IN a secluded and detached part of Worcestershire, ten miles to the south of Stratford-on-Avon, and surrounded by the counties of Warwick, Oxford and Gloucester, is the forgotten town of Shipston-on-Stour. The town is pre-Norman in origin and was once famous for its sheep-markets. It fell asleep some two centuries since, and so far the tumult and turmoil of the present age have failed to awaken it. A single telegraph-wire, a mail-cart passing through early in the morning and late at night and two carriers’ vans connect it with the out-side world, and weekly papers from Banbury, Evesham and Stratford keep the inhabitants informed on the changes of the moon and the alternations of government. The people lament their isolation. Thirty years ago they decided that a railway was necessary for their welfare and progress ; they have affirmed that decision several times since, but the railway has not come. Two or three times they have started a newspaper of their own, but the enterprise speedily came to grief. Its drapers and milliners furnish the latest styles in gowns and bonnets, cloths and collars that is to say, the latest styles of which they know anything, though in London they are spoken of as “late ” in another sense. The streets are old ; the houses are old ; the men and women, the boys and girls, are old; everything is musty with age and quaint with peculiarity. There are fences and barns, tumble-down, patched-up, worn-out, as they were twenty or thirty years since. Some of the thatch has not been touched for half a century. The wooden pump in the middle of New street was old when the paint on the rectory fence was new apparently in the days of William IV. Inns and their signs, cottages and their windows, the lamp-posts and the trees, look as if they had never known anything but age and rest. It is hard to realize that the streets have been mended since the day when troopers rattled over them on their way to Edgehill. In 1780, Nash, the historian of Worcester-shire, wrote ” Here was a considerable manufacture of shaggs, carried on by one Mr. Hart; but, that declining, the town was left in great poverty. Many of the houses are still thatched, but, as the unemployed manufacturers die, migrate to other places or take to other businesses, the town is not so burthened with poor, and subsequently improves much in appearance.” Seventy years later another visitor wrote : The place ” leads one’s thoughts irresistibly to the past, and to the conclusion that this is by no means a ‘ go-ahead’ town.” In 1851 the population numbered 1757 persons ; in 1881, 1600.
And in this lies its charm : its very dulness attracts and pleases. It is something to go back to times when the world was different from the present. Here one can without effort picture village life as it was centuries ago, and see for one’s self how and where past generations lived. The restfulness is refreshing and delightful. Decay may be in all one sees ; change is not.
To describe the topography of Shipston is somewhat difficult. The town is on the highway from Birmingham to Oxford about halfway between those places, and between Stratford and Chapel House. The ” Half-way House,” a secluded cottage, is by the side of the road, between Tredington and the Honington tollgate. The highway enters the place at its northern end, and, bending a little to the left, goes for some distance past the church, when it divides, one branch turning to the east for Banbury, and the other, the main road, after a twist to the right and then to the left, passing through New street to Chipping Norton. This highway may be called the base of the town; it is irregularly built up, and, as the river runs along the gardens of the houses on the eastern side, there are no streets in that direction. Its principal feature is the church, of which more presently. On the western side there are other thoroughfares coming in. The first, Horn lane, is a narrow way running the full breadth of the place ; a little farther is a short street called the Shambles, branching off like the arms of the letter Y, one of which branches runs parallel with Horn lane into a continuation known as Sheep street, and the other into the centre of the town. This centre is a sort of crooked square, a queer-looking triangle with a narrow base and the apex cut off an approach to a parallelogram. Euclid has no diagram that comes near that ” centre ;” and if he had tried to describe it mathematically, he would never have made A B equal to C D, nor A C equal to B D, nor any other combinations or comparisons coequal. This ” centre,” with Sheep street at one end, and the twist of the London highway at the other, contains the principal shops, banks and one of the leading hotels of the place. At its south-ern end another lane joins the London road, forming the third and last street across the town. In this lane was till lately an old tavern known as the ” Swan,” hence its name. Between the ” Swan ” and the High street that is the name of the indescribable centre is the Back road, which runs in the same direction as New street, and finally joins it. The Swan lane changes into the road to Moreton-in-the-Marsh, and at right angles with its western end is the road passing by Sheep street and Horn lane to Darlingscote. There are few really old houses in Shipston, but one at the top of Sheep street dates from 1678, another in the same street from 1714, and the Crown Inn, in the Shambles, also from this later year.
