Readers will be aware of the imminent demise of the highly respected Debenhams department stores, and probably have been receiving communications regarding their closing-down sales. It was one such email announcing up to 70 per cent reductions which led me to look into the history of the Debenhams chain of stores. To my surprise I then found that High Wycombe had at one time a very strong link to Debenhams.

This was a furniture-manufacturing company located in Slater St which was owned by Debenhams. This is its story.

The Early History of Debenhams

The origin of Debenhams was as a provincial department store group based mainly in seaside towns on the south coast of England called Bobby & Co. This group was founded by a Frederick Bobby and began in 1887 when he bought an established drapery store in Margate, Kent.

Over the next 40 years Bobby’s expanded, opening stores in specially selected towns. By the time Frederick Bobby retired in 1927 the group comprised some 10 stores in locations such as Eastbourne, Bournemouth, Torquay and Exeter. It also included a furniture factory in High Wycombe, the Hughenden Chair and Furniture Works Ltd.

On his retirement Frederick sold his shares to a recently formed retail conglomerate, the Drapery Trust. This Trust, which had been formed in 1925, traded under the name of Debenham Securities Ltd, and included many other companies in addition to Bobby’s, all of which continued to trade under their original names.

Hughenden Chair and Furniture Works (HCF)

This company had been formed in 1909 and occupied a three acre site to the east of the town centre, with entrances in Slater St and Totteridge Rd. In earlier years the site had been occupied by the timber merchants of James Smith, followed by the furniture manufacturers W B Gibson, and then Owen Joynson & Co who went into bankruptcy in the early 1900s.

It has not been possible to establish if HCF was formed as an independent company which was subsequently acquired by Bobby’s, or if they were established directly by them, but by about 1920 they were certainly a part of Bobby & Co.

Bobby’s had considerably extended the site by buying all available land and invested in the factory, so it became one of the most modern in Wycombe. Virtually all the furniture sold in Bobby department stores was manufactured in the Wycombe factory. Then in 1923, by which time the factory was employing over 100 workers, disaster struck. As the Bucks Free Press reported “On August 17 one of the most disastrous fires experienced in High Wycombe for many years broke out in the east end of town.” The fire started in one of Bobby’s large workshops, but the cause was unknown.

Apparently the “extensive block of buildings (ie the Bobby factory) was surrounded particularly on the north and east sides with a number of small factories (chiefly of wood) where chair-making was carried on. Adjoining the factory on the south side was St Andrew’s church and the large factory of Mr Tyzack.”

In the fire “all the wooden buildings were razed to the ground. All that was saved of Bobby’s extensive works were a portion of the offices, a cabinet-making shop, and a timber shed. There was not a chair or table intact. The estimated damage is about £30,000.”

Thanks to offers of “shop accommodation from several local manufacturers” Bobby’s business was able to quickly resume production and recover.

In 1946 Bobby’s announced that they “had availed themselves of an opportunity to dispose of the Hughenden Chair and Furniture Works Ltd”. The company continued in business under its original name. It was still trading in 1966 but the factory had moved to West End St in High Wycombe.

Chairs made by the company still occasionally appear at auction. One lot of 12 chairs in “solid English oak hand made in High Wycombe” sold at an auction in Wimbledon in October 2014 for £2,400.

Change of Name

By the early 1950s the group named Debenhams had emerged from the Drapery Trust and the Bobby & Co. subsidiary had expanded to include ownership of department stores in many other towns in southern England.

In the early 1970s the Debenhams board decided to rationalise the entire group and bring the majority of their department stores under the Debenhams brand. Two stores in Margate and Cliftonville were closed in 1972, while all other stores trading under the Bobby’s name were rebranded as Debenhams.

So in 2021 we see another High St department store close its doors, but one whose origins go back to 1887, and has been trading for over 130 years.

New Website for Wycombe Museum

The website for Wycombe Museum has just had a complete make-over, thanks to funding from Arts Council England.

The new website is packed full of brand-new historical content, including two new digital community exhibitions. Windows on Wycombe in Lockdown documents the local experience of lockdown, and shares people’s stories, struggles, and the ways they have found joy. Me and My Chair is the museum’s largest chair exhibition yet.

It is all about chairs - the people who own them, and the stories that they tell.

You will also find a new database of information about a selection of the Museum’s chair collection that has until now never been public, alongside information about all of Wycombe’s furniture factories.

Find all this plus lots more about Wycombe Museum’s collection and the history of Wycombe at