CHRISTINA MARY (CHRISSIE) SQUIRE – “THE CHIDEOCK EGG LADY” – 1894 to 1976
Anyone researching the history of Chideock in the early 20th century will very soon become aware of the Squire family and their importance in village life. Alfred, born in 1854 and the patriarch of the family was, like his forefathers, a stone mason by trade. He was not the first member of the Squirefamily to be mentioned in village records, but he is the first to crop up on a regular basis in both photographs and written sources. He was employed by the Weld family at Chideock Manor and gradually worked his way up to the position of estate foreman (as listed in the 1901 census) and manor bailiff by the time of the
1911 census. He married Sarah (originally a Shute from Dalwood) and together they had six children, several of whom have also left their mark on village life. The eldest Mercy Harriet was born in 1884 and went into service in Allington and then Uplyme before dying in Uplyme in 1920. William, born in 1886, was the first child to go from the Chideock Board School to Fosters School in Sherborne, winning a scholarship to pay for his place. He worked his way through various positions in the Post Office in Bridport, fought in and survived the First World War and was a member of the Home Guard in the Second World War. Joseph, born in 1889, was a carpenter by trade and eventually moved away from Chideock. He too fought in the First World War and had the most distinguished military career of the three brothers. Eleazar born 1892 was listed as a domestic gardener in the 1911 census. He was killed during the First World War at a battle near Basra in September 1917 and is commemorated both on the village war memorial and on a small grave in St Giles’ church yard. The other occupant of the same grave is Sarah Louisa, who was just less than a year old when she died in 1882 in a scalding accident at the family home.
But the focus of this article is Christina –more normally known in the family and the village as Chrissie – the remaining and youngest sibling. She was born in 1894 and like the others, attended the board school in Chideock. We can see her in photographs of the school. Later in her life, we hear about her participation in village entertainments as a raconteur of tales and jokes, of her contributions (baked, painted and knitted) to the Melplash Show, and her reputation as a friendly and efficient landlady running a popular guest house at Glendale (now Hollow Cottage) on North Road. Many of the village inhabitants knew her as ‘Aunt Chrissie’ whether she was related to them or not. She never married and had no children. So the information we have about her comes from her niece Joan, another Chideock resident for much of her life and daughter of Chrissie’s elder brother William, and also from her great-nephew Colin, grandson of Joseph.
It is from the information passed to the Local History Centre in Bridport by Joan that we learn about a particularly fascinating episode in Chrissie’s life. For the duration of the First World War she was the only one of the siblings permanently in Chideock. At the outbreak of war, she was 19 and living with her parents, at Glendale. Her brothers, Joseph, Eleazar and William went off to war and it is not difficult to imagine that Chrissie may have watched them leave and wondered just what her own role should be. Did she feel frustrated that she was unable to join in the fight herself or did she relish the opportunity to take on someof the work of the absent men around the estate? Like other women at the time, she would have been kept very busy with the addition to the normal routine of extra war time activities such as bandage rolling, and knitting socks and other warm garments to supply the soldiers, and she would undoubtedly have been involved in helpingto increase the levels of food production. Chrissie however was not content just to do the minimum, and she found a way of making a unique contribution to the war effort. She became involved with the National Egg Collection. This was an initiative set up in the early days of the war under the patronage of Queen Alexandra to collect eggs and distribute them amongst wounded soldiers in France to provide additional and much needed sustenance. The scheme continued throughout the war and an astonishing number (well in excess of 20 million) of eggs found their way into hospitals over the course of the four years. 64,000 passed through the collection centre in Bridport Town Hall and of these Chrissie certainly contributed hundreds, as we know from various receipts she saved and awards she was given. More importantly, she personalised her eggs, putting her name and address on to them, painting intricate little pictures and sometimes adding a poem or an encouraging word. In return she received many letters from soldiers thanking her, and
giving her snippets of information about their lives. These letters were saved by Chrissie, and then by her niece Joan, and are currently held at the Local History Centre in Bridport.
From the letters we learn that Chrissie painted a variety of different pictures on her eggs. We hear about sprigs of heather, flowers, black cats with long tails, the Union Jack and the French flag. We know some of the poems she wrote and can deduce that she became very skilful at fitting quite a number of words onto each eggshell. Here is one example received by a wounded soldier in July 1918.
