History of the Amersham Area

Mr Alliott’s “Amersham Notes”

The historical notes below were written by Eustace Alliott in 1960.   Mr Alliott’s obituary, written by Frank Peers, was published in the September 1982 Amersham Society newsletter

Eustace AlliottEustace Alliott was so well-known that little need be said about him. He reached a great age and surely, at the end, must have felt content that he had made the most of his long life. We knew him best for his erudite and amusing talks on Amersham illustrated with examples from his splendid collection of slides of the district. He was a very accomplished photographer, and had been for many years, so that some of his early work provides a valuable record of Amersham 40 years or more ago. Members may remember when some of his early cine-films were shown on TV in a programme relating to the work of pioneers. He was a deeply religious man, a pillar of Chesham Bois church, but his greatest achievement was undoubtedly the work he did for St. John’s Ambulance Service. Added to all this he was, perhaps, the most lovable man I have ever known – he will be greatly missed. Our sympathies go out to his sister, lrene, who did such a splendid job looking after him as he was fading away and who is now left with the formidable task of dealing with all his possessions. As members may remember Mr. Alliott had kindly promised to pass on to the Society his collection of pictures and books relating to this area and it was one of the saddest tasks I have ever had to perform when, a few weeks before he died, he called us to his bedside to hand them over.” [Editor’s note: Unfortunately, it is not known what happened to the collection of slides mentioned above.]

Mr Slade the blacksmith

To know Amersham thoroughly takes the average person a number of years. As we stroll from the Gas Works towards the centre of the town, let us look at the Smithy just on our left.  Here Mr.Slade is the last survivor in Amersham of this once ubiquitous class of artificer.  I found him at his forge, busily working the bellows to get a good heat for some welding work he had in hand.   He made a picturesque figure standing there in the dark Smithy, with the crimson flames lighting up his face and the surroundings.  Shortly, his iron sufficiently hot, he crossed to his anvil and began to use his hammer. On the wall behind him was every type of agricultural implement and pattern of wooden handles for spades. He used to do a great business in shoeing horses but now the horses seldom come and his trade is much more general, and unfortunately a dying one.

Fire engine

A little further down we find a hut where the Fire Engine used to be kept, which is now taken over by the Civil Defence Authorities.  This brings back quaint memories of days gone by, which are expressed in a letter published in the Daily Mail, under the heading of “BRING BUCKETS” :- About 1890, walking through Amersham I saw a small wooden shed about 10 ft. by 8ft. with a half-sheet of writing paper tacked on the door. It read: “Fire Engine. In case of fire the key can be got from Tom Jones in the village, who will summon the brigade. The public are asked to attend and bring buckets to assist in keeping the water barrels filled.”

The Malt House

A little further on, next the Garden of Remembrance, is Ye Old Malt House.  Mr.Beesley the proprietor told me that the monks used the site as a Malt House and Brewery in 1425.  However this is rather doubtful history as there is little in the present building earlier than the 16th or 17th century. It is a charming old place and has been classed as a “Historic Monument”, which has hindered attempts to alter it to its detriment.

Mr. A.J. Ward of the old town, tells me that within his memory the premises were a subsidiary Malt House for Wellers’ Brewery, of which more anon.  “Malt”, he said, “was first sprouted on the ground floor of the long part of the building, being moved along to the back and then taken to the upper floor to continue sprouting until it arrived at the front again. Here it was dropped to the ground level once more through a sieve which served to ‘de-horn’ it”.  The kiln was at the back of the premises at the right as one went down the side passage.

The Griffin  

Let us now cross Broadway and look at the Griffin Hotel, known in the old days as the “Wyvern”.  A pleasant memory is linked with a photographic visit one Christmas time about 1958. In the main restaurant was a brightly lit Christmas tree; a smartly attired head waiter was attending to a tray of what is ordinarily known nowadays as “afters”.  Mr. Orme, the manager, and his wife were seated at a table in the midst of the old timbers and furnishings, and were being served obviously with an excellent meal.  I certainly can testify personally to the quality of the fare. In the east wall of the building,  the old wattle and mud construction can still be seen. Above the great fireplace in the restaurant is a notice which has always delighted me: “Cromwell dined here and won the Civil War – King Charles dined at the opposition and lost his head.”  In the excellently appointed Snack Bar on the other side of the entrance archway, the Christmas counter was adorned with a magnificent boar’s head.

