The Parish Room Mystery: Can You Help?

As our website visitors know, the Wychwoods Local History Society have recently acquired a long-term home for the Society’s archive thanks to Alfred Groves & Sons. In the process of cataloguing this material we are unearthing several little-known snippets of Wychwoods history.

Poster of a 1902  Auction in Milton under Wychwood

One example came to light recently. This poster advertises the sale of a property on the Shipton Road in 1902. It was once apparently the “Parish Room”. We are mystified as to exactly which property this was.

There are not so many properties on Shipton Road facing the Village Green (which was more extensive in 1902 than it is today), and we can exclude some buildings such as Hillborough House, the former Primitive Methodist Chapel, and The Elms and Elm Cottage (Groves Yard).

Here we have an extract from an OS map dating from 1881 which shows the buildings opposite the Green that were in existence at that time, (highlighted with a red dot). But which was the parish room?

Any ideas or handed down memories would be much appreciated. Please use the comments box below, or visit “Memories of the Wychwoods” on Facebook.

The Society’s Archive and Study Centre

Over the past 40+ years the Society has become home to a variety of material relating to all aspects of the unique history of the Wychwood villages. This archive includes over 2000 historic photographs, as well as a wide variety of documents, maps, charts, census material and research records . Providing access and opportunities to engage with this information has been difficult.

Over the years, it has been stored in a variety of locations. We have been grateful for the support of Chipping Norton Museum, who held a fair proportion of the archive after its removal from the arrangements at New Beaconsfield Hall. But much of the material has been held in under-stair cupboards, garages and lofts, and never all in one place. Although some of the collection has been carefully catalogued, and some is digitised here on our website, other material remains in the bags, boxes and suitcases in which it was handed over.

For some time, the Society has been determined to catalogue and give full access to this unique collection. The first step towards achieving this aim came earlier this year when we were able to take a three-year lease on an office above Groves shop in Milton-under-Wychwood. For the first time, we have been able to bring everything together in one place to begin the process of organisation and indexing.

The society has sought professional advice on best practice in storing and cataloguing the contents of this archive. The process has begun. By spring 2023 the Society hopes to build a fully itemised catalogue of the archive and make it available for publication on our website.

Additionally, once this task is complete, we will look forward to assisting individual enquiries from members and non-members alike, by arranging personal visits to the archive Study Centre. For further information on the Archive and its availability for researchers please contact the Society Secretary, John Bennett by using our Contact Form.

The Hartley Family: Sporting Siblings and Brothers in Arms

2022 marks 100 years since the Hartley brothers from Shipton under Wychwood arrived together on the international sporting stage. Their their lives – as well as the sporting lives their sisters – are celebrated in a recent article published online on the Playing Pasts sporting history website.

The article is written by Bill Williams, former Head of Physical Education and sport at Burford school. Bill writes in fascinating detail of the careers of this illustrious sporting family, from early Burford schooldays and onwards. Burford was a pioneer in the promotion of Association Rules Football, and the boys excelled. But cricket were also played to high standard, and the Hartley boys were firmly in the mix, setting themselves up for successful sporting careers in their chosen disciplines. In addition to the boys playing football and cricket, the elder brother Ernest was selected to play for England at field hockey. 

The brothers, on horseback as part of The Oxfordshire Yeomanry in 1914

Bill’s article covers the sporting achievements of each family member, and at the same time takes us through the challenges facing each of them through two world wars. We learn a great deal about the life and times of those pursuing a sporting career in the face of historical changes.

For example , we read “As war broke out in 1914, Tom, Ernest and Frank joined the Army, while William joined the Merchant Navy; Richard stayed at home to run the family farm, which during times of conflict, was a reserved occupation and vital to the war effort. The three brothers joined The Queen’s Own Oxfordshire Hussars, which formed part of The Oxfordshire Yeomanry and by the start of the twentieth century, had reached regimental strength. As a reserve regiment, the Hussars were often granted permission to conduct drills and exercises on the extensive grounds at Blenheim Palace. Thus, as a young boy, Winston Churchill often witnessed the summer cavalry training camps in which he would later take part in as a grown man, rising to the rank of Major and commanding the Henley squadron, the rank he maintained until 1924”.

Richard, Ernest and Frank in later life

The society is pleased to been able to contribute in some small way to Bill’s extensive research, and we recommend members and visitors to visit Bill’s article here.

More on the Hartley Heritage can be discovered in our 2001 Journal here

About Bill Williams
Bill was Head of Physical Education and sport at Burford school in Oxfordshire, from 1987- 2019. Since retiring in 2019, he has spent time researching the sporting history of the school and beyond.

A Magic Lantern Splutters Back into Life

The society has had access to a set of scans from recently-discovered glass plate slides owned by the late Ellis Groves 1872-1914. Here, I describe a small selection of these slides, and also include them with 40 more of the better preserved in a slideshow.

