.
If a member’s wife died, then each member paid the widower 6d.
Clubs at Preston
We are indebted to two Preston school children for an insight into two other Clubs
that were established in the village in 1910 - they wrote essays which were published
in the Daily Mirror (See link:DM 1910).
One wrote of an imaginary Mrs Tidy, ‘I pay into the coal club, so at Christmas I
have it out and I have enough to last me through the winter and there is Mrs Untidy
shivering with cold just because she won’t pay into the club and there is her husband
at the public house spending all his money’.
Another girl wrote as a fictional Mrs Tidy, ‘My husband gets £1 a week and I spend
4s for rent, 1/- for the coal club and 3/- for the clothing club. Then I also
put 9d by each week in case of illness and the other 10/- I have to use for food.
Whether these sums are accurate is a moot point, but they give an indication of what
Clubs were in the village and the contributions made by their members.
The Coal Club
Members saved a small amount each week and collectively were able to negotiate a
discount with coal merchants. Within the Club, widows and the infirm were given preferential
benefits and occupants of cottages with low rateable values could buy coal at wholesale
prices and receive interest on deposits.
The Clothing Club
It operated in the same way as the Coal Club. The Preston School log book records
that on 10 December 1901, seventeen children were ‘absent in afternoon owing to children
going to Hitchin to buy clothes with Club cards’. A relative recalls that Hawkins
of Hitchin was one of the draper’s shops used by Preston Club.
Grey observed of Clothing Clubs,’ These were of much benefit to cottagers, great
consultations being held when the Club cards came out as to what material, household
linen, or coat or suit could be procured for the amount of money deposited together
with the little bonus added. These clothing things were not allowed to be taken home
by the cottagers direct from the shops; the shopkeepers had first to send the parcels
to the National Schools where each parcel was untied and the contents looked over
(by local ladies).... to ensure that all the contents were good, warm, useful items
and not so-called finery’.
The ‘Public House Club’ at Preston.
This was held at The Chequers. On Saturday, 7 January 1837, my relative, John Ward,
assaulted John Squires as he came out of the door of The Chequers(below) ‘where
his Club had been held that evening’. This may indicate that the Preston Village
club was held on the first Saturday of each month. It was as well that the disturbance
was not within the public house - as well as the 15/- fine that Ward incurred, he
might have forfeited a further 10/- to the Club!
Notwithstanding this reported affray, Club night at The Chequers would have been
a convivial occasion when the beer flowed - it was a ‘major event in village social
life’. Grey writes this of the Harpenden Public House Clubs:
As well as the monthly meetings, each year it is likely that there was an annual
feast day at The Chequers - at least there were reported feast days at Kings Walden
and it is unlikely that Preston villagers would have allowed their neighbours to
have all the fun.
Feast days were ‘the fete of the labourer’ when there was plenty to eat and drink
with singing, dancing and laughter. They were usually held around Whitsun - which
tallies with the date of the reported affray below.
In May 1845, Francis Sharpe of Preston, was charged with assaulting John Buck inn-keeper
of the Fogmore Fox Inn, Kings Walden. Sharpe and others went to the public house
‘on a day when the club feast was held there and called for beer’. When this was
refused, he assaulted Buck and threatened to put in his windows.
The Club Reading Room at Preston
Preston’s Club Reading Room was built after 1879 - it doesn’t appear on a map of
that year - which indicates that it may have been erected by the Pryors. It was
home to hundreds of books and newspapers and was built to promote community knowledge
and learning. For obvious reasons, the Reading Room was not part of The Chequers
inn! The building, which stood on the Kings Walden Road beside the Old Forge, still
The Reading Room also seems to have doubled as a Church Hall after St Martin was
built and was mentioned frequently in St Mary, Hitchin Parish newsletters:
In February 1904, because of disappointing attendances at mid-week Services at St
Martin, there were hopes that there could be ‘occasional Devotional Meetings in the
clubroom. The Easter Vestry was held there in 1904 and it was the venue for the
annual Vestry Meeting in May 1908.
In 1911, Mr and Mrs Priestly provided ‘hangings’ and lamps for the Village Club and
three years later, women who ‘took advantage of the Nursing Fund at Preston and Langley
met at the Club and after a delightful tea, enjoyed a pleasant social evening’.
The Sunday School had a summer treat there in 1916 when thanks were given to Mrs
Ashton and her two daughters, Mary and Carrie (who lived next door), for ‘excellently
and punctually preparing such a good tea’. As the grass was wet, a few games were
played in the Clubroom followed by competitions and the distribution of prizes concluded
the afternoon’s enjoyment.
Meanwhile, in 1912, villagers were reminded that there was ‘an excellent library
of books at the Club Room and Mr Ashton will be glad to issue volumes for reading
at home’. Clearly the Ashtons were closely connected with the running of the Clubroom.
The Preston and Langley Women’s Institute was formed at an open meeting of the Club
Room on 3 January 1919, but the following year moved to a new location, The Institute
Room, which had been newly built by Douglas Vickers at School Lane. It was presented
to Mrs Vickers on her fiftieth birthday. (Link:Institute Room)
Preston’s Young Men’s Club
There were other clubs at Preston which were not ‘Benefit Clubs’. One is singled
out because it had its own Clubhouse - the Young Men’s Club.
It was first mentioned in 1903 and appears to have been a social club. Then, in 1908,
new premises were constructed for this Club. With a fanfare, the St Mary, Hitchin
Parish Newsletter announced, ‘The Club is now completed and very proud we are of
it. We must defer any account until after the opening ceremony which is now being
arranged. We ought, however, to express our thanks to Mr. Pryor for the making of
paths up to the door and also the constructing of a new fence along the front. The
whole surroundings will now be very nice and add much to the appearance of the village.
Owing to the generosity of Mr. Pryor a site was available adjoining the School. Not
only has he given sufficient ground for the building itself but has also given a
nice piece of ground about it also fencing it in and making paths. That piece which
faces the road has been nicely laid out by Mr. H. Seebohm and set with flowering
shrubs. About a year ago the scheme was set on foot and the money collected so that
only a deficit of £14 remains at the present moment. Our grateful thanks are due
to Mr. Westwood who has built the Club practically with his own hands, doing all
the work in his leisure time and charging only the cost of the materials used. The
village has indeed been fortunate in finding that a man who had only been a resident
for a few months, was willing and able to undertake this work for the sake of others
and for the future benefit of this little community. ..... It has been decided that
the opening should take the form of a benefit concert for Mr. Westwood and Mrs. Barrington-White
very kindly consented to declare the building open.’
From the description above, this new Club House was built beside Preston School,
near the road and on land given over to allotments. (Link: Allotments). As it was
virtually erected by one man, the edifice was probably less than substantial.
Many of the village benefit clubs were rendered superfluous by the provisions of
the National Health Scheme which was inaugurated in 1912. Others were absorbed into
nationwide Friendly Societies such as The Ancient Order of Foresters.
Scrutinising Hitchin Parish Poor Law payments, it is noticeable that there were no
hand-outs to Preston villagers among the several doled out to folk living in Hitchin
Chris Reynolds, webmaster of Genealogy in Hertfordshire made these illuminating observations
‘After 1835, poor relief was centred on the Union Workhouse so would have been controlled
from Hitchin for all the parishes in the Hitchin Union, and the majority of references
in any surviving records would have been dominated by Hitchin simply because that
is where most of the poor lived.
In addition it may be that the majority of the desperately
poor lived in slums in Hitchin, and it was probably easier to get agricultural labourers
back into work.
Before 1835 it was definitely the case that villages looked after
their own - and raised rates to pay for it. In bad times this could lead to difficulties
in small villages - and I believe that one of the reasons for the post 1835 change
arose when a village (Cholesbury, Bucks) went bankrupt because there were too few
rate payers and an increasing number out of work.’ on parish relief.