To listen to Clare talking about her wedding click on the audio player below
To listen to Clare talking about Sundays, click on the player below
“My twin sister Nina and I were born in 1923, at the Maple Maternity Hospital in Hitchin.My parents, Fanny Shepherd and Fred Handscombe had known each other since childhood. They met up again after my father returned in 1919 from Chicago to rejoin his father John a jobbing builder. My father spent 18 years in America, mainly constructing the abattoirs in Chicago, as he went there in the early 1900s to find work like many other Pirton people at that time.
The Sheppards lived at Highdown Farm before they built Holly Cottage.
My father Fred had lived at Woodbine Cottage in High St with his father John and mother Caroline and brothers and sisters Harry, George,Rose and Ruth.
My mother had been born in Leicester and had family connections in the village. She proved to be a superb dressmaker, which secured her a position as a ladies maid to the grandmother of the famous Mitford girls. She then went on to work in the records department at Australia House during the First World War. They were married by the Vicar of Holwell, in St Mary’s Church, Pirton in1922, by which time my mother was 40 and my father 39 years old.
Votes for women who were either married or over 30 years of age were not introduced until 1926 so my mother cast her first vote at the age of 46.”
“My earliest childhood memories are of sitting in my pram outside Holly Cottage in Hambridge Way. My aunt Zillah lived there while looking after her elderly relatives aunt Mary Ann and uncle Abraham Shepherd.
My father built our house, Bannisters in 1921 in Walnut Tree Road with help from his father John and brother George.
I clearly remember being in my playpen in the corner of the living room of our home, looking up at my father as he cut the crust off a loaf to give to me.. To encourage the building of new houses post war the government provided a grant of £400 to replenish the depleted housing stock. My father Fred a bricklayer and George a carpenter went on to build Hillcrest in High Street taking advantage of the scheme to build their own family homes. I can still picture Bannisters as it was during my early childhood. It was built out of Arlesey White bricks. We had a large garden with its orchard and vegetable patch where my father kept chickens.
Inside there was a kitchen range in what is now the dining room. In the summer months when it was too hot to light the kitchen range we had a small Primus stove for boiling our kettle and an oil fired cooker called “a Florence” which had two burners and an oven that sat on the top which stood in the scullery.
The washroom next door to the scullery was attached to the side of the house and had a big copper standing in the corner. This was where all the laundry was done. The copper which had a fire underneath was also used to heat our bath water. Mains drainage and electricity didn’t come to the village until the early 1930s. In my early childhood we still drew our water from the well situated by the back door which had the advantage of a pump unlike a lot of the other wells in the village. Because my father was connected to the building trade he took a huge interest in new ways to improve our home. I think I was about 8 years old when we had a new fire in the living room with a back boiler to heat our water. He had watched one being fitted at Docwra Manor which was the vicarage at that time. He immediately went into Brookers in Hitchin to order one. We then had a bath installed upstairs, which caused some problems, as the first one they delivered was too big. The new back boiler enabled us to have hot water on tap, which was a huge improvement as it saved carrying water upstairs. My father always washed and shaved at the kitchen sink. Mother and later Nina and I washed in the bedroom. The bedrooms had a washstand complete with a large china bowl, a water jug, soap dish and beaker for our toothbrushes. Even after the bath was fitted we still used the washstand, as there was still no wash basin in the bathroom. We had an outside privy until I was seven years old. Mother had a bedside commode and Nina and I would use chamber pots, which were in daily use until we had a flush toilet upstairs in 1932.
Before we had electricity filling the oil lamps was a daily job. The wick had to be trimmed to give a good even light and the chimney and globe cleaned. The oil receptacle had to be filled and I remember the oil being delivered by Mr Eddie Reynolds. We had a hanging Aladdin lamp in the living room, a small one in the scullery, another lantern with coloured glass in the hallway. In the sitting room we had a green and white china table lamp which I still have, only it is now used as a vase.