“Would I like to look at a box of old black and white transparencies?” This was the offer made to me by Peter Rathbone a few weeks ago. Peter brought them round and I settled down to go through them. The simple wooden box contained about five dozen old glass transparencies. Not your familiar, modern 35mm slides but 3¼” x 3¼” magic lantern glass plates, many in the form of glass sandwiches.

Ellis Groves’ Box of Magic Lantern Glass Plate Slides

A label in the top of the box indicated that they had been put together by the “late Ellis Groves 1872-1914”. Most were very dark and dusty and not always sharply focused. A few had begun to peel off the glass substrate. Not surprising as they had been kept in one of Grove’s sheds for thirty years and had been saved from going to the tip by Peter.

Going by the rare labels, the collection appeared to date from the first decade of the 20th century. A few slides had been coloured by hand. Several I recognised having seen them already in the archives of the History Society. My first reaction was that it was unlikely there would be any treasure here – perhaps just half a dozen images could be salvaged? I was wrong.

In the end more than 40 interesting and usable images emerged, after scanning, from the collection. A few were very surprising and these are the images seen here, in most cases probably for the first time in 125 years.

Slide 1
Slide 2

Slides 1 and 2 – These depict an old three wheeled car with the single passenger seat facing forward at the front.

The second slide probably shows the garage where the car was kept. Was this the first internal combustion vehicle in the Wychwoods? Could the driver have been Fred Pepper who had bought Shipton Court in 1901? It does look like him although he is not known to have owned such a vehicle. His first car was in fact a larger French Gobion Brillé but perhaps this three wheeler was a precursor.

Slide 3

Slide 3 – This shows a mix of two cricket teams in front of the Shipton Court cricket pavilion. The label refers to the Shipton Court team and a team from Monk Bretton. Monk Bretton colliery in Yorkshire was owned by the Pepper family. It is known that twenty of the long service employees were invited down for the day to Shipton to play the team from Fred Pepper’s new village in 1908. This photograph marks the event.

The bearded gentleman on the left is Thomas Alfred Groves who owned and managed Groves and was the Captain of Shipton Court and Milton cricket teams. He was the son of Alfred Groves and his first wife, Ann Shepard. Ellis Groves, who assembled the lantern transparencies was the eighth child of Alfred’s second wife Mary Reynolds.

Slide 4 – This shows a young girl holding a poster advertising a magic lantern lecture in Milton for the Mutual Improvement Society. It was included more than thirty years ago in the Second Wychwoods Album. The photo was apparently taken by Ellis Groves who also operated the magic lantern. Did the Mutual Improvement Society meet its aim? As a Shiptonian I could not possibly hazard a guess.

Slide 4

Slide 5- shows the bottom of Burford Hill in around 1905. In the background, behind the assorted Burford urchins, is Hambidge’s Delicatessen. Ellis Groves married one of the Hambidge daughters and his younger brother, Samuel, married her sister.

Slide 6 – A distant view of Green Lane Milton. Older by at least ten years than the view shown in the first Wychwood’s Album. The building on the right was the Quaker Meeting House which was sold in 1925 and divided into two cottages.

Slide 5: Burford Hill c.1905
Slide 6: Green Lane, Milton under Wychwood
Slide 7: c 1903 Milton under WYchwood Sunday School Project

Slide 7 – Milton Sunday School built this large life boat and took it to a Sunday School Festival at Moreton in 1903.

Slide 8: Shipton under Wychwood Station Master’s House

Slide 8 – This shows the erection of the Shipton Station Master’s house. It is not clear whether this was the original building or the subsequent demolishing and re-erection as the last house on the right as one one leaves Shipton for Milton.

Slideshow of all 47 Slides


AWV Feb 2022

Joan Howard-Drake and her contribution to local history in the Wychwoods

The death occurred on 31 October of Joan Howard-Drake following a long struggle after she suffered a severe stroke about a year earlier.

Joan and her husband, Jack, were founder members of the Wychwood Local History Society (WLHS) in 1981.They remained stalwarts of the Society for the remainder of their long lives. Joan and Jack were very computer literate into their 90s and spent many hours beavering away in their book lined study in Shipton largely for the benefit of history research in the Wychwoods and the WLHS in particular.

Both were on the Society’s committee following the first Annual General Meeting 1982. Jack became the Chairman in 1984 until 1992. He died in 2013 at the age of 94. Joan was on the committee for 35 years, until 2016.

Under the auspices of the Family History Society, the Howard-Drakes started the long task of transcribing the Shipton parish registers from 1538-1899. They also worked together on significant projects such as the transcription of the Oxfordshire Tudor Church Court Rolls.

Joan became the guardian of the Society’s archives in 1995. She managed them until she stepped down from the Committee by which time they had grown from one box file to more than five. Joan herself added much material to the archives through her research on local family histories.

Joan was involved with the planning, writing and production of the Society’s well respected annual Journal for thirty years and was joint editor with Trudy Yates from 2012 to 2015. She indexed all the first 27 volumes of the Journal.

