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The War Years (1939-1945)

Life in the Elsfield during the war years is described in two very different ways. One is by Ann Paton, who gives a child’s eye view of the times, while the second is an account by Helena Deneke written for an Oxfordshire Women’s Institute competition. These two main sources are supplemented by the recollections of Arthur Phipps and George Hambidge.

Anne Paton’s account

Anne offers a direct way into the everyday activities, the sounds, smells and colour of her life in Elsfield acutely observed and dedicated to her grandparents. She was the eldest of six children, who lived at School Cottage with their parents Bessie and Ben Jones. Her grandparents lived in one of the thatched cottages at the other end of the village and Anne and her sister spent a good deal of time there. Her grandparents’ cottage, rented from Mr Willis at Forest Farm, was small. It had two bedrooms, a sitting room, a scullery and an outside toilet where the coal and wood were stored. It was very dark so they had to use a candle and as it was not a water closet it was, as Anne ruefully comments, rather smelly. There were some very good things about the place, however.

"My grandparents had a big garden and a good sized vegetable patch which had everything you could grow: flowers, plums, apples, redcurrants, blackcurrants, gooseberries and strawberries. My grandma made jam and bottled fruit. Can you imagine the smell in the kitchen? I would love to open the larder just to sniff, it was so good. Jams, pickles, meat, mint cakes and spices. It was just my idea of heaven, so mouth-watering."

Living in the little cottage were not only her grandparents but her great grandma Hallett and Anne provides a graphic picture of Nan Hallett getting ready for bed:

"I often stayed the night with my grandparents. I loved this. My sister and I would enjoy an evening by the fireside when it was winter. Our supper was a cup of cocoa, very dark cocoa, and a biscuit, while the older ones had bread and a slither of cheese. My Nan Hallett used to say, ‘By gum, I enjoyed that!’ No-one stayed up later than ten o’clock. We were packed off to bed at 9.30. We had to go upstairs by candle light which was a bit spooky. Nan’s bed was a big bed with a brass head with a deep, deep mattress with large pillows and a large eiderdown. My Nan always had a stone hot water bottle in the bed, wrapped around it was her night gown. She felt the cold and always wore a shawl. The water in the bottle was for her morning wash. Great Gran would come to bed, puffing up the stairs with her candle to light her way, flickering and causing shadows to dance on the walls. With childish fear, my sister Pat and I would dive under the covers as quickly as possible. Great Gran would then start undressing. Knitted jumper and long black skirt, always a pinny over her clothes, beautiful white slip and then her stays as she called them in which she had pockets to carry her money on a journey. These were boned and laced to pull her in and keep her warm. Underneath she wore ‘coms’ (combinations) an all in one vest and pants to the ankle. What an ordeal that was! After this a beautiful nightgown pulled over her head with a big sigh of relief. Her next duty was her long white hair and when she had finished she would take the loose hair from her comb and twist it round her finger, then pop it in a pot."
The Phipps family outside 2 Terraced Cottages
The Phipps family outside 2 Terraced Cottages

Anne then goes on to describe her Nan’s chest of drawers. One drawer was full of "every article under the sun": lozenges, hankies, chocolate, soap, hairpins, scent, lavender bags "and the odd packet of cigarettes - Players or Woodbines - which she had been given. She would sometimes keep these and wrap them up as presents for some of the men at Christmas." Both Nan Hallett and her daughter Mrs Phipps worked in the kitchen at the Manor for Lady Tweedsmuir, and though loving towards the children, Nan Hallett was not so nice to her son-in-law who smoked a pipe, which she disliked.

Grandpa Phipps worked on the farm and would walk to work everyday, hands behind his back and his boots ringing on the road from the steel tips on his boots. He always seemed deep in thought but the children knew he carried peppermints with him. "We would tap on his shoulder and say, ‘Peppy, Gramp, peppy!’ and he would give us one. He only had a few a week which was his ration so really we were a bit naughty to ask," Anne explained. The cooking for his dinner was done on a range open fire and in the oven was a rice pudding or a pie. After this he would smoke a pipe and then set off back to work. He walked up and down six times a day to work. "He had some nasty jobs to do like emptying the toilet bucket in a hole dug by him," Anne added.

It was less idyllic at home, where her parents struggled to bring up their six children with very little money. Being the eldest, Anne was the one to be kept off school to help her mother when she was pregnant and when the babies were little. She helped with the washing which was a heavy job made doubly difficult for Bessie, who suffered so badly from ecxema that by the end of wash day her hands were cracked and bleeding. On a Monday morning, they would fill the copper with water fetched from a pump shared by three houses, bucket by bucket. Once filled, it was then lit by wood and paper, then coal to heat the water. It was Anne’s job to turn the mangle after rinsing the clothes in cold water, then she would hang out the washing.

Bessie, like many of the people of Elsfield, made very good use of her bicycle. As a girl on leaving school, she had cycled to Woodstock to the glove factory and, when her children were little, she fetched the shopping from Marston on her bike.

For Anne’s parents, it was always a struggle to make ends meet. Sometimes they were in debt to the grocer but Bessie’s sister Joan was in the Land Army based at Church Farm so she could sometimes provide them with eggs and milk and occasionally meat. At one time or another, they kept pigs, geese, chickens and ducks and once,  Ben tried breeding rabbits but this was a disappointment. His garden was his pride and joy but he would never sell anything though his vegetables and flowers were the best in the village.

Fuel was also a problem, as not only had School Cottage, with its stone floors, to be heated but so did all the water they needed for washing. "In the winter we used to be outside sawing wood by hurricane lamp and it was hard work. My feet would be frozen and I had to jump up and down to keep warm," says Anne. Coal was expensive and in short supply and Bessie could only afford a little at a time so wood was kept for the copper so they could have a bath on Sunday. "The water was ladled in and out by bucket and put into the tin bath. Very hard work and we had to take turns in the water, small ones first. Being older I hated this," was Anne’s comment.

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