Whielden Street

Let us now enter Whielden Street, motoring to save our legs and time.  At the far end of the town by the road on the outskirts  is a wide strip of green headland planted with flowering cherry trees, which are one magnificent mass of pink blossom in the spring time.  Standing among them one can observe on one’s left Whielden Street, now Whielden Lane, curving away among the hills towards Penn and High Wycombe, and one can appreciate how it got its name in early Saxon times, from the old words “Hwael” meaning “Curve” and “Dene” meaning “Valley” – “Whielden” meaning  a curving valley, a most appropriate name, from this viewpoint.  The road or lane is part of the old Reading turnpike, the Judges’ Assize road from Reading to Hatfield, and as such must have been used for many centuries.

As we look the other way we see the old town and the hills behind, and in the nearer distance, Amersham Hospital.  This excellent institution was at one time the Union Workhouse and it was built in 1838. It is a fine structure of brick and flint and it was designed by Sir Gilbert Scott, the architect for the pre-war Houses of Parliament. In later years it became the “Institution”, a model of its kind, and still later became Amersham General Hospital, considerable extensions of pre-fabricated buildings being made on the High Wycombe side.

A little further down comes the old Quaker Meeting House dating back some centuries; its plain but pleasant interior being wood panelled. A small room off the Meeting Hall housed the Amersham Library. It is worthwhile, if we have time, going up a little laneway on our left called “The PIatt”, where the ancient but renovated “Chimney Cottage” is a pretty sight, especially when its garden is full of spring flowers. The Platt leads to a footpath which follows along  the breast of the hill, skirting the  line of gardens extending up from the houses on this side of High Street. On the left is a cemetery.

There are a number of 17th century houses in Whielden Street.  On our right, in about the centre of the built-up part, was the early Workhouse which provided little more than overnight accommodation for casuals, who were obliged to do their stint before they could proceed on their wanderings. This subsequently became Fullers’ shop, known to comparatively recent inhabitants. Its place is now taken by Camps Stores. In the Stores and house attached there is still much old timber and Mr.Camp still has the original Parish Minute Book of 1832 which was found in the house when he took over, the room apparently being  the original Parish Meeting place.

Market Square

At the entrance to Whielden Street one turns left into what was once the Market Square but now is part of the High Street. Next to the site of Dr.Challoner’s School is Pusey’s shop and in the attic and upstairs were wall paintings which included at one time a rather fine figure of Hercules, part of a set of the Nine Worthies.  Unfortunately Hercules was not able to cope with the builders’ men who came to effect some necessary repairs and he has now disappeared. On the other side is the Crown Hotel, a fine old Coaching House with an archway leading to a yard.   Unfortunately it has suffered much from two destructive fires and although now in excellent repair, much of the old timber and painted work has disappeared.  However there is still a monogram on the wall by the fireplace of the front lounge which commemorated a supposed visit by Queen Elizabeth in early times, probably while she was still only a Princess. The blackened remains of this are still there and a reproduction in the supposedly original colours has been placed on the other side of the fireplace.

Going a little further along we find the old Town Hall which was erected by the Drakes in the same year in which Pennsylvania was founded.  Interesting views of the High Street are to be seen through the arches and in these days a Flower Market is held at regular intervals throughout the spring and summer by the Amersham Horticultural Society.

The High Street

In the wide backwater of the High Street, just beyond the Market Hall one can, once or twice in the year, see Morris Dancing in costume. “The Gables”, close by,  is a 16th century house gabled in the style reminiscent of many houses in the Hague or elsewhere in Holland.  A little further along we note on the same side Red Lion house, in older days a Public House, later a private residence and now a restaurant.

Just beyond that is one of Amersham’s most attractive features, the Daisy Shop, run by Mrs. Beilby, once a Miss Debenham, with all the Debenham flare for lovely things.  Its windows, always attractive, are especially so in spring when lit with boxes of brightly shining daffodils.

To our left again is the Kings Arms Hotel. This perhaps embodies one of the oldest domestic buildings in the town, for it has taken into its precincts a house which adjoined it on the right hand side, and which still contains woodwork of the 15th century. It has many features of an early date and the old timber and woodwork are a pleasure to look at. There is a fine old fireplace in the lounge adjoining the private bar, and all the public rooms have been most tastefully furnished by Mr.Watson, the main hall perhaps being especially decorative, in good artistic taste.