She was an active member of the Wills Group – associated with and partly funded by the WLHS – which transcribed 17th century wills in the Wychwoods.

Apart from researching and publishing with other members of the WLHS on team projects, Joan also wrote separately on:

  • The Poor of Shipton under Wychwood Parish 1740
  • The Burford to Banbury Turnpike Road
  • Care in the Community 18th Century Style
  • Bruern Abbey (with Joy Timms)
  • The Reade Family
  • The Crown Inn Charity
  • The Old Beaconsfield Hall Shipton
  • The Brookes Family of Shipton
  • Brasenose Leases

She was always ready to give real and generous help to younger local historians working on various projects and for that alone she will be sorely missed.

AWV November 2021

Milton’s Unusual Wooden Carving

This amusing article, taken from the Wychwood Magazine where it appeared some years ago, highlights the unusual wooden carving removed during the old Mission Room renovations in Milton.

The intriguing figure will feature in the Society’s 40th Anniversary celebrations, re-scheduled for May 2022.

We plan to publish a detailed study of this wooden carving, which we like to call “The Milton Angel” in due course. Meanwhile, a special feature by John Bennett here includes some more information about the carving. John’s article highlights the fact that this angel carving is just one of the pantheon of Milton sculptured figures.

Go Figure!
Bernard Shaw once received a letter addressed to a Mr B Shawm. In great annoyance he complained to his wife that there was not even a word shawm. Mrs Shaw, one of the World’s most martyred women, quietly took the dictionary from the shelf, looked up the word and showed the definition to her husband – “shawm – an old fashioned wind instrument”.

Angel Musician wooden carving: front view and side views
Angel Musician front view and side views.
Go here for more on this and other Milton sculptures

Our Shawm
The great Irish playwright would probably therefore have been at a loss to describe accurately the wooden figure pictured here which has been serenading Milton for decades.

This carving of a priest or possibly angel blowing a shawm has stood largely unnoticed in a niche on the gable end of what is known as the Mission Room in Milton High Street. The building has had various uses over the years including a reading room, a bank, a dentist and Barry Way’s office.

The owners of the site, Groves the builders, have recently (2006) been renovating the property and brought the figure down from its rather exposed shelter.

They realised that it could be of some artistic and historic importance and called in Sue Jourdan, Chairman of the Wychwood Local History Society. The first expert Sue consulted was of the opinion that the figure is “fascinating, rare and complex”.

The 22 inches high figure is believed to date from the 15th century and possibly came from Shipton’s parish church.

from an article by Alan Vickers
First published: The Wychwood October/November 2006 Vol. 27 No4

The Small Tin Church – Little Ben Rings Back

This article, first published in the Wychwood Magazine some years ago, features the story of the bell from the small Shipton church, long since demolished . The bell will feature in the Society’s 40th Anniversary celebrations, re-scheduled for May 2022.

Some of the older inhabitants of Shipton can recall a small tin church up on Fiddlers Hill. Today nothing remains but a small, dense copse of trees sited somewhat incongruously in the corner of an extensive arable field.


Fiddlers Hill showing tin tabernacle. Probably in the 1950s

What Happened to the Church?
The church is believed to have been built in the 1880s to serve Shipton inhabitants who could not easily get down to the Mother church, St Mary’s. It had ceased to be used as a church before 1930. Sometime in the 1930s it was bought by Dr Gordon Scott and used to store clothing during the Second World War under the Bundles for Britain scheme – hence the name given to it by some irreverent residents of ‘moth hall’!

In the period immediately after the War the building was used as a basic youth club for children living close by, run by Alf Clarke who had the small grocery shop opposite (now a garage). He ran a cable from the generator in his house to light the snooker table.

Only the Shed Door Left!
By the 1960s the building had fallen into disrepair and Dr Scott could not get permission to develop the site. The tin church was therefore dismantled. Nothing remains, except the vestry door, from the rear of the church, which was re-used as a shed door by Charlie Pilcher who lives opposite the site.

Charlie recycles the old Vestry Door
Charlie recycles the old Vestry Door

The Story of the Bell
This left Dr Scott with the problem of what to do with the small but solid church bell. The problem was solved when he gave it to Peter Coveney who lived nearby. But eventually Peter moved away to the outskirts of Oxford where he died earlier this year (2012). His Widow, Margery, (cousin to Jim Pearse of Honeydale Farm Shipton), thought it would be fitting if the old bell could be returned to Shipton.

She contacted the Wychwoods Local History Society and they now have it in their safe care and are looking for a suitable home.

Bells and Whistles?
A suitable home for the bell could be the Wychwood School where presently a simple whistle is used to summon the pupils to their lessons. The school has indicated its interest.

Even the old Shipton school had a proper bell which would be rung by a well behaved pupil worthy of the privilege.

