Category Archives: Buildings

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Help Restore the Victorian Toll House at Chiltern Open Air Museum

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Donate towards the restoration of our Victorian Toll House

This Giving Tuesday we hope you will continue to support our vital conservation work by making a donation, no matter how small or large, towards the restoration of our Victorian Toll House that originally stood in High Wycombe.  Why not take a look around the Toll House.

Each year 50,000 buildings are demolished in the UK. Many of these are of great historic and cultural importance to their communities.

Chiltern Open Air Museum is a charity that rescues historic buildings from your community that would otherwise be demolished to make way for new developments. They are rebuilt at the Museum to secure their future and preserve them for the enjoyment of all.

Every building in our unique collection was once the home or workplace of ordinary people – a history rarely preserved.  

As a self-funding Museum, we receive no regular government or council grants. Instead, we rely on donations and admission fees to fund the maintenance of our historic buildings and continue our vital conservation work.

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Created in 2012, Giving Tuesday was a simple idea: a day that encourages people to do good. Over the last decade, it has grown into a global movement that inspires millions of people to give, collaborate, and celebrate generosity.

Every penny counts so do please consider donating.

Giving Tuesday Nov 28, 2023

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A History of Garston Forge at Chiltern Open Air Museum

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Chiltern Open Air Museum is what is known as a ‘living’ history museum, where traditional working methods are used in our centuries-old buildings. Nowhere is this vitality clearer than in its Victorian-era blacksmith’s forge, once located in Garston, Hertfordshire, and now found at the heart of the museum: the village green. It sits at the centre of our footpath network, and when the hearth is lit and the doors are open, passers-by will hear the slow pumping of the bellows and the rhythmic beating of metal.

It is a working building in the truest sense of the word, used by local blacksmiths to make both decorative and practical pieces, such as the tree guards in our apple and cherry orchards, pictured below. The museum has always had a focus on conservation and sustainability, and having the facilities to provide authentic constructions and repairs on-site is a major boon. There are several smiths and volunteers who are trained to use it, and visitors can book experience days on which they learn how to make a few items of their own.

These tree guards were made in the forge.

The forge was built around 1860 and run by the Martin family, who were blacksmiths at Park Street and Leavesden, until 1926. It subsequently fell into disuse and was due to be demolished to make way for housing developments. Thankfully, the building was donated to the museum and dismantled by volunteers, led by Phil Buller and assisted by North Watford Venture Scouts, in 1982. It was kept in storage until resources were available and re-erected at the museum in 1984.

The forge is not alone in being a well-timed rescue. Many of the buildings that are now here at COAM were set to be altered, scrapped or destroyed because of changing regulations and demands on the land. The Chiltern Hills have a long and rich history, but like many places across the country, the demand for more housing and new facilities is high. This demand is neither unprecedented nor unreasonable, but it is the duty of museums like COAM to preserve that which it can, not just in its buildings, but also in its landscape and culture.

The balance between preservation and functionality can be a difficult one to maintain. Physical artefacts such as buildings inevitably decay over time and repairs and replacements must be made for their continued use. After all, the museum would not be very ‘living’ if its buildings, though unaltered, were unusable. For this reason, authentic changes are made, such as sourcing the forge’s hearth from a similar Victorian forge in Naphill, and the bellows from Leavesden Hospital. These replacements allow COAM to provide visitors with a view of history that is tangible and to which they are connected, something to be experienced rather than observed from a distance. They highlight the importance of preserving cultural history as well as physical history, so that good judgment may be used when telling the stories of our past. With its collection of ordinary people’s homes and workplaces, COAM’s aim has always been to invite visitors to take part in a history that is not simply preserved but sustained, in which their role is not just to remember the past, but to inhabit it too.

An interview with Mark Harding, one of the forge’s blacksmiths, can be seen below.

Written by Joe Wilcock, Digital Assistant

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A history of Easter at Chiltern Open Air Museum

Easter has been celebrated in one form or another for over two thousand years, as a celebration of spring, as a religious festival and as a joyful holiday. Over that time, the emphasis has changed and it’s interesting to think about what Easter would have meant to the people associated with some of the museum’s buildings.

Replica Iron Age roundhouse

Replica Iron Age roundhouse at Chiltern Open Air Museum

Early Britons like those living in our Iron Age roundhouse would have been closely attuned to the seasons that determined how they lived. We believe that they celebrated the festival of Imbolc in February, to welcome the birth of the first lambs, and Beltane in May, when the cattle were moved to their summer grazing.

