WHEN we think about the history of immigrants in Amersham, we tend to think about the influx of refugees who arrived here after fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe. Indeed, Amersham Museum’s current exhibition (until Monday, August 26) Marie-Louise in Amersham is about the émigré Viennese artist, Marie-Louise von Motesiczky who settled in Amersham during the Second World War.

Nevertheless, our area has a much longer history of incomers. Waves of migration have always brought new people into our area which is reflected in our placenames. Chesham or the earlier Caesteleshamm, is derived from the word for ruins of Roman origin after the Roman ruins by the River Chess. Ealmond was the Anglo-Saxon ruler who gave his name to Elmodesham, the early name for Amersham, whilst other names reflect later Norman landowners. Adam de Shardeloes gave his name to Shardeloes manor to the west of the town and the de Bois family gave their name to the manor to the north, Chesham Bois.

Bucks Lace is one of the most obvious legacies of immigration. This lace is usually a Mechlin pattern (Mechelen is a town near Antwerp in Flemish Belgium) on a Lille background. Fleeing religious persecution in Europe, Huguenot lacemakers settled in the region from the 1560s. They arrived at the invitation of local landowners such as Lord William Russell, the son of the Duke of Bedford, who had fought for William of Orange against the Catholics.

Recording of ‘aliens’

After the Domesday records, the earliest documentary evidence of non-native born people in Amersham dates from the 15th century. Following the Norman invasion, migration continued from Europe on a small scale. There were numerous reasons for this including opportunities for work and trade, and after natural disasters such as the Black Death or the St Elizabeth Day Flood in Holland and Zeeland in 1421. Whilst 15th century Amersham was a small, rural town, it had a weekly market, and was relatively prosperous, thanks to the river and the fertile farmland that surrounded it. It was also a meeting point for various routes for drovers and merchants crossing the country to and from London and other market towns. This brought incomers into the town who settled here in search of new lives for themselves and their families.

In 1440 Parliament agreed that a tax should be paid by all foreign born, ‘alien’ men residing in England over 12 years of age, the first time this kind of tax had ever been levied. Parliament had decided to introduce the tax after tensions had been growing between the native population and foreigners living and trading in England. England’s economic situation was in decline as its fortunes in the Hundred Years War with France worsened.

The rate was relatively low if you were a non-householder, such as a servant or a labourer, and slightly higher if you were a householder, such as an artisan or a tradesman. The introduction of this new tax meant that records had to be kept and ‘alien’ males counted.

15 ‘aliens’ were recorded as living in Amersham. The true number would have been higher if they had wives or children with them. If 10 of those 15 men had wives and say four children each, suddenly we could have an ‘alien’ population of 65 – around 8 per cent of the estimated population of 800.

Amersham’s Aliens

The website, England’s Immigrants 1350-1550 records the 15 men in Amersham who were documented as eligible for the new tax. John van Berg and Gervase Notkyn were recorded as early as 1436 because they swore an oath of fealty – or loyalty - which was an early way of taking British citizenship. They are recorded as Brabanters which means they originally came from Flemish Belgium.

Labourers Peter Bartholomewe, Clement Sawyer and Henry de Beryng were listed in 1440, as were labourers ‘John Duchesman’ and ‘John Frenssheman’, although these are obviously not there actual names. ‘John’ the servant of one Bartholomew Halley also paid the lower tax.

Chaplain Nicholas Derham was a householder. Stephen de la Hare and Hugh Herford are both Frenchmen and householders. They are described as ‘husbandmen’, that is farmers with land, as are the Smyths and the Wevers (possibly brothers). They all paid the higher tax.

Amersham’s Africans

Amersham’s first record of anyone with African heritage dates from June 5, 1575. The rector at St Mary’s Amersham recorded the baptism of Ruthe of Meritania. This is believed to be the baptism of an adult woman who was converting to Christianity. It is not known if she really came from Mauritania or whether this was used as a generic term for someone from West Africa. According to Miranda Kaufman’s book Black Tudors (One World, 2017), it is most likely that Ruthe was taken from a Portuguese or Spanish slaving ship. She would have probably arrived in Amersham as a servant to one of the wealthiest families in the town with London connections. The most likely families in 1575 are the Cheyne family of Shardeloes or the Saunders family at Bury Farm.

In 1623 the Amersham parish register records the burial of Robert Hall who is believed to have links to West Africa. Unfortunately, there is no other evidence to provide a fuller picture of this man. With relatively common first and family names, it has not been possible to link him definitively with other events in the parish registers such as baptism, marriage or birth of children. Consequently, we don’t know whether he was a resident in Amersham or a visitor passing through. Unlike some of the entries on the 1440 tax records, he has a name so we can presume he had friends or associates in the area who knew him but unfortunately, we know no more about Robert Hall, or Ruthe of Meritania.

Amersham Museum is supporting Amersham’s Refugee Week on June 22 at St Michael’s Square 10am to 2pm.