Chiltern Chairmakers

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Former Chinnor High Street Pub
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Jack Goodchild – Chairmaker

Village Chair-makers are first identified in the Censuses of 1851. Then they were most likely “Bodgers” making turned parts for the Chairs of Windsor style. Because they used a Pole Lathe on wet green wood to make these, they worked in the Woods.  The Beech Trees were self-planed and management was by continual thinning.  The Bodger used the Timber when 20ft high & 1ft wide. The Seller’s Agent felled the Trees and the Trunks were covered to keep them moist. Saw Pits were used to cut the Timber into manageable size. Chair-making was exclusively Piecework & Parts were assembled in Wycombe.  “The true Chair-maker was a superior Craftsman & Naphill bred. Perhaps the greatest of all of them was Jack Goodchild who could take a log of wood and, doing all the work himself, create a Windsor Chair of exquisite beauty.”

HWWindsorChairmakerThe working definition of a Windsor Chair is “a stool with an added back” which it is possible to take off. Wheelwrights would make the Backs, which slotted into the Top of the Stool.  Originally Wheelwrights made the whole Chair – later specialist Chairmakers.  The description “Windsor Chair” relates to the ‘construction method’ not the Design.  There are infinite possible designs such as the Scroll Back, the Wheel Back, the Comb Back, the Bow Back with or without Arms, and with or without a Central Splat down the back.  In the Chilterns, it was rare not to have a Splat.  The origin of the Windsor Chair is said to be based on a time when George III was caught in a rainstorm HWWindsorChairmaker2in Windsor Great Park.  He sheltered in a nearby Cottage and was offered the most comfortable Chair with less discomfort than his Throne. There is no evidence that it was subsequently used in Windsor Castle.  The Chairs were probably made in the Chilterns  and were transported by boat to both Windsor and London. They were usually made from Ash & Beech with an Elm Seat but could also be made from Yew.  The legs of the Chiltern Windsor Chairs were slender, while those made in the Midlands were more bulbous.  The defining quality of a Windsor Chair is the solid Timber Seat from which the leg & back assemblies protrude.  A variety of designs developed, such as the Lath Back, Wheel Back, Comb Back, Gothic, Smokers Bow & Double Bow.

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The Seat was made from Elm, a tree which grows large enough to supply the wide boards needed. Ash & Yew were the preferred Timbers for Bentwood components, due to their good steam bending characteristics.  Beech and other species were used for the remaining components.

The Craft of Making Chairs in the Chilterns dates to before 1700 with reference to a “Turner” in the Parish Register of High Wycombe in the 1680sDaniel Defoe, noticed in 1725 that there was: “a vast quantity of Beechwood which grows in the Woods of Buckinghamshire more plentifully than in any other part of England”. He also added that this timber was used for: “…beech quarters for diverse uses, particularly Chairmaking and Turnery wares“.

The Rixon Families at Fawley
In Gone Rustic, Cecil Roberts describes a visit in 1934 to the last of the Chairmakers, Mr Rixon. He was little old man of 81 with a bright eye and an impish face. His wife produced 6 Old Chairs.  Some were made of Cherry Wood, some of Beech.  The old Chairmaker explained how they had been made and took me out to a Shed at the bottom of his Orchard to show me the Lathe on which the work had been done.  The Lathe in question was a homemade Pole Lathe, once common in the Chiltern Hills.  A skilled user could turn out 48 Chair Legs an hour (1.25 mins each).  Machine Operators in Wycombe were now replacing the Traditional Chairmakers.  This Mr Rixon was James Rixon, one of 3 brothers living with their Families in Fawley since the 1880s.  They were the sons of William Rixon & Hannah (nee West).  The Families are recorded in the 1901 census.  The 1st Family comprised George Rixon (aged 59, a Timber Dealer), his wife Elizabeth Rixon (56) and their children Alfred (27, Chair-turner), William (24, Railway Porter), Annie (22, Dressmaker) and Ernest (19, Chair-turner). They also had 2 daughters, Emily aged 33 & Sarah aged 30, no longer living at home.  The Family of James Rixon comprised James (48, Chair-turner), his wife Elizabeth (46) and their children John (20, Plumbers Labourer), Amy (18, Domestic Maid) & Edwin James (6).  The 3rd Family was Daniel Rixon (44, Wood-turner), his wife Charlotte (55) & their son William (17, Garden Boy).  Edwin James Rixon joined the Royal Berkshire Regiment in WW1.  He was awarded the Victory & British Medals for his Service.  He was Killed in Action on April 4th 1917.  His name is included on the War Memorial at Fawley Church.  Other Rixon Family graves can also be found at Fawley Church. James Rixon died aged 88 in 1940 and his wife died in 1939, aged 84. Their daughter Amy Rixon died aged 93 in 1975.

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The photograph above shows the members of Fawley Cricket Club in about 1895. At the time, Fawley had about 270 inhabitants to produce a Team. Among their number is at least one Rixon. (3rd from the Right in the Back Row is possibly James or Dan Rixon, aged about 40. The younger members, front right could be Alfred, John, William & Daniel Rixon, who were aged between 14 & 22 at the time.)

The earliest references to Windsor Chairs themselves are about this date.  In the Church Records of West Wycombe for the 17th December 1732 is the following mention of the purchase of a Chair: “Wins. Chair ordered by the Vestry“, surely a reference to a Windsor Chair. When a list of men was drawn up 60-yrs later in 1798, for Military Service purposes, more than 50-Chairmakers were recorded as living in the Borough & Parish of High Wycombe and in the Parish of West Wycombe, with many more in the Villages around.