Later, people began to celebrate the spring equinox, marking the emergence from winter and the balancing of day and night. Eggs were associated with this festival as a sign of the emergence of new life and hares were seen as a symbol of fertility.  According to the 8th century monk, Bede, celebrations at this time were associated with Eostre, the goddess of spring and renewal. When Christianity came to Britain, the celebration of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection was linked with this festival.

Throughout medieval England, Easter was primarily a religious festival and celebrations carried on for many days. However, it also involved eating, drinking and playing sports and games, partly because it came at the end of Lent when people were required to abstain from many of these worldly pleasures. The long-standing tradition of giving eggs as gifts was an important part of the celebrations. Peasants gave them to the lord of the manor and there is a record from 1290 of Edward I purchasing 450 eggs decorated with gold leaf to give to members of his household. In a more practical way, being able to eat eggs was significant for the poor who were not allowed to eat eggs during Lent but could not afford meat. In the museum, the Arborfield cruck barn dates from the late medieval period and this was the type of Easter that might have been experienced by the people who used it.

Astleham Manor cottage at Chiltern Open Air Museum

Astleham Manor Cottage at Chiltern Open Air Museum

Our Astleham Manor cottage and Northolt barn are both Tudor. This is the period in which Henry VIII broke with Rome and, after that, the number of holy days reduced, but Easter remained important. People still observed the religious services and other traditions. Perhaps the inhabitants of our cottage and the users of the barn enjoyed the popular performances by mummers, known as Paskers at Easter. The Paskers dressed up, often in the clothes of the opposite sex, and visited neighbours’ houses, singing, dancing and ‘partaking of good cheer’. The tradition of egg-giving still continued and there is a record of the Pope sending an egg in a silver case as an Easter gift to Henry VIII before the Reformation.

Leagrave cottage at Chiltern Open Air Museum

Leagrave cottage at Chiltern Open Air Museum

The inhabitants of the Leagrave cottages would have experienced quite a different Easter. With the rise to power of Cromwell and the Puritans, Easter celebrations were banned in 1647 and, although they were restored in 1660, they never reached their previous levels of religious importance. By the 1770s, when our cottages were first inhabited, Easter might have been less religious but it was still a cause for celebration. One thing that the inhabitants would have enjoyed is the hot cross bun. The earliest written record of their sale comes from Poor Robin’s Almanac in 1733 which mentions a London street cry:
‘Good Friday comes this month, the old Woman runs
With one or two a Penny hot cross Buns’.

Many people of this time believed that hot cross buns baked on Good Friday had magical qualities and would not go mouldy. They believed that the buns brought good luck, could be used to treat illness and could guard against shipwreck if taken to sea. Some people would keep Good Friday bread hanging from the ceiling throughout the year, breaking off a piece and soaking it whenever needed.

By Victorian times, the number of national holidays had reduced, but Good Friday was still a national day off, along with Christmas Day. Perhaps the children living in the Haddenham Croft Cottage or High Wycombe Toll House would have joined in an Easter Egg hunt. This idea was introduced to England by the Hanoverian and, in 1833, Queen Victoria, then a child, recorded in her diary how much she had enjoyed this activity. She and Prince Albert continued this tradition, hiding Easter eggs in little moss baskets for their children to find. The idea remained something of a novelty in England for some time but, by the early 1900s, Easter Egg Hunts were quite widespread and, in 1902, Hamley’s advertised an Easter Egg Hunt box for sale. Another Easter activity particularly associated with the Victorians is the sending of Easter cards. Once the halfpenny postage stamp was introduced for postcards in the 1870s, the Victorians sent cards for many occasions and Easter was no exception. Their designs were often quite strange but most included rabbits, chicks or eggs and all suggested a sense of spring and hope.

Inside Amersham prefab at Chiltern Open Air Museum

Amersham prefab at Chiltern Open Air Museum

Finally, moving on to the Amersham prefab, built in 1947, we can visualise one important aspect of Easter in the years following World War 2. Chocolate Easter eggs had been first sold in England in 1873 and, as mass-production developed, became widely available. However, during the war, rationing of milk, sweets and chocolate meant that they could not be produced. Some sources suggest that children were offered carrot sticks as a substitute!  It was not until 1953 that the rationing of chocolate ended. How excited the children in the prefab must have been to eat their first Easter eggs!

Clearly, despite changes over the years, Easter has continued as a significant day in our calendar.  A line in the poem, ‘Easter Day’, written by Nicholas Breton, a contemporary of Shakespeare sums it up beautifully: ‘a day of much delightfulness: the sun’s dancing day and the Earth’s holy day’.

