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Summer 2022 at COAM

We’ve got lots of activities planned to help keep everyone entertained this summer holidays. We will be open daily 10am until 5pm from Thursday 21st July until Friday 2nd September. Every day you can explore the historic buildings, say ‘hello’ to the farm animals, take part in the trail, have a go at historic games and try on costumes.

Costumed re-enactor spinning in historic building

July

21st until 29th July – Come and meet the inhabitant of our Leagrave cottage and find out what life would have been like. What did she eat and what work did she do?
23rd & 24th July – Come and admire a collection of classic vehicles at our Classic Vehicle Show.
26th July – Have a go at creating items out of clay with the Dacorum and Chilterns Potters Guild.
28th & 29th July – We’re taking part in Bucks Open Weekend. Come and design leaves out of clay that will be fired in the kiln and at a later date hung from a tree on our site.
30th & 31st July – It’s our Wellington’ Army event come and watch re-enactments and find out about the Napoleonic era.

Children doing crafts

August

Every Tuesday in August  is a Terrific Tuesday! Join us for nature themed crafts, pottery and activities all included within the standard admission price.
2nd August – We’re taking part in the Colne Valley Festival. On this extra special Terrific Tuesday come and enjoy a nature themed interactive performance as Beatrix Potter and Sarah the Maid inhabit the gardens. This will be a rolling 10 – 15 minute interactive, promenade performance.
6th August – Come and watch and join in with some Morris dancing between 12pm and 4pm.
13th & 14th August – Join us for WW1 The Great War event and find out about soldier and the home front.
20th & 21st August – Come and watch some Medieval Jousting


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1950s Doll House Restoration Project

1950s doll house

 

I’m a self-employed handyman and, like many in my line of business, Christmas/New Year is a quieter time. So when my wife Nicky (a COAM gardening volunteer) spotted an appeal in the volunteer newsletter for someone to repair a recently donated 1950s doll’s house, she suggested it would be a good project to keep me occupied until paid work built up again. The doll’s house was duly collected from the Museum and set up on the dining room table for what I was sure would only be a few days. Two things then conspired to turn this simple time filler into a five month project: firstly, four tropical storms in as many weeks led to a flood of requests for repairs to fences and shed roofs and suddenly my empty diary was full again; secondly, an initial inspection revealed that the work required to the doll’s house was more extensive than I had anticipated.  This ‘blog’ is therefore to explain what’s been happening, for the benefit of those at the Museum who may have been wondering where their new exhibit had got to.

The first job was to test and repair the electrical circuits so the lights could be made to work again. After much investigation and tracing of the delicate wires, the fault was traced to the little switches installed by the original craftsman. Sadly, these therefore had to be changed. Whilst sourcing period correct replacements it seemed sensible to switch to LED bulbs. However, these are polarity sensitive and not all the bulb holders were wired the same way, so I had to switch back to ordinary bulbs rather than disturbing the old wires and risking damage to them.

Originally, the lights were powered by batteries concealed in the roof void. However, opening up the roof revealed that the original battery set-up was no longer there, so the next idea was to convert the system to mains supply. This would make display easier and cheaper for the Museum. A suitable transformer was installed in the roof-space and behold the lights worked! or at least the upstairs ones did. More fiddling, advice from a BBC engineer and a bigger transformer and, at last, the downstairs lights worked too!

Doll house with window illuminated

With the lights working it was on to the windows. Three of the panes of ‘glass’ (Perspex) were missing, so a supplier was sourced that could replicate the originals in a very similar period material. Some of the wooden trim was also missing, so new sections were carved to the same dimensions and glued into place. A de-laminated plywood interior door was glued and clamped and the whole house was given a careful clean ‘Repair Shop style’ with cotton buds, water and mild detergent.

