Investigating the lives of people who worked in the rural and domestic industries of the Central Chilterns
About the Woodlanders' Lives and Landscapes project
The Chilterns, generally regarded as a sweeping, sleepy landscape of beechwoods, chalk escarpments and picturesque villages, was actually a unique industrial landscape for more than two centuries. The woods and villages were alive with furniture-making, wood-ware, straw-plaiting, lace-making and tambour-beading (the technique of applying beading and sequins for the fashion industry).
We already know quite a lot about work in these rural trades and the artefacts that were produced but we know much less about what life was like for those involved. As part of our Woodlanders’ Lives and Landscapes project, our volunteer researchers have been investigating how the people – especially the women and children – who made their living in these woodland and home-based industries went about their daily lives. This research has been showcased through events, exhibitions, stories and videos.
Who were the Woodlanders of the Chilterns?
In the mid-19th century, the woods and valleys echoed with the strikes of axes, the rasps of saws, the hum of lathes, and the shouts of men as they laboured to supply wood for fuel and timber for woodware and furniture workshops, or worked at the craft of ‘bodging’.
Bodgers were men who worked in the woods using a foot-powered pole lathe to supply turned chair parts for the furniture workshops and factories in and around High Wycombe; as such, furniture-making was an industry that came to define the region. By the middle of the 19th century, the Chilterns and the town of High Wycombe were rapidly becoming the leading centre for chair-making in Britain. The local woodware industry expanded at the same time, and nearby Chesham became an important centre for the manufacture of wooden domestic and dairy utensils.
While the men worked in the woods, or in workshops and factories, women and children laboured at lace-making for clothing, or straw-plaiting for hats, both crafts for which the Chilterns gained a reputation for quantity and quality. Increasing demands for fashionable dress in the 18th and 19th centuries saw a rapid growth of these traditional crafts and, by the 1850s, thousands were employed in cottages and workshops.
Find out more about the woods and industries of the Chilterns by following the links below – journey back through time around Winchmore Hill, discover the chair bodgers and their favourite haunts, or read about the history of Speen village.
Some of the stories of the woodlanders have been captured in our collection: In Their Own Words. Part of the Chilterns Stories collection, it is a series of oral histories presented in videos and a book, describing work in the traditional Chilterns industries of the 19th and 20th centuries. The nine stories are extracted from Wycombe Museum’s social history archive and based on original research by the volunteers and staff of Woodlanders’ Lives and Landscapes.
Watch the videos and find out more by following the link to our dedicated page.
The craft industries could be casual and insecure so in the summer, men, women and children turned to harvesting the fruits which became central to the local economy, for pies, jams, dyes, and medicines. The cherry harvest was often celebrated in the chapels with cherry pie suppers; watch this video by Stuart King to find out more.
Lacemaking in the Chilterns with Rosemary Mortham
In the Chilterns, lace was made by predominantly female workers in the local villages and sold to lace dealers. These dealers then sold it on to wholesalers and distributors, often in London, or in their own shops. The lace dealers supplied the lacemakers with the materials and patterns to make the lace and bought their products. They either dealt with the lacemakers directly, travelling around to visit them, or sometimes through the local grocers or drapers in the villages. Explore the world of lacemaking with this video by Rosemary Mortham, our lace research consultant.