In Sheep street is the building formerly used by the national school. It is a small old cottage with one room, in which the poor boys and girls of the town received their ” education.” It is now empty and deserted, the one window broken, the roof falling in and the little tin kettle of a bell rusty and bent. Possibly the house was built in the early part of the last century. A relic of departed grandeur, but nearly all the old folks in the place who can read their Bible and write their name obtained the rudiments there. If they did not learn decimal fractions, they were drilled in the Catechism ; and, as all men know, it is better to understand how to live than how to get a living. Now the youth are sent to the new and commodious buildings in the Stratford road. The board school has possession of the town, and the board school is struggling to brighten the juvenile intelligence. It has its hands full. The boys, girls and infants are separated ; teachers and monitors are set in each department; excellent text-books are used, and everything is done to give a fair secular education. Religion is not taught : the English people are religious by instinct, and do not need to learn anything of that kind. In days gone by, when the State appreciated the education and health of the spiritual faculties, it insisted upon every one attending church, and fined and punished those who stayed away ; a great outcry was made in later years, and even now some are not tired of flinging abuse of every kind at our forefathers because of this, as its opponents called it, tyranny and bigotry; but in this age the State, in its desire to educate and enliven the mental faculties, insists upon every boy and every girl going to school, and, if the child does not, fines and punishes the parents. Nay, the people are obliged to pay in taxes for the maintenance of a school system in which many of them do not believe. Still, we must remember that arithmetic is of more consequence than are Scripture lessons, and that it is vastly more important that a boy’s mind should be filled with the scraps of erudition which are chipped off the school-board curriculum than that his soul should be possessed with a sense of his duty toward God and his neighbor. Times have changed. The State, which neither endowed nor established the Church, but, on the other hand, robbed her of half her wealth at the Reformation, and is now contemplating taking away the other half, has given largely to the school and supports it with all the force of its authority. There is in England no such thing as an established Church, but there is an established school. Valiantly is the school board fighting its way. But the material ! Is there anything in the lands beyond the setting sun approaching the pure blockheadedness of the English peasant-boy ? He is dull, heavy, stupid, and, compared with the youth on the western shores of the Atlantic, is as the blunt edge of a rusty knife beside the fine keen edge of a good razor. The transformation of a thick limbed dray-horse into a light, fleet racer or a nimble circus-performer presents no greater difficulty than does the uplifting and bettering of the sons and daughters of poor Hodge. In the palace of the Caesars at Rome there is a rude sketch on the wall, done many centuries ago, of a schoolmaster wearing an ass’s head and turning the handle of a conical stone mill, into which he is putting boys to grind. The point of the satire is that the boys are coming out at the bottom exactly as they went in. I do not imply that this is the case with the material of the school board ; I only tell a pleasant story. But, as caste is very strongly marked, as soon as the middle class is reached a higher grade of intellectual power is manifest. For the boys of the better-to-do people in Shipston there is a large and good school under private auspices and dignified with the name of ” the Academy.” It is not so styled after the Académie Française, but it can give a lad a start toward the higher life. Some of its scholars have gone creditably through the university, and it is said that its earnest and accomplished master once succeeded in carrying a heavy son of a heavy farmer as far as the eleventh page of Hopkins’s orthographical exercises and up to the verb ” To have ” in Lindley Murray. Of this latter feat I cannot speak with certainty, but at seven o’clock every summer morning the whole school was marshalled in the courtyard for an hour’s drill. There was an opinion that this was necessary in order to vindicate the right of the institution to be called an “academy.”
The present parish church was built on the site of an older one about the year 1853. The old church had reached a state when removal was. absolutely necessary. It was remarkable not only for its slovenly and mongrel appearance, but also for the egotism and. petty vanity displayed on its walls. About 1826 the building was whitewashed, and the churchwardens under whose directions this important work was done had their names inscribed in large letters at the western end. ” So, like-wise,” said one who knew the old edifice well, ” on the table of charities, whoever had presented a pulpit-cloth or furniture for the communion-table, or repaired the front of the gallery, or some other little matter, was posted up for the admiring eyes of after-generations.” One of these benefactors repaired the pavement kind the churchyard, it has been said, by abstracting the grave-stones of his neighbors. The only thing which saved the place from the lowest kind of obituary desecration was that it had no tablet like unto one which is to be found in the porch of another Worcestershire church. It is to the memory of a man who died in 1772, and the inscription is as follows :
“A man for polite knowledge and true taste in useful literature justly esteemed; nor in the social virtues as a sincere friend, a good neighbour, and an honest man, less regarded. At his own particular desire he was buried beneath this stone, that his friends the poor, as they pass over his grave, might lay their hands upon their hearts, and say, ‘ It was his modesty, not his pride, that directed this request: ”
The following epitaphs were preserved at Shipston ; the first is still at the west end of the church, but the others were in the yard, and are now undecipherable :
TO GULIELMUS HYCKES (1652).
