This article was researched and written by Simon Cains for the Woodlanders’ Lives and Landscapes project, a partnership between Bucks New University and the Chilterns Conservation Board.

Woodlanders’ Lives and Landscapes is part of the Chalk, Cherries and Chairs Landscape Partnership running in the Central Chilterns, funded by the National Heritage Lottery Fund,

IN the Nostalgia page on February 5 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.

Factory Move

In 1902 Benjamin was told that the land that they were using in West Wycombe 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 from the village and he managed to find a suitable area of 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 Carrington then sold it on to Benjamin North.

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Construction of the factory began late in 1902.

Bucks Free Press: The factory of Benjamin North on the southern side of the A40 at Piddington, June 1904. Courtesy of Wycombe MuseumThe factory of Benjamin North on the southern side of the A40 at Piddington, June 1904. Courtesy of Wycombe Museum

The work involved the installation of a “monster boiler” which weighed over 18 tons 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.

Formal Opening

The factory was formally opened on September 26, 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, many 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 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 they had to walk, or take the horse-drawn bus if they could afford it. The workers asked the bus company to run an extra service at 7pm to High Wycombe, otherwise people had to walk several 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!

Bucks Free Press: Employees of the factory mark the retirement of John Ing after 65 years, August 1937. Benjamin North is in the centre of the middle row, Mr Ing to the right of him. Courtesy of Wycombe MuseumEmployees of the factory mark the retirement of John Ing after 65 years, August 1937. Benjamin North is in the centre of the middle row, Mr Ing to the right of him. Courtesy of Wycombe Museum

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 seven days imprisonment.

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On October 5 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 November 26 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, 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 etc were wrecked, the damage 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 Haymarket. Employees had worked overtime, so it paid for their Christmas.

Rewarding Staff

As a keen Methodist, Benjamin 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 steam-boat trips along the coast and motor car and char-a-banc tours. In 1910 they went to Portsmouth.

Bucks Free Press:

In September 1913 most employees were given Monday afternoon off to 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”.

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The Lock-out

In November 1913 a major industrial dispute started in Wycombe involving pay, working-hours, safety etc. On November 29 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.

War Effort

The North company continued to thrive through the two world wars. During WWI they were 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

North’s 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!

Post-War Years

Benjamin died in 1925 and was succeeded as managing director by his eldest son Benjamin Stephen North.

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In 1956 the firm was taken over by the High Wycombe-based company Gibbons & Tilbury, but continued to trade as B. North & Sons. Two large fires in 1970 and 1976 badly affected output and a large loss was made in 1976-77. These losses continued and the firm ceased manufacturing on December 31, 1979.

The firm Davison Highley leased the factory in 1980 and now use Computer-Aided Design (CAD) for their furniture. They make 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 Graham Norton.

The buildings make-up what is now called the North Estate, so Piddington still remembers its founder Benjamin North today.