Written by Paula Lacey, Museum Volunteer

Photographs by Daniel Atkinson




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Glory Mill

At the far end of the museum site is a rescued and reconstructed building that was once part of Glory Mill, a paper making factory that was in Wooburn Green, High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire. The building is currently used by COAM to store dismantled historic buildings waiting for re-construction and as a workshop space for our buildings team. COAM Volunteer, Roger Coode, has been researching the history of Glory Mill and has written this piece for our blog.

Re-constructed building from Glory Mill at Chiltern Open Air Museum

Glory Mill

The Domesday Survey of 1086 lists twenty mills on the River Wye (or Wick) which flows through Buckinghamshire. At that time they were all producing flour, but during the 13th and 14th centuries cloth fulling became common using locally grown hemp. It was not unusual for the mills to grind corn and at the same time, by attaching large wooden hammers to the mill’s drive shaft, full the cloth. By the early 17th century fulling mills had virtually disappeared, but it was realised that the machinery used to full cloth could be adapted to beating to pulp the rags used in paper making. Paper making was going on by the end of Elizabeth I’s reign in 1603. In 1636 there were 12 paper mills in Buckinghamshire and there were eight paper mills near High Wycombe in 1690. In the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries paper making was a major industry on the little River Wye and in 1816 there were 31 paper mills.

Glory Mill was named after John de la Gloire who held the mill in 1235. It seems to have been producing paper from rags in the early 17th century. The Mill had several owners and the size of the mill increased, becoming a large factory. In 1850 mechanisation came with the installation of a 36ft 6in long Fourdrinier paper making machine. This speeded up the manufacturing process and therefore increased the mill’s capacity to produce good white paper. However, in 1894 the owners had to petition for insolvency and the Mill was taken over by Wiggins, Teape & Co. Despite a disastrous fire in 1898 when a considerable part of the Mill was burned down, after rebuilding and installing new machinery it was producing high quality paper by summer 1901. The building that we have at COAM was called the “Rag Warehouse” where bales of rags were stored and went through the first of several sorting procedures. It was dismantled and transferred to the Museum in 1987.

The First World War brought the need for air-reconnaissance photographs which led to a major phase of paper making innovation at Glory Mill. Photographs became a vital tool in the waging of the war. Consequently, Glory Mill built a new paper machine exclusively for the production of photobase paper. The country’s need for such paper in the Second World War was also satisfied by Glory Mill and it continued to make photographic base paper until its closure. The mill finally closed in 1999.

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Leagrave Cottages

Leagrave Cottages at Chiltern Open Air Museum

Leagrave Cottages at Chiltern Open Air Museum

This building was at 57, Compton Avenue, Leagrave in Luton. It originally consisted of two thatched single room cottages under one roof, the central chimney serving the back-to-back fireplaces. A coin found in the building suggests that it was built in the 1770s. Around 1912 the cottages were modernised, an upper floor added, and cast-iron ranges fitted. Between 1928 and 1930 the building was converted into one large cottage. By 1979 it had fallen into disrepair and the last occupant was evicted in 1982 since the Borough of Luton considered it unsuitable for human habitation. It was dismantled in 1983 to 1984.The sparse furnishing of one cottage reflects the way the cottage would have looked in the late 18th century. The other cottage is dressed for the 1940s. In 1988 Jim Turner was interviewed and said that he was the last person to live in the cottage before it was demolished. He recalled that friends would not sleep in the bedrooms of the house because they said that there was a ghost of an old man wearing a cap the wrong way round who would walk from the kitchen up the stairs. Jim Turner, however, never saw it. Another former resident, William Dickman, who lived there as a boy of nine in the early 1900s recalls that there was a well in the garden where they got their water. We do not have a well, but there is an apple tree in the garden which nicely fits in with the fact that the area of the cottage was known as Apple Tree Yard. The story goes that Joseph Thomas who we know was living there in 1881 planted an apple pip that grew into a large apple tree.

One of the common activities of the women and children in the Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and north Essex was straw plaiting and in the first cottage can be seen some of their tools. On the wall in Leagrave is a replica post 1800 splint mill which was used to soften straw splints, the split straws used for finer plaits. Pre 1800 the mill was known as a plait mill and was used to flatten the scores of plait before they went to market. A score was a 20 yard length.

Below here follows an article by Vanessa Worship and the Woodlanders Lives and Landscapes project, part of Chalk Cherries and Chairs Landscape Partnership in the central Chilterns and which I am including with their kind permission. It concerns the life of Nellie Keen, a straw plaiter in the Chilterns.