” Here lies entomb’d more men than Greece admired, More than Pythagoras transient soule inspir’d, Many in one, a man accumulate, Gentleman, Artist, Scholar, Church, World, State : Soe wise, soe just, that spot him noe man could. Pitty that I, with my weake prayses should. Goe then, greate spirit, obey thy suddaine call Wild fruits hang long the purer tymely fall.”
“Beneath this stone three tender buds are laid, No sooner blossom’d but alas they fade; In silence lie, in hopes again to bloom After the final day of mortal doom. Oh then these buds which did so early blast, Shall flourish whilst eternal ages last.”
“Death lopt me of, and laide me here to sleepe; My viol’s tun’d to th’ sound of them that weep. Yett God, I trust, will grant my soul’s desire, To sing a part in His most heavenly quire.”
Of the old church, only the tower remains. The new building has a nave and two aisles and is singularly void of ornamentation. A few texts over the arches and a colored eastern window are the only attempts at aesthetic display. The architectural proportions are good, but the pews are narrow and not made for kneeling-purposes, and the pulpit is of a shape and character to suggest its having once been a chimney-pot on an old-time mansion. A dreary building, drearier still in its reproachful emptiness. Formerly the edifice was crowded at both Sunday services ; now a bare handful of worshippers in the morning and a scarcely larger company in the evening indicate either inefficiency of ministration or the dying out of church-interest Matins and evensong are said every day ; the rector is there, the pillars and pews are there, but even the bell-ringer runs off to attend to her household duties as soon as the service begins. The parish priest is conscientious in his performance of this daily office ; the people are as conscientious in staying away. Were half a dozen worshippers present, the surprise and excitement would endanger the health of the rector for some time. In view of the apparent change in his parishioners and the approaching end of the world, he would apply himself with renewed vigor to the house-to-house visitation of the people. The nonconformist places of worship, how-ever, are filled to overflowing and street-preachers are common. The glory has departed ! This, which should be the centre of Church power and influence throughout the district, neither recognizes the dignity and extent of its capabilities nor puts forth a sign of interest or vitality. Perhaps the most painful thought connected with this decay of a once-prosperous parish is its suggestion of the powerlessness of the ecclesiastical organization. The diocesan authorities may see the church go to ruin, but they cannot interfere. The parishioners may watch the wasting away of their spiritual heritage, but they can do nothing. Even the bishop has no coercive jurisdiction. We manage these things better in America. There the whole force and authority of the Church would be brought to bear upon such a state of affairs as that which here exists, and either the parish would have to live and work or it would be put away to rest for ever. The rectorial income, derived from endowment, is up-ward of eight hundred pounds a year ; the church in-come, derived from the pew-rents and offertory, is not sufficient to pay the small expenses of the building. The best pews contain five sittings and rent for twenty-nine shillings a year ; in America the same pews would rent for upward of fifteen pounds, and in large Church centres for even twenty-five pounds. The well-to-do folk of Shipston can make two guineas cover their individual church expenses ; the same class of people in the United States would not find the limit under fifty times that amount. A parish of sixteen hundred souls, with-out debt to satisfy, endowment to secure or clergyman to support, which is obliged to send its churchwardens around the town to collect a deficit of seventeen pounds which personal canvass resulted an Easter or so since in gathering but ten pounds can neither live with credit nor die with dignity. The hopelessness of its condition appears in the lack of hospitality: the stranger will find no welcome either by a visit from the rector or an offer of a seat in the church from the parishioners.
The edifice is dedicated to St. Edmund of Canterbury He was born at Abingdon about the year 1190, and was remarkable for his scholarship, his ascetic and pure life and his bold efforts to better the times in which he lived. He inherited his mother’s severe religious convictions : ” She fasted much and slept little, wore a hair chemise and iron stays, and made her household so uncomfortable by her arrangements that her husband, with her consent, retired to a monastery at Eynesham, as likely to be a more enjoyable home.” At Oxford, while a mere gram-mar student, he determined never to wed an earthly bride : ” Standing alone one day in church, he plighted his troth to the Blessed Virgin, and in token thereof placed a gold ring on the finger of her image. He placed another ring, similarly inscribed with the words of the angelic salutation, on his own finger, where he wore it constantly until the day of his death.” After a career of honor and usefulness he was made archbishop of Canterbury in 1234, and it has well been said that “in the long succession of primates it is not easy to find one who surpasses him in the perfections of the Christian character or in the attributes of a Christian bishop.” His patriotism, resistance to Rome and efforts to reform the Church give him a lasting place in the pages of English history. There was much evil in the age, but he was as a clear and shining light in the darkness. When, owing to repeated defeat, he resigned the see of Canterbury, he retired to the Continent, and in 1240, at the priory of Soissy, he died. His remains were interred at. Pontigny, and soon his fame rivalled that of his predecessor, St. Thomas. He was canonized, and miracles were performed at his shrine.