Monday was washday, which was hard work, a lot of time and energy was spent by the women in the family on simply keeping the family clean. The washing would be put through the mangle before being hung out to dry, and then brought inside to be ironed. Clothes were ironed using a flat iron that was heated on the kitchen range. Most of the cottages and even the bigger houses had a washroom with a fire under a big copper at the back of their houses and an outside privy sometimes shared by more than one family.
Housekeeping during the 1920’s and 30s was a constant challenge and very hard work. Rugs and carpets were taken outside to be beaten by hand, using a wooden carpet beater. Floors had to be swept and mopped. Mattresses were turned and bedding aired. In our house the mattresses had to be turned every day except Sundays. Oil lamps needed cleaning and refilling. Cooking was mainly done on the kitchen range which needed constant stoking which created extra cleaning because of the dust and smoke. When it was too hot for the range to be alight in the summer they would cook on a Primus stove using metholated spirits. Some women would start their spring cleaning as early as January. There was always a lot to do, I remember the cutlery having to be cleaned every week taking care not to get the bone handles wet”.
“The food eaten by many people was seasonal and in some cases quite stodgy in order to fill hungry bellies, especially boiled dumplings with a little meat inside called odods which was eaten hot or cold. A lot of children could be seen outside their homes eating a crust of bread and butter. This made me quite envious as Nina and I were not allowed to eat in the street. There would be 2 deliveries of milk each day and the vegetables and fruit we ate were mainly home grown. Some families would keep a pig and poultry for their eggs or to be eaten when they had finished laying.”
“It was only later in life that I realised what a big influence my mother’s time in service and my father’s time in America had on the way our home was run. Because they had both worked for many years prior to their marriage they were able to provide Nina and I with a happy and comfortable home.
“Our childhood revolved around the seasons, with cold wet muddy winters where parts of the village especially West Lane known as Wet Lane, would flood due to lack of drainage. The children in the village would be dressed in layers of clothes and boots with hooks and laces to keep them warm. The little girls wore lots of petticoats under their skirts and it was normal for boys to be in dresses until they were well out of infancy. Nina and I didn’t wear petticoats we had warm woollen stockings .Our mother who was skilled in dressmaking made our clothes including our coats. Many of the children in the village came from large families who survived on low wages and relied on hand me downs from older brothers and sisters. The phrase “make do and mend” applied to everything whether it was needlework, knitting, household items, or garden tools nothing was wasted.”
The expression “sides to middle” applied to the practice of cutting up worn sheets and reusing them by moving the middle section to the edges and sewing them back together. Worn shirts would have their collars and cuffs reversed, holes in socks, hosiery, clothes and household items would be darned and patched to prolong their usefulness.
“Summer was my favourite season, my sister and I would be outside all the time playing with our dolls and making dens in the garden and hedgerows.
Children would amuse themselves collecting flowers and leaves making up games and exploring the village. It was reasonably safe for children to play out on the roads at that time. I was part of a group of friends who spent a lot of time together visiting each other’s houses and amusing ourselves. Some children helped the farmers by working in the fields during the long summer break from school, which was known as “The Harvest Holiday.”“There were horses everywhere. Many were used to pull the ploughs and other farm machinery like harrows.I grew up at a time when the horse and cart was used throughout the village and surrounding area to deliver, milk, bread, paraffin and some loaded with pigs covered in netting to stop them escaping on their way to the market in Hitchin. It was very rare for me to see a motor car during my early years. I think only the people living at Walnut Tree Farm and Pirton Court had one .Although I saw Doctor Grellet’s car when he visited the village every day. There was a bus used from 1921.The one that I can remember properly was the Pirton Belle which took us to Hitchin Market on a Tuesday or Saturday which was an adventure. My father would often cycle into Hitchin late on a Saturday to “Brookers” where he would order building materials for his work and bring us Rowntree’s Motoring Chocolate to be eaten on Sunday”
“A trip that stands out in my memory is when Nina and I were about nine years old and were taken on the open topped double decker bus to Bedford. I can still picture what we were wearing Nina and I wore pink floral sleeveless cotton dresses and white Panama hats. We were often dressed the same until our early teens which was normal for twins at that time. Mother wore her brown check suit with a blouse, hat and gloves and Father wore a suit and tie. We really had great fun that day especially when we had to duck down to go under the low railway bridge at Henlow (which was later demolished).I remember Mum being very angry with Nina because she stood up which could have been very dangerous. When we got to Bedford we walked by the river watching the swans and ducks. We went to Dujohn’s teashop where my father’s cousin “Minnie Tookey” served us cakes in a box for afternoon tea (A great treat). Afterwards we got back on the bus for the return journey home. Another trip we went on was to Meppershall where we got off the bus to buy some sweets and then came home.”