Nellie Keen was aged 79 when she was interviewed by Stanley Ellis of Leeds University, for the Survey of English Dialects. The recording detailed below offers a fascinating insight into the life of a straw plaiter in Buckland parish in the late 1800s.

“The men had to go round the country to straw ricks and draw all the better straws out the ricks and make ‘em into great big bundles…they used to bring ‘em round to the people…

“Oh, lots of different kinds of plaiting. I always done what they call the pearl plait but there was brilliant plait…beautiful plait that was, and railroad…they used to dye the straws for that you see, a mixture, but I always done the pearl…

[Author’s note: The straw was first split into splints, using a straw splitter. Then the splints were softened using a splint mill – see below]

“And then when you’d done this plait, you used to clip it and mill it… [the mill] was a little thing that’s hooked up on the wall, you could unscrew it and screw it, and with a handle at the side like a little tiny mangle I should call it…

[When the length of plait was finished it was clipped to remove the joined ends, then milled to make it look more even and appealing to the buyers.]

“And then after that you had to do it up round your arm the old-fashioned folk used to do it, in lengths of ten yards you see and then put them together and two ten yards [was] a score of course, and then tie it up with string like this ’ere as you go along – oh dear now I’ve dropped it – and then tie it all up and take it to Tring market to sell it…

Wooden splint mill from the 1800s

Wooden splint mill from the 1800s Photograph courtesy of Veronica Main

“…ooh everybody had to do it years ago to turn a shilling or two. The women and children, everybody…

“They used to have what they called a plaiting school in the children’s holidays…a woman used to have all the children sit round and they used to sit plaiting straws… [parents] paid about three ha’pence a week for the woman having you there…

“You had to bring it back home and your mother’d take it to market and sell it…only four or five pence a score, that wasn’t much was it? And then you’d got to walk to Tring to take it. There used to be an old market house at Tring years ago, they’ve pulled it down now, and they used to go under there and the plait buyers used to come round…

“Yes, all the village people used to plait years ago.

Written by Roger Coode, Museum Volunteer

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Henton Mission Room – the iron building

Henton Mission Room at Chiltern Open Air MuseumWhat do Prince Albert’s ballroom at Balmoral, Mr E. Moon’s Shepherd’s Hut in Watford, and Henton Mission Room have in common? They are all examples of “iron buildings”. After seeing a prefabricated corrugated iron cottage at The Great Exhibition in 1851, Prince Albert ordered a large, prefabricated building to serve as a temporary ballroom and dining room at Balmoral. It was erected in three weeks and first used for the gillies’ ball on 1st October 1851. It remained in use until 1856 and in 1882 was resited to its present position near the stables and game larders. A catalogue of such buildings manufactured by Boulton and Paul includes a Shepherd’s Hut which was ordered by Mr E. Moon of Cassiobridge, Watford for his gamekeepers. The catalogue prints a letter from him written in 1882 which states: “Gentlemen, I wanted your Shepherd’s Hut on wheels for the keepers while tending the pheasants, and they say they are pleased with it”. In 1886 the Rector and Churchwardens of Chinnor had our Mission Room erected at Henton, demonstrating the need for new buildings to accommodate the large population growth and movement at the end of the 19th century.

An illustration of the Balmoral building can be seen here

Between 1801 and 1901 the population of this country grew from 11 million to 37 million. There was also a move away from the countryside by many working people as they sought better conditions in the growing towns and cities. By the end of the 19th century no more than 10% of the population was engaged in agriculture. This meant that more and more buildings were needed in the towns, not just in the form of houses but also as warehouses, churches, meeting halls, etc. Iron sheets had been used to cover roofs since the late 18th Century and by 1829 corrugated iron had been developed and the process of coating the iron with zinc (galvanizing) was patented in 1837. This process increased the life of corrugated iron sheets significantly and by the 1840s several manufacturers were producing it. Corrugating an iron sheet makes it more rigid and allows the use of lightweight framing and larger sheets since the corrugated sheets are able to span greater lengths unsupported.

By the end of the 1850s corrugated iron was being used for the walls and roofs of many buildings. By the late 19th century there were several manufacturers offering ‘kit’ corrugated iron buildings. Corrugated iron churches, chapels and schoolhouses could be bought from a catalogue and large numbers of portable buildings were sent to Australia and California for the gold rush prospectors and newly set up farmers. Corrugated iron buildings were generally all constructed in the same way. There was a prefabricated timber framework usually built on a brick foundation. The walls were clad on the outside with corrugated sheets and on the inside with good quality tongue and groove boarding. There was usually a sheet of felt between the wood and iron. When the Mission Room at our museum was being dismantled an original delivery label was found under the corrugated roofing sheets which proved that the prefabricated building was supplied by Boulton & Paul of Norwich.