Next to the Hotel a small passage leads up to a Baptist Church which Murray’s Guide describes as “A delicate confection in brick and glass”.  A glass lantern which surmounts it pinpoints its position from a long way off. Inside one notices the two spiral staircases which lead up to the pulpit which is above the baptismal pool, though this is normally hidden from view. There are round windows and others in the form of arches and a gallery, all of which give it a pleasant air. This is a “live” Church in which I recently attended a “Believer’s Baptism” when a young man and his bride-to-be underwent the Baptist’s rite of total immersion which the Preacher, Mr.Sears justified in an interesting and earnest sermon.

A little further on still on our left we find Elmodesham House. This has gone through various vicissitudes being at one time a Boy’s school.  The origin of the name is rather in question, but there is a suggestion that it came from an early Saxon settler by the name of Aegilmund or the like, who came and settled in the district in about the 6th century. Further along the street on the left we find Darlington’s the builders on one  side of an archway and a prlvate dwelling house, originally No. 47, now occupied by Mrs. Houghton on the other.This latter is  of special interest since the front room contains a complete set of the “Nine Worthies” – those on the west wall are not very well distinguishable though the panels remain, but on the south wall are three excellent depictions of Joshua, King Arthur and Julius Caesar. The colours are still bright and vivid and one writer describing them thinks that the faces have so much character that they must have been taken from life.  He makes the suggestion that when Princess Elizabeth visited Amersham there was a pageant held in her honour with a masquerade depicting the “Nine Worthies” in which probably local notables took part; it is the features of these men that he thinks may be enshrined in these ancient pictures.

No. 47, Mrs. Houghton’s, by the by, used at one time to be the office of Messrs. Darlingtons, and is still known as the “Office” to the Misses Darlington who once resided there, although the commercial office has been transferred to the other side of the archway.  I once strolled under this arch and through the Builder’s yard to the garden at the back, which stretches some way up the hillside, ending in an orchard. From here pleasant views can be obtained of the opposite side of the valley and the woods lining the railway.  As, armed with my camera, I passed a large rabbit warren in the Misses Darlington’s grounds I saw, to my surprise and delight, a white rabbit pop out, followed by a black one, while a third was the usual brown. This happy little touch of fairyland has of course, been wiped out since by the introduction of mixamatosis.

A little further on, on the same side, we find the Drake Almshouses which form a little close with a strip of somewhat unkempt garden in the Courtyard. These Almshouses were built in 1659 by Sir William Drake, a grandson of the first Drake of Shardeloes.  They are in a pleasant deep-toned brick and provide simple accommodation of upstairs bedroom, downstairs sitting room, with kitchen etc. These, according to an inscription on the wall, were for the relief of six poor widows well reputed in the Parish, with a very good allowance for ever at his own cost and charges. This charity is still maintained with certain modifications, due to the changes in value of money.

Still passing along westwards we see the “Swan” on one side and the “Elephant” on the other, both of which are 17th century houses, or even earlier.  Just beyond Cherry Lane which once was Penn Lane, is the big house, “The Firs” which is now occupied by Ludovic Kennedy and Moira Shearer.  Opposite on our right is a long row of cottages known as Turpins Row and beyond that again we come to the Town Mill, now the residence of Mr.John Brazil.  This originally was the Shardeloes Estate Mill which ground their grain, for the Shardeloes Estate actually extended at one time to this point.  It had other uses, for at different times it was a silk mill and a paper mill. One can still see the Mill pond which forms a prominent feature of the garden.  The little stream rushes under the house and out through a little bridge, whence it flows past the backs of the High Street houses.  The mill wheel, alas, is now silent and may well have been removed but I remember at one time one could see the water running by its vanes.

Barn Meadow

We can take the footpath by the side of the Misbourne, which for the moment is running fully, rising out of the archway leading from the Mill. On the other side are the backs of the houses of Turpins Row and the High Street, whose small gardens reach to the river bank; and many have a plank or a footbridge crossing the stream into Barn Meadow, a large playing field controlled by the Parish Council.  Proceeding further we pass Amersham Prints where interesting work is being done, printing patterns on cloth. Here again the stream disappears, emerg1ng through an arched tunnel to run between the buildings of the old town and the new Council estate at Pond Pitch. Once again it disappears under an archway to reappear between the Church and Messrs. Goya’s Cosmetic Factory.

