An update from Marian Miller on the restoration of 2/3 High Street, High Wycombe for the Bucks Historic Buildings Trust:

A lot of work has been going on behind the hoarding at the former Wheatsheaf pub. Top priority was repairing and retiling the roof, whilst new rooflights have been fitted and insulation installed.

The timber frame at the rear has been repaired including a post which had been attacked by Death Watch beetle. The rear wall has been lime-rendered.

Attention to external works has now switched to the front façade, whilst inside, the staircase has been removed to make way for new stairs and lifts.

New partitions are being erected to create kitchens and W.C s., electrics, other services, fire escapes etc will have to be accommodated whilst not damaging the historic structure.

Our contractors, Ward & Co, and all the members of the team are specialists in historic conservation and, since the building is listed all the work has to be approved by the Council’s Conservation Officer.

The measured survey of the building was delayed due to COVID restrictions (our surveyor is based in Wales) but has now been completed. We are looking forward to seeing a reconstruction drawing of the original (1399) building.

The work has been a little delayed by the need for extra roof repairs but hopefully should be finished by December in time for a grand opening before Christmas.

History revealed

There have been a few finds which reflect the previous uses of the building. A pipe and Players cigarette packet no doubt come from tobacconist Fred File’s time running “Ye Olde Wheatsheaf Tobacco Shop” at number 2.

Perhaps you remember Cyril Roberts photographic studio upstairs. Presumably he took the photo of Penn and Tyler’s Green Cricket Club. Unfortunately it’s not dated but if you recognise anyone please do contact Mike Dewey. Other finds include an oyster shell and part of an old boot! Underneath the floorboards were lots of walnut shells, which, I’m told, were an early form of insulation.

Historic research has continued, although somewhat hampered by COVID restrictions on libraries and archives. We have installed a new history display on the hoarding so please take a moment to read it next time you are in the High Street. The earlier display on the shop window had a picture of a trade token issued by Thomas Butterfield. Trade tokens were issued as an alternative form of currency when the government ceased producing coins during the Civil War.

Thomas Butterfield’s token bore the sign of a wheatsheaf and all the learned authorities have concluded that this must relate to our building as the former Wheatsheaf; and who am I to argue with them? It has also been assumed that the link was to a prosperous land-owning Butterfield family based in Wooburn. However I have not been able to find records connecting our building to any Thomas Butterfield.

There were several Butterfields in Wycombe around that time including a Thomas who died in 1671. It looks like he was a lace-buyer since he left his stock of bone-lace to his brother, Sampson. He also described himself as a yeoman and owned farmland. Might he have issued a trade token depicting a wheatsheaf because he was a farmer as well as a lace-man?

We may never solve the puzzle of the Butterfield trade token but I think we are on much safer ground with another trade token issued by a Robert Watson in 1666. So who was Robert Watson?

The Robert Watson connection

We are told that the Wheatsheaf was a coffee-house around 1700. Coffee-houses were all the rage in the later 17th century starting in London and Oxford and spreading to towns throughout the country. Situated midway between London and Oxford it would not be surprising for Wycombe to have one too.

Go into any coffee-shop today and you will find people chatting, doing business or working on their laptops. The coffee-houses of the 1600s were no different. We can imagine the local businessmen (not women of course!), tradespeople and visitors gathering there to swop news and make deals.

The Wheatsheaf, on the corner next to the market place, was ideally placed for such a venue. By a 1695 deed at Buckinghamshire Archives, John Chalfont, a bookbinder, and his wife Phillis, sold a cottage near the Hogmarket (now Church Square). This cottage “wherein Robert Watson lately dwelt” was between the house of Dorothy Kidder on one side and a building called the coffee-house on the other side.

Dorothy Kidder was the daughter of the mayor, Richard Lucas, and had married William Kidder, a Quaker, and mealman who had come to the town from Southwark. When William died he left houses in Church Square and I believe that Dorothy would have been living in number 5 Church Square (now PMG Schoolwear).

The present Wheatsheaf goes underneath and over its neighbours, 1 High Street and 5/6 Church Square. Indeed we have found a former connecting door at first floor level between the Wheatsheaf and 5 Church Square. The 1695 sale also included three shops (one of them Robert Watson’s) and part of the building within the same frame and used with the coffeehouse.

So this was a mixed up building, just like ours! It seems to me very likely that this would have been what is now 1 High Street and 6 Church Square and at least part of the current Wheatsheaf.

I am grateful to Geoffrey Swindells, a local expert on trade tokens, for a picture of Robert Watson’s trade token and more information about Robert. The token carries the date 1666, a Saracen’s or Turk’s head (the sign of a coffeehouse) and the initials “W and RM”.

Robert married Mary Joanes in 1661 so she must have been the “M” on the token. Mary sadly died in 1670 and Robert married Elizabeth Big at Wooburn church soon after. They had a daughter Elizabeth who was baptised at All Saints, Wycombe in 1671. The parish register shows Robert was buried at Wycombe in 1703.

Robert’s marriage in 1661 is the first mention of a Watson in that parish register and Watson was not a common local name. So where had Robert come from? The only likely Buckinghamshire candidate found so far is a Robert Watson baptised in Marsh Gibbon in 1641.

In 1652 his father had apprenticed Robert for eight years to William Childs of the London Company of Cordwainers (shoemakers and leather-workers).

After completing his apprenticeship, had Robert moved to Wycombe and decided to better himself by trying his luck by getting on the coffee-house bandwagon and opening a business in Wycombe?

Might he have had a shoemaking shop in Church Square as well as a coffee-house in the Wheatsheaf? The research goes on!