Marian Miller, a trustee of the Buckinghamshire Historic Buildings Trust has kindly written this article on the history of the building at Nos 2/3 High Street, High Wycombe, which was formerly the Wheatsheaf public house.

Over the next few months the Buckinghamshire Historic Buildings Trust will be starting work to bring this neglected, but much loved, building back to life. In 2017 Wycombe District Council bought the freehold and granted a long lease to the Trust. Since then we have been busy investigating this fascinating building which was built in 1399 making it the oldest building in the town, apart from the parish church.

We know that many people have been concerned about the state of the building, most of which has been standing empty for several years. But have you ever wondered why, with its black and white half-timbered front, it looks so different from everything else in Wycombe High Street?

In the 1700s High -or Chepping- Wycombe was a thriving market town. The medieval buildings on either side of the High Street were either redeveloped or refaced with red brick to give them that elegant Georgian look. Town houses, inns and taverns lined the broad road with the new Guildhall and Little Market House (“the pepper-pot”) facing the market place at the far end. We know the building was then the Wheatsheaf but whilst we have learnt a lot about its history it remains a mystery why it was not given a Georgian makeover.

The original use and shape of the building are also shrouded in mystery. From dating the timbers we now know it was built in 1399 and, since the cellar and upper floors lie under and over its neighbours, what remains must be only part of a much larger original building. It may well have faced Church Square or could be the surviving wing of a building the rest of which faced the High Street, where Vintner House now stands.

Unfortunately we are unlikely ever to find out who erected the building in 1399, or why. Whilst the ground floor was divided, the top floor was a large, open space with access from Church Square and from the look of the inside it was an important building. The central location suggests several possibilities; a civic function such as a guildhall, a connection with the market or the church or perhaps an inn.

We are not sure exactly when the building became the Wheatsheaf inn but by the late 1600s it seems that it was a coffee-house. This was at a time when coffee houses were all the rage (nothing changes!)

Moving on to the 1700s the Wheatsheaf appears in William Hannan’s famous depiction of the High Street in 1772. The name “Brooks” appears under the wheatsheaf on the inn-sign. At that time we know from their wills that the owners were the Squires, a family of brewers and the publican was “Major” William Creed, so called since he had been in the militia. All the Squire children were unmarried so when the last one, Ann Squire, died in 1799 her estate was sold.

The brewer Andrews Edward Biddle then acquired the Wheatsheaf. He went into partnership with Robert Wheeler and the Wheatsheaf became one of the many Wheeler tied-houses in the town. Robert Wheeler had moved to Wycombe from London and soon started to make a name for himself. He was instrumental in building up the family brewing business, founding the Wycombe Savings Bank and being involved in countless organisations in the town. He was mayor nine times and his son Thomas was no less a figure in the life of the town, being mayor six times. You may have seen Robert Wheeler’s enormous tomb next to the porch in the churchyard

A succession of publicans lived in the pub with their families and lodgers. In 1861 the militia were in town and as many as 14 soldiers were billetted there.

From newspaper reports we get the impression that the Wheatsheaf was a rather rough and ready place. In 1860 the mayor said he had received several complaints about the “great nuisance of the urinals at the Wheatsheaf, and under the Little Market House” and there are several reports hinting that the pub was the haunt of petty criminals.

Nonetheless it was regarded as a suitable venue in 1846 for an inquest on one Henry Abbot who died from rabies after being bitten by a dog. We can see how the pub looked at that time from this 1884 photograph, with the door to the side and railings around the cellar window.

By 1895 Wheelers had decided to give the Wheatsheaf a makeover. Their architect, local man Thomas Thurlow, drew up plans.

These involved moving the door to the centre, with bay windows either side. This caused a great stir when they came before the full Council meeting and in the end they were modified so that the bay windows did not protrude so far onto the pavement. The front was also given a more fashionable black and white front as you can see from this 1902 postcard.

Perhaps this was part of a project to take the Wheatsheaf more upmarket since the newspaper reports were now of delightful concerts, suppers and lunches for passing cyclists. Nevertheless the Wheatsheaf’s days as a pub were numbered.

There were just too many pubs in the town and it was one of the 12 due to be closed in 1903. But before the axe could fall fate intervened when a fire broke out on the night of 1st July 1903.

The fire and what happened to our building afterwards will be described in part 2 of the article.