Archive item – Cissie Harris

From The Wychwood 40 years ago:

Ellen Steed was born in Shipton in the last year of the 19th century, the fourth of six children. Her father’s earnings amounted to all of 12s. per week (60p) and when Ellen (who was always known as Cissie but nobody knows why) was three years old, he went to Birmingham to find work in a gas-works because there were no jobs to be found locally.

Cissie thinks she was probably brought into the world by old Granny Townsend, the local midwife, who assisted at the birth of every village child, cared for the mother and the rest of the family and did everything – and all for 3s. 6d (17.25p)!

When Cissie went to Shipton School, the headmaster was John Strong and among her schoolfellows was the late George Shayler. There were 135 children in the school and the boys were encouraged to till their own little plots of land in an adjoining field.

There was no TV in those days, but there was always plenty of entertainment in the village. The Glebe Field, scene of our recent ‘It’s a Knock-Out’ competition, was turned into a children’s playground by the Vicar, the Rev Barter, who lived to be 100 years old. His daughter Maggie had a glorious voice and once had the honour of singing before King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. There was no shortage of good music in Shipton and there were always 20 boys and 10 men in the choir on Sundays.

When Cissie was nine or 10 years old she remembers a party of Society ladies who came to inspect the Girls’ Home, which was housed in what is now the Olde Junk Shoppe. The party included the Duchess of Marlborough, who was escorting Princess Luisa of Schleswig-Holstein, a relative of Queen Alexandra.

On leaving school, Cissie earned her first wages of 1shilling. (5p) a week at the bakery. When her mother protested, the wage was generously increased to 1s. 3d (5.125p)! Cissie wonders how her mother and father managed to raise six children on 12 shillings (60p). a week. Her mother made all the children’s clothes, her brothers’ trousers being handed down from David to John and finally to Eric. Two of these brothers later worked as porters at Shipton Railway Station.

Although there was not much money, things were made easier because everyone in the village was ready to help out a neighbour, while everyone had a plot of ground in which to grow vegetables and each house had its own pigsty. Everyone kept two pigs and at the end of the year one was brought into the house for the pot while the other was kept to farrow and continue the supply of home-killed pork and bacon.

Sir John Reade, the owner of Shipton Court, had died in 1868, but his memory was still fresh in the minds of the villagers when Cissie was a girl. “He was tall and dark and always a gentleman”, she says.

Tragedy and scandal struck when Sir John’s butler, Sinden, was found dead under suspicious circumstances. Although Sir John offered a sum of money in compensation to his relatives, they insisted on a public enquiry into the butler’s death. Sinden is buried in an unmarked grave near the door of Shipton Church, but Sir John himself chose to be buried at Little Rollright. Cissie told me that Sir John would never walk past his butler’s grave. One of his granddaughters visited Shipton quite recently, she says.

Now aged 82, Cissie is a keen member of the Shipton EverGreens and devotes one day a week to cleaning and tidying St Mary’s Church, where she has worshipped all her life.

August-September 2021