“Tis but a simple egg I send
But kindest thoughts attend it
And may God bless with happiness
The friend to whom I send it”
We know that often there was a lottery or draw to determine which man in a hospital ward would be lucky enough to receive the decorated egg. And we know that some of the soldiers either kept the whole egg rather than destroying the paintings or managed in some way to blow the egg out and preserve the shell. We don’t know if any of these eggs are still in existence.
What do the letters tell us of the soldiers themselves? They are written by men of varying ranks and of several different nationalities including British, Australian and Canadian. Together, they paint a fascinating and often heartbreaking picture of life as a soldier in France. We learn of terrible injuries and illnesses borne with extraordinary courage and dignity. We read about the horror of the battleground, the grim and unrelenting hardship and tedium of life in the trenches, the comradeship of fellow soldiers, the kindness of nurses. Grimness pervades all the letters, despite obvious attempts to hide the worst from the
folks back home. It’s hard to pick out just a few quotations from the letters, but the following are some of the ones which have stayed in my mind.
A Gunner from the Canadian Artillery writes in January 1916 “I have a poisoned compound fracture just below R. knee joint. Am doing vey wellnow. And they expect to save my leg. I hope they do too. Was hit in 5 other places but nothing serious. This lying on one’s back day after day, not able to move, certainly does get on your nerves. It won’t last for ever tho’ that’s some consolation”. Another soldier from the same hospital in France says “I have been out here 11 months. I have seen life and death, brave sturdy lads in the fullness of manhood marching to take their allotted places in the firing line. I have seen them come back. No picture ever painted, no dreams could make you realise the sight that meets your eyes no thunder claps was ever known when
you are between the fire of hundreds of big guns. The scene is one of utter desolation it gives you an idea of what would be the end of the world.” J Sheldrake writes in March 1916 that he was standing in his trench when a shell burst behind him which ‘brake (sic) both bones in my right shin and Brake one of them in two places and A nasty wound in my Right thigh” Private Norman has managed after great difficulty to be hospitalised back to Cambridge and writes in November 1915 “I came to England day before yesterday on that hospital ship that has been sunk, I was wounded September 25. I was in a charge but I am not much good now as a piece of shell went through my lung. I have only one left now and I think I shall be in hospital for months yet if I get over it as the shell is still in me…………….I have been very near it”. Many of the letters give us a strong sense of the loneliness of the soldiers, especially those who are far from home, and their gratitude that someone has taken the trouble to think of them. “I must say it makes every brave Tommy proud of himself when even the young Ladies at home are sending their names and addresses on Eggs to them” Often the writers ask Chrissie if she will write back to them or send a photograph or even if they can visit her next time they get back to ‘Blighty’ Sapper Ted Owen, a Canadian, thanks her for ‘the little painting which all say was just fine………..I’m hoping to get across thewater soon so perhaps I may be able to thank you personally”. Corporal Heatley writes on August 14th
1916 “I simply admired the verses on the eggs and more so admire the sender so pleaseanswer my letter, and I will not forget you in the future.” He signs the letter ‘Your soldier boy”. Private David Davis writes from the hospital in Boulogne in November 1916 “I should very much like to make your acquaintance when I get back to England. I should very much like to receive a photo of you……I am a Londoner by birth…..but I will certainly come to see you when I get back if you don’t mind. I haven’t a young lady yet, but I should certainly like one. I am a rather nice looking young fellow of 22, which reminds me I should like to know your age when you next write”. They were of course almost exactly the sameage, but sadly we don’t know whether Chrissie did write back.
Indeed we can only speculate as to whether Chrissie entered into correspondence with any of the writers or even whether she went further and met up with any of them, or embarked on a relationship. It seems reasonable to assume that she may at the very least have written a reply to some of those who asked her to do so. But we don’t actually know. We do know for sure that she never married. But we can only guess that this may have been because she lost a loved one during the war. And as far as I’m aware this will have to remain speculation.
What we can say without doubt is that Chrissie’s story is a remarkable one and perhaps especially worth telling as we approach the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. She deserves to be remembered as a lady who always reached out to help other people, who played a big role in village life and who was certainly one of Chideock’s most interesting inhabitants.
Frances Colville, Chideock, Dorset
letter written from one of the soldiers to Chrissie Squire thanking her. copyright to Bridport Museum.