This bell could certainly be an improvement on a mere whistle! It bears the inscription of the maker J. Warner and Sons and the date 1883. Research has shown that this company also produced the first Big Ben. It was a Warner bell which was used as the pattern for the Paul Revere bell founding business in the US.

Gordon’s Penance
If it is eventually installed in the school, we hope the current pupils are better behaved than the young Gordon Duester who once rang the bell without touching it – by using his air gun from a safe distance!

The Tin Tabernacle Sketch by Gordon Duester
The Tin Tabernacle Sketch by Gordon Duester

As a penance the older Gordon Duester has kindly provided a sketch opposite of the outside of the old church, drawn from memory.

Alan Vickers.
(First published in The Wychwood December 2012)

The Rector Returns – A Well-Travelled Painting

This article, first published in the Wychwood Magazine some years ago, features a well-travelled portrait of Revd. Dr. Thomas Brookes, Rector of Shipton from 1773 to 1814, which currently hangs in the Old Prebendal House. This painting will feature in the Society’s 40th Anniversary celebrations, re-scheduled for May 2022.

It has been a convoluted journey, via South Africa and Germany, but the Revd. Dr. Thomas Brookes, Rector of Shipton from 1773 to 1814 is home again. His powerful portrait, probably painted in 1783 when he was fifty, will once again grace the Old Prebendal House where he lived two hundred years ago.


The WLHS acts as a home for some historical objects of interest to the Wychwood Community. Here in 2013 the Chairman Alan Vickers receives the very generous gift of a portrait of the Rev Dr Thomas Brookes who lived at the Prebendal. The portrait was returned by Peter Cullom following the death of his brother. The return was physically made by Mr Cullom's parents. It is currently on long term loan to the Prebendal Care Home

A Well-Travelled Painting
Some years ago Mr John Cullom bought the portrait in an auction to furnish his house in Oxford. He became a pilot for Virgin Airlines flying the route to South Africa and took the portrait to his new house in the Cape. Tragically he died when he was swept off rocks near his house and drowned. His brother, Peter Cullom, took over the house and planned to let it. The picture was no longer required there so he brought it back to his own home in Germany and considered what should be done with it.

He noticed that there was a pencil inscription on the back of the portrait describing the portrait as being of the Rector of Shipton-under-Wychwood. He googled ‘Shipton under Wychwood’; and found the website of the Wychwoods Local History Society (the WLHS). After an exchange of emails, Peter then generously decided to gift the portrait to the WLHS for the benefit of the local community. His parents brought the portrait to Shipton and presented it to the Chairman of the Society (see photograph). During their day with us they visited our prime old buildings and especially St Mary’s where Thomas Brookes had preached, and the Old Prebendal House where he had lived. It was wonderful to hear Mrs Cullom say at the end of the day, “This is where he belongs. I am so glad he is coming home”.

In His Church Once Again
The following Sunday, the portrait was displayed in the Church during the morning service, for parishioners to view.

Portrait of Revd. Dr. Thomas Brookes, Rector of Shipton from 1773 to 1814 on display during the church service commmorating the portrait’s return to Shipton

Arrangements have been made for the portrait to hang in the Old Prebendal House, possibly in the same room where it may have hung two hundred years ago. The Care Home has kindly agreed to allow interested members of the Community to view the portrait on application.

AMV August 2021

More Memories of Shipton -The Village Shops and Roundsmen | From the Society Journal No. 10

Here is a second extended piece by Dorothy Brookes, taken from the WLHS Journal No. 10 (1995). We republish it here as part of an occasional series celebrating the work of the Society over time. (A PDF of the article can be found here).

Mrs Brookes, born Dorothy Coombes, grew up in Shipton under Wychwood during the second two decades of this century. Her earlier recollections were published in Wychwoods History no. 7 (1992), and are also available here.

Most local villages were almost self-sufficient; there were family grocers, bakers, dress makers, wheelwrights, a butcher, several smaller shops and one or two public houses. Shipton was no exception.

When my mother’s youngest sister Lily Longshaw left school, she went to day work at the Bankhouse. The owner ran a family grocer’s business as well as a small bank. Her wages were two shillings a week and a bit of lard to take home to her mother. In those days grocers bought whole pigs and boiled the bacon for sale over the counter along with the home-made lard and brawn. The owner used a shovel to pick up the sovereigns in the bank and Aunt held open the canvas bags for him to tip the money into. She then had to clean the room for the next day’s business. He told her he knew her father Robert had brought the family up to be honest, so he had no worries about losing any of the money.

While Aunt Lily was there, the then Prince of Wales called in one day for help with a hunting accident. He was out with the Heythrop Hunt and MajoeBrassey had been thrown from his horse.

The people who kept the grocery shops didn’t inspire much loyalty. The one with the bank attached to it was well-stocked and always had good, smart staff and a regular delivery man. The owner, however, was not so popular as he was overbearing, noisy and could have a child shaking in its boots in seconds. His wife never deigned to speak to village folk; their only son was not allowed to mix with other children but had a governess instead of attending the village school. I don’t think us school children ever envied him, we saw him as a lonely little figure forever muffled against the cold, the governess dragging him along when he looked over his shoulder at the ‘working-class’ children playing happily on their way to and from school.