“The bus would also be used to take people on church outings. The church and chapel played a big part in village life. Miss Pollard of Highdown House was driven in a carriage called a brougham to St Mary’s Church every Sunday, by Mr Foot the coachman. He lived in a cottage off The Avenue on Hexton Road, which has since been demolished. Miss Pollard always sat in the family pew, which was at the front right hand side of the church; it was the custom then for worshippers to be seated according to their rank. Parishioners would attend the service and the children went to Sunday School dressed in their Sunday best.
“The village always seemed busy to me, there were several shops including the butcher in High Street and hardware shop opposite on the corner of Cromwell Way and High Street. There was a grocers and general store. The post office had moved from Great Green to the shoemakers in Cromwell Terrace. I was fascinated by Rachael Burling’s drapery shop on the other end of Cromwell Terrace because it sold a lot of different things not sold in the other shops, including sewing threads needles, pins, ladies and gents hosiery and underwear. One of my special memories is, hearing her play her viola, which I loved. There were five bakeries, a blacksmiths, a shoemaker and boot repairers. There were five pubs or beer houses in the village. The main ones I remember are the Fox looking out down the High Street and the Cat & Fiddle a beer house on Great Green. There was a policeman who lived in Davies Crescent. He used to ride his bike around Pirton and Hexton and was always visible wearing his uniform while doing his rounds. Because he was always about and knew everyone, all the children were quite scared of him and he was well respected by our parents.”
“The Village Hall was built in 1930; an extension to the side of the main hall was used as a social club for men only. A corresponding extension on the other side was used as an instruction room where boys were taught practical skills like carpentry, gardening, and girls were taught laundering, sewing and cookery. These skills were invaluable to the pupils as they looked for employment on leaving the village school at 14 years of age. Apprenticeships were available for some trades but not all families could afford the premium that the employers required. Hammonds Charity which was set up by a village resident in 1642 offered grants towards this cost. As well as working on the local farms or doing domestic work young people used to cycle into Hitchin to work in shops or to Luton which was famous for its hat factories.”
Some women worked part time to supplement the family income. They worked on the farms; sowing the crops, potato picking and at harvest time. Domestic work was available in some of Pirton’s larger houses or a bus or cycle ride away in Hitchin. Another source of income for women and girls in the village was the glove factory, which was originally set up in the National School on Great Green in 1915 and later moved to 7 Hitchin Road.
The factory enabled the women to work part time or as outworkers while continuing to care for their families. Some families, especially the unemployed, or the frail and elderly found life became very hard. The biggest fear in those days was to be sent to the workhouse if they became unable to support and look after themselves. There was a workhouse in Pirton, but when it closed in 1834 following the New Poor Law Act destitute families would be sent to Hitchin or as far as Royston. Families would be segregated into separate buildings for the men and women. Young children would be taken from their mothers into the children’s wards. The distress caused by breaking up families was enormous. Elderly married couples who had been together in some cases for over 50 years would eventually die without their lifelong partner by their side. The more fortunate families were the ones supported by the parish and kept in their own homes.”
“Nina and I started school in September 1928 with all the other children from Pirton who were of a similar age. Miss Alice Weeden who lived at the end of New Row Holwell Road taught the infants. I recall that on Fridays we had a tea party with biscuits but the children who had been naughty were excluded. We started each day at 9am when the bell was rung, which was a job for one of the senior boys. We would all line up in the playground class by class with boys and girls in separate rows. The Headmaster Mr Bryant would come out to greet us .We would all say “Good morning Sir”. The boys saluted him and the girls would dip their heads before moving into school in silence. We were told to stand to attention, or stand at ease. This practice was seen as being rather military and was stopped by the school inspectors possibly in the 1940s.