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Among the early Chairmakers were the Families of Treacher & Widgington. A Billhead of the 1790s bears the Printed Heading “William Treacher, Dyed & Fancy Chairs” indicating an active Business at that time.  A Furniture Label has also survived of another Firm, that of James Gomme, which states that the Furniture was: “Sold at the original Upholstery Warehouse of James Gomme in High Wycombe, where Cabinet Work is done and orders for Household Furniture of every description executed in the best and most fashionable manner 1798“.

In these early days, the production focused on Chair parts which were sent up to London to be framed-up into Chairs. Over the next 50-yrs, local Landowners begin to make available Premises in High Wycombe to enable the Work to be completed in the Town itself.

Turners in the Woods
From the earliest days of the Trade, most of the Lathe-turned Chair Parts were made by Itinerant Turners or “Bodgers” living in the Villages surrounding High Wycombe. Historically, the Turning Skills required by the Chair Industry had been applied to the production of bowls, spoons & other items, which provided a pool of skilled labour from which the Chair Part Turners developed. The use of the term Bodger to describe these Craftsmen is probably a 20thC device, and certainly, it is not used during the 1840s & 1850s when the number of Turners working in the Chilterns reaches its peak.

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Shave Horse used by Workers in Coppice Crafts to hold wood to be shaped by a Draw Shave. The lower Cross Member at the base of the vertical Swinging Arms is pushed forward by the workers foot as he sits at the end over the Single-leg; this action pinches the material to be worked between the Platform and the Upper Cross Member at the top of the Swinging Arms.  The device can be adjusted for different sizes of wood by placing a Wedge under the Platform, or by moving the Pivot of the Swinging Arms to a set of different Holes.

The Turners worked by buying Stands of Trees from Estate Owners at Auctions, which were then felled and converted into Chair Stretchers & Legs.  Some worked in rough Thatched Shelters in the Wood where the trees were felled.  The majority worked in Sheds nearer to home.  The Beech Logs were firstly split and roughly shaped using a Side Axe, and then further shaped with a Draw Shave while the Turner sat on a wooden Shave Horse.  Accidents among the Workers were quite common; for example one of the Bodgers was known as Billy ‘No-toes’ Neville.

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The Turner’s most ingenious piece of equipment, the Pole Lathe, was powered by a long, flexible length of Sapling, and was used to cut the finished design onto the Chair Part.  The finished Article was then sold to the Wycombe Factory Owners.  The metal-framed Treadle Wheel Lathe was widely used as an alternative to the Pole Lathe.  Some of the Turners were self-employed, while others seem to have worked within Groups: “William Biggs, Stokenchurch, Master Turner, employing 12 men & 2 boys” (1881 census).

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Sharing the Woods until the introduction of steam-powered circular-saw were the Pit-Sawyers, producing the Planks for Seats & other Chair Parts.  Working in pairs, their job involved digging a Deep Pit over which they erected a wooden Framework.  The “Under-dog” worked in the Bottom of the Pit while the “Top-dog” stood on Top guiding the Saw.  The overgrown Pits can still be seen today in the Woods surrounding the Town.

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Mr G Sawyer, Chairmaker of Winchmore Hill, Amersham

The Census returns from 1841 onwards cast light on the distribution of Turners in the area.  By this date they are recorded living in High Wycombe, Great Kingshill, West Wycombe & Downley, Villages evenly spread across the District. More than 20 Bodgers lived in Radnage & Stokenchurch, while Great Kingshill, Beacon’s Bottom, Bledlow Ridge & High Wycombe had more than 12 each. In several of the Villages, North of Wycombe Turning was the only Chair-related Employment – Holmer Green, Wycombe Heath, Widmer End, Bryants Bottom & Stoney Cross – while the “Hills” Villages, about 4-miles out of Town to the Northwest, all have Turning as the most important Chair-related Employment.

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Between 1861 & 1881 the number of Turners in the District almost doubled, from 186 to 340, reflecting the still-rising demand for Chairs.  Stokenchurch & Radnage remained 2 of the most important Centres but were joined by Beacons Bottom, and then overtaken by High Wycombe; all 4 Settlements had 395 Resident Turners in 1881; 3 Villages still had all their Chair-related Employment in Turning, and are found in a cluster about 5-miles North of the Town – Bryants Bottom, Stoney Cross & Prestwood.

Wakelins Cottage in Kingston Blount dates from the mid-1500s and was originally a Wheelwrights Shop owned by Amos Wakelin.  The Cottage is situated on the edge of the Village with far-reaching views towards The Ridgeway.

Article –Bucks Heraldabout a Chairmaker: 2nd August 1851
A Dear Lark, or Playing at Firemen

John Dolling, a Plumber & Glazier, and one of the Amersham Fire-Brigade, was summoned by Mr George Brown, a Chairmaker of the same place, with an assault, by turning the Hose of the Fire-Engine on him (as if he were a House on Fire), thereby drenching him so as hardly to leave the spark of life burning in him. –  Brown’s evidence showed that he was passing by the place where the Fire Brigade were Exercising and playing the Fire-Engine.  As he was going by he was made to feel the full effects of the water forced out of the Engine, the Hose being pointed at him.  The Defendant was the Leading Party.  Many attempts at excuses & palliation were made by the Defendant, which, however, proved to no avail, he was fined £1 & 16s costs.’