Category Archives: Traditional Crafts and Skills

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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.

Bodgers
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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The Charcoal Kiln

Next to the Bodger’s Area in our woodland is a charcoal kiln that is used to make charcoal that is sold in our shop. The Estate Team fired up the kiln in August and document the process for us to share with you all.

We started off by making bridges of wood across the bottom of the kiln. This ensures there is good air flow. Then we place the not quite charcoaled wood from the previous burn onto the bridge.

On top goes some smaller bits of chopped wood and dry brash.

Then you can begin to fill the kiln with chopped, dry wood.

Once the kiln has been filled the lid is replaced and some longer lengths of wood are used to prop the lid open to encourage air flow.
The kiln is lit by using a pole, a rag and some paraffin.

The kiln soon begins to smoke

At first, the smoke is thick

For the first hour or so the kiln will continue to be smoky.

After an hour, the wood propping the lid open are removed as the kiln becomes fully lit. We now have to work quickly to pack and keep in the heat.

This is done by using soil or in this case old turves to pack in around the base of the kiln and also around the lid, ensuring the vents are kept open.

Now we wait until the smoke becomes clear and this tells us we can shut down the kiln. There are four chimney’s and each one will need closing down separately depending on wind direction and air flow.

It is now approximately a 12 hour wait until we can shut the kiln down so I’m busy working on a hurdle.

It is important to ensure heat is not allowed to escape as much as possible so we try and fill any gaps with soil.

It’s always exciting taking the lid off after two days of cooling to see how the charcoal has turned out.

The charcoal is then emptied and put in bags.

When we can’t reach the rest, we tip the kiln on it’s side.

There will always be tiny bits of charcoal we can’t bag up with the rest. But it doesn’t go to waste. It can be used as bio char, a soil improver for the garden.

The charcoal all bagged and ready to be sold in our shop.


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Chalk Cherries and Chairs Landscape Partnership

Be a part of the new Chilterns Summer Festival in 2020

Our friends, The Chilterns Conservation Board, are running a new Heritage Lottery Funded project called Chalk, Cherries and Chairs Landscape Partnership. As part of this project they are running an exciting Chilterns Summer Festival in 2020, to help promote the Chilterns and its unique heritage and landscape. Chiltern Open Air Museum are taking part in it and you can get involved too!

Are you a local artist/ business/ organisation or just someone who loves a good day out in the Chilterns?

Chilterns Summer Festival Blacksmith at COAM

As part of the brand-new Heritage Lottery Funded Chalk, Cherries and Chairs Landscape Partnership, the Chilterns Summer Festival offers a 9-day schedule of fun, educational and family friendly events across the Central Chilterns.

Chalk, Cherries & Chairs (CCC) is an ambitious five-year scheme which aims to connect local people to the wildlife and cultural heritage of the Central Chilterns. The scheme operates under three themes – wildlife, heritage and people – each project that falls under these three themes are all designed with the Chilterns landscape in mind. There will be no less than eighteen interweaving projects which share common threads, including volunteering, learning and digital media. The scheme will also provide small grants to encourage community initiatives.

Chilterns Summer Festival Chilterns Conservation Board

The CCC aims to engage and empower local communities in the Chilterns, while conserving the breath-taking character of this region we call home. From 13 – 21 June 2020, the CCC will be putting on a wide range of fun and informative events, to bring communities together and ensure everyone has a great time celebrating the Chilterns and its unique heritage and landscape. 

What kind of events will the festival include?

  • Brewery tasting and tours
  • Outdoor cinema events
  • Guided walks
  • Cherry themed events
  • Family-fun days in town centres
  • Light shows and installations
  • Adventure suppers
  • Music and dance performances
  • And much more!

The Chilterns Conservation Board are very excited to be working with lots of local businesses, farmers, and community groups on this new festival (which will run annually until 2024) and would love to work with more as well.

Chilterns Summer Festival

What are they looking for?

  • Volunteers (to help at town centre events, first aid, stewarding, communications help, etc)
  • Local businesses who want to: host an event, sponsor an event, showcase their products, have a stall at one of the events
  • Community groups, to work with them on unique community centred events that reflect a community’s needs and interests
  • Sponsors: these events will be advertised across the Chilterns and offer a great opportunity to gain widespread exposure for your brand and business in this region. Sponsorship is flexible and CCB are happy to discuss arrangements which work for both parties.

Further Information:

If you would like to find out more about the Chalk, Cherries and Chairs projects, you can visit the CCB website

To learn more about the festival and upcoming events or volunteering opportunities, sign up for their newsletter

For any further information, or press opportunities, please contact Elizabeth Buckley, Communications and Community Engagement Officer of the CCC on lbuckley@chilternsaonb.org


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Endangered Crafts

Endangered crafts COAM

We’ve all heard of endangered animals but have you heard of endangered crafts?

The UK has an amazing range of heritage skills and crafts some of which the Chilterns are known for, such as chair making, but sadly the knowledge of how to do some of these skills are becoming endangered.

The Heritage Crafts Association received a grant in 2015, to enable them to assess the viability of traditional heritage crafts in the UK. Their research has led to them publishing a red list of endangered crafts. They hope their research will help to shine a light on these dying skills and act as a call to action to those who have it within their power to resolve or alleviate these issues. The hope is that their project will mark the start of long-term monitoring of heritage craft viability and a shared will to avoid the cultural loss that is borne each time a craft dies.
See what crafts are on the red list

Endangered crafts straw hats

Chiltern Open Air Museum doesn’t only rescue and protect physical buildings, but the stories and traditions connected to the people who inhabited them. Onsite we try to carry out as many traditional practices and skills as possible, some, such as hurdle making, are used as par by the team who maintain the site, others, such as rag rug making, are taught and demonstrated in school workshops and events, and some skills are shared in the form of workshops and experience days. We are proud that we now offer ten different experience days or workshops that encompass traditional skills and techniques. Our aim is to be able to offer more opportunities for people to learn traditional skills in the future.

Endangered crafts working with straw

Working with straw and corn dolly making are one of the traditional skills listed on the Heritage Crafts Associations list of endangered crafts. The Museum is very fortunate that skilled straw practitioner, Heather Beeson has agreed to run Working with Straw experience days at the Museum to teach and pass on this beautiful skill to new people. We offer a variety of straw workshops for varying skill sets from complete beginners to those with a little more experience as well as courses suitable for children. Heather also runs mixed skills sessions for those who might be working on their own straw projects but would like a little guidance or support.

Other experience days and workshops that we offer are still viable crafts. Those on the viable list are deemed to have sufficient numbers of knowledgeable craftspeople who are able to pass it on to the next generation. However, these will only remain viable if there are opportunities and exposure to inspire and encourage people to learn them.

We currently run the following experience days and skills:

Working with Straw
Blacksmithing
Historic Baking
Historic Cooking
Willow Weaving and Sculpture
English Folk Singing
Family Prehistory
Watercolour and Sketching
Mindfulness

Experience days can be purchased via our website shop or via our ticket office.

Endangered Crafts Blacksmithing at COAM

In the future, using our traditional bodgers area, we hope to be able to have demonstrations and workshops on the endangered crafts of broom making, hurdle making, pole lathe bowl turning and rake making.

HCA Chair Patricia Lovett MBE said: “Traditional crafts are a vital part of the UK’s intangible cultural heritage (ICH)… not our monuments and historical artefacts, which are already well-protected by heritage professionals, but the living knowledge, skills and practices used to create them… along with many of the other things we treasure in this country. While we campaign for the UK to ratify the UNESCO Convention on ICH safeguarding (we are one of only 18 countries in the world that hasn’t), we will continue to catalogue our endangered craft heritage and focus attention on that which we are in danger of losing, so paving the way for the UK to join the rest of the world in protecting this important element of our shared culture.”

About the Heritage Crafts Association

Founded in 2009 by a small group of makers and those interested in craft, the Heritage Crafts Association (HCA) is the advocacy body for traditional heritage crafts. Working in partnership with Government and key agencies, it provides a focus for craftspeople, groups, societies and guilds, as well as individuals who care about the loss of traditional crafts skills, and works towards a healthy and sustainable framework for the future. Our aims it to support and promote heritage crafts as a fundamental part of our living heritage. In the UK traditional crafts are not recognised as either arts or heritage so fall outside the remit of all current support and promotion bodies. At the HCA we are doing what we can to address that situation and safeguard craft skills and knowledge for the future.

www.heritagecrafts.org.uk


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