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A tale of two furniture factories, Part 1 - West Wycombe, By Simon Cains

Tuesday 16 February 2021

Piddington is a village with several hundred people and several small businesses, in the countryside beyond West Wycombe. But in 1902 there was nothing but fields and farms. The village was started as the vision of one man, Benjamin North, furniture manufacturer and devout Wesleyan Methodist. His father, also Benjamin North, started a furniture factory in West Wycombe which ran until 1903, when his son moved it to Piddington.

The youngest of eight children, Benjamin North senior was born in Thame in 1811. His mother died when he was only four, so he had a very hard childhood doing much of the domestic work and only receiving a very basic education. His first work was agricultural jobs such as minding sheep, "bird-keeping" (ie scaring the birds away from crops) and as a ploughboy, when he had to get up at 4 a.m. in the summer. He would then spend all day behind the plough, walking up and down through the muddy field until his feet were carrying three or four pounds of clay! His father then found him an apprenticeship at a paper mill, and Benjamin was kept on at the mill after he had completed it. Unfortunately, only three months later the paper mill failed, due to mechanisation of the industry. 

Thrown out of work, he and a friend walked around the country for five months trying to find work in the paper trade. They were not successful, so Benjamin returned home to Thame, where he managed to find jobs as a labourer.

Then came the event which was eventually to change his life. Benjamin met a Mr Randel, a chair turner of Thame, who offered him an apprenticeship. He could not pay the normal premium for this, so agreed to work for just 1s. a day. Recognising how well Benjamin knew the geography of the country from his months spent tramping around looking for work, Mr Randel offered him a job as a travelling salesman.

On one of his trips, to Gloucester, Benjamin shared a hotel room with "the great chairmaker" (Benjamin's own words) Thomas Harris and his son. Mr Harris was from West Wycombe and was also a Wesleyan preacher. He appreciated Benjamin reading the Bible to them last thing at night and first thing in the morning.

In March 1837 Benjamin received a letter from Mr Harris offering him a job as a commercial traveller. The normal rate of pay was 18s. a week, plus expenses while travelling. Harris’s offered £1 a week, but Benjamin would only accept 18s. until he had proved himself!

Now settled in his life and career Benjamin decided he needed a wife and in April 1837 he met Dinah Grey at a prayer meeting in West Wycombe. She was a chair-caner and the daughter of the landlord of The Plough inn in the village. They married on 2 April 1838.

The couple were able to save £32 in their first year of marriage. Benjamin's initiative and entrepreneurial spirit now came to the fore – he recognised that he could make even more money by selling lace from his horse and cart when he was returning home after selling all his load of furniture. In this way he earned enough money to start his own chair factory in West Wycombe in 1853, with two investors who he eventually bought out.

benjamin north and wife Dinah Gray

Benjamin North and wife Dinah in later life.  By kind permission of the North family.

The factory was a huge building, occupying the site of the present-day West Wycombe village hall and the car parking either side. It completely dominated the view of West Wycombe High Street. In 1871 the total workforce was 123: 72 men, 14 boys and 37 women. By 1881 this had increased to 200 people.

BFP picture of WW North factory v 2

View of workers standing outside the front of Benjamin North’s chair factory, High St. West Wycombe, about 1900.  Photo by kind permission of Wycombe Museum/SWOP

Among the employees was Elizabeth Hutchison, aged 27, who was deaf and dumb (mute), and taken on at the factory in 1865 as a chair-caner. She had been living at the poorhouse until getting the job. Her wage was 4s. (20p) per week, but she asked for a little more money for lodgings. The local Guardians of the Poor thought it funny to suggest that being deaf could actually be an advantage in a noisy factory.

Benjamin continued travelling the country organising orders and sales. On 1 February 1871 he was staying near Peterborough when he got a telegram to say “Shop’s all on fire, come home as soon as possible”. When he got back the next morning he found that all the equipment and property had been destroyed. Luckily there were no deaths or injuries. The cost of the damage was estimated at £4,000, but he was only insured for £1,500. Four weeks later, on 28 February he consecrated the rebuilt building, hoping God would bless it.

Benjamin North died on 19 September 1881 and was succeeded in the business by his son Benjamin, who had been born in 1842.

In 1889 Sir Edwin Dashwood arrived from New Zealand to take up his ancestral seat at West Wycombe. In a scene straight from Downton Abbey, the villagers and businesses erected three huge arches along the High Street. The first was made up of evergreens and the second displayed vegetables. The third arch was hung with furniture made at North’s factory, about a hundred different types. There were chairs in the Chippendale, Moorish and Renaissance style, and “luxurious suites suitable for the drawing rooms of the wealthy”. The arch was decorated with carved wooden recesses in Moorish style to display the best pieces, and elegant wooden cabinets displayed along the top. It was lit with Chinese lanterns and decorated with bunting.

Benjamin North was a devout Wesleyan Methodist, giving sermons in all his free time. In 1890 the factory workers attended a Wesleyan meeting at the factory (voluntarily?) and “listened attentively to a stirring address on The Blessedness of Obedience”. In 1891 the factory made a font of richly carved brown oak for a Wesleyan chapel.

In 1897 the Sanitary Committee was told there were no proper "arrangements" at North’s factory. The “Inspector of Nuisances” confirmed this, but said that “other arrangements” were being made.

Mr North gave his staff celebration dinners and even works outings. The very first company outing was in 1892, the woodcarvers were taken to Henley in open horse-drawn wagons, then had a boat trip upriver. In 1894 the upholsterers had a Saturday afternoon trip to Maidenhead and Marlow, coming back at midnight. In 1896 the upholsterers had a trip to Kew, starting at 6 a.m. They stopped in Uxbridge at 8 a.m., reached Kew at 11 p.m., and then parted company to go all over London to see the sights. Mr North’s employees also formed a cricket team and played many matches against other companies over the years.

In the second part of this article, we tell the story of how the factory was moved and started the new village of Piddington, including dramatic events during the 1913 Furniture Manufacturers lock-out.

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This article was first published in Mike Dewey’s ‘Nostalgia’ column in the Bucks Free Press on 7th February 2021

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