Lena J Mitchell (nee Souch) Memories of School at Churchill

School at Churchill

As we have mentioned before we had to attend school at Churchill. There was no transport, we had to walk every day there and back. Our Jean was only five years old. The Langstons of Sarsden House had built the schools at Churchill in 1874. Boys, Girls and Infants all separate buildings.

In 1907 Boys and Girls were merged to form a mixed school and Infants went into the Boys’ school building; (later known as the Anne Walter Hall). When we started at Churchill school in 1934 this latter was the Infant school. Our Jean went there, her teacher was Miss M Webb, who also ran the library for all Churchill schoolchildren.

The children from Cornwell village came to school by bus. This bus was probably paid for by their local Squire, something of a philanthropist of the day. He had re-modeled the whole of their village so that every cottage had hot and cold running water installed, electricity, and an inside fully plumbed in bathroom and W.C. Almost unheard of luxury. Even the great house at Ditchley Park had no bathroom or hot water laid on at that time; for Miss Corbett in her ‘History of Spelsbury’ recorded that Lord Dillon bathed in a tin bath in front of the dining room fire. The bath filled with cans of hot water heated on the kitchen range which the butler carried to the bath.

My school class as an eight-year-old was with Miss Newman who lived at Chipping Norton. Later she married Leslie Blake of Blakes who were Blacksmiths at Churchill. Later I progressed to the intermediate class for nines to elevens and was taught by Miss Morris who lived at Shipton-under-Wychwood and drove up daily in her two tone Morris eight. The Headmaster was a tall thin man named Mr. Blake, who always wore plus-fours and often used the cane on the senior boys justifying the misuse on the flimsiest of excuses. He was mad about aeroplanes and gave the senior boys long, often very boring lessons about them. He joined the Royal Airforce in World War II and was unfortunately lost in action.

Churchill was a Church school and we schoolchildren observed the Saint’s days and Ash Wednesday with a short service in the church then a holiday for the rest of the day.

There were no school dinners in those days – we all took a packed lunch and had a hot meal in the evening as did all the family. There was a shop next to the Chequers Inn at Churchill and when we had pennies or halfpennies we bought sweeties there. The shop sold almost everything including toys at Christmastime. Miss Cecily Bosley of the farm always gave us a present each at Christmas which she always purchased from the shop at Churchill. Near to the date we always looked into the shop window with some anxiety and tried to guess what she might buy. We were on pins in case our favourites might be purchased by someone else first.

Our sister Millie and Bernard were in the Senior class. Bernard often took the short cut to Churchill across the fields opposite the lane to Merriscourt, jumped the brook, and came out on the Kingham Road just below Acklands the bakers. Millie left school at fourteen whilst we were at Merriscourt and started in service at Sarsden Glebe which in earlier times had been the Rectory for the Vicar of Churchill. Its size and opulence proving what a powerful and possibly wealthy figure the local vicar would once have been in the community. Indeed, often members of the gentry went into the Church instead of the army or other profession. As the salary or stipend as it was called was more than generous with the right to occupancy of a large manor type house included.

To return to Merriscourt, at one stage the three mothers were very concerned about we children having to walk to school in bad weather. Having nowhere to dry our clothes on reaching school, especially Jean who was only five and suffered very badly with her chest each winter. So when the weather was really bad we stayed home. It wasn’t long before the school attendance officer began to ask awkward questions. Mother and Mrs. Allen the carter’s wife were adamant that we should not go in bad weather, even when they were threatened with prosecution by the school authorities. However much they were threatened they stuck fast. In the end Mother won through and we were no longer sent in bad weather. Many were the days off we enjoyed to the envy of our schoolmates.

Our Bernard was a big lad for his age and already adept at much of the work on the farm. Quite often Norman Bosley required an extra hand at haymaking and harvest and particularly at threshing time when the threshing tackle came to the farm. The harvest corn had been stacked in sheaves and now the grain was to be threshed out. As each sheaf was bonded (tied) with binder twine an extra hand at threshing time for bond— cutting. This was a fairly easy task in comparison to lifting and heaving sacks of grain and by using a lad it freed a man for a heavier task. On these occasions Norman Bosley would pop along the night before and say to Mum and Dad, “Keep Bernard from school tomorrow I can do with his help.”

