Furniture making in Wycombe
Caption: View of men and boys in Glenister's chair factory with overhead belt-drives to machinery. Temple End, High Wycombe, about 1900, copyright Wycombe Museum.
The furniture trade in High Wycombe today has its roots in the activities of the 19th century chairmakers who made High Wycombe the chair making capital of the world. The Windsor chair was the most famous product of the trade, one of several different styles of regional chairs, such as the ladder back, which developed in the 18th century to satisfy the market created by the labouring and artisan classes.
Much has been written about the different styles and designs of Windsor chairs. Less attention is paid to the processes and people who combined in High Wycombe and the surrounding area to produce such a world beating trade. This is a brief introduction to the subject, which is covered in detail by John Mayes' classic, The History of Chair making in High Wycombe.
Furniture manufacturers in High Wycombe
List of furniture factories in the Wycombe district [Excel | 247KB].
The craft of making chairs in the Chilterns dates to before 1700 with reference to a "turner" in the parish register of High Wycombe in the 1680s. Daniel Defoe, author of the classic novel Robinson Crusoe noticed in 1725 that there was: "a vast quantity of Beechwood which grows in the woods of Buckinghamshire more plentifully than in any other part of England". He also added that this timber was used for: "...beech quarters for diverse uses, particularly chairmaking and turnery wares".
The earliest references to Windsor chairs themselves are about this date. In the church records of West Wycombe for the 17 December 1732 is the following mention of the purchase of a chair: "Wins. chair ordered by the Vestry", surely a reference to a Windsor chair. When a list of men was drawn up 60 years later in 1798, for military service purposes, more than 50 chairmakers were recorded as living in the borough and parish of High Wycombe and in the parish of West Wycombe, with many more in the villages around.
Among the early chairmakers were the families of Treacher and Widgington. A billhead of the 1790s bears the printed heading "William Treacher, dyed and fancy chairs" indicating an active business at that time. A furniture label has also survived of another firm, that of James Gomme, which states that the furniture was: "Sold at the original Upholstery Warehouse of James Gomme in High Wycombe, where Cabinet Work is done and orders for Household Furniture of every description executed in the best and most fashionable manner 1798".
In these early days the production focused on chair parts which were sent up to London to be framed-up into chairs. Over the next 50 years local landowners begin to make available premises in High Wycombe to enable the work to be completed in the town itself.
Turners in the woods
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 device, 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 beech logs were firstly split and roughly shaped using a side axe, and then further shaped with a draw shave while the turner sat on a wooden shave horse.
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. Some of the turners were self employed, while others seem to have worked in groups: "William Biggs, Stokenchurch, master turner, employing 12 men and two boys" (1881 census).
Sharing the woods until the introduction of steam powered circular saw were the pit-sawyers, producing the planks for seats and other chair parts. Working in pairs, their job involved digging a deep pit over which they erected a wooden framework. The "under dog" worked in the bottom of the pit while the "top dog" stood on top guiding the saw. The overgrown pits can still be seen today in the woods surrounding the town.
The census returns from 1841 onwards cast light on the distribution of turners in the area. By this date they are recorded living in High Wycombe, Great Kingshill, West Wycombe and Downley, villages evenly spread across the district. More than 20 bodgers lived in Radnage and Stokenchurch, while Great Kingshill, Beacon's Bottom, Bledlow Ridge and High Wycombe had more than a dozen each. In several of the villages north of Wycombe turning was the only chair employment - Holmer Green, Wycombe Heath, Widmer End, Bryants Bottom and Stoney Cross - while the "hills" villages, about four miles out of town to the northwest, all have turning as the most important chair-related employment.
Between 1861 and 1881 the number of turners in the district 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.
A rapidly developing trade
Between the years 1800 and1860 the number of workshops in High Wycombe grew from a handful to 150 and by 1875 their total output had risen to an estimated number of 4700 chairs per day - a remarkable figure. The area in and around High Wycombe became the biggest producer of chairs in the country, and between 1851 and 1871 the population of High Wycombe borough and parish grew by 46 per cent.
