I am grateful to Deborah Conway Read for writing this article. Deborah is a volunteer with The Woodlanders’ Lives and Landscapes project.

A young couple, Luke Batchelor and Mary Pratt married in Cholesbury in 1814. Their son Thomas was born the same year. The Napoleonic Wars ended a year later and the country fell into an agricultural depression but the Batchelor family seems to have weathered the difficulties. This is a story of a village family finding ways to better themselves through education and trade, and whose resistance to compulsory vaccination got them into trouble with the law.

Young Thomas married Elizabeth Nash of Chesham in 1837, moving to Lee Common to run a shop. His parents were also prospering. The 1843 tithe map of Chartridge shows Luke Batchelor owning one property and occupying two others. By 1851, Thomas’s parents had also moved to Lee Common.

Thomas and two friends, perhaps thinking of the future of their own small children, started a school in 1846. Previously there had only been a plait school, where children as young as four plaited straw into 20 yard (18m) lengths of plait to be used to make straw hats. Conditions could be very poor, sometimes as many as 40 children in a room ten feet square. A Primitive Methodist Chapel had been established in Lee Common in 1839, and by 1845 the members had identified at least 150 children ‘destitute of the means of instruction’. Worshippers, including Luke and Thomas Batchelor, resolved to raise money for a school. The curriculum was limited to ‘the instruction of boys, under a certain age, in reading, writing, and arithmetic; and girls in the same, with the addition of needle work, knitting, etc.’

Living next door to the chapel and its schoolroom (possibly in what is now known as Clump Cottage), Thomas was able to provide lodgings for the teacher. He supported the school in other ways, hosting annual teas for children and parents in his orchard.

Thomas was busy in 1851, being a grocer and constable in addition to supporting the school and chapel. Parish constables had a wide range of duties from rat catching and rounding up loose animals to attending inquests and making arrests. They also monitored trading standards, important in an age of adulterated food. Business must have been good and, by 1861, Thomas Batchelor had become a farmer as well as a grocer.

In 1861, Thomas’s mother Mary, who lived next door, was a plait dealer, who bought the straw plait made by the usually female plaiters, having first supplied them with suitable straw. She then sold the lengths of plait to hat makers at a Plait Market. The disruption to trade caused by the wars with France acted as a spur to English production. By about 1815 a woman could make possibly £1 a week as a straw plaiter, twice an agricultural labourer’s wage. Mary Batchelor may have been a straw plaiter, before she became a plait dealer. Luke was an agricultural labourer all his life, so the additional income would have been welcome. Plaiting must have been a major source of income for many families in the area.

The family continued to prosper. In 1871 Thomas was a farmer and timber dealer, yet this prosperity did not last. Sometime before 1881, Thomas and Elizabeth Batchelor, then in their late sixties, moved to High Wycombe to live with their daughter. He was no longer a farmer, but a carman, essentially a delivery driver.

Thomas’s son Joseph, born in 1846, was by 1871 a plait dealer himself, perhaps having learned the trade from his grandmother. He married Elizabeth Smith in 1872. The young couple set up home in Lee Common. Joseph, too, was involved in the school and the chapel. To the delight, no doubt, of the schoolchildren, Joseph and his wife carried on the tradition of the school anniversary treat.

Some of Joseph’s story seems very contemporary. He and Elizabeth had four daughters, and he was charged several times at the petty sessions for failing to have two of them vaccinated against smallpox. The 1867 Vaccination Act required a child to be vaccinated within three months of birth. If not, the parents were liable for a fine of 20s, equivalent to about £127 in 2021.

In June 1879 it was reported that Joseph twice had ‘paid not attention’ to a notice to vaccinate his youngest daughter. This is a surprisingly cavalier attitude on Joseph’s part, considering it was not a first offence, and the fine was a not insignificant amount.

In 1875 he had been ordered to vaccinate Edith, then aged 9 months, within the next 6 months. It’s not clear whether Joseph just didn’t like the compulsion, or whether he had other objections.

Vaccine hesitancy is nothing new. One letter to the Home secretary in May 1856 regarded compulsory vaccination as ‘ a gross infringement on the Medical liberty of the Subject.’ and ‘not only does not prevent small-pox, but it is productive of worse and more dangerous diseases’

People then as now were afraid of serious side effects. A medical officer and public vaccinator wrote to the government in 1878 asking for an investigation into the case of a child who had a skin condition breaking three months after vaccination, “There is a good deal of prejudice against vaccination in this neighbourhood, & this case has been much quoted lately as showing its baneful effects; that being so, I believe a thorough & impartial investigation would be for the public good”

Joseph, who had diversified into pheasant breeding alongside his straw plait business, had some financial problems. A meeting of his creditors was held in July 1879. However, he continued trading as a plait dealer in Lee Clump until after 1881.

By 1885, Joseph had moved to Cheapside in Luton, the famous heart of the hat trade. This must have been the high point of his career as a straw plait merchant. His wife Elizabeth in 1891 was a school mistress, and the three eldest daughters were assistant schoolmistresses. Had Joseph followed in his father’s footsteps and started a school?

The straw plait business declined towards the end of the 19th century, with prices forced down by cheaper imports and the introduction of straw-sewing machines. Joseph suffered from this, being declared bankrupt in 1896. By 1901 Joseph and his family had moved to Castleford in Yorkshire, where he was a managing agent for the Singer Sewing Machine Company. Perhaps Yorkshire was not to his taste, or perhaps the job did not go well, because by 1911 he was living with his wife and unmarried daughter in Ipswich, working as an insurance agent. He died there in1914.

The research for this article was undertaken for the Woodlanders’ Lives and Landscapes project, which is part of the Chalk, Cherries and Chairs Landscape Partnership running in the Central Chilterns, funded by the National Heritage Lottery Fund.

Visit www.chilternsaonb.org/woodlanders-lives.html for more information.