The parish was down to the year 1720 subject to and part of the jurisdiction of Tredington. An almost complete list of the rectors of the parish from the year 1282 is extant. From 1427 to 1873 there were twenty-two rectors, of whom Peter Vannes, archdeacon of Worcester, was remarkable both for his incumbency being the longest of any fifty years and also for his guiding the parish through the trying Reformation era, from 1541 to 1591. The continuity of the Church of England is thus exemplified. Other long rectorships were those of Walter Fitzwarin (12821310), Felix de Massaveria (15031541) and William Evans (18271873). The first of these was probably of Norman descent ; the second was an Italian, and the third a Welshman. In Henry Sampson, who died in 1482 and has a brass to his memory in the mother-church at Tredington, we are reminded of one of Carlyle’s characters; but whether he were like unto the hero of Past and Present we know not. A complete list of the curates of Shipston from 1596 is also in existence.
In the old registers are items of interest to the curiously inclined. It was in the twenty-ninth year of the reign of Henry VIII. (1538) the injunction was issued directing that registers on vellum should be kept in every parish in the realm. The oldest registers of this neighborhood are those of Tredington, which begin in 1541 ; after them come those of Halford, beginning in 1545, and Shipston, in 1572. They are written partly in Latin and partly in English, some in a good hand and some frightful to behold. During the troublous times of the Commonwealth the registers as well as the churches were in great danger of desecration. The rector of Barcheston, a village half a mile from Shipston, in 1647 wrote in his register, dating from 1559, “Digne hoc antiquum perdet quicunq registrum, filius appellatus perditionis sit ” (” Whosoever destroys this ancient register will rightly be called the son of perdition “). Mixed, up with the ordinary entries occur notices of parochial events of more or less importance.
At Shipston, under date of October 12, 1612, we find the record, ” Peter Churchporch, fond in ye churchporch at Todnam, was baptized at Shipston, and had the name then given him, Peter Todnam, alias Churchporch.” The following entry is also suggestive ” Elizabeth Thornet, widow, was buried in 1695, at ye upper end of the highway leading from ye Custard Lane, through ye piece of ground commonly called ye Horse Fair, for hanging herself ye day before; she was blind and 86 years of age.” The old law directed the suicide to be buried in a cross-road with a stake driven through his body, and a finger-post to be erected to mark his grave for public scorn ; this poor blind wretch; weary of life, perhaps abused and maltreated, insane, and very likely regarded as a witch, suffered the legal penalty of her crime. In 1678 the statute was passed enforcing the burial of the dead in woollen shrouds for the encouragement of the manufacturers, and, though affidavits had to be made that the law had been complied with, the registers show that it was easy enough to evade it by paying a fine. Even now the people always lay out their dead in a white shroud pure as the robe they shall wear in the kingdom of their Lord, with the face upward, in token of hope, and the feet to the east, symbolical of the resurrection ; and though they bury them in a coffin, while in olden time they were commonly put simply in the grave, they have not yet learned the horrible and ghastly word ” casket.” Mention is frequently made of the “briefs,” the circular letters spoken of in the rubric after the Nicene Creed. These briefs were issued by the bishop or government, generally in alleviation of losses by fire or flood or disease of cattle, for building of churches, the redemption of slaves, and other charitable purposes. The sympathy for the Protestants of Switzerland and France in the. Reformation times, and for the latter after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, was great in this neighborhood. An entry of April 6, 1688, states that in the town of Shipston there was gathered toward the relief of the French Protestants the sum of eighteen shillings and tenpence. Tidmington, united with Shipston under the one rector, though a separate parish a mile and a half distant, in 1692 gathered for the same purpose one pound seven shillings, and in 1699, “for the poor Protestant Vaudois, Lo. 3S. od.,” and for the redemption of captives three pounds ten shillings and nine pence. In 1723 the same register records the giving of sixpence to ” three slaves which was abused by the Turks.” For their souls’ health certain evil people were ” cited ” to appear before the vicar-general and do penance ; offenders at Shipston had to go to the rector of Tredington. The relief of beg-gars fell largely upon the churchwardens. We read of alms given ” to a poor sailor,” ” to a lame seaman,” ” to a man that was drownded out,” ” to a man who was burnt out,” ” to a poor man that was robbed,” ” to two men and their wives and six children that were robbed agoing to New England,” and ” to sum seamen that ye ship was destroyed by a tempest at sea last December, of thunder and lightning.” The registers also speak of the visitations and record the expenses connected there-with; thus, in 1708, at Tredington, “our dinners cost two shillings and ” extraordinaries ” two shillings and fourpence. What these “extraordinaries” were can easily be surmised. In the register at Solihull are these curious items, under date of 1658: “Paid for making a cucking stoole, and for beere at the drawing it up to the Crosse, 10s. 4d. ;” ” A penniworth of paper for ye parishners ;” ” To W. Stretch to stop his mouth, 2s.;” ” To Widow Bird pitifully complayning, is.;” ” To a woman which sat in the churchyard a great while, Is. ;” and ” To agoing before justice St. Nicholas with the young people which would not go to service, Is. 2d.”