An important factor in the growth of the trade was the massive growth in population nationally, particularly in London, which meant that the market for Wycombe-made chairs was constantly growing. The growth of the town as a production centre was sufficient to suppress the development of others in the same area. Demand from London and the South East was soon satisfied by exports from the Chiltern region and production responded to demand so quickly that no other town could compete. The trade continued to grow, its market spreading into the Midlands and the North. By 1850 the other regional centres such as the North West and the Cotswolds were in decline, as a direct result of this competition.
Some larger firms were occasionally commissioned to design and produce presentation furniture for important events, including chairs for the weddings of the Prince and Princess of Wales (later Edward VII and Queen Alexandra) and the Duke of York and Princess Mary (later George V and Queen Mary). Very large commissions were regularly taken. In 1873 an order for 19,200 chairs for a meeting held by the evangelists Moody and Sankey was completed in a few weeks and despatched to London. On another occasion 8000 chairs were required for Crystal Palace, while in 1874 the firm of Walter Skull made 2500 rush-seated chairs for St Paul's Cathedral.
Visits to the town by important people were sometimes celebrated by arches of chairs which were erected across the High Street between the Guildhall and the houses opposite. The most famous of these arches which celebrated the arrival of Prince Edward in 1880 shows the sheer range of chairs that were made in the area by this time. The base of the arch consisted of Windsors but the rest was made up of a great variety of different styles.
Transport and selling
Up to the First World War the majority of chairs still went to market piled high on horse-drawn carts, wrapped in straw for protection. The Great Western Railway branch line had passed through Wycombe from the 1850s but it was not until two decades later that the railways were linked with the trade, and used to distribute chairs.
It seems however that the chairmakers were not very satisfied with the service: late arrivals, insufficient covered storage space, damaged chairs, and thefts during journeys were all cause for complaint (as reported in the Bucks Free Press on 23 July 1859, 16 January 1874 or 27 February 1874, to mention only a few occasions). The chairmaker William Keen invested in a steam wagon in 1904, and made the round trip to London and back with a double trailer in 14 hours.
At the end of the 19th century chairmaker James Cox employed several travelling sales representatives, but smaller manufacturers sold their own wares or employed a carrier: "When I began the trade I loaded my cart and travelled to Luton. All there was prosperous. There was a scramble for my chairs ... this manufacturer now sends his chairs to London, Liverpool and Manchester, to Australia, New Zealand and Constantinople" (Knight's British Almanac 1862, quoting Walter Skull).
By this time also many of the bigger chairmaking firms were exhibiting in showrooms in London and sending furniture to the great international exhibitions and trade fairs all over the world.
From chairs to furniture
The transition from being a chair town to becoming the second largest furniture making town in the country took place between 1880 and 1920. During this period the census records a surge in the number of cabinet makers, upholsterer's carvers and marquetry cutters in the town, in addition to the chair makers.
Stung by Randolph Churchill's statement in Parliament that Wycombe chairs were "cheap and nasty", a number of manufacturers began in the 1880s to diversify into making higher-class and more general furniture. By the end of the 1890s, Birch's in particular was supplying furniture for Liberty's and other prestigious London stores, and employing well-known designers such as EG Punnett and George Whitehead to produce furniture that was influenced by Art Nouveau and the Arts and Crafts movement. Some of the larger East London furniture makers, such as Frederick Parker (later Parker Knoll), moved to High Wycombe and contributed to the change to a more broad-based furniture trade.
The trade still demonstrated a mix of handcraft and more machine-orientated systems, with a quantity of turners still working in the woods after the First World War, and women working on the caning and rushing of chair seats in their homes. Small workshops remained important, including those in the yards behind public houses. The tenants of the Spread Eagle in 1875 included a sawyer, a benchman, a back-maker and a Windsor framer.
But both factory and workforce sizes were increasing towards the end of the century. James Cox and Sons employed 150, while North and Sons of West Wycombe employed most of the village population which stood at around 600 by the end of the century. New premises were built, including Birch's "state of the art" new three storey brick factory in Denmark Street.
