By Peter Hawkes

There is little point in longing for the past – it has gone – and despite our perception of things having sometimes been better back then, time has most certainly moved on. It makes far more sense to live in the present moment and to accept, as best as possible, the way life is right now.

Nevertheless, it is useful to look back at the past in order to understand how we’ve arrived at where we are today. It is particularly important, in planning for the future, to value the skills, wisdom and cultural heritage passed down to us by those who came before and, sometimes, to learn from their mistakes!

When photography was invented in the first half of the 19th century, the use of cameras allowed people to vividly capture Chesham’s townscapes, people and historical events. We have evidence of these images from about 1880. Change is life’s only constant.

Having published old pictures on social media, especially on the Chesham Heritage Facebook site, we received substantially more responses and feedback to photographs within living memory, in particular from the 1960s onwards.

The evolving design of cars caught people’s attention, as did changing shop fronts and meeting places.

There was inevitably a disappointment at the short-sightedness of the planners of that time, who swept away many much-valued buildings and landmarks, without respect for the past and with an unrealistic vision of the future.

Thankfully, we live in times where a greater balance has been achieved between architectural heritage and technological advancement.

What was Chesham like in 1900? No one is alive who remembers. We can see from old photographs that the roads were unsurfaced and rutted by cart wheels. Horses were the main mode of transport, along with bicycles and steam trains which had arrived in Chesham by the 1890s.

The petrol engine had been invented in Germany in 1885, but in Great Britain the Locomotive Act had put severe limitations on mechanically propelled vehicles driven on the roads. It was another ten years before this Act was abolished, giving the green light for the age of the motor car and for great changes to our town.

Mr Cheeld, an engineer, built Chesham’s first motor car at Lord’s Mill between 1900 and 1902. It was called ‘Emma’ and apparently still does the London to Brighton run. A wealthy or sporting background were other likely qualifications for early motoring enthusiasts, as journeys required careful planning and technical abilities.

There were no petrol stations for refuelling or motor garages in the case of breakdown. The first garages to cater for these new vehicles were often established by those who were already trading as cycle dealers, coachbuilders or ironmongers.

By 1939 there were over two million vehicles on Britain’s roads, but the war effort and the austere years that followed kept things in check. Few people could have predicted the impact that cars would have on the town centre in the decades that followed.

The Chesham Society proposes eight visions for Chesham through to 2036. These include placing St Mary’s Way in an underpass to reunite town and park, and a multi-level development with iconic design in Star Yard providing both parking and flexible space for employment and accommodation, with shops, restaurants and wonderful views over Skottowes Pond.

There are also aspirations for a new business park on the periphery of the town, creating more space near the centre for improved music, arts, sport and recreation facilities, whilst protecting the river, old town, Green Belt and AONB. On a simpler scale, we must continue to engender civic pride, positivity and community spirit.

No longer do the townspeople simply ask “When will ‘they’ do something about it?”. Joining with Chesham In Bloom, the Guerilla Gardeners, Friends of Lowndes Park, the Environmental Group and many other voluntary teams, residents get ‘hands-on’ with improvements.

Disenchantment is a destructive force – we must lead the way for people to care about and value the town where they live, to restore rather than demolish, and to protect Chesham’s character as a country market town.

The three photographs on this page are all taken at roughly the same point in Chesham High Street, adjacent to Francis Yard, over a period of 100 years. From the book: ‘Chesham in Living Memory’. Peter Hawkes can be contacted via