A tale of two furniture factories, Part 2 – West Wycombe
by Simon Cains
In part 1 of this story we told how in 1853 Benjamin North built a furniture factory in West Wycombe. He died in 1881 and his son, also Benjamin, took over the running of the business…
Part 2: Piddington
The factory move
In 1902, Benjamin was told that the plot of land in West Wycombe being used by his factory to store timber was wanted by the Great Western Railway company. Sir Robert Dashwood, who owned most of the village, would not allow any of his estate to be used as a timber store. It is not certain why, but the factory certainly spoiled the appearance of West Wycombe, and was very noisy. Benjamin was therefore effectively forced to move the factory from the village. He managed to find a new area of suitable greenfield land at Piddington, only a just over a mile away. It was large enough for the factory (including the timber store) and also for some housing. Some say that this land at Piddington was sold by the Dashwoods to Lord Carrington to pay off a gambling debt and that Carrington then sold it on to Benjamin North.
Construction of the factory began in late 1902. The work involved the installation of a “monster boiler” which weighed over 18 tonnes and had to be transported along the main street through West Wycombe to the factory.
When the work was completed in August 1903 all the construction workers, totalling about 75, were treated to a dinner in the factory.
The factory was formally opened on 26 September 1903 with a dinner for 250 people held in the “large and spacious upholsterers’ shop”. The people attending included “those who had worked at the West Wycombe factory for a number of years and a large number of the firm’s travelling representatives, with their wives”.
Mr North gave a speech, in which he said he was sorry that the factory workers, some of them nearly 70 years old, would have further to travel to work. He also expressed his regret that the widows and poor people in West Wycombe, who had free woodchips and firewood from the old factory, would not be able to carry it home from the new site in Piddington!
After the dinner the main entertainment was gentlemen singing their party pieces, interspersed with short speeches by workers at the firm, such as Mr W T Turner, the works’ foreman.
When the new factory opened, hardly any of the new houses destined for the workers had been built, so workers had to either walk or take the horse-drawn bus if they could afford it. The workers asked the bus company to run an extra service at 7 p.m. to High Wycombe, otherwise some people had to walk several extra miles home.
The title deeds of the Piddington houses included rules set by Mr North:
· All house plans to be approved by Mr North.
· No “intoxicating liquors” to be sold – because Mr North was a supporter of Wesleyan Methodists. A visiting minister even thought he should shut down the village pub.
· None of the buildings to be used for a chair factory or sawmill “or for any offensive noisy or dangerous trade”. So he did not want competition, but this almost admits a chair-making factory can be offensive, noisy and dangerous!
An eventful year
The year 1904 was an eventful one for the factory. Early one morning in January, PC Ives found Alfred Hickman, one of North’s employees, “riding asleep” at the bottom of his wagon, letting the horses find the way home. He had had no sleep since the previous night when he left Southall for London delivering furniture for North’s. He was fined 8s. 6d. (42p in today’s money, but equivalent to about £50) or 7 days’ imprisonment.
On 5 October 1904 there was an “explosion” in a pipe between the boiler and a tank for heating the glue-pots: “12 yards away, Mr J Britnell, a veteran one-arm wood-turner was engaged at his ancient lathe” (this was of the type of foot-powered lathe, using a springy tree branch, as used by bodgers working in the woods) and “he was completely carried off his feet. The roof shattered in many places and chairs close by were splintered and scattered”.
On 26 November 1904 there was a fire in the factory, so a neighbour “immediately mounted his bicycle” to alert the fire brigade in Wycombe. They arrived to see the roofs well alight but could not use the hydrant because it had the wrong fitting, and could not reach the water in a well. Finally the fire was put out using a small amount of rainwater! A powerful 30-horsepower engine and an electric dynamo were among the equipment wrecked; damages totalled £2,000, which fortunately was covered by insurance.
Just before Christmas 1904, the factory finished an order for the seating at the London Coliseum theatre, including “very handsome settees made of rich mahogany and inlaid”, and started another order for the Theatre Royal, Haymarket. Employees had worked overtime, so it paid for their Christmas.
As a keen Methodist, Benjamin North recognised the important contribution his workers made to the success of the business and sought to reward them. For example, in 1909, 300 staff went to Weymouth by train and had steamboat trips along the coast and motor-car and charabanc tours. In 1910 they went to Portsmouth.
In September 1913 most employees were given a Monday afternoon off to either play in or watch an intra-company cricket match, the Machinists v the Rest. Afterwards 40 people had a tea at the pub and there was “lots of banter between the teams”.
In November 1913 a major industrial dispute started in Wycombe involving pay, working hours, safety etc. On 29November the manufacturers imposed a lock-out of Trade Union members. Two weeks later, 500 workers headed by the union band visited the factory at Piddington to encourage the workers to join the strike. However, only a dozen or so of North’s employees joined the Union, but “the machine shop was almost emptied”. The dispute was resolved in February 1914, with an agreement for a 54-hour working week and wages around 7d. (3p) per hour.
B North & Sons continued to thrive through the two world wars. During WWI it was engaged in the construction of airplane wings, which required modification of the factory so that each wing could be moved out onto the waiting transport. These wings may have been for the enormous Handley Page bombers which had a 100ft wingspan. In WW2 the firm probably made components for the all-wood airframe of the Mosquito.
Chairs for royalty
The firm made chairs and stools for the coronations of George V (1911), George VI (1937) and Elizabeth II (1953). According to various dealers and auction rooms these are now worth around £1,500 each!
Benjamin died in 1925 and was succeeded as managing director by his eldest son Benjamin Stephen North.
In 1956 the firm was taken over by the High Wycombe-based company Gibbons & Tilbury, but it continued to trade as B North & Sons. Two large fires in 1970 and 1976 badly affected output and the firm made a large loss in 1976–77. These losses continued and the firm ceased manufacturing on 31 December 1979.
The firm Davison Highley leased the factory in 1980 and now uses Computer-Aided Design (CAD) for its furniture. It makes some very high-end bespoke items for businesses, hotels and airports, and many of the large sofas seen on TV programmes including “BBC Breakfast”, “The One Show” and “The Graham Norton Show”.
The buildings make up what is now called the North Estate, so Piddington still remembers its founder Benjamin North today.
British Newspaper Archive https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/ SBS is the South Bucks Standard
Sharing Wycombe Old Photos https://swop.org.uk/swop/swop.htm
Historical maps at https://maps.nls.uk/ shows the factory in West Wycombe
Censuses from www.ancestry.co.uk
West Wycombe village hall history http://westwycombevillagehall.co.uk/history/ says the factory was not moved until the late 1940s, but this is perhaps when it was finally demolished.
Davison Highley, still making furniture in Piddington https://www.davisonhighley.co.uk/about-dh-history.html https://www.davisonhighley.co.uk/
Birth, marriage and death certificate indexes at https://www.freebmd.org.uk/
The Woodlanders project has made every effort to trace the owners of the photographs, but in some cases, the source is unknown. If you are the copyright holder, please contact the project leader Helena.firstname.lastname@example.org