All this made our immediate neighbour very jealous as she had a son the same age as Bernard and he was never asked to work on the farm. In a fit of vindictive temper she reported mother to the school board. Again the farmer tried to get mother off the hook as he had done on the absence for bad weather issue, but this time it was no go. Bernard still continued to work when he could but there were no more crafty days off school to do so.

Each season passed pleasantly enough for us all. In winter we mostly stayed in unless there was snow and ice when we had slides and sledging to hearts content. In summer we paddled in the brooks and generally roamed the fields and hedgerows making up games as we went along. We often walked miles in a day never coming to any harm. Between Lyneham turn and Sarsden Pillars there were a number of quarries no longer in use. These were the setting for many an imaginative adventure acted out on the rocky slopes. The disused quarry at the top of the farm lane from Merriscourt was quite a favourite. Here the wild strawberries grew in great profusion. In season we often walked up there with a jam jar on a string to collect the succulent fruit.

Mother was never quite settled at Merriscourt because it was so isolated. She had left many very good friends behind at Spelsbury and missed popping into one or another of the cottages for tea and a chat when the time could be spared from her many household duties. True she had transferred to both Mother’s Union and Women’s Institute at Churchill, but even these were never quite the same for her as those left behind at Spelsbury. She liked to read — and had library books from a shop at Chipping Norton which ran a library. As in all things she made the best of it she could, but often, I’m sure, felt very lonely.

Mother, you see was a North countrywoman and had come originally from a family of successful coal merchants. She and father had met in her native Lancashire when he had left Chadlington at the time of the great depression in agriculture and farming and there was no work to be had. He had a variety of jobs in Manchester — drove a horse tram; a hansom cab; groundsman at a smart girl’s school; gardener for council parks and gardens. Unfortunately, once again, there was countrywide severe unemployment and depression and in 1908 he decided to return home to Chadlington. Having no money, he made his way back on foot, working eating and sleeping where and when he could. We listened enthralled to such tales of his and mother’s earlier life, as we sat cosily round the fire of a winter’s evening.

As has been previously said we walked daily to school at Churchill. Our number and route were always the same. Millie, Bernard, Lena and Jean Souch; Bert, Violet and Georgie Betteridge and Pamela Allen. We walked from Merriscourt up through Sarsden as far as the private lane on the left, down to the bridge and up the steep hill to Churchill. In those days there were only two pairs of thatched farm cottages and Bick’s farmhouse and dairy at Lowfield. None had water laid on. Water supply was from a spring channelled into a pipe which gushed out into a small pool— the overflow feeding a stream which ran down through the cottage front gardens.

A Maurice Hicks and his wife and two small girls under school age lived in the first thatched cottage nearest Merriscourt turn. He worked on the Home Farm at Sarsden House. Next door lived an oldish lady named Carolina Hanns. As children we ‘helped’ in her garden. I myself spent quite a lot of time with her both inside and outside the house. Many people called her a witch but I got to know her quite well. She was very refined and originated from near Birmingham. I think at some time she must have been employed at Sarsden House as housekeeper or ladies maid perhaps, now pensioned off and granted a cottage on the estate. The next cottage was a weekend and holiday cottage for relatives of Miss Hanns who were something to do with Cadbury’s the Bournville chocolate people. I often went into this cottage with Miss Hanns it was furnished throughout with very fine antiques.

The other thatched cottage was occupies by an oldish eccentric lady called Lil Joiner. She had done farm work and looked after her elderly parents until they died. I am not sure whether Bicks house and dairy were owned or tenanted by them. It was at that time two cottages joined together. The top one was occupied by widowed Mrs Bick and her sons, and the dairy was situated on the ground floor of the lower part. They had a small farm below and to the rear; it was always called Hick’s farm. I assume they took milk to Kingham station for the early morning milk train or had it collected by milk lorry as many farmers thereabouts now did.

Lord and Lady Wyfold and their daughters lived at Sarsden House; I never heard they had any sons. Married outdoor staff lived in various houses in Sarsden. People named Willis1 lived in the first house on the right by the wood. They had children, just before we moved to Merriscourt their small daughter died from eating poisonous berries from the hedgerow. Mr. Willis1 was chauffeur at the big house.

The house at the top of the lane was occupied by Jack Leader — he had daughters and a son. In fact one girl, Joyce, was my age and my very best friend. Her father was employed as a gardener at the big house. There was also an agent and head gardener but as a child I would not know them. Their children (if they had any) would have been older and have left school. I can only recall Sarsden children who were at school at the same time as we were. For the most part we were good friends with the Sarsden children, but they always seemed to act just a little superior to us possibly because of their parents’ connection with the ‘gentry’ at Sarsden House.