The numbering of the town

Only a few years ago, should you have wandered in the old town you might well have been puzzled by the numbering of the houses and shops. In one place you would see No.5, next No.17, another No.14 preceding No. 7; while in yet another, No. 1 is only four doors from No.141 and No. 155 stands duplicated in astonishment at its neighbour – 751!  Probably this latter number was originally 157 and some occupier rearranged the figures by way of a joke!

Not all the numbers would be visible – but if you had opened the door of a certain Butcher’s shop in Whielden Street and looked carefully at its back you would have found the number plate painted over. Further, the numbering of houses in Whielden Street did not begin at 1, but at 141 and you would find to your surprise that the last house in the High Street at the furthest end of the town was numbered 140.  This is an interesting sidelight on history – how did it come about?

When I first came to Amersham the matter was explained to me by one of its more venerable inhabitants. It appears that in the old days the Postmaster was disturbed by the fact that there were no numbers at all on the houses, all of which were in the ownership of the Shardeloes Estate. He wrote to the Squire Drake of that day demanding that the houses should be numbered for the convenience of the postal service.  The Squire, an independent and choleric man, wrote back that he did not propose to number his houses and resented the Postmaster’s interference in the matter. The Postmaster in his turn took umbrage and, after a fruitless exchange of correspondence, threatened legal action.   To that the Squire craftily replied, enquiring whether the Postmaster would be satisfied if he put a number on each house, to which the Postmaster replied with delight that it would. Then the Squire promptly provided sets of number plates, issued them in any order and had them placed on the backs of the front doors where no-one could see them, and so the matter rested.

At the time I first heard this tale Amersham was rather more of a village and less of a town than it is now, and as is the habit with villages and old inhabitants, I was a stranger and they took me in. A somewhat more credible story was provided by Mr. Day, the Shardeloes Estate agent, who said that the numbering of houses took place some 80 or 90 years ago for the convenience of a London firm of Solicitors with the delightful name of Messrs. Thynne & Thynne. They wished to keep their records by number and not by the names of tenants, which tenants were unknown to them. The houses were numbered apparently in the order of entry in their books and brass plates were supplied and put on the inside of the doors, as being of no interest to anyone except the Estate and its Solicitors.

Mr. Andrews, at one time the Parish Clerk of Amersham, who lives at Norwood Close just off the Broadway, said that certain irregularities in numbering in the Broadway dated from the time when Wellers Brewery was expanding and the Wellers were buying up cottages from the Drake Estate to house their Brewery hands. They numbered theirs and Squire Drake numbered his.  It was a purely private arrangement for private purposes, and the irregularities seem to have arisen because tenants, when instructed to change their numbers to the Weller series, refused or omitted to do so.

The confusion was largely ended when the Rural District Council had High Street, Broadway and Whielden Street renumbered, which took place between 1952 and 1954. Traces of the old numbering still remain.  Inside that pleasant Restaurant “Number Eleven” in the Broadway ” you will find, on opening the front door, an enamelled plate bearing that number (the original plate) though whether it be Weller’s or Drake’s I do not know.  Along Whielden street on the left hand side you will find houses with the plates on the outside of the door. Some of these are painted over and some are not, so that some properties will have two numbers – the original Drake number and the new one put up by the Rural District Council.

The Shardeloes Ghost

I recently heard from a Miss Archer, in the old town, about the Shardeloes ghost. It seems that her father used to be assistant blacksmith, working at the estate forge at Coldmoreham and living at the lodge at the entrance to the drive. In those days the family still maintained a considerable stud of horses, both for hunting and racing. The presence of the ghost seems to have been seen or suspected by a number of people, but the only factual account comes, according to Miss Archer, from “Titch” Alder, one of the grooms.  It appears he had seen a door open and something which he could not describe but could follow with his eyes, passed through the room. From that time he was very nervous and to some extent impressed the blacksmith Archer, who otherwise had rather tended to disbelief in the matter.  The “presence” was sufficiently real to cause nervousness among the staff, and latecomers returning to the house after dark used to knock at the lodge door and ask whether Mr.Archer would escort them up the long drive to the house and give them a little courage. “Titch” Alder seems to have remained one of those who needed this support.

There is a tale of a stable boy who seems to have burst out of the upper floor of the stables through the door by which the hay and other stores were brought in, and falling on to the stones of the yard, was killed, and it was always said thereafter that he probably had seen the ghost.

 

An account of Eustace Alliott’s visit to the Goya factories appears on a separate page.