At the start of each day we would have prayers followed by a hymn and a bible reading .The day ended with “The Lord’s Prayer” .We would always say “Grace” both at home and school before a meal
“Thank you for the world so sweet,
Thank you for the food we eat,
Thank you God for the birds that sing,
Thank you God for everything.”
The very first lesson daily was scripture, which at that time was the only subject that had to be taught by law. We followed the biblical year and learned many well known bible stories. It was thought at that time that primary schools required the church’s teaching and a law was passed to grant a holiday on Ascension Day. This was reduced in later years to half a day after a morning church service. Arithmetic was the second lesson where we learned our times tables together with addition and subtraction. This was followed by playtime, girls would be in the front playground and the boys would be in an area at the back of the school. It seemed that all our games were active and many required singing. The ones I remember were The Farmer’s in his Den, The Big Ship Sails on the Ally Ally O, Poor Jenny is a Weeping and What’s the Time Mr Wolf? The other games we played were Chinese Walls, LeapFrog and Saddle the Nag. We also played with the top and whip, hopscotch and skipping using a very long rope. After playtime there was english, we learnt our alphabet, reading and spellings which would be written on the blackboard standing on the easel at the front of the class. We would learn poems by heart and I can still recite” My little Kitten” to this day. Writing was called penmanship and had to be done with great care in order to keep our exercise books neat and tidy. Our other lessons included geography and history. On Wednesday afternoons the girls had needlework whilst the boys did drawing or gardening. Friday afternoon was similar when the girls were taught knitting. We would take part in concerts and of course the Nativity Play at Christmas.We didn’t have a sports day, instead we would be taken out to the playground to do drill. This involved doing exercises and playing netball. I enjoyed my time at Pirton School making many life long friends with my classmates.”
“Music played a big part in village life I belonged to Pirton Orchestra, which was part of the Rural Music School founded by Mary Ibbotson.Her aim was to bring stringed instruments to the villages. I learnt to play the violin and took part in the founder’s day concert held in Hitchin Town Hall. There would be guest conductors, two of them I remember are Gustalf Holtz daughter and a young Sir Adrian Bolt.A few of the larger homes in the village had a piano and Mrs Wilson from Shillington gave piano lessons to the children.”
“I left the village school when I was 11years old. My parents realised that a good education was essential. My mother had attended Tiffins School in Kingston upon Thames and was especially keen that Nina and I seize every opportunity to broaden our horizons .I was one of the lucky ones to go to Hitchin Girls Grammar School.This was not because I was a brilliant pupil but I was fortunate to be chosen to receive a Rands Scholarship (a local charity). There were only so many scholarships awarded each year so my sister Nina took the first year and I followed her a year later. Sadly our father was killed in an accident when we were only 13 but our mother was determined that Nina and I stay on at the Grammar School until we were 16 to take our School Certificate. I really enjoyed Hitchin Girls Grammar School and entered into all aspects of school life.including classwork, music and games. I played in the junior’s netball team, the first 11’s hockey and first 7’s netball teams. We were fortunate to stay on at school for that extra two years, which really improved our job prospects.
My memories of being a pupil at the Grammar School are of the high standards they expected of us; especially Miss Hughes who told us a B grade was not acceptable. In my time there were about 500 pupils on the school roll call, this has now grown to 1000 plus. I’m eternally grateful for the education I received and the options it gave me in later life”.
“Having gained my School Certificate aged 16, I secured a position as an office junior at Shillcock the estate agent in Hitchin.During my time there I learnt a lot about Hitchin and local affairs. I left Shillcock after 10 months to work at the London branch of the Co-operative Insurance Company which had been evacuated to Hitchin.I was then the only female working in the accounts department. That soon changed when two of the senior clerks were called up to join the armed forces. I then had to work on the insurance business of the Co-op Societies in the London area. Nina became the first girl to join Brookers clerical staff in Hitchin before joining the WAFF in 1942.