Cleaning doll house with cotton bud

Then came the problem of matching the original paint colours. Much experimentation with RAL charts and a lot of help from the local decorating centre finally arrived at near perfect matches for the three main colours, enabling the new trim to be blended in and flaking interior paint to be touched up.

doll house interior of window

The next job was to stabilise the crumbling external paint. At the time that the doll’s house was built, materials were still in short supply in post-war Britain, so the structure was made from whatever was available. The walls were made from previously varnished recycled plywood. Ingeniously, this was coated in a sawdust and glue mix and painted white to replicate a lime washed pebble-dash render. Unfortunately, over time, the bond between the varnish and the sawdust glue had broken down in places.

Dolls house with damaged render

Large patches of ‘render’ were therefore loose or missing. A coat of diluted PVA glue was applied to the remainder to prevent further deterioration and the guinea pig’s bedding supplies were raided to provide replacement pebbledash to cover the bald patches (Don’t tell Nicky but this needed a quick spin in the food blender to make it a bit finer before it was stuck on).

Repairing rendor on doll's house

Doll house with repaired render

The final task was to recreate the curtains. It was clear that there had been curtains at some stage, because curtain rails had been cleverly created by stretching springs between nails above each window, but some springs were missing and there were no curtains. At last a chance for Nicky to get involved. Some 1950s style fabric was pulled out of her extensive fabric store in our spare bedroom and the sewing machine was set up. At this point the task obviously became too daunting, so Nicky decided to break her shoulder to get out of it. This left me in charge of the sewing machine, attempting to deliver 10 pairs of something vaguely resembling curtains. Machine sewing is not one of the services I offer my customers, for reasons which would be obvious if you were to take a close look at my handiwork. However, new springs were sourced and the new ‘curtains’ were hung.

Doll house with restored interiorDolls house with new curtains and carpets

Finally, attempts were made to clean the original green velvet carpets, but these had been attacked by moths in the past and were in a poor state. They have been kept, but alternative carpets were fashioned from a new piece of velvet, in a colour matching as close as possible to the original.

Outside of restored doll's house

And there you have it. A five day time filler that became a five month project, involving several people to provide advice and assistance, but well worth it to preserve the fine handiwork of the original creator and enable it to be shared with new generations.

Written by Jonathan, Museum Volunteer


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A Buckinghamshire Lace Maker

We were sent this poem about lace making by a visitor whose visit to COAM had inspired her to write it.

A Buckinghamshire Lace Maker

A statue except for her waltzing hands,

Flickering back and forth over the cushion,

Bone bobbins and delicate fingers draw the eye,

White and slender, like the threads they move,

Up and down, twist by twist, pin by pin,

Her face is a mask, still as a mountain,

As she forms the milk white net.

Centuries run through her clever hands,

Mother to daughter, mother to daughter,

Woman to woman, woman to girl,

Wind and unwind, length by length,

Flows from those hands the sea foam mesh

That will adorn the ball gown of a lawyer’s wife.

Farthing to halfpenny, penny to shilling, shilling to pound,

Bread and milk and rent and tea,

Coal on the fire, a hat for church,

Little by little, year by year.

The filmy thread loops and curves, forming flowers in its wake.

Amersham to Ayelsbury, Beaconsfield to Buckingham,

Hand after hand, freedom after freedom,

The days are numbered, the machines draw near,

Front room to factory, fingers to cogs, handiwork to history.


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Lacemaking

‘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’, www.greathorwoodhistory.org.

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 http://amershammuseum.org/history/trades-industries/cottage-industries-of-bucks/

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 revive 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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Costume Making

We’re running an Arts Council funded project called Houses Inhabited. The project will develop a team of volunteer costumed stewards with the aim of bringing the museum’s buildings to life with a variety of costumed inhabitants. As part of the project we have funding for materials to create a range of costumes for our stewards to wear and we have a team of volunteer costume makers who meet twice a month to make them. They met on Saturday 26th March and here’s a little video of what they got up to.

If you’re interesting in joining our team of volunteer costume makers or as a costumed steward then please drop our Volunteer Coordinator, Laura, an email on volunteering@coam.org.uk


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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: www.namm.org/library/oral-history/ned-phoenix

Written by Roger Coode, Museum Volunteer


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