Tag Archives: history

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Help Restore the Victorian Toll House at Chiltern Open Air Museum

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Donate towards the restoration of our Victorian Toll House

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

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

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

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

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

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

Every penny counts so do please consider donating.

Giving Tuesday Nov 28, 2023

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Suffragists or Suffragettes

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Statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square, London.
Statue of suffragette Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square, London.

Women’s suffrage societies which campaigned for the right to vote began to appear in Britain in the middle of 19th century and their members called Suffragists believed in peaceful, constitutional ways to promote votes for women. In 1866, a group of women organised a petition that demanded that women should have the same voting rights as men and gathered over 1500 signatures in support of the cause. They took their petition to Henry Fawcett and John Stuart Mill, two MPs who supported universal suffrage. Mill drafted an amendment to the Second Reform Bill that would give women the same voting rights as men and presented it to Parliament in 1867. The amendment was defeated, however, by 196 votes to 73.

In the wake of this defeat, the London Society for Women’s Suffrage was formed and similar women’s suffrage groups were founded all over Britain. In 1897, 17 of these individual groups joined together to form the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), led by Millicent Fawcett.

The NUWSS adopted a peaceful and non-confrontational approach. Members believed that success could be gained by argument and education. The organisation tried to raise its profile peacefully – and legally – with petitions, posters, etc. and public meetings. By 1914 the NUWSS had grown to approximately 54,000 members. Almost all of its leaders and most of its members were middle or upper class, and largely they campaigned for the vote for middle-class, property-owning women. However, working-class women did join the NUWSS and some members recognised that they needed the support of all women.

In Manchester in 1903 Emmeline Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) with her daughters Christabel and Sylvia. Christabel Pankhurst said, “the vote question must be settled. Mine was the third generation of women to claim the vote and the vote must now be obtained. To go on helplessly pleading was undignified. Strong and urgent demand was needed. Success must be hastened.” The organisation grew to include branches all over Britain and involved more working-class women.

Today “marketing” to encourage support for a political or social view is normal, but it was first used politically by the W.S.P.U, who created their campaign as a brand. There were well-designed logos, stylish exhibitions, spectacular processions and meetings in London and the major cities. Special colours represented the movement, purple, white and green for freedom, purity, and hope respectively. Supporters wore the colours and they were used on badges, bicycles, chocolate bars, cakes, jewellery and even a motor-car. The label of suffragette was actually first used in an article by Daily Mail journalist Charles E Hands. The intention of the “ette” suffix was “to belittle and to show that they were less than the proper kind of suffrage worker”, says Elizabeth Crawford, a researcher and author on the women’s suffrage movement. “But they took up the name and were very proud of it.”

The WSPU adopted militant, direct action tactics. They chained themselves to railings, disrupted public meetings and damaged public property. In 1913, Emily Davison stepped out in front of the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby. Her purpose remains unclear, but she was hit and later died from her injuries.

Suffragettes were arrested and imprisoned, but continued their protest in prison by hunger strikes. Although initially they were fed by force, in 1913 the Prisoners Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health Act was passed in parliament. Commonly known as the Cat and Mouse Act it allowed prison authorities to release hunger-striking women prisoners when they became too weak, and re-arrest them when they had recovered. Emmeline Pankhurst was jailed and released on 11 occasions. Newland Park, the large house next to COAM, was used as a refuge for Suffragettes.

The gardens at Newland Park - image copyright Simon Dawson with thanks to Amersham Museum
The gardens at Newland Park – image copyright Simon Dawson with thanks to Amersham Museum

You can read more about this connection with Newland Park on the Amersham Museum website or come to their presentation at COAM on Friday 13th October at 12.30pm.

When the First World War broke out in 1914, the suffragettes and suffragists stopped their campaign and after the war in 1918 some women were given voting rights.






Rise Up Women! by Dr Diane Atkinson 

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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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40 Artefacts for 40 Years: Artefact 5 – Paraffin Stove

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This July the Museum will be celebrating 40 years since it was founded in 1976.

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40 Artefacts for 40 Years: Artefact 1 – RAF Cap

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This July the Museum will be celebrating 40 years since it was founded in 1976.

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Chiltern Open Air Museum Celebrates 40 years

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Chiltern Open Air Museum celebrates 40 years


Building the Iron Age HouseThe Iron Age roundhouse being built at the Museum.

The Chiltern Society and Chiltern Open Air Museum have a shared history. The idea for the Museum was born on 11th June 1973 when at a meeting of the Executive Committee of the Chiltern Society one member, John Willson, reported enthusiastically on a visit he had made to the Weald & Downland Museum at Singleton.

It was suggested that the Society should consider starting an open air museum, similar to the one in Sussex, of old vernacular buildings: the past houses and workplaces of ordinary people – which would otherwise be demolished and disappear from the landscape entirely. The aims of the Museum would be educational as well as recreational: it would, the Society hoped, foster public interest in the architectural heritage of the Chiltern Hills so that they would come to recognise the importance of the buildings and become aware of the need to protect others like them in the future. Buildings selected for inclusion in the Museum would be typical of the domestic, agricultural and industrial ones found in the area, dating back to the earliest ones known, and would be used to demonstrate methods and materials through the ages as well as housing exhibits of agricultural implements, domestic equipment, furniture and local crafts to give a total picture of life in the past.

It was agreed that this scheme, although worthwhile, could only be contemplated if the right conditions prevailed; in particular, donation of suitable land where the buildings could be re-erected, and a person willing to donate a great deal of time and energy to establishing and operating the scheme. The idea was passed to the Historic Works and Buildings Group (HW&BG) for further consideration.