In the Shipston books there is an inventory, made in 1638, of the church goods and furniture. The books enumerated are one great Bible, two Common Prayers, Jewell’s Works, Erasmus’s Paraphrase, The Book of Homilies, The Constitutions, Mustullus’s Works, the register books, two paper books to write account of officers, and Edward Pittway’s gift-books. The Pittways were an ancient and honorable family in the town ; the first burial recorded is that of ” Edward Pitway,” and in 1706 John Pittway, ironmonger, bequeathed lands and tenements out of which four pounds a year was to be paid to the minister to teach six poor boys to “write a legible hand and say the Church Catechism, with the. exposition thereof, without book, and to learn two or three rules in arithmetic.” Besides the books, the church owned a surplice, a poor-box, a linen tablecloth, a ladder and two pewter flagons. There are entries of expenses for making the tablecloth and washing the surplice ; also, in 1592, for repairing one of the bells. It would appear that the clapper of this bell had broken ; the clapper had therefore to be sent to Wotton and the bell to be taken down. Items are given ” for drink when the bell was taken down ” and ” for drink at the hanging up of the bell.” ” Old Herst was paid ” for going to Brayles for Tooley,” and Tooley was paid ” for the hanging up of the bell.” Then ” grease for the bells ” was bought, and in the course of the work or the ensuing festivities ” a jug of the goodwife Wooley was lost,” which had to be paid for. In October, 1695, we read, ” Memorandum, that the 5 old bells were new cast by Mr. Koon, of Woodstock. The waight was 34 cwt. 3 qrs. 10 lbs., and to have £18 for casting them, some of this money collected by subscription, and other by levy.” The old bells were made up into six, and the six still ring in the same ancient tower. A curious custom has held its own both here and at Barchestonviz., the tolling of a bell at the end of the Sunday-morning service. No satisfactory reason has been given for either the origin or the continuance of the custom. There is also a bell rung at Shipston every morning at five o’clock and every evening at eight, and at the end of the toll the day of the month is numbered. The common opinion is that many years ago a gentleman who had chanced to lose his way in the neighborhood left money for the ringing of the bell. In 1739 the item is given, ” Rump of beef for ringers at Christmas, 4s.;” the great Yuletide is still rung in as in the days of yore. In 1731 ” it was agreed upon that the churchwardens, overseers of the poor and the constable shall hold a vestry the first Sunday in every month after evening prayer and bring their accounts to be examined.” The first year after death is still called the ” dead year,” and in the parish records it is termed ” the dead’s year, according to the custom of the manor.” Thus a bequest is made to a person for his natural life and for the dead’s year that is, to his estate for a year after his death.
The holding of a vestry on Sunday seems to indicate that Puritan ideas concerning the Sabbath did not prevail at Shipston. The tendency has rather been to a more liberal observance of the day. The Puritans imitated the Jews in this respect, as in others. The rabbis were excessive in their reverence for the day. If a house were burning, one could save one’s clothes only by wearing them : they could not be carried out except by successively putting them on. If a hen laid an egg on the Sabbath-day, it might not be eaten, because she had no right to break the commandment. Women were forbidden to look into the glass on the Sabbath, because they might discover a white hair and attempt to pull it out, which would be a grievous sin. One was not allowed to wear false teeth on the Sabbath, because they might fall out and their owner be tempted to pick them up and put them back or carry them. So the Puritan, partaking of the same spirit, held that to do any work on that day was as great a sin as murder or adultery. He was not allowed to smile or to kiss his wife on the Sabbath. To shave or to cut finger-nails was extreme profligacy and a sure sign of reprobation. The water which was drawn from the well on Saturday night had to last till Monday morning. Such fine distinctions are sometimes awkward, as an old story tells us. In 126o a Jew of Tewkesbury fell into a sink on the Sabbath-day, and because of his reverence for that day he would not suffer himself to be drawn out; on Sunday the earl’s reverence would not allow him to be delivered; and so between the two he died. There is no evidence that Shipston ever favored such extreme views, or that the people objected to the Book of Sports. They were dull, but they were not narrow.
