Nostalgia by Peter Hawkes

ANCIENT beech woodland is a major feature of the Chilterns, within which also grow ash, wild cherry, wych elm, rowan, holly, silver birch, hazel and yew.

The almost inexhaustible supply of beech timber once provided a ready source of material for the High Wycombe furniture industry. Numerous excavations are a legacy of the pit-sawyers whose sole job was to convert tree trunks into planks, a two-man operation using a 2 metre long double-handled saw.

The Chiltern woodlands were mostly managed by large estates and land owners who sold trees to local wood-turners, known as ‘bodgers‘, who worked in the woods to make chair legs etc

In Chesham during the middle of the 19th century about 100 men were employed in small-scale wood trades, including shovel-making and bowl turning, largely as cottage industries. By late in the century there were large numbers of turners and other specialists in the new factories.

William Wright, wooden ware manufacturer, first appears in the commercial directories in 1864 in Church Street.

By 1869 he had moved to Water Lane and was operating from the General Saw Mills on the site of an earlier bark mill and tannery. By 1877 the company was known for its cricket bats, trundle hoops, toy spades, sieve hoops, brush boards, spoons, handled and round bowls and butter prints.

The Different Timbers

Beech, an expensive light-coloured hard wood, needs to be seasoned out-of-doors before use – it usually was bought in seasoned planks.

It was used mostly for shaving bowls and cigarette boxes.

Elm, a cheaper soft wood, brown in colour, was dried slowly in a kiln and then used for fruit bowls and cheese boards.

Sycamore, a relatively expensive hard white wood, needs careful drying to retain its white appearance in the finished product. It was used extensively for domestic ware such as spoons, bread boards, cheese boards and rolling pins.

Mahogany, though expensive, is valued for its rich brown colour and lack of knots. It was often used for fruit bowls and cheese boards.

Teak, one of the most expensive woods, needs little drying owing to its oily property. Shrinkage is negligible. Used for bowls and boards, tools had to be of hard steel otherwise the nature of the wood would soon blunt them.

Boxwood, very hard and expensive, needs little drying.

It creates a very fine dust so workers used masks when sawing. It was usually used for plumbers’ tools.

Lignum vitae, another very expensive wood, is heavy and one of the hardest woods in the world. It was used for plumbers’ tools and bowling balls.

Walnut, another hard and expensive wood, the best quality being English, has a grain which makes it particularly appealing for fruit bowls, egg cups, salt and pepper mills in a variety of sizes, table-lamps, bread boards and cheese boards.

Chestnut, a very soft wood, is one of the cheapest. It dries quickly and cuts with a clean finish. Very suitable for carving, it was used for butter prints.

Garden stakes, fence posts, fruit bowls and church collection-plates were made from oak. Expensive and very hard, it is one of the longest-growing woods; some grow for hundreds of years before being used.

Hickory, with a tight grain, was used for hammer and mallet handles, many other tool handles and drumsticks.

Holly, grown locally and fairly inexpensive, with a small diameter, was used for mallets, barrel taps and spigots.

Wild cherry, grown locally and very cheap, needed to be dried slowly to prevent cracking. It was used for fancy tableware and some fruit bowls.

Into the 20th century

Some of the smaller craft workshops in the town did not survive long into the 20th century. Others had to adapt their range of products to suit the modern age. Many workers developed into highly skilled craftsmen and ensured the reputation of their employers for high quality goods. Several were family businesses and passed from father to sons.

The availability of timber and the proximity to London also contributed to the importance of Chesham as a centre for the woodenware trade. However, by the 1930s, high-quality beech trees were becoming scarce locally and timber had to be sourced from further afield.

At Joseph Reynolds factory in Waterside, known as Prospect Works, much of the wood was imported during the 20th century – box and lignum vitae from the West Indies; mahoganies from Africa; teak from Burma; plywood and veneers from France and Russia and some beech from France. Sycamore, walnut, elm, plane-tree and some beech came from all over Central England and the West Country.

In an article in the local press in March 1937, Mr Bernard Blaser, Clerk to the Council wrote ‘nearly every wooden hoop that British children trundle, and nearly every wooden spade they use at the seaside, was made in Chesham.

There are five manufacturers of wooden trundle hoops in Great Britain and six of seaside spades, and in each case, all but one are in Chesham’.

After the Second World War there was strong competition from other countries with plentiful timber supplies and cheap labour. By the 1960s many of the family businesses were finished.

Stuart King, a local historian and craftsman, is an avid collector of old tools.

He set about making a permanent record of Chesham’s wooden ware industry, with many tools and products gleaned from the workshops of James East at Albany Place, before demolition in 1984. He also interviewed the director, Cyril Sanders, then aged 90 years. The tools are now on display at the Chesham Wooden Ware Collection at Chiltern Open Air Museum.

These days, many local woodlands are managed by the Forestry Commission, National Trust or Woodland Trust. Bottom Wood, near Studley Green, has been managed by the Chiltern Society since 1984. It is a 35-acre ancient woodland dating back to before 1600 and home to over 700 different species of plants and animals.

Penn Wood and Common Wood near High Wycombe are managed by the Woodland Trust but are closely watched over by the Friends of Penn Wood.

Their campaign in the 1990s prevented an attempt to create a golf course on part of this 435-acre site – one of the largest ancient woodlands in the Chilterns. Oaks, silver birches and rowan trees abound.

Wild service (Sorbus torminalis) trees, once widespread, became rarer as old woods were cleared and are now confined to ancient places such as the Forest of Bernwood, a Royal hunting ground at Brill, Aylesbury. The dwarf evergreen box is nationally rare.

There are only three native box woodlands in the UK and the largest of these lies on the Chilterns escarpment near Great Kimble. These steep slopes support substantial areas of unimproved chalk grassland where some juniper can also be found.

You can find out more about the local woodenware industry in the book Chesham at Work in the 20th Century by Keith Fletcher ( and more about local woodlands in the new book The Best of Chilterns Wildlife. Email for more details.