Bank House Shipton estimated 1900s

The other big shop (now Shipton House Stores) had little railings to prevent children leaning against the windows. The maiden ladies who, with their brother (Ernest, Mary and Ellen Dee) kept this establishment, just didn’t approve of children window-gazing. They would come to the shop door and ask if mother had sent us down for something. But they never shouted at us and ‘Miss Mary’ was our kind Sunday School teacher who once organised a picnic for us. One side of this shop was given over to drapery sales, and near to Christmas a lighted Christmas tree appeared in place of the usual hats, stockings and rolls of cloth. The tree was surrounded by books, dolls, games. paintboxes and numerous small toys. Once the cry went up that ‘Dees’ had decorated, we tore out from school and spent the next couple of hours deciding what our Mam would ask Father Christmas to bring us. The grocery side was festive too, with huge mounds of dried fruits, cheese and sugared almonds. How we loved it all.

The village sweet shop was older with a distinctive smell and usually a couple of cats sitting on the counters. They stocked everything that was tempting to a child with a Saturday’s penny to spend – lovely glass jars filled with boiled sweets, hundreds and thousands, broken toffee, sticks of barley sugar, long ‘shoelaces’ of liquorice and numerous other delights. They also sold the basic groceries. Woodbines, cheap tobacco and snuff. What was more important, they gave credit to poor families, and there were plenty of these. Neither did they mind weighing up two ounces of cheese or loose tea. If they could not pay their bills they borrowed a box of stores from a similar shop in the next village. The first imported New Zealand lamb was sold at the back of this shop and, later on, fish and chips.

Hathaway’s shop High Street Shipton 1930s. Originally Dees stores, the shop was built in 1919 when Mr Dee moved from his premises opposite Shipton Lodge. The drapery section was upstairs with the groceries below. Deliveries were made to surrounding villages by Stanley Gorton seen here with Mary Barnes and the Model A Ford van. The railings around the shop went in the war effort in 1940

A notice on the yard wall said ‘Stabling and Horse and Trap for Hire’. This was a relic from the days when my great-grandfather Peter Townsend owned all this property. When my Granny (Eliza Coombes nee Townsend) was a child they lived in what is now the Doctor’s house near the school. It was only a cottage then and her father did cobbling. (During later alterations the window he sat by was discovered, walled up in a passage). He also drove for people who did not have their own coachman. He bought property at the top of Church Street and opened refreshment rooms, a pork butcher’s shop and had a horse and trap for hire, the stables being down where the gasworks were later built (now the site of ‘Bowerham’ sheltered flats). Her mother sold ‘piece goods’ (materials by the yard) in the room over the refreshment rooms. Most of the property was eventually sold except for the refreshment rooms which were turned into a grocery shop. Granny’s sister Maria married Richard Avery from Burford and they lived there with their two sons.

Later on you could hire a car from here, and once we all went to Chippenham for the day for 42s. We started at eight o’clock in the morning with Mother, Dad, three children and the driver, all in a red Ford car. We had several adventures on the way: this was 1922 and the roads weren’t quite as good as they are today. We got lost once or twice before finally reaching my uncle’s house, and on the homeward journey the car had several punctures. A kind lady at a roadside cottage lent a bicycle for our driver to go to a garage miles away for help while my brother and I sat on a roadside bank watching several adders basking in the evening sunlight. Eventually we got home safely, my mother paid the driver and Dad gave him 2/6d. It was a good thing he didn’t charge for his time!

Grampy Coombes had a brother (Henry) who was for several years the village undertaker and wheelwright, while his wife and daughters ran the post-office. I only ever saw them from the other side of the counter and was expected to call them ‘Miss’. (These were Kathleen, later Mrs George Wiggins, and Miss Jessica Coombes).

There were several smaller shops where sweets were sold from tins, and like the others they had a tobacco licence and sold snuff. On their shelves were packets of starch, soap and blue bags. They also sold loose tea and sugar but not much else. All these shops suffered terrible losses when the Cooperative opened at Chipping Norton and started delivering twice a week around the villages – groceries, shoes, clothes, bread and cakes and, what was most useful, they also brought bags of pig food in the shape of ‘toppings’ and barley. The great attraction was the quarterly dividend; few women could resist this and many found it their first form of saving.

Besides the gypsies who came round the village with pegs and ferns, there were regular pedlars or packmen. They came every few months with lace, ribbons and cottons. There were no operations for bad hips in those days and one saw much suffering and quite a few crippled people. On the principle that everybody had to eat, most women kept back a few pence to spend with these unfortunates. One such old man rested his basket on the wall and gratefully accepted a cup of tea; he had a speech impediment too.

A reel of white cotton cost 21/2d; he took your shilling and counted out your change as follows: “uppence-‘appeny, ‘eppence, ‘ourpunce, ‘ipunce, ‘ixpense and a ‘illing’. Then there was the Thankyo’ man who bought rabbit skins, rags and old iron. He always paid the best prices and when he left he would slam the gate with a flourish, loudly callingThankyo’; that way the next housewife know he was on his way.

Another old couple brought gravy-salt, bar-salt and pepper. They sometimes brought lardy-cake and could be heard crying their wares ‘lardy-cake and lamp-oil!’. These two old boys had wonderful hair which they said was due to them wiping their paraffin-soaked hands through it before serving the lardy-cake. If you were going out it was quite safe to leave the money on the door-step for the paraffin, shoe-polish etc. Fresh fish and fruit were brought to the door, the fishman meeting the early morning train to get the fish sent overnight from Yarmouth so that it reached our tables in less than twenty-four hours.

Early Days at Shipton | From the Society Journal No.7

Here is an extended piece by Dorothy Brookes, taken from the WLHS Journal No. 7 (1992). We republish it here as part of an occasional series celebrating the work of the Society over time. (A PDF of the article can be found here).

I was born Dorothy Mary Coombes in 1911 in a small cottage, the last in a row of stone-built houses called Blenheim Cottages erected on land known as ‘manorial waste’ alongside the Burford Road. The top three were much older than the others: ours, ‘Top House’, the one nearest Burford, had a stone staircase. None of them had back doors. Farther down the road there was a common wash-house and drying ground. The cottages faced west and from their tiny bedroom windows could be seen Icomb Roundhouse, Stow-on-the-Wold and, away in the distance, Batsford Park. Tiny gardens and a rough pathway separated the cottages from the road which went up the hill to Burford or downhill through Shipton village, past the railway station and then on to Chipping Norton.

My mother always said that history unfolded itself on the Burford Road. There was no railway at Burford so people from there had to travel the four miles over the Downs to Shipton Station. There were carriages from the big houses, carters from the farms with their teams and huge wagons loaded with corn, cattle being driven, a horse-drawn bus and a few people on foot.

When I was three years old we moved just down the road to a better cottage. My father made many journeys to the new home with a truck he had made, my brother and sister helping him each time to push the load while I rode on top as I was the youngest. Mother scrubbed out as each small room became empty. A new tenant would make a thorough inspection of the vacant house and report to the neighbours if it had been left dirty.

The new house was a `back-to-back’, ours facing the west and the Burford Road like the one we had left, the back tenant facing east with their garden path going into a small lane. It was a much nicer house than the old one; there was a good garden with a pig sty, a good shed and our own lavvy’. But it had its drawbacks: there was no pump, so water had to be fetched from the stand-pipe some distance away. When it rained hard my mother had to stand at the door with a broom to turn away the water that cascaded madly down the steps. However, enough rainwater could be collected in a huge tub for washing the clothes, ourselves and for boiling the pig-swill.

I am told that the day I was three years old, I demanded a clean ‘pinny’ and a note for the teacher as I was now old enough to go to school. It seems that at two years old I had followed my sister and brother the mile to school and I vividly remember my mother snatching me away from the wallboard

'Top house', Blenheim Cottages, Burford Road about 1945
‘Top house’, Blenheim Cottages, Burford Road about 1945

where I was making an effort at writing my name. I was scolded all the way home with Mother saying ‘You shall go the day you are three my girl, I’ll have no more of this worry’. And go I did, although I must confess I don’t remember that day.

The Great War had started on August 4th of that year and our dad had volunteered for service on September 5th. My mother told us of the day he left home in his best suit to catch the train to Oxford. Here he enlisted in the 2/4th Oxon. and Bucks. Light Infantry. After a few weeks’ training and embarkation leave he was soon en route for France. It was along time before we saw him again and each night Mother led us, her three children, in prayer for his safe return. One night I was watching her brush and comb her lovely long hair when she said ‘It’s moonlight, the same moon that is shining on your dad. I wonder where he is tonight?’ We soon found out, for in a few hours’ time there was a shout from the garden of ‘Mother, open the door!’

Mother lit the candle and, carrying it downstairs, opened the door to a weary, muddy and pack-laden soldier. In a very short while she had our dad into clean clothes and, sitting by a blazing fire over a cup of strong tea, he told us how a few days’ leave had been granted following a terrible battle. A troop train had brought the soldiers from the Channel boat at Dover, up to London and then down to Oxford. From there, there had been no further transport. The men could either sleep on the platform or find their own way home; some lived in Oxford but others out in the villages.

Dad and his companion, a young man from Taynton, had walked to Shipton. The young man had come Shipton way to see Dad indoors and then had the long, cold walk over the Downs to his own home at Taynton. While Dad was at home he helped Mother with the garden and mended our shoes and boots. Mother ironed his uniform to kill the many fleas he had brought back with him, arid then left us at Granny’s while she went to the station to see him off again. In a few days’ time she took us to stay at Chippenham with her brother Walter Longshaw and his four children. We lived there for almost a year.

I was six when we returned home – too young to know anything of war? Our schoolmaster didn’t think so. There was no radio or television in those days, but Mr Strong read the war reports to us from his newspaper. He told us when local young men were killed in action and who was badly wounded; we were taught to sing patriotic songs and to hate the Kaiser and his people. None of the schoolchildren had ever seen the sea but we were taught that the navy was playing a vital role in the defence of our island. To illustrate this, my dad sent me a Navy ABC for Little Britons. I took this book to school many times and have it to this day.

The way to school led through the churchyard. One morning I had raced ahead of my brother and sister and turned the corner into the narrow path. There, leaning against the wall was a familiar figure – it was ‘our Dad’. He had travelled down on the first available train from Oxford and was waiting near the school to see his ‘mites’ before walking the last mile home. The schoolmaster met him too and said that we children could go home. We heard that he had been awarded the DCM and were very proud to read the following week in the Oxford Times:-

Lance-Corporal T.T. Coombes of the 2/4th Oxford and Bucks. Light Infantry has been awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for Auspicious Gallantry.
When an enemy torpedo knccked a man over the parapet severely wounding him, Coombes went out in full view of the enemy at 150 yards range and lifted the man back into the trenches. Lance-Corporal Coombes is an Oxfordshire man – his home being at Shipton under Wychwood.

We were soon to hear that he had been promoted to the rank of Sergeant. Later I remember the lovely Easter egg Dad sent us from Eastbourne, where he was recovering from burns from a discharged Very pistol. My brother saved most of his share to give to Mother the next Sunday. At times, food was not very plentiful but Donald never started his dinner until he was sure that ‘our Mam’ had hers on the table. He helped her in the garden, ran errands, cleaned the shoes and knives and was generally the ‘man of the house’. He was still only nine when Dad came home from active service. The schoolmaster told us about the coming Armistice and explained what it was. We expected Dad to come at once but of course this was not to be for a while. There were great celebrations in the village and Mother took us to Oxford to see the victory parade. I remember the decorated trellis arches and Dad waving to us as he marched by.

Eventually Dad resumed his work as a stonemason at Groves’ but, once home in the evening and in by the fire, he did not want to go out. He slept badly, haunted by the spectres of his young comrades dying in the mud and filth of Flanders, of the countless women and little children fleeing before the battles, the many screaming horses and cattle and miles of the cruel barbed wire that tore at flesh and clothes. I heard Dad say ‘The man who invented barbed wire should have been hanged with it’. The world ‘Fit for Heroes’ to live in proved not to be so.

Before long, men and boys who had been feted and cheered on their return from France were roaming the countryside looking for work. They often called at our house for hot water, tea, bread and cheese or perhaps an old pair of shoes or a jacket. Homelessness is no new thing: some of these men were on the road for years, and soon whole families were tramping, making their way to Northleach or Chipping Norton workhouse. There were hard hills to climb to get to either of these places where the men were expected to work for their supper. This may seem practical to those who have never known poverty, but these people were hungry, cold and ill-clad against the weather. They were in no shape to do much wood-chopping or scrubbing. No wonder they preferred to find a dry barn in which to bed down for the night.

Once a month there was a cattle sale down in the village; the sale ground was where the Bowls Club now have their green. Most of the cattle drovers were men who ‘lived rough’; they started early in the morning bringing the cattle in from neighbouring farms. Some came from villages many miles away: we could hear cows and sheep coming over the hill from Burford: not much time was wasted getting ready for school on sale day. Plenty of help was needed with the droving once the animals got near the village.

With my friends I stood at road junctions and open gateways to prevent the awkward cows straying off the road. At dinnertime we helped drive animals up the Burford road, very reluctant to go in to our dinner which Mother had cooling on the plates so that we could get quickly back down to the sale where we mingled with the grown-ups until the second bell for school.

We went back again after school, and this time helped a drover take cattle to the crossroads on the Downs. These men were paid a few shillings for this work and they usually gave a penny to any young child who would go up the hill with them. At Fulbrook, school-children would be waiting there to carry on to Burford. This continued until the cattle reached their new home, often miles out over the Cotswold Hills. From these huge farms, corn was brought to the mill at Shipton Station.

Shipton livestock sale, 1930's, held regularly at the back of the Crown Inn, now the vegetable garden and bowling green
Shipton livestock sale, 1930’s, held regularly at the back of the Crown Inn, now the vegetable garden and bowling green

The carters had to make an early start and usually got to Shipton as we were ready for school. Their wagons were piled high with great loads of corn, and each drawn by a team of enormous but very gentle shire horses. The horses were decked out in well-shone brasses and some wore little caps on their ears. The wagoner had a ‘bolton’ of straw he could sell to provide his dinner money; it went to the first pig-keeper who had a shilling to spare.

