A WRITER who rose from a life in children’s homes to become a respected countryside author of books about Oxfordshire and Warwickshire has died aged 86.

Sheila Stewart was a best-selling writer whose own lack of roots inspired her to dig into the lives of others and bring their pasts to life.

From humble beginnings in a small North Devon fishing village, she spent her childhood being moved between children’s homes, but later observed that her success as a writer was in part down to her upbringing.

She was notably the author of Country Kate (1971), about the life of the daughter of a Cotswold horse doctor, and Lifting The Latch (1987), which told the story of an Oxfordshire Shepherd called Mont Abbott, who lived and worked around Enstone.

This week’s obituaries:

Sheila McCairn was born in Appledore, a North Devon fishing community, on January 6, 1928, the illegitimate daughter of a 16-year-old girl in service from an illiterate family.

Her father was marked “not known” on her birth certificate.

She lived with her grandparents in a small cottage, but at about the age of three she was sent to a home in Exeter run by the Waifs And Strays Society, now the Children’s Society.

Life at the society’s homes could be hard, with food and clothing scarce.

The girls could have their heads shaved to combat lice, or be compelled to wear clogs. She was ostracised at school.

At age nine she found herself on the doorstep of a home in Ealing, where a “very strict, but very fair” matron made her feel more welcome.

Here Mrs Stewart’s love of reading and writing began to blossom.

She later said: “I was an awful bookworm, always curled up behind a curtain with a book. I loved Children’s Hour (then played on the BBC’s home service).

It made me feel part of a very big family.”

During the Second World War, the girls in the home were evacuated to Grenville House in Ascot, Berkshire, where they enjoyed the patronage of Princess Marie Louise and her circle.

When she turned 14 – a year where home girls traditionally went in to service, to help pay for their upbringing – a debate begun on whether, as a bright young girl, she should be allowed to go to grammar school.

She had gained a scholarship but the matron feared the home could not afford it and that it may foster resentment among her peers.

After much wrangling however, she was sent 18 months later and her flying success later prompted other girls to be sent as well.

After finishing school she went to teacher training college, before moving to Sibford, near Banbury, to teach English and physical education at Sibford School.

While living in the village she met former scholar Eric Stewart at a table-tennis club and they wed on April 16 in Ascot, Berkshire. The head of the Waifs And Strays Society gave her away, she said.

The couple bought a cottage in Sibford and their first child, Sarah, was born in 1955, followed by Tim in 1959, and Mathew in 1962.

While they were growing up Mr Stewart worked for his family’s quarry business while Mrs Stewart started a private nursery school in her front room.

At age 40 she began to write books, with autobiographical debut A Home From Home published in 1967. It was followed by several short stories and radio plays, as well as her biggest success, Country Kate in 1971.

A radio play of the book was to be created by the BBC and the script also scooped the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain Drama Award in 1974.

Further works were Country Courtship in 1975, Lifting The Latch in 1987 and Ramlin Rose: The Boatwoman’s Story in 1993. Her radio plays, both for the BBC, included Country Kate in 1974 and The Taxman Cometh in 1975.

After finishing her first book, Mrs Stewart and her husband moved to Ascott, an estate between Hook Norton and Long Compton.

She was a keen gardener and an active villager, organising flower shows and Christmas parties, as well as being a member of the Womens’ Institute.

Sheila Stewart died on September 3, following a short period of illness.

A funeral was held in Banbury Crematorium on September 12.

Mrs Stewart is survived by her husband, their three children, nine grandchildren and a great grandchild.