Further up the road to the right lived the Peachey’s. He was Head groom at Sarsden House. His wife had been ladies maid at one time and besides their daughter Phyllis who was my age they had an older daughter Sybil who was currently ladies maid at Sarsden House. There was also an older brother Ronald, who worked on the Home Farm. The cottages below the ‘Buttercross’ were also occupied by outside staff at Sarsden House.

When our Millie left school at Fourteen she went into service at Sarsden Glebe. The Glebe was occupied by Captain and Mrs Hutchinson and their daughter Miss Judith. This had been Sarsden Rectory until 1922 it was sold by the Church. It was sizeable house with stabling and lodge at its drive entrance. The old lady who lived in this lodge was really thought to be a witch. She was wizened and brown-skinned and generally thought to be South African and with hindsight I can only suppose she was connected in some way to Captain Hutchinson’ s army background. She always carried a stick and this was proved to be a sword stick. The youths from Churchill, and alas we children, would taunt her unmercifully until she slid the sword out of the stick and shook it at us.

I quite often went to Sarsden Glebe to collect and return Millie’s laundry for mother did this for her at home. Miss Gordon was the cook and always gave me a hot or cold drink according to season and a tasty snack in the big kitchen. They had a full complement of servants, including a Butler, parlourmaid, several housemaids, ladies maids and kitchen and scullery maids. These all took their meals together in the ‘Servants Hall’. I was invited to supper in this room on more than one occasion. A position in a large household such as this was considered to be a very good life and a young girl had the opportunity of companionship and a good training in household skills. Besides the inside staff there was a full outside staff of gardener, grooms, chauffeur and men who worked the Glebe farm.

Mother and Miss Gordon, the cook at Sarsden Glebe were quite friendly. Both belonged to the Women’s Institute at Churchill and gravitated naturally to each other. Miss Gordon, had, I believe been employed for a long time with the Hutchinson’s and was also, I was led to believe, a north countrywoman like mother. The gardener at the Glebe, Mr. Tomlinson, was a widower and lived at Churchill. Eventually he and Miss Gordon were married.

The gentry from both Sarsden House and the Glebe rode to hounds with the Heythrop hunt. In those days the main entrance to Sarsden House was on the left below the groom’s house and the top of the lane. It was a granite archelled (chippings) drive curving round below the big cedar tree to the house. When the hunt ‘meet’ was at Sarsden House we were allowed right up the drive to the house to view the hounds and those taking part before the start of the day’s hunting.

At some time there had been kernels belonging to Sarsden House. Below Fairgreen on the bridleway another carriageway branched to the right at the lake. It came out at Down’s Hollow on the Burford/Chipping Norton Road. Halfway along stood the kernel buildings, and the kennelman’ a house; (empty but not derelict). This was a favourite walk of ours.

I remember the path from the carriagway to the house was lined either side with well-maintained (cobnut) hazel trees. It is not known if the kernels were kept for breeding fox hounds or if in a previous age Sarsden House had their own hounds and hunt. The kennels may have been used for hare—coursing hounds. Hare—coursing was a popular sport in that part of Oxfordshire during the 1920’s.

The hunting season lasted from November to March and after it ended came point-to-point racing. This was horse-racing over several miles open country with hedge and water jumps. The course was more or less circular with usually a convenient hill nearby from which spectators could follow the races. The riders known as G.R.’s (Gentlemen Riders) did not require to be licensed as jockeys were, or to come under jockey—club rules. The late Duke of Windsor when Prince of Wales was greatly attracted to this sport and was known to have attended near Chipping Norton and Burford.

Another highlight of the summer season was the Annual Flower Show. The one at Churchill was both popular and well—attended. Besides entries for flowers, fruit and vegetables there were many sections children could and did enter. The most popular for us at Churchill were needlework — the entry being made in school needlework class. There were also sections for drawing, handwriting and best collection of wild flowers. For the three years we were at Merriscourt I regularly won first for handwriting. We were also in fact, often in the first three of other sections. Races and jumps were part of the day’s events and we were always well up in these. There were sideshows and a beer tent and the Chequers Inn was open all day. The day finished with fireworks at dusk and a dance in the schoolroom. There was no village hall in Churchill at that time.