We school-children followed the wagons down the street, hanging on to the tail-board and lifting our feet off the ground, thus getting a ride for a few yards. Envious school-mates would soon cry ‘whip behind’ and the wagoner would grin and curl his whip over his shoulder, trying to tickle someone’s ears. Later in the day the wagons had to make the long journey back to their farms. I was very friendly with one of the carters and instead of riding on the wagon he would walk up the hill towards Burford chatting to me. He wanted to hear bits about the world we had learnt at geography lessons and said he wished he had got a bit of learning. He liked to hear the recitations and songs and would make the cart horses stand until he had heard the last verse.

The horse-drawn bus made regular trips to Shipton Station to meet the trains. It came from Burford, picking up passengers from Fulbrook and the top end of Shipton on the way. The coachman was fond of ale and often stopped at the Red Horse too long so prudent passengers alighted here and walked the last quarter mile to the station. The once-talked-of branch line to Burford was never built although it was mentioned on the deeds of a cottage my father once owned as it might have gone through that cottage garden.

Other vehicles came up and down the ‘Turnpike’ (now the A361), mostly horse-drawn. There were the gaily-painted caravans of the fair people who came to the village twice a year and put up roundabouts, swinging-boats and stalls. The women folk went round the houses with baskets of pegs and cottons; if you bought from them you had a lucky face; should you refuse, calamity or sudden death were forecast. We knew one of the men with the fair as he came into the village in spring and autumn to sweep the cottage chimneys.

One year there was a constant stream of Foden lorries through the village, all heavily laden on the southbound journey, with their loads hidden under tarpaulins. We wondered what they were and finally found out that surplus shells and ammunition from the war were being taken to Bristol to be dumped in the Channel. These lorries had to pass close to our gate and one day the road surface gave way and the wheel sank in, firmly stuck in the clay. My mother went out to see what was the matter and made cocoa for the man and boy while it was decided what to do

. In those days the only telephone in the village was at the Post Office, so a telegram was sent for help but it was three days before a relief with hauling tackle arrived, during which time the lorry had sunk even deeper into the clay. The driver slept in the cab and the boy in our wash-house and Mother helped with the food situation: the driver did have a tin of bully and some bread with him. The village children swarmed around to look at the shells and we wondered if we might get blown to bits in our beds.

The first rescue attempt was a wash-out; the thick steel rope broke and bits flew far and wide: it was lucky no-one watching was hurt. We children were sorry to see ‘our Foden’ finally rescued as it had been quite an exciting few days. The Fodens were steam wagons and ran on coal: the driver gave Mother a bit of coal for her kindness.

Haymaking in the early thirties
Haymaking in the early thirties

Other events came along to claim our attention. Sparks from the chimney of the Foden belonging to Groves the builders set fire to a barn up the Station Road; the horse-drawn bus turned over and people were injured; a school-friend was impaled on the spiked railings outside the Baptist Chapel; one night a terrific gale brought many trees down, blocking roads and lanes; torrential rain or melting snow caused the River Evenlode to flood the meadows and Station Road so that we were sorry that the school wasn’t on the other side of the river.

On the whole though, school-days passed pleasantly enough, and it was soon time for those not lucky enough to go to Burford Grammar School to think about looking for work. The girls mostly went into domestic service and the boys either to the farms or, if they were lucky, to an apprenticeship to a carpenter or into the building trade. There were a variety of ways of getting to the Grammar School, mostly scholarships of one sort or another. Boys walked to Burford from the villages and those from Kingham came to Shipton on the train and then on by foot or bicycle.

The Girls’ Grammar School had only just been opened then (1922); previous to this, a favoured few who could afford the train fare went to Oxford with forgotten scholarships somehow brought out into daylight for these lucky ones.

My brother won a scholarship to Burford: I missed the exam because I caught the dreaded scarlet fever. No-one knew where I caught it as there was not another case in the district. It was contagious and, in those days often fatal, but my mother said she would nurse me at home as the nearest isolation hospital was many miles away at Reading. She faithfully carried out the strict rules laid down by the village Doctor and as a result I recovered and no-one else caught the complaint from me.

I got the rest of my education when and how I could, reading books considered too old for me, watching others and, later on, attending W.E.A. classes and taking full advantage of anything offered by the Women’s Institute and their wonderful Denman College.

But before that, there were changes at home. Dad bought Rock Cottage round the corner and we moved our bits and pieces to a much larger place. Mother got the pig to move by rattling his food bucket; not having been fed all day he was no trouble to get into his new home.

There was a lot of work to do on this old cottage but with Mother as labourer it soon became a good home. Dad dug stone from the garden to build the garden wall. This cottage had a tithe on it and after quite a battle with the powers-that-be Mother and I went to the Old Bailey in London and finally got it redeemed. It was many years before there was a water supply – I had left home long before that came about.

The Burford horse-drawn bus at Shipton station, about 1910

Reproduced from the WLHS Journal No.7 (1992)