The Illustrated London News of 1853 variously referred to Hemmings Patent Improved Portable Building Manufactory, the Clift House Factory and to the Avon Clift Iron Works with a Board of Directors both British and Australian which was active in Bristol until 1854/55. When Hemmings transferred operations to Bow, London he continued working there in the same line of business until at least 1870. Hemmings’ principal claim to fame, perhaps, comes with his pioneering development of the portable or temporary church both for home requirements and for export. His original motivation was to provide his son, who was an Australian emigrant, with some form of durable shelter. His inventive mind evolved a house which combined portability with the facility to be erected by inexperienced hands. Other people on seeing it wished for similar accommodation together with more rooms and a shop and Mr Hemmings saw the prospects for adaptations. A catalogue of 1854 shows single cottages and medium and large houses, including one for the Archbishop of Sydney. Sumptuous villas were constructed which included butlers’ pantries and libraries at prices which varied from 50 guineas for a simple cottage to 850 guineas for the more elaborate buildings. Other examples of buildings were: commercial buildings, small shops, even rows of shops for Melbourne, a hotel for 80 persons consisting of 2 storeys costing 2500 guineas, a three-storey iron bazaar shipped to Melbourne in 1855, churches and a pub, appropriately named the Iron Duke, erected in Narberth, Pembrokeshire. The scale of this enterprise can be judged from the number of ‘packages’ shipped to Australia. In 1853 he shipped 6369 such items valued at £111,000 (approx. £10,000,000 today) and the following year 30,000 packages were valued at £247,000 (approx. £22,000,000 today). It was said that few other manufacturers could match his design or functional quality.

An illustration entitled “A portable church made by Hemmings” taken from the Illustrated London News 1854 can be viewed here on page 3 BIAS Journal No 18 1985

The reed organ or harmonium in the Mission Room was built by F. Estey & Co of Brattleboro, Vermont. In 1863 Jacob Estey became the owner of a company which had existed in various forms since 1846 making melodeons. The recent arrival of the railway meant that instruments could be ordered by mail and sent all over the country. By 1900 the company had made about 300,000 instruments and for many years was the largest employer in Vermont with around 700 employees. By 1960 when production ceased, they had made about 500,000 reed or pipe organs including the “Acclimatized Folding Organ” made for Christian missionaries working in tropical climates.

You can read more about Estey organs here in an earlier blog: The Henton Chapel Organ

You may also be interested in watching this short interview with Ned Phoenix, Founder of the Estey Organ Museum:

Written by Roger Coode, Museum Volunteer

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The history of our toll house

The toll house at Chiltern Open Air Museum

The toll house at Chiltern Open Air Museum

Between 1724 and 1727 Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, published A tour through the whole island of Great Britain. He comments that the roads all over the country “had been ploughed so deep, and materials have been in some places so difficult to be had for repair of the roads, that all the surveyors rates have been able to do nothing”. The problem was that until the 16th century wheeled vehicles were quite rare, but thereafter more and more goods and people were being transported around the country, rendering the roads, which were simply unsurfaced paths that had grown up over centuries, impossible to maintain. Very early in the 13th and 14th centuries a few roads such as busy streets in London charged a toll (for example in 1346 tolls were collected for what is now Aldersgate Street), but generally it was the people of each parish throughout the country who were responsible for repairing the roads, a completely untenable situation. Therefore in 1663 an Act of Parliament was passed which established Turnpike Trusts empowered to set up gates and to collect tolls which were spent on the upkeep of the roads.

In 1718 the Beaconsfield to Stokenchurch Trust was set up of which COAM’s Toll House was a part. This in turn was part of the main London to Oxford road. Apart from general traffic the main roads from London also carried the Stagecoaches, the long-distance transport of the time. Stagecoaches passing through our Toll were travelling to London from Birmingham, Cheltenham, Gloucester, Hereford, Warwick, Worcester and Wantage. In 1840 there were 22,000 miles of turnpike roads in England and Wales with 3,000 coaches running regular services employing 30,000 men, 150,000 horses and 20,000 toll keepers who collected £1,500,000 each year which is roughly £90,000,000 in today’s money. Four horses could pull a coach at 10 miles an hour for one hour (i.e. a stage), hence coaching inns were about 10 miles apart. Alan Bell’s Directory of Stage Services, 1836 shows that the first coach of the day through our Toll was The Union coach at 1.15 am and the last The Royal Mail at 2315 pm. These coaches often had splendid names such as The Retaliator, The Regulator, The Champion and The Good Intent. In total there were 28 coaches on the timetable, but in addition there would be local traffic, untimed services and general rural traffic.

toll house kitchen

The kitchen of the toll house at Chiltern Open Air Museum

Many Toll Houses were far less imposing than the High Wycombe Toll House. This is because COAM’s Toll House was built very close to Wycombe Abbey. The owner Robert Smith, the first Lord Carrington, employed James Wyatt to refashion Loakes Manor which he had bought in 1798 into the then popular neo-Gothic style. In order to blend in with the newly renovated and re-named Wycombe Abbey, the Toll House was built in a similar style. The Toll House remained active until 1867 by which time the coming of the railways resulted in coach traffic becoming less and less until in 1867 tolls ceased to be collected. The coming of the railways spelt disaster for most turnpike trusts. Although some trusts in districts not served by railways managed to increase revenue, most did not. For example, in 1830, the year when the Liverpool and Manchester Railway opened, the Warrington and Lower Irlam Trust had receipts of £1,680 but, by 1834, this had fallen to £332. When our Toll House became obsolete it was first used as an ordinary house, then by the groundsmen of the Cricket Ground, then as a chair making workshop and between 1939 to 1945 as an A.R.P. Warden’s post. In 1972 a lorry collided with it, demolishing the front room. Thereafter it was removed to the Museum.

Damaged toll house in 1974

The damaged toll house before it was moved to Chiltern Open Air Museum

Gatekeepers were usually paid between five and seven shillings a week (more in London), but this low wage was usually offset by a rent-free house, often supplied with free candles and fuel.  However, gatekeeping was particularly vulnerable to fraud, such as overcharging travellers, failing to account for the tolls, and taking bribes not to weigh vehicles where a weighing machine was in use. Leasing gates for a fixed sum was popular, although even this was no guarantee against fraud.  Trusts were obliged by law to auction the lease of a gate, with the starting bid being equivalent to the sum it produced in the preceding year.  Therefore, if the gatekeeper who was eligible to bid for the lease on a gate withheld receipts to decrease the gate’s income, its rental value was lowered, while those attending the auction could fix the bidding between themselves in advance. Gatekeepers were of course unpopular and frequently suffered violence at the hands of travellers. They also had access to relatively large amounts of money, hence the bars on the windows of our toll house. They lived with their families in the toll house, and we know that in 1841 Thomas Brickwell lived in our toll house with his wife, Margaret and their three children, Mary Ann 11, James 9 and Martha 6.

In all our minds there are memories of films depicting cheerful, ruddy-faced passengers enjoying their coach ride. Thomas Cooper, a poet and leading Chartist whose life (1805-1892) spanned the change from coach to railway, presents us with a different view!

“Oh, for the dear old coach again!” I cry ―

But soon remind myself o’ the pelting rain,

And that umbrella which the old man would try

To hold up still for shelter, with insane

Resolve, although it drenched our necks; the pain

Of sitting, crampt, for lack of room; the wind

That kept us in one posture, like a chain ―

It was so keen!  And then I am inclined

To own ’twas well men did the steam-steed find, and bind!

Written by Roger Coode, Museum Volunteer

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Horse gin and cherry ladder

Horse gin and cherry ladder – not words that you might expect to be seen together, but just some of the things that we have at Hill Farm Barn which originally stood off Joiners Lane in Chalfont St Peter. The date of the farm itself is uncertain, but the farmhouse contained a cruck truss believed to be 14th century, and occupiers of Hill Farm can be traced from 1696 onwards.

Horse working a horse gin

Horse gin demonstration at Chiltern Open Air Museum.

The barn is believed to be from the mid-19th century. The last farmer to occupy the farm was Henry Wheeler, who sold it to Chale Sever Bell in 1924, from when it was used as a weekend retreat. In 1966 a Building Preservation Order was issued requiring that Hill Farm and its outbuildings should not be demolished. At that time, the farm covered 11 acres. By 1968, nine of these acres had been developed for housing, and the developer appealed successfully against the refusal to demolish. COAM acquired the barn, and it has stood here since May 1986.

A horse gin (short for “engine”) can be seen outside the rear of the barn. A horse could be harnessed to this and as it walked round and round it drove a line shaft which enters the barn to provide power for the machinery. Inside the barn the shaft and its various pulleys came from Tilehouse Farm in Boreham Wood.

Later in its history, the source of power for the machinery in the barn was a static gas engine, a Crossley G111 number 86646, which was made to run on “producer gas”. This was a fuel made on the spot such as coal gas (in a small self-contained plant), wood offcuts or vegetable waste. On YouTube there is an example of Methane gas for domestic cooking purposes being made from kitchen waste and cow dung. Later this engine was replaced by a Lister A engine donated by Rugby Portland Cement (now Cemex).

Cherry picking

Cherry picking ladder in Hill Farm Barn

The cherry picker’s ladder which is 60ft long can be seen hanging inside the barn.

Cherry orchards were the county’s specialty. Today, the overall picture in Buckinghamshire is bleak. The Landscape Plan for Buckinghamshire states: “Changes in agriculture have (also) meant that orchards of cherry, plum and apple which were once common south of Aylesbury were reduced by over 90% between 1938 and 1994 and are continuing to disappear. The County Council’s ‘Survey of Orchards in Southern Buckinghamshire’ revealed a 39% loss in orchards between 1975 and 1995 in one of the areas previously most important for fruit production. The condition of those remaining orchards is generally poor.”

cherry picking ldder

Cherry picking ladder hanging in the farm at COAM

“… Buckinghamshire … thinks highly of its “chuggies”, as the jet-black cherries are called locally, that the first Sunday in August is observed there as “Cherry Pie Sunday”. This marks the completion of the cherry harvest with the gathering of the late Prestwood Blacks, and it is the custom for cherry pie, or other delicious recipes such as cherry turnover or cherry duff, to be served in cottages and farmhouses”.

Seer Green Cherry Pie Fair (near Chalfont St Giles), June 22, still continues, and recently has been part of Seer Green’s Village Day, where there are locally made cherry pies for sale. They are keen to keep the fair going and the parish council has allocated money for cherry trees to be planted in the village.

Cherry pie

Homemade cherry pie

In 1974 a tin box found in the chimney of an old house in Seer Green contained the following recipe for Cherry Pie…
For pastie, use flour saved from the cleanings and lard from the fresh killed pig. Roll out verie thickly so as to contain the cherry juice and give boddie to the turnover…Gather a hatful of black cherries by moonlight. Those high up are better in taste. Let them ripe enough to contain the juice when gentile prest. Put a double layer in the pastie with four atop and seal with fresh drawn water from the well. Cook gentlie in the oven on a fire of faggots. Gather round and when the pastie is cool enough not to scorch the fingers, break off one end and drink the juice. Repeat….and yet again…and then again” – ah life is sweet!

Written by Roger Coode
Museum Volunteer

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The Vicarage Room from Thame

Vicarage room from Thame

Thame Vicarage Room

November 28th 1896 was an important day for the population of just 3,000 then living in the little town of Thame. A Great Western Railway train arrived at Thame Station that day with the parts for a new building which was to be erected in the vicarage garden next to Lashlake Road. The Rev. J.J.Cohen, vicar of St.Mary’s, had ordered a prefabricated building in which he could hold meetings for his parishioners. When the building was being re-erected at COAM in 1990 three labels were found behind the dado paneling inside the hall. One was the address label for the consignment: Rev’d J.J.Cohen, Thame Vicarage, Thame Station, GWR.

original cladding sample

The new building was used for many kinds of meetings: lectures, socials, Bible classes, the Church of England Temperance Society and the Church of England Men’s Society, amongst others. In 1912 a larger hall was built and John Millburn, an Auctioneer in Aylesbury, bought the old one, re-erected it in his garden and used it as a showroom and later to store garden produce.

The material from which the building was constructed was a relatively newly invented material created by Douglas Allport in about 1881. An article in “The Lancet” in 1896 relates how the inventor combined a steel wire gauze with papier maché to provide large sheets. These were then coated with waterproof paint and used to make the walls by stretching them on a wooden frame. The same material could also be used for roofing. “The Lancet” relates that Derby Royal Infirmary adopted this method of construction for a temporary operating theatre and an ophthalmic ward. This new material was manufactured by the wonderfully named Wire Wove Waterproofing Company of London.

Vicarage Room in original location

The Vicarage Room in its original location

When COAM acquired the building, the walls were too damaged to reuse and so a modern substitute material was found for the outer covering of the walls. It is believed that only two buildings still exist in the country in their original form, one in Bicester and another in North Wales.

Written by Roger Coode, Museum Volunteer

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Why were there so many furniture makers in High Wycombe?

High Wycombe Furniture Factory

If you had lived in High Wycombe during the 1800s and early 1900s you would certainly have had friends or neighbours who worked in the chair or furniture industry. Even before 1700 there are references to “turners”, men who turned wood on a lathe to make various household wares. In 1725 Daniel Defoe, the author of “Robinson Crusoe”, refers to them in his diary. In the early days production focused on chair parts which were sent to London to be “framed up” into chairs, but by the end of the 18th century more and more landowners were making land available to allow this process to happen in High Wycombe.

But why did all this happen in High Wycombe? Because of the plentiful supply of wood from the forests of the Chilterns and also because other forms of employment were not readily available. Between 1800 and 1860 the number of workshops grew from just a few to 150 and the streets of the town must have been full of the smell of wood shavings and sawdust. Nobody knows exactly how many furniture making workshops and factories there were – estimates range from 200-400. By 1875 it is estimated that 4,700 chairs per day were being made, resulting in High Wycombe becoming the biggest producer of chairs in the country. Despite the closure of many small firms after World War 2, even in 1968 the Wycombe area was producing nearly 80% of the country’s entire output of chairs.

From the earliest days of the trade most of the lathe-turned chair parts were made by itinerant turners or “bodgers” living in the villages surrounding High Wycombe. Historically, the turning skills required by the chair industry had been applied to the production of bowls, spoons and other items, which provided a pool of skilled labour from which the chair part turners developed. The use of the term bodger to describe these craftsmen is probably a 20th century usage, and certainly it is not used during the 1840s and 1850s when the number of turners working in the Chilterns reaches its peak.

The turners worked by buying stands of trees from estate owners at auctions, which were then felled and converted into chair stretchers and legs. Some worked in rough thatched shelters in the wood where the trees were felled. The majority worked in sheds nearer to home. The turner’s most famous piece of equipment, the pole lathe, was powered by a long, flexible length of sapling, and was used to cut the finished design onto the chair part. The finished article was then sold to the Wycombe factory owners. The metal framed treadle wheel lathe was widely used as an alternative to the pole lathe.

Between 1861 and 1881 the number of turners in the area almost doubled, from 186 to 340, reflecting the still-rising demand for chairs. Stokenchurch and Radnage remained two of the most important centres, but were joined by Beacons Bottom, and then overtaken by High Wycombe; all four settlements had 395 resident turners in 1881. Three villages still had all their chair employment in turning and are found in a cluster about five miles north of the town – Bryants Bottom, Stoney Cross and Prestwood.

Have a look at this BBC archive video on ‘The Chair Bodgers of the Chilterns’

Why was there suddenly such a demand for chairs? This was the period of the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain, the population was growing fast, and hence there was an ever-growing market for chairs. Moreover, this was also the beginning of large public meetings of many different kinds during which people wanted to sit down! For example, there were special commissions from the evangelists Moody and Sankey for 19,200 chairs, 8,000 chairs for the Crystal Palace and 2,500 rush-seated chairs for St. Paul’s Cathedral. In the late 19th century and the early 20th High Wycombe had become the second largest furniture manufacturing town in the country.

King’s National Roll Scheme
After the First World War there were vast numbers of badly injured and disabled men who were fearful of never being able to find work again. Therefore, the Government set up The King’s National Roll Scheme whereby companies undertook to train disabled men to be able to work and support themselves. James Elliott & Son took part in this scheme and a certificate to that effect hangs in the factory.

Elliott and Sons Furniture Factory in 1978 in its original location.

Elliott’s factory
The earliest record of an Elliott as a chairmaker is of Thomas Elliot (one “t”) in West Wycombe in the 1851 census. The 1871 census shows a James Elliott, fifteen, who by 1875 was married to Ann Harman and living in Hambleden as a chairmaker framer. The firm of Elliott’s was founded in 1887 with James’ sons Harry and Frank working there. The factory was at 14-16, Shaftesbury Street and closed in 1974. It was founded for the assembly of Windsor chairs, but during the First World War it produced ailerons for aircraft. Sadly, Frank Elliott died in France of the Spanish Flu one month after the end of hostilities. During the Second World War the factory helped the war effort by producing fire-proof furniture for the Royal Navy.

Types of chairs that may have been made in the factory.

Windsor chairs
This type of chair is a form of wooden seating in which the back and sides consist of multiple thin, turned spindles that are attached to a solid, sculpted seat. It has straight legs that splay outward, and its back reclines slightly. The origin of the name “Windsor chair” is confused. It seems to have been used as a description of a particular design of chair from 1710. There is a legend that King George III (or King George II) was one day sheltering from a rainstorm in a peasant’s cottage near Windsor Castle and was given a multi-spindled chair to sit on. This so impressed him by its comfort that he had his own furniture maker copy the design. An alternative version is that it was a type of chair used in the grounds of Windsor Castle.

Written by Roger Coode, Museum Volunteer

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