The first mention of Shipston occurs more than a thousand years ago. It was probably so called on account of its famous and extensive sheep-markets, noted as ancient by Camden and still among the largest in the kingdom. At the present day the local pronunciation of the singular of the word ” sheep” is ” ship,” and ” ton ” is the common Saxon termination for the home-stead of the yeoman, simply defended by a quickset hedge, or tun.” We may picture the settlement on the Stour amid the great wilds as consisting of a few huts in which the shepherds lived guarded from the wolves of the forest and the inroads of hostile men the Wealas, or even other tribes of their own race by thick mounds of trees and high hedges of thorn. They fed their sheep in the rich grass-yielding ” opens,” sheared and washed them at the river, sent the wool and the mutton away perhaps to Chipping Camden or Chipping Norton, or other near marts where people resorted to ” ceapian,” till the place grew large enough to attract traders to itself and lived a life of primitive simplicity. Then the night-silence was broken by the howling of wild beasts in the neighboring woods and of dogs within the ” tun,” and from the distant marshes came the booming of the bittern and the screeching of the white owl. Day followed day with its monotonous variations incident to such pursuits as sheep-farming and to a life in such surroundings. Rudely clad, roughly housed and having little intercourse with the outside world, the shepherds were scarcely less wild than was the country around them.
In their cabins the one room served for all the purposes of the family. Around the fire in the middle of the earthen floor father, mother and children slept at night, the ground their couch and sheepskins their covering. They neither washed nor undressed, and nearly their only approach to intellectual life was in the time between the dying of the sunlight in the west and the dying of the embers on the hearth, when they sang rude melodies, sipped home-made mead and propounded such riddles as ” What does a goose do when standing on one leg ?” When the answer came, ” Holds the other up,” they no doubt laughed that full, hearty laugh which seems ever to have been characteristic of the English. They ate four meals a day and with their heads covered. Time was measured, the day by the sun and the month by the moon. Their scavengers were kites. In the Wolf-month, when the thick fogs and the chill rain-winds swept over the land and the frost hardened the ground and the river, they kept much at home ; but in the bright Weyd-month the children plucked the flowers, the women repaired the house and the men were off to their summer toil. They were heathen then ; later they were taught to carve the cross out of the oak from which they had shaped the spear. When Offa, ” Rex Anglorum sive Merciorum potentissimus,” reigned (ante 802), the manor of Shipston was granted by Ulhredus, duke of the Wiccians, to the priors of Worcester. The connection has never been broken ; at the Reformation the rights of the priors were taken up by the dean and chapter.
The prior held his manorial court at a village some two miles off, called Blackwell, from a well whose water is darkened by some mineral admixture. It was once a considerable place, having, besides other buildings, a chapel dedicated to St. Nicholas ; but at one period, history informs us, its entire population consisted of six men and one maid. From the few facts recorded we gather that the rule of the priors was very arbitrary and, owing to the many fines exacted from the unfortunate townsmen, not much enjoyed. The latter were obliged to have their corn ground at a high rate at the prior’s mill, to pay a fine to every new prior, and a penny called ” hedsilver ” for every inhabitant above the age of twelve years, every year when the prior held his court at Blackwell. About the year 1268, Henry III. granted the town a charter for the holding of markets and fairs for, the sale of cattle, and about 1405 the townsmen, exasperated beyond all endurance by the fines imposed on them by the priors, broke out into open revolt and rioting. They more particularly objected to the payment of heriots, a fine taken out of a dead man’s estate, corresponding somewhat with our modern legacy-duty. Several of the leading inhabitants went to Worcester to intercede with the prior, and after much delay it was decided that on the death of a tenant his best animal should go to the prior and his second best to the rector of the parish. The tenants were also required to spend twenty days in each year in ploughing and sowing the prior’s land ; also to mow four days, to winnow four days and to carry the corn from the manor to Wethington. For every beast they sold they paid a penny a sum equal to half a crown of present money. Beyond the fact that in the reign of King John some dispute arose between the townspeople and the rector of Tredington which was settled only by an appeal to Innocent III., nothing of much interest is recorded, save the perennial quarrels with the prior of Worcester, till after the Reformation.
