Chesham

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Chesham (/ˈtʃɛʃəm/, local /ˈtʃɛsəm/, or /ˈtʃɛzəm/) is a market town in the Chiltern Hills, Buckinghamshire, England. It is located 11 miles south-east of the county town of Aylesbury. Chesham is also a civil parish designated a town council within Chiltern district. It is situated in the Chess Valley and surrounded by farmland, as well as being bordered on one side by Amersham and Chesham Bois. The earliest records of Chