Category Archives: History

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The life of country children

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Country life for working families before the early 20th century was not at all as some popular paintings portray – roses round a cottage door, happy and healthy children playing in a well-cared for garden. Many families with three or more children would live in cottages with only two rooms. Parents would do the best they could, but very low incomes meant that living conditions were often horrible. Bedclothes, for example, could well be beyond the finances of the poor and so they would make do with sacking and rags, frequently filled with vermin. At Steeple Claydon in Buckinghamshire a loan society was set up by the local gentry to loan blankets to poor families in the winter and such societies could be found all over the country into the early 20th century.

An 1858 painting by George Washington Brownlow entitled 'Straw Plaiting School in Essex'
An 1858 painting by George Washington Brownlow entitled ‘Straw Plaiting School in Essex’

It was not until the 19th century that a law was passed that required children to go to school. This did not mean, of course, that schools did not exist. For the children of the middle classes and the aristocracy there had always been options available, but they were few and, by and large, cost money. As far back as 1553, Archbishop Cranmer proposed a new code of Church law that would require the clerk of each parish church to teach children the alphabet as well as the catechism. This was never adopted however, but there still remained strong practical reasons for parents wishing to have their children at least able to read.

The United Kingdom Census in 1861 shows that out of 4.3 million children of primary school age in England & Wales, 1 million were in purely voluntary (church) schools and 1.3 million were in state aided voluntary schools, but 2 million had no schooling. The 1876 Royal Commission on the Factory Acts recommended that education be made compulsory in order to stop child labour and in 1880 a further Education Act finally made school attendance compulsory for children between the ages of five and ten, though by the early 1890s attendance within this age group was falling short at 82%
Schools at the time emphasised the learning of facts and required that the children memorise these facts. A few examples from The Rev Dr Brewer’s My First Book of Geography give the flavour of what the children had to commit to memory.

Teacher: How may the number of counties in England and Wales be remembered?
Pupil: It is the same as the number of weeks in the year.
Teacher: Who divided England into counties?
Pupil: Alfred the Great.
Teacher: For what purposes?
Pupil: That persons might more easily refer to places, and that order might be more easily preserved.
Teacher: What is the climate of England?
Pupil: Moist, but healthy.
Teacher: What is the character of the English people?
Pupil: Brave, intelligent and very persevering.

Poorer families were often tempted to send their children to work if the opportunity to earn an extra income was available. In rural communities, the help of children at harvest time was vital. Also plait schools and lacemaking schools could be very tempting as a way of enabling children to help with the family income. Moreover, plait schools and lace schools had long thrived before the 1880 Education Act was passed and so the loss of income would be keenly felt. Attendance officers often visited the homes of children who failed to attend school, but they frequently proved ineffective.

Children would be expected to help with harvesting, bird scaring, rat catching and the many other tasks linked to country life, which meant that such schooling as there was had to be missed at certain times. P.H.J.H. Gosden’s book “How they were taught” refers to school log books of the time mentioning hay harvesting as the cause of absenteeism in Ivinghoe in 1875 and Cublington in 1891. The poem below illustrates the tasks that children might do.

The sheep get up and make their many tracks
And bear a load of snow upon their backs,
And gnaw the frozen turnip to the ground
With sharp, quick bite, and then go noising round
The boy that pecks the turnips all the day
And knocks his hands to keep the cold away
And laps his legs in straw to keep them warm
And hides behind the hedges from the storm.
“Sheep in Winter” by John Clare – 1793-1864

In 1857, the Bishop of Oxford received a complaint from Radclive-cum-Chackmore in North Buckinghamshire that few children over eight or nine attended school because the boys were taken for work and the girls for lacemaking. (There is a blog on our website about lacemaking.) In 1867, the Royal Commission on the Employment of Children, Young Persons and Women noted that in the Buckinghamshire and Berkshire lacemaking industry, farm labourers treated it as normal that their daughters would be sent to lace schools from the age of four or five and as a result gaining little or no formal education. Towards the end of the 19th century, changes in fashion and machine-made lace led to a decline in lace schools.

The other “cottage industry” prevalent in the Chilterns was straw plaiting. Once again children as young as four would be sent to a plait school where they would spend many hours in the charge of a teacher who might teach them a little reading, but mostly concentrated on proficiency and speed of plaiting. The most popular teachers were the ones who got the most work out of the children. The children would have to finish uncompleted work at home and it was not unusual to see them plaiting as they walked home and in the street as they talked with friends. About thirty yards of plait was considered to be a day’s work. Ivinghoe in Buckinghamshire was seen as a plaiting centre and there, as in many towns and villages, this interfered with such education as was available towards the end of the 19th century. The practice of plait schools was so common and the money earned so important for the poor labourer households that police or Factory Inspectors could make little difference. Only the collapse of the plait trade brought an end to the plait schools.

Multiple other excuses however were found to keep children away from school. Girls could be kept at home for the weekly washing day; when the cowslips bloomed boys and girls would be taken by their mothers to collect the flowers for cowslip wine and cowslip pudding. Some might be kept at home on traditional festivals such as St Valentine’s Day, Plough Monday and for local village or church events.

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Swing Riots

The Labourers’ Revolt, commonly known as Swing Riots was mainly rooted in the poor living standards and impoverishment of agricultural workers for more than fifty years. A wave of more than 3000 acts of revolt swept across England for over 2 years. The system of farmland imposed by Parliament in the previous century had removed the right for the poorest to feed their animals on what was previously common lands. The common land was then divided between the largest local landowners. Until the early 19th century the main employment of farm labourers in the Autumn and Winter was to thresh corn. The advent of threshing machines driven by horses or by water power, able to perform the jobs of several men in less time further impoverished the already poor labourers. Landowners, seeing the economic advantage for them, quickly set about using threshing machines on their farms, putting workers out of work in their thousands. This all coincided with two years of poor harvests and rising prices and cuts to poor relief.

Threshing Machine at COAM

The threshing machine in action at Chiltern Open Air Museum

The riots finally broke out in the late summer of 1830 as jobs became increasingly scarce, wages were reduced and the future of employment became increasingly bleak. The first destruction of a threshing machine by farm labourers was on 28 August 1830 at Lower Hardres, near Canterbury in Kent. The destruction of machinery became the characteristic feature of this labourers’ movement. In October of the same year, a hundred threshing machines were vandalised and burnt in the eastern part of Kent. The uprising quickly spread westward to Sussex, Surrey, Hampshire and Middlesex and acts of arson increased.

The riots further spread north into the Midlands, the Home Counties and even up to East Anglia, and eventually reached Lincolnshire, Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire, making it one of the biggest popular uprisings since the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. The rioters burnt crops, destroyed threshing machines, slaughtered cattle and stole corn from warehouses.

Threatening letters that were sent to magistrates, large landowners, parish clerics and local Poor Law enforcement officials contained the demands of the rioters to raise wages, stop using machinery and cut tithes. These letters were signed by “Captain Swing” or “Swing”. (The name Swing may be a reference to the flails which the labourers used to thresh corn and which needed to be swung with some force in order to thresh the crop.) If the demands were not met, large groups of labourers would threaten landowners and if their demands were not met they would destroy machinery and other things associated with the landowners. While the attacks occasionally led to authorities responding to the demands, many farm owners reneged on the agreements and unrest spread to neighbouring areas. Local magistrates responded leniently, but the government intervened with harsher punishments.

Not all landowners were unsympathetic. Sir Harry Verney at Claydon was unperturbed, seeing no local threat to his own property, somewhat to his surprise.
“Some of the poor are living very miserably. Able-bodied young men having families receive in some cases 3s 6d a week (17½p). A pittance which ensures thieving and poaching. We should alter the game laws… increase the workhouses… have a legalised labour rate … The new beer shops have added to the number of places of rendezvous for the idle and dissolute.”

However, numerous arrests took place and the trials resulted in 19 hangings, 644 imprisonments and 481 transportations to penal colonies in Australia. Rioters were not only farm workers but also rural artisans, shoemakers, carpenters, wheelwrights, blacksmiths and cobblers. On January 10th 1831 a special Commission in Aylesbury tried 160 men for breaking farm machinery and rioting of whom 32 were sentenced to 7 years Transportation to Van Diemen’s Land, now Tasmania. The 160 men involved were accused of committing their offences in Waddesdon, Stone, Little Brickhill, Iver, Long Crendon and Upper Winchendon and Chepping Wycombe (the spelling of the village at that time, now High Wycombe). In all, 1,976 men from 34 counties were arrested of whom 800 were acquitted, 644 jailed and 481 transported.

The link below provides examples of Captain Swing letters

Written by COAM Volunteer, Roger Coode

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‘I had a little nutting tree and nothing would it bear
But little silver nutmegs for Galligolden fair.

Twenty pins have I to do, let ways be ever so dirty.
Never a penny in my purse, but farthings five and thirty.

Betsy Bays and Polly Mays they are two bonny lasses.
They build a bower upon the tower and cover it with rushes.

Pardon mistress, pardon master pardon for a pin.
If you don’t give us a holiday we won’t let you in.

Jack be nimble, Jack be quick,
Jack jump over the candlestick.’

You may have come across verses like these and presumed that they are simply nursery rhymes and have no real meaning. In fact, they are all examples of “tells”, poems used to teach children to count and to develop speed in their lacemaking. To “tell” is another word for “count” as in the word “teller”, a person who counts votes. Some tells are much longer and develop into a whole story.

But when and where did lace originate? There is pictorial evidence from the late fifteenth century of simple plaited laces used on costume, and this is consistent with the statement by the author of a bobbin lace pattern book — the Nüw Modelbuch — printed in Zurich in 1561, that lace was brought to Zurich from Italy in about 1536. What is certainly true is that the second half of the sixteenth century saw the rapid development of lace as an openwork fabric, created with a needle and single thread (needle lace) or with multiple threads (bobbin lace).

The earliest form of lace, needle lace, was slow and difficult to make and gradually bobbin lace took over. Bobbin lace is generally quicker to work than needle lace, and skilled workers were soon able to copy needle lace designs. Details of such lace can be seen on hundreds of portraits from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Bobbin lace was the kind that was brought to England in the 16th century by Flemish Protestant exiles fleeing from the persecution of Philip II of Spain between 1563 and 1567. It is recorded that amongst those refugees were makers of “bone-lace”, so called because they used bone bobbins or sharpened bones as pins. By 1568 the refugees had reached Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire, bringing with them their lace-pillows, bobbins and parchment patterns. Later, around 1820, a Huguenot exile and his two daughters settled in Coggeshall. The daughters were skilled in making tambour lace, so called because the net forming the groundwork of the lace was stretched tight on a wooden hoop like a tambourine. This later developed into making lace onto which were sewn beads and sequins for the fashion industry.

Great Horwood was a typical village where lace-makers worked. In order to get the best possible light they sat outside when they could.  On cold and wet days, they would sit in windows.  Three or four lace-makers would often congregate in a bay window for maximum light, often with a ‘chaddy pot’ (this was similar to a warming pan, filled with hot coals) tucked under their skirts for warmth.  When it was dark, they sat around one candle surrounded by special glass reflectors called flashes on a wooden stand.  These maximised the light, and rush bags were attached to the stand to hold the flashes when not in use.  Lace-makers worked long tedious hours and often ended up with very poor eyesight as a result.

The following is taken from Rita Essam’s article, ‘Lace-making: Clean Work & Purdy Work’,

Lace-maker, Clara Ridgway (nee Smith), is pictured here surrounded by the tools of her trade. She is working at a lace pillow, with characteristic bobbins, resting on a three-legged ‘lady’. By her right shoulder is a bobbin winder, and on the floor to her right is a candle stool with flashes.

The lace pillows were round cotton bags stuffed with straw.  The straw was cut into small pieces and hammered well to make it hard enough for pins to go into.  The pillow was placed partly on the knees and partly on a three-legged pillow-horse called ‘the lady’.  The pattern was pricked on to a piece of parchment and attached to the pillow by special brass pins.  A pin cushion was pinned to the right-hand side of the pillow and traditionally was heart shaped.  It was stuffed with bran, which was slightly oily thus preventing the pins from corroding.  The bobbins were wound with the thread in pairs.  They were made of wood, ivory or bone. The bobbins were weighted with spangles.  A spangle was a ring of brass wire threaded with glass beads.

A Buckinghamshire lace pattern with bobbins.

Children as young as four were taught to make lace by their mothers who used to hang two pairs of bobbins on the side of their lace pillow and began to teach them basic skills.  Not only girls were taught, but also boys. The finished lace would be collected by a salesman and taken to market.  In the mid-19th century, the going rate was one shilling (5p) a day, out of which the lace-makers needed to buy threads.  This was more money than could be earned by domestic servants and more than an agricultural labourer was paid.

​Many villages around Great Horwood had lace schools at this time, teaching lace-making, reading and writing to both girls and boys. Great Horwood probably had one, but its location is unknown. Maybe it was held in the church before the Church of England school was founded there or perhaps small lace schools were held in people’s homes.

In the 1851 census there were 102 lace-makers in the village.  They varied in age from 9 to 82 years.  Two pauper lace-makers from Great Horwood are listed at the Winslow workhouse in the same census.  In 1861 there was a total of 134 lace-makers with an age range of 5 to 73 years, and in 1881 there were 111 lace-makers aged 10 to 77 years.  In the early part of the 20th century lace continued to be made in Great Horwood.  However, due to the introduction of machine lace the industry was in steady decline and by the second half of the century had effectively vanished

May Royce making lace.

Some of the descendants of lace-makers of the 19th and 20th centuries still live in the village, including surnames such as Barfoot, Marks, Ridgway, Viccars, Hancock, Lambourne and Mallet.

A bobbin winder.
Photograph courtesy of Rita Essam.

I am grateful for the permission of Rita Essam to include some of her article and photographs which illustrate the article so well. Please note that there should be no unauthorised copying of the photos.

You can find further information on local lace making here

Written by Roger Coode, Museum Volunteer

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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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