During the eighteenth century the town was several times and severely visited with small-pox. In 1731 it affected 523 persons, of whom 45 died; and in 1744, 406 persons, of whom 48 died. Under date of 1767 an eminent physician in London writes concerning Ships-ton : ” A poor vagabond was seen in the streets with the small-pox upon him; the people, frightened, took care to have him carried to a little house situated upon a hill at some distance from the town, providing him with necessaries. In a few days the man died ; they ordered him to be buried deep in the ground, and the house with his clothes to be burnt. The wind, being pretty high, blew the smoke upon the houses on one side of the town, and a few days after eight persons were slain with the small-pox.” In 1772 a subscription was collected to pay for the inoculation of every poor parishioner, and for one hundred and fifty-seven persons the apothecary was paid six shillings a head. When the dread of this dire disease passed away under the benign influence of Dr. Jenner, a new fear took its place: the French became a greater terror than the variola. England looked on aghast at the great Revolution and the victories of Bonaparte, but, though the alarm was great, the country remained loyal and hopeful. The patriotic spirit reached Shipston, and, in spite of the heavy and burdensome taxation, in 1798, when Nelson destroyed the French fleet at the Nile, the townsmen made a voluntary collection of over sixty-one pounds to assist the government. Some gave five guineas, and some gave twopence. Then they formed a volunteer corps, but what became of it or what it did no one knows. In 1803 another company was formed, consisting of four officers and about one hundred and forty men. They agreed to pay certain fines for misconduct–e. g., six-pence for inattention, a shilling for drunkenness and half a crown for fighting ; from which we infer that the Shipston men of that day were above all anxious to suppress their weakness for pugilistic enterprises. Their colors are still preserved, and are occasionally hoisted on the church-tower. What duty this corps did history has not recorded, but the memory of the noble men who volunteered for service in the hour of their country’s need is still fragrant in the minds of some.
One of the events in the year is the October fair. The picture of the old life is worthy of study. Early in the morning the streets are thronged with people from the neighboring villages, with farm and domestic servants and itinerant showmen. Everything assumes a holiday appearance : shopkeepers have their windows arrayed with the most tempting attractions; fruit-stands and toy-stalls are set about the streets ; the inns are busier than usually; hawkers cry their wares; bands play, and everybody is awake to the importance of the occasion. Down in the Shambles, in front of a black-smith’s shop and the Crown Inn, a huge fireplace is built, before which an ox is roasted whole. Possibly this was originally a gift from the lords of the manor, the priors of Worcester, but it is now subscribed for by the people. Everybody tastes the ox, the slices of which are sold at a shilling apiece. In the High street that undefinable place already mentioned are the shows, the ubiquitous and ever-genuine Tom Thumb, the original fat woman and the real red man from the wilds of America. Here are the shooting-galleries, where the possibility of a shilling prize is offered at the low price of one penny ; also the travelling portrait-taker, who will perpetuate any physiognomy for a mere trifle; also the Cheap John, ever stout and sturdy, whose disinterestedness for the good of the purchasing public is proverbial ; also the dog-fancier, with his best specimens of thoroughbreds. For twopence you can get your fortune told by the old woman sitting on yonder doorstep, and, considering the outlay, you will be satisfied. This broad-faced, round-shouldered youth will live with you as ploughman, shepherd, groom, or anything else you wish, at fair wages and plenty to eat and drink. You can take your choice ; the street is full of such, all wearing whipcord in their hats and all well recommended. This hiring feature of the fair gives it the name of the ” mop “or, as it was called a century and a half since, the ” mapp ” and till the middle of the afternoon farmers and laborers, mistresses and maids, are making, sometimes driving, bargains. The mop was a great attraction in bygone days ; an old advertisement of 1743 invites the public to come to the hiring of servants, ” where all gentlemen, dealers and chapmen may depend upon good entertainment and encouragement.” By sunset everybody is merry, and not a few are drunk. The taverns do a good business all day, and there are dinner’s at the ” George,” the ” Bell, the ” White Horse ” and the smaller hostelries. Here are lads and lasses arm in arm, light and gay; here, boys on the lookout for mischief; there, men trying to walk steadily and to sing or whistle, but the goodly potions have disabled them from doing either. Yonder is the police-sergeant wheeling home one of his constables in a barrow, and followed by an admiring throng of rag-tag and bob-tail. Across the way are two young men indulging in the supreme pleasure of a prize-fight and surrounded by a cheering crowd. And the showmen shout, and the drums and gongs rattle, and the blazing paraffin-lights hiss and splutter, and children blow their penny trumpets, tin whistles and horns, and the people laugh and talk, till one forgets that this is sleepy and old-fashioned Ships-ton. In old times rougher sports prevailed. The following advertisement referring to this October ” roast” explains itself:
“On Tuesday the 17th of October, 1783, will be played for at Back-swords, a purse of Five Guineas, by seven or nine of a side. If no sides appear by nine o’clock in the Forenoon, Eight Shillings will be given to each man who breaks a head; Two Shillings and Sixpence to each man that has his head broken; to begin playing exactly at nine o’clock.”