I cannot remember if there was a Harvest Home celebration at Sarsden House, in any case we would not have been eligible if there had.

Certainly there was a Harvest Festival at both Churchill and Sarsden churches but our family were not so much involved with the church as we had been at Spelsbury. Father had been brought up as a strict Methodist so we always walked to Chadlington to attend. Harvest festival at the Methodist chapel there.

Sarsden House, I understand always had a lavish party at Christmas for staff and tenants with presents, eating, drinking and dancing. At Churchill we had the Women’s Institute Christmas party. A sumptuous tea with crackers and balloons and a present for every child. The food was provided by, and we were waited on, by the local gentry; Lady Wyfold, Mrs. Hutchinson and her daughter Miss Judith. Mrs. Rose from Churchill Heath Farm and various other notable ladies also helped. It was always in the evening so that husbands could attend too. After the meal we sang carols, played games and did the country dance ‘Sir Roger de Coverley’ accompanied by the piano. The children performed a play and there were various recitations. Then some of the W.I. members performed a play. The star of these was a certain Mrs. Harding and were always received with much applause. The one I remember most was about her son ‘poor Jack’ who was “taken for the Navy by the press gang up by Sarsgrove, and his poor suffering body returned to her in a dying condition because of ill-treatment.” The body being a bed bolster wrapped in a blanket sobbed over with heart-rending cries.

So we came to 1937. Rumours of war were everywhere. The country was not re-arming but a Royal Air Force had been formed. New aerodromes had been constructed at Rissington and Brize Norton. One of my older brothers, Albert, was in the Territorials, a voluntary part-time army which was being extended rapidly. There was quite a bit of unrest, still no paid holidays for farm workers, farm wages were very low, and not much Union activity as yet. Miss Cecily from Merriscourt had married Jack Kelland and gone to live at Churchill. Mother was getting restless and she felt more isolated than ever when it was rumoured Mr. Norman might move.

I was eleven that year and duly sat for the scholarship at Churchill School. Three of us passed the first part, Phyllis Peachey from Sarsden, Jack Franklin from Churchill and myself. This meant we had to take the second part at another school. ‘When the appointed day arrived we were taken to the school at Shipton-under-Wychwood by Headmaster Mr. Blake. Looking back at it now, Shipton must have been the designated school for the area as the class taking the second part papers was quite full. Several weeks went by and I hadn’t given the examination a second thought.

That summer morning we went to school as usual. Miss Morris was my class teacher then. Each day we had assembly (prayers and a hymn) in the senior classroom aim hall which adjoined our room. There was always a few minutes in our own room before filing in for assembly. Mr. Blake rushed in and spoke hurriedly to Miss Morris. At assembly any announcements were made at the end. We said our prayers and had our hymn then the Headmaster said, “I am pleased to announce that Lena Souch has passed the Scholarship and will go to Chipping Norton County Grammar School after the Summer holidays”. The whole school clapped vigorously, Miss Morris looked delighted, it was a feather in her cap to have taught yet another successful scholarship winner. I sat, rooted to my seat, thunderstruck, and was in a daze for most of the day. I walked home in the same state. Mother met us at the garden gate – I blurted out the news, she already knew having had a letter that morning.

Chipping Norton County School was then a fee-paying Grammar School. That meant at eleven upon passing the school entrance examination pupils were admitted when paying the fees. Quite a large number, however, were admitted by the Local Education Authority. Nowadays this grading at eleven is loosely referred to as “the eleven plus”.

The normal leaving age for ordinary secondary modern schools was fourteen but grammar school pupils stayed until sixteen and took the School Certificate at the end of the fifth year before leaving, this was in seven curriculum subjects and one had to pass in them all to collect the coveted certificate.

Grants were made by the Oxfordshire Education Authority for children who successfully passed the scholarship the amount depended upon how much one’s father earned. I have no idea what the full fees might have been; but several hundred pounds a term plus extras like uniform etc. would be a good guess. Several pupils had to leave early whilst I was there as their parents fell upon hard tines and could no longer afford the fees.

There was in place at Sarsden a Trust Fund, which had been left by an Anne Walters for the education of Sarsden girls. My parents received a small concessionary grant from this fund for school shoes because, not strictly a Sarsden girl I went to Churchill school.