Members of the Society began to search for a suitable site and buildings whilst the Executive Committee visited and researched other open air museums (including Weald and Downland Museum, Avoncroft Museum of Buildings, Museum of East Anglian Life, Museum at St Fagans and various other smaller projects). Staff at the Museum at St Fagans told them in no uncertain terms that they would be mad to go ahead!

After much searching the team heard that Chiltern District Council had proposed the creation of a Country Park at Newland Park and that there might be a role there for a museum which would be managed by the Chiltern Society, through a charitable trust, with day-to-day management provided by a small committee of permanent staff employed by the trust.  Any profit made would be ploughed back into the Museum.

The Council soon abandoned the idea of a Country Park but the Society opted to continue the proposed Museum on its own. Work went ahead on every front, and it is quite amazing how much was done on a volunteer basis by people then who were also holding down jobs and looking after families (this dedicated volunteer support would continue long into the future).

The first rescued buildings were two barns at Hill Farm, Chalfont St Peter. The complex was surrounded by a housing estate but the buildings were listed (which had been overlooked by the developers and Planning Authority). Listed Building Consent was given in March 1976 for demolition of the farmhouse and two barns, on condition that they were moved to the Museum. Two medieval merchant’s houses on Watford High Street, threatened by an inner ring road, were also donated and were quickly followed by a granary at Rossway Home Farm, Berkhamsted (dismantling started with a little help from boys at Berkhamstead School). St Julian’s Tithe Barn from St. Albans, dismantled many years before and stored in the gaol there, was also donated to the Museum (which had to load and transport it). Permission was given to store all of these buildings at Newland Park, until the Museum had a lease and was listed as an entity on the understanding that if the project disintegrated everything would be discreetly cleared away!

By June 1976 the County Planning sub-committee, Chiltern District Council and the College had all approved the plans and fundraising began and on 20th November 1976, after 3 ½ years of labour, the first meeting was held of Chiltern Open Air Museum Ltd. On 21st October 1978, the Museum was officially ‘launched’ at a party to the press at the Mermaid Theatre.

1978 and 1979 were busy years and building work was intense, despite the fact that the Museum still had no lease: by October official permission to erect buildings, although again at the Museum’s own risk, had been received! Elliotts Furniture Factory was dismantled and moved; Wing Granary was moved in August 1978; the Watford Buildings were coming down; Rossway Granary was dismantled and re-erection commenced; Didcot Cartshed was being re-erected as the Museum’s workshop; a contract was awarded for the re-erection of Arborfield Barn and Manshead Archaeological Society started work on the first Iron Age House. Trees were planted; plans drawn up for the car-park and footpath diversion and plans were afoot for massive fundraising activity to supplement the small-scale operations carried out by volunteers and supporters. Most notably, the Museum’s first major grant was received: £15,000 from the Meaker Trust, which funded the re-erection of medieval Arborfield Barn.


Transporting Wing GranaryWing Granary being transported to Chiltern Open Air Museum.

During 1979, the Museum opened exclusively to members of the Chiltern Society on several days, which were well attended and boosted everyone’s confidence for the future. On the 3rd May 1981, with a field for a car park and a footpath running right through the site, with a small shop in the ticket office caravan and teas served from another caravan, with Wing Granary, Didcot Workshop and the Iron Age House completed and work well advanced on Rossway Granary and Arborfield Barn, the Museum opened on a pouring-wet Sunday afternoon and 95 people braved the elements to support it. We were in business!

Since then a number of other buildings have been acquired, rescued from the threat of demolition and saved for future generations.  The Museum now incorporates 33 buildings, with 15 more still in store awaiting the funding to re-erect them (each will cost at least half a million pounds) and the 45-acre site has been further developed with the creation of a working Victorian farm and the addition of rare-breed livestock; hedges laid in the traditional local style; apple and cherry orchards and heritage crops.  A newly-refurbished Tea Room and adventure playground inspired by the historic buildings provide refreshment and entertainment for visitors, and activities to enthuse visiting families include opportunities to dress up, play with historic toys and games and even recreate the Museum’s buildings through lovingly-created scale models. On 2nd – 3rd July the Museum will be holding a small event to proudly celebrate the fortieth anniversary since its incorporation in 1976, and visitors are welcome to attend and help us celebrate.

Today the Museum, now employing 10 full-time and 6 part-time staff, is going from strength to strength.  Around 50,000 visitors are welcomed annually, with one third of these being schoolchildren enjoying an award-winning, immersive education programme. The Museum won ‘Gold’ in the Best Small Visitor attraction in the South East and ‘Bronze’ for the Best Small Visitor Attraction in England in 2013 and 2014.  A community hub, it is also supported by over 200 volunteers who in 2015 contributed 27,000 hours to the Museum. Museum staff and volunteers remain immensely grateful to the members of the Chiltern Society, who have continued to assist with its conservation work throughout the last 40 years through project funding, advice and support and, in thanks, are delighted to welcome Society members to visit the Museum with a two-for-one discount.



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Library Image of Garston Forge Family

Vernacular architecture, rural life and building histories

  • Chiltern Open Air Museum has a small library and archive, looked after by a dedicated team of volunteers.
  • The collection includes books on vernacular architecture, farming and rural life; archived documents for each of the historic buildings; and photographs and slides showing buildings in their original locations.
  • Access to the library for research is currently by appointment.  Please contact the Museum Office on 01494 871117 or enquiries@coam.org.uk  The library may occasionally be open to the public during some events so that visitors can enjoy browsing the collections of books, journals and articles. Volunteers, Friends of the Museum and Chiltern Society members are welcome to borrow books for a deposit.

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