With the introduction of machinery, particularly after the First World War, production soared and the local trade extended the range of its products. The Second World War saw innovations that would later have a major effect on the furniture trade: box springs in upholstery were replaced by foam, staples supplemented woodworking joints, painted foils and papers were used in place of wood in the cheapest models, nitrocellulose could replace French polish, but probably the most important event was the development of plywood which was soon widely used.
The post war period
Designs towards the end of the War, and immediately after, were strongly influenced by the Government imposed utility scheme lasting ten years from 1941. Demand for domestic furniture was high, but the trade was frustrated by shortages of fuel and materials. Most companies produced furniture within the Utility range, while a small number of luxury orders kept higher class factories going. Shortages eased and controls were lifted over time.
The advent of hire purchase opened the floodgates of consumer demand and the 1950s were prosperous years. National advertising became an option in 1951, and Ercol and Gomme's joined Parker Knoll in this new venture. New designs, products and systems were introduced: Ercol took up the Windsor theme, a bold step after the nastiness of the late machined models, looking for new ideas of quality; Gomme brought out the G-Plan range, a series of coordinating furniture units that could be bought individually.
The number of furniture workers had fallen from 10,000 in 1939 to 8,000 by 1960. The relocation of many London companies to High Wycombe during the War had caused property prices in the area to soar, making it more and more expensive to maintain factories locally and forcing some of the biggest to move elsewhere. There were still more than a hundred firms in the area in 1960, many within the old borough, but much of the simple mass-produced contract work was based in surrounding villages: Stokenchurch produced thousands, while Dancer and Hearne of Penn Street produced 10,000 chairs a week.
Tremendous advances in wood treatment and mechanisation raised output per man so that production figures continued to rise, although employment continued to fall to approximately 4000 in 1990. For the workers who remain, the introduction of machinery such as spray booths, which extract harmful vapours given off by sprays and polishes, and other improvements, have made the furniture factory a much more healthy environment than it once was.
Buckinghamshire New University, based in High Wycombe and founded in the early part of this century, gained a national reputation for training in woodwork, timber technology and furniture design, and provided a sound training framework from which the trade could develop further.
The trade in the 1990s
In 1992 there were 36 wholesale members of the British Furniture Manufacturers Association in the Wycombe district. These ranged from large firms such as Ercol in High Wycombe and Hypnos in Princes Risborough to much smaller operations. In addition there is a quantity of individual craftsmen working out of small workshops.
The decade saw much change with the recession claiming the huge G-Plan factory in 1992 with the loss of 700 jobs; the closure and subsequent demolition of Glenisters, the oldest surviving furniture making company; and the decision by Parker Knoll to stop making furniture in High Wycombe. In 1999 High Wycombe's largest furniture maker, Ercol, announced that it was moving to Princes Risborough. High property prices continued to encourage firms to relocate in cheaper areas. However, the roots of the furniture industry run deep in the town, enough to ensure that furniture will continue to be made in High Wycombe for many years to come.
Only items in print or available from a library service are included.
- Abbott M, Green Woodwork, Guild of Master Craftsmen 1989
- Cotton B, The English Regional Chair, Antique Collectors Club, 1991
- Dover H, Home Front Furniture, British Utility Design 1941-1951, Scholar Press, 1991
- Edwards C, Victorian Furniture, MUP, 1993
- Edwards C, Twentieth Century Furniture, MUP, 1994
- Edwards C, "Stimulus and Response. An investigation into changes in the furniture industry between 1880 and 1920", Unpublished MA thesis, RCA, 1988. (Available in the Museum library)
- Gilbert C, English Vernacular Furniture, Yale, 1992
- Kinmonth C, Irish Country Furniture 1700 - 1950, Yale, 1993
- Kirkham P, Mace R, Porter P, Furnishing the World. The East London Furniture Trade 1830-1980, Journeyman, 1987
- Knell D, English Country Furniture, Shire, 1993
- Mayes J, History of Chair Making in High Wycombe, Routledge & Kegan Paul 1960
- Sparkes I, The English Country Chair, Spur, 1973
- Sparkes I, English Windsor Chairs, Shire 1994
- Reid H, The Furniture Makers - A History of Trade Unionism in the Furniture Trade 1868-1972, 1986
- Walker P, Woodworking Tools, Shire