Two other girls were eligible for higher education from Sarsden, Joyce Leader, who had not passed the first part of the scholarship and Phyllis Peachey who had passed the first part, but not the second. Joyce Leader was the daughter of a gardener at Sarsden House and Phyllis Peachey the daughter of the Head groom. Looking back with hindsight I would imagine the Peachey’s applied to the Trust for a place for Phyllis at the Grammar School. They were not at all pleased that I was the only one at Churchill School to have passed both parts of the Scholarship that year. They had quite expected Phyllis to sail through and win it with ease.

To make things fair, between the two Sarsden girls, the Trustees said that the Reverend Spearing, incidentally himself one of the Trustees and one other, Mr. W. Anson, Headmaster at Churchill School previous to Mr. Blake: would set a test paper for the two girls.

Mr. Anson now retired lived in the house on the bank just above the church by the stile that had to be negotiated to enter the cricket field where the Flower Show was always held. He had been a greatly loved and an outstanding headmaster. A Parish Councillor still passionately involved in the welfare of the community and affairs of the school.

In fact both Joyce Leader and Phyllis Peachey should have been giver tie opportunity to sit the entrance examination set by the school to decide which or both should go to the grammar school; fees being paid by the trust. The Trustees met and agreed Reverend Spearing and Mr. Arson should set a test paper. It was a foregone conclusion that Phyllis Peachey would be selected. I was sad for Joyce Leader had been my best friend at Churchill School.

Full uniform was required for pupils at Chipping Norton County School. On the appointed day mother had to take me to the school to see the school outfitter. Uniforms had to be bought from one source a high class shop at Cheltenham. The outfitter came to the school to measure and decide sizes etc. our colours were green and gold. Strict rules applied to pupils wearing the school uniform out of school hours. For instance, if in Chipping Norton town, ice cream or lollipops or a take from a paper bag and if reported were punishable at school. Not only were the culprits punished, parents were written to as well.

We were taken to school by private bus, the one I had to catch from Merriscourt came from the villages and Kingham up to Churchill direct. I had to walk to Churchill to catch this bus. I often walked alone so as to be in time. The school day at Chipping Norton began at 8.45 a.m. and finished at 4 p.m. so I missed walking with the others who still attended Churchill School.

However, other changes had taken place that Sinner. Farming was changing – progressively becoming more mechanised, tractors were taking the place of horses. Norman Bosley’s mother now quite elderly went to live with her daughter Cecily at Churchill and Norman Bosley was going to vacate Merriscourt. He eventually took a smaller farm on the Lyneham/Kingham road near Sarsden Lodge.

Fortunately for all Father had been able to make good arrangements – he had heard in March of that year of a job going at Chadlington with a cottage in Horseshoe Lane. Unfortunately he wasn’t successful in getting that job. Then he beard about a job at Dean, a hamlet between Chadlington and Spelsbury. This job he obtained and a pleasant three bedroomed cottage that went with it. As a bonus we were back in our original parish of Spelsbury. We moved at Michaelmas. I continued school at Chipping Norton catching the school bus at Dean turn. Jean and Bernard went to Chadlington school where Bernard left at fourteen to work on the same farm as father.

It was to be many years before I saw Sarsden again or perhaps fate that I did. When I did the very notable changes that are apparent today had already taken place. More ‘farm cottages’ had been built at Lowfield. The former thatched ‘farm cottages’ had been developed to make two into one in both cases. They now made attractive and expensive private country residences. Two or three other private residences had also been built. Bicks former farmhouse turned back into two and sold as private residences. My neice and her husband Richard Fudge took a farm job at Sarsden and moved into the agricultural cottage at Lowfield next to what had been Bicks farmhouse.

I now recall those halcyon days of my childhood at Merriscourt, Sarsden and Churchill as some of my happiest. Little did I know in those long gone days, when as a child, on the way home from school at Churchill and we were caught in a violent thunderstorm, and given shelter by old Mrs. Bick. That, now a mother and grandmother myself, together with my own family; I would be visiting my neice at Sarsden and sleeping in the ‘holiday cottage’ once the dairy part of Bick’s old farmhouse. I am very pleased and gratified that it should be so and that once again Sarsden has again come to mean so much in my life.

Lena J Mitchell (nee Souch)
Kemp Town, Brighton, East Sussex
May 1998

1 The family is referred to by Lena as Willis when in fact their name was Willers. Andy Cain, a relation to Frederick George Willers who was the Chauffeur that Lena refers to contacted us in June 2007 to let us know.

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