Shirwell - a North Devon Village

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The Chichesters were a numerous local family, who owned most of the land around Shirwell from the fourteenth century, as well as elsewhere in Devon. Their original home was at Youlston Manor - a very old house of which some parts are supposedly Norman though they later built a Georgian mansion, Arlington Court, a few miles away. Arlington now belongs to the National Trust, though Youlston Manor is still under private ownership. Beech trees have smooth grey trunks and thin papery leaves

The beech trees of Youlston, Shirwell Beeches, are a local landmark, and were planted to commemorate the battle of Waterloo in 1815. They are now reaching the ends of their long lives, but some new trees have already been planted.

Some of the old trees

At the end of the 19th Century, Sir Edward Chichester was the owner of most of Shirwell village and the surrounding farms, and lived at Youlston Manor. I'm not sure if this is a separate branch of the Chichesters from those who lived at Arlington Court, or if he owned both houses. Sir Edward was an Admiral in the Royal Navy - Mr R Worth, Shirwell's elderly milkman, recently and sadly deceased, remembered once having a signed photograph of him in uniform, perhaps because his mother once worked at Youlston.

The Tale of the Methodists

At the beginning of the 20th century, Methodism was an increasingly popular form of Christianity in the southwest of England. The squires and landowners generally stuck with the Church of England which traditionally provided jobs for so many of their younger sons. But among the tenant farmers Methodism became very popular.

In 1902 some of the tenant farmers in Shirwell approached Sir Edward Chichester to ask for a piece of land to build a chapel. Their descendants now feel that this was very brave of them, as there were no laws protecting the rights of tenants, and stalwarts of the Church of England often had stern views about Methodism.Sir Edward refused, saying "The Church is good enough for me. My brother is the Rector, and I don't see why it shouldn't be good enough for you." The farmers, according to legend, went away and prayed for help, then after a year approached Sir Edward again.

Miraculously, Sir Edward changed his mind, and allowed them to use an out of the way garden to build a chapel. Between them they managed to get together the £280 to have a small chapel built. The chapel is still rather tucked away at the end of a narrow and winding lane in Shirwell Cross, though in 1953, 50 years after it was first built, Sir John Chichester gave the freehold to the Methodists, and it is still a thriving centre for the community.

This is what they built:

Photos of the chapel as it was shortly after it was built.

A Chichester comes down in the world

Sir Edward's son John is supposed to have incurred many debts though extravagant living in London, and in 1919 Youlston and most of the land in Shirwell had to be sold. There are dark hints of gambling debts, though no doubt the Chichesters, like many other well off families, also suffered from the economic effects of the First World War on their investments.

In any case, the Chichester family as a whole retained Arlington Court, the Rectory in Shirwell, and some of the land (including the land on which the chapel stands), so they were hardly destitute. The immediate purchasers of Youlston and the land were what is darkly described as "a syndicate of Jews" - presumably property speculators of some kind. Youlston was soon bought by a Mrs Platt, who remained on friendly terms with the Chichesters.

Two local residents can remember, as boys in the 20's, rushing over to Youlston to see Francis Chichester land a small aeroplane in the grounds. There are photos of Francis Chichester (including a couple of him with planes) here.

Growing up in Shirwell in the 20s.

Shirwell School photo c. 1926

The photo above was supplied by Francis Wilkey, who grew up in Shirwell in the 1920s. It shows the junior school pupils in around 1926, with teacher Elsie Ackland (back row, second from left).The pupils shown are (back row from right) Lily Folland, Edna Kiff and two unknown children, (front row from left) Clarence Ackland, Henry Conibear, Francis Wilkey, and Bill Friend.

Shirwell school had no running water at that time, and water to drink and flush the toilets was collected daily by the older pupils from the stream in Shirwell Town. Only the local children went to Shirwell school, which offered very basic teaching. If possible, parents sent their children to school in Barnstaple, where the teachers were better qualified. Elsie Ackland had left Shirwell School herself at the age of 14, so the amount of teaching she could provide must have been limited.

Hygiene was taught as a specific skill, and children were awarded points for washing their hands, which could be collected to get a badge from the Lifebuoy Soap company. Lifebuoy soap continue this promotion even today, but nowadays it's run for poor families in the Calcutta area of India. The term 'B.O' was coined by a Lifebuoy soap marketing campaign in the 1920s.

It could be hard to find work in the village and most people worked on the land, often, like the Kitt family, living in tied cottages provided by their employers. There were some local craftsmen, such as the Parker family, who were painters and decorators. There was a police station (now a private house) in Shirwell Cross, opposite Newbarn, and the shop was run by the Wilkey family, and was notable for having a parrot.

Reverend Chichester, the Church of England vicar, and his wife, seem to have been rather feudal figures. The considered themselves to be very important, and emphatically expected villagers to show deference. This may be one reason why the new Methodist Chapel was such a success.

Francis Wilkey's mother was a city girl and considered such behaviour very oldfashioned: although the family was 'church', the young Francis was sent to Sunday school at the Chapel, to avoid the Vicar and his wife.

Recognise any of these photos? Take a look at our Mystery Photo, and let me know if you can identify any of the people!

The Distant Past