On this occasion the Shipston men suffered severely at the hands of combatants from Wiltshire, whom they nicknamed ” Sawnees.” Down to within the memory of some now living bull-baiting and pigeon-shooting took place at these fairs, and cock-fighting was common at all times.
Other festivals were kept besides this one. The Fifth of November was not forgot. Christmas was ushered in with the merry pealing of bells, the waits and carol-singers; everybody had plum-pudding, if nothing else. Some there were who thought that the cattle went down on their knees and the ghosts remained in their tombs at the midnight of the Nativity. Strange life ! The narrow, irregular streets do not belong to the common, every-day world. That house in Church street with the little bow-windows was once the post-office. Up this alley is a small dissenting chapel where the remnant of Israel comfort themselves with invectives against their neighbors. This dull, odd-looking building is the Quakers’ meeting-house; only a few Friends re-main, but they wear drab and broad brims and are still very good folks. That spruce youth with the white hat strutting down toward the mill is a visitor perhaps from Birmingham. He is well dressed and walks swinging his cane with an air of superiority and contempt. He looks down upon place, people and everything. The cobble sidewalks, of which the natives are justly proud so proud, indeed, that for fear of wearing them out they walk in the middle of the street he regards as unworthy of scorn. He is and he knows it a stranger to this strange world, and in days when sawmills abound laughs heartily at the sight of the old-fashioned sawyer standing on a log over a pit. But let him go, and look at the people themselves. Here is your wagoner in his smock-frock, and here your artisan in his corduroy breeches and rough-spun jacket, and here a gentleman dressed some years behind the times. The parson with his white necktie and black frock-coat is an incongruity in a place where everything suggests the cassocked priest or the cowled monk. The carpenter, across the way, with the flag basket of tools on his back, moving along as though life had no end, was once the parish clerk and the parson’s right-hand man.
The blacksmith, standing by that old broken-down wagon, is the great man in the Baptist chapel, and he will tell you with some pride that his chapel is “general ” and not ” particular ” a distinction of great consequence. The most important people of the place are the shopkeepers a highly-respectable and intelligent class whose dignity appears to best advantage in a gig, and whose obsequiousness exceeds that of the ordinary shopkeeper elsewhere as the humility of a grasshopper exceeds in loveliness the pride of a gnat. Society is rather select and commendably exclusive, but good manners and courtesy are not so general as one might judge from the pretensions. Two things most people do on Sunday : they go to church or chapel, and they take their dinner to the bakehouse. You may see a man on a Sabbath morning, just before the bells begin to ring for service, carrying a shallow tin pan with a bit of meat in the middle surrounded with batter-pudding or peeled potatoes. This he leaves at the baker’s, and then, taking a turn around and looking as innocent and unconscious as if he had done a thing no one else did or saw him do, he starts off for church, and, though he makes little and gets still less out of the sermon, he sings his hymns and says his prayers with a devotion to duty highly commendable. Coming out, he slips off for his dinner, and carries it home smoking hot. And then the only time in the week one of his boys says grace, and all set to with a relish. Probably half the people in the place go through this programme every Sunday. I believe it is not considered the right thing to ask a blessing except at this meal ; the others are such that it is not worth while to say anything about them. Ruddy cheeks, stalwart limbs and stout forms abound, and testify ‘to the healthfulness of the place. The death-rate is low about fourteen per thousand. For a picture of rugged beauty see these four girls, evidently sisters. They appear as fresh as the field-daisies in the early morning and as gay as the crickets that chirp in the kitchen. Doubt-less they can both thump the piano and churn butter, play croquet and knit stockings ; and, though they may at night stick a pin through the wick of the candle to judge by its remaining in or falling out if their lover will keep true, they look like sensible and quick-witted maidens.