“I joined the Wrens on the 1st January 1943. My training started in Plymouth, before being drafted to the Combined Ops Training Establishment at The Royal Naval College in Dartmouth.Lord Louis Mountbatten our Commander in Chief was based in London. I was a writer working mainly in the captain’s office with responsibility for logging, circulating and filing correspondence I enjoyed my time in Dartmouth where I made many friends.It was a beautiful place .On a Sunday a group of us would go for long walks followed by a meal.After work we would often go to dances or film shows or to the nearest town which was Torquay .I was then sent to Burnham on Crouch in Essex, a training establishment which was preparing for “D Day”.
When the war ended with the surrender of the Japanese in August 1945 we were all given the day off. I came to London on a hot sunny day with a group of friends to join in with the celebrating crowds. We saw the Royal Family, King George the sixth, Queen Elizabeth, Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret on the balcony of Buckingham Palace. Queen Mary the Queen Mother lived at Marlborough House, but she didn’t appear to acknowledge the crowds in spite of their repeated calls. I left Burnham on Crouch and was posted to work in the Captains office at Ipswich docks. I finished my time in the Wrens at Lowestoft from where I was finally was demobbed on the 4th June 1946 This turned out to be the same date my future husband Jack Baines was demobbed. I always admired Mother’s bravery in allowing us to enlist during War when she could so easily listened to people who said we should stay at home.
“The population of Pirton changed during the war as it was a designated reception area due to the heavy bombing in London. Land Army girls replaced the men on the farms who had been called up to fight. Pirton Home Guard was formed in 1939. The village didn’t escape unscathed, a bomb had narrowly missed Shillington in 1942 and a doodlebug landed on Toot Hill in 1944 causing considerable damage.
Like many Pirton families my mother had taken in an evacuee, it was not unusual for people to knock on the door searching for lodgings as they tried to escape the blitz in London.An entire school including their teachers was evacuated from North London. They shared the classrooms in the village school and some stayed for the duration of the war living with local families.Village life was not for everyone especially the children who became home sick and wanted to go back to their families in London despite the danger.”
“I returned home to live with my mother after being demobbed. I got a job in the Outpatients Department of North Herts and South Beds Hospital on Bedford Road Hitchin, which is now the site where Waitrose is. My work mainly entailed taking care of the records and making appointments for the clinics in the Outpatients Department. In those days Matron was in charge of the running the hospital. I remember her being quite strict and very formal. We would take our meals in the dining room which was situated on the floor below the operating theatre. All the staff had to wait for either Matron or Sister Tutor to say Grace before starting our meal. I joined the staff at a time when private bequests, local businesses and charitable organisations helped to fund the hospital. There would be Help the Hospital Egg Day in Spring when eggs were donated by the local schools and preserved in isinglass. One Pound Day was when bags of dry goods such as sugar, flour and rice weighing 1lb would be donated for the hospital’s store cupboards.”
.“The National Health Service was founded by Aneurin Bevan, on the 7th July 1947as a result of the Beveridge Report. Before that patients would have to pay doctors and nurses for their treatment .I remember being told that when Mother had a big operation in the 1920s which had cost two hundred guineas. Pirton had a District Nurse Association which collected one shilling a quarter (three months),a Doctors Club and a Hospital Association. The money would be collected at the Fox.The National Health Service made a huge difference to people’s lives.It was not unusual for children to travel by bus to Hitchin to have their tonsils out with a towel under their arm and return home the same day.This changed after 1947 when they would remain in hospital for three or four days.All age groups benefited from the service as hospital treatment was previously beyond the reach of lower income families. Scarlet fever was a contagious illness that I remember meant the patients house had to be fumigated to stop the disease spreading. 1947 proved a very busy year at the hospital. Patients who had been unable to afford medical attention were queuing up for operations, dentures, glasses and physiotherapy. The purpose of the N H S was to look after its patients from the cradle to the grave”
“A memorable night in Pirton was in 1947, May Cook, the landlady of “The Fox” laid on a welcome home supper. This was for the soldiers who had been prisoners of war in Europe and the Far East.
Any leisure time we had would be spent walking or cycling often as far as Whipsnade or Bedford.If we went out in Hitchin and missed the bus we would have to walk home unless we were lucky enough to get a lift. With the return of the young men to the village sport began to play a big part in our lives. Football teams played on farmer’s fields and cricket teams played at Holwell. In1948 I joined Pirton Badminton Club which used the Village Hall and met up again with Jack Baines. He was demobbed after six and a half years in the Army.He served in North Africa, the Holy Land, and at Monte Casino in Italy.He always felt very fortunate to return home without a scratch”.
“Jack and I both came from families that had lived in Pirton for at least 300 years; we didn’t know each other very well as he was three years older than me so our paths rarely crossed. We got married in St Mary’s Church in 1950 and held our wedding reception in the Village Hall.
I bought the material for my wedding dress in D.H. Evans in Oxford Street.It was a dusky pink which I chose especially so I could wear it for other occasions. We would like to have married earlier but due to a severe shortage of housing we had to wait. We began our married life sharing my family home “Bannisters” with my sister Nina, her husband Bernard and their son David. My mother Fanny died in 1952. Jack and I moved into a new council house in Danefield Rd, which had been especially built to provide homes for Pirton families who were living in overcrowded village houses. We lived there for about four years by which time the older generation had passed on. Jack and I and our daughter Celia, who had been born in 1952, returned to “Bannisters” in December 1957.Nina and family moved into the bungalow next door where David still lives.
“Our second daughter Alison was born in 1958 and we settled down into a fairly low key family life, although remaining very involved in village activities. These were busy years bringing up our children. When they were young we enjoyed several seaside holidays usually on the east coast, as it was the closest to us. We also went on Sunday School outings and after we got our first car in 1964 we would go for days out visiting places of interest. The girls both attended Pirton School where I subsequently worked firstly as a dinner lady then as a teaching assistant which was combined with secretarial duties. I finally worked just as the school secretary for many very happy years. It was a lovely place to work as all the staff worked together without change during that time.Jack served for 40 years on the Parish Council as well as being chairman of the Pumpkin Club.I kept occupied by belonging to the W I, the History Society, and cleaning St Mary’s Church.
I also had inherited my mother’s love of dressmaking and made several wedding dresses through the years.”
“Nina died some twenty years ago a few years after her husband Bernard.Jack and I had ten happy and contented retirement years together before he died in 2004. He loved our garden where he had kept pigs, poultry and bees over the years. He took great pleasure in the duckpond with his ornamental Chinese ducks. We both found plenty to occupy ourselves, we enjoyed walking round the village together chatting to people and admiring the wonderful views. It was a great sadness to us when Dutch elm disease destroyed 800 trees altering the village landscape forever.”
“Pirton has retained its close-knit community spirit in spite of the many changes occurring during my long lifetime. The building of new houses within the village boundaries which now stand on land once belonging to local farms has ensured a bright future for coming generations. The change and progress throughout the post war years has meant that families are no longer living in the cramped and difficult conditions of previous years.The introduction of domestic appliances and the reduction in family members has enabled women to pursue employment outside the home. The popularity of the motor car brought huge social change and mechanisation on the farms did away with the need for a huge labour force. This meant that for many people their only option was to travel to nearby towns like Hitchin, Luton and beyond to find work. Inevitably increased mobility for families had a big impact within the village as people travelled out to do their shopping and find new entertainment. The growing popularity of internet shopping has also changed the need to even leave home to stock up on groceries or household goods and clothing. The village of my childhood has now long gone along with the ale houses, shops and pigs running up the High Street”
“ I still feel fortunate to have been born after the First World and survived through the Second World War to experience such a long and happy marriage and enjoy the continued love and support of my family and friends. I think I have just led a normal family life and due to general good health have been able to witness the many changes in Pirton during my 91 years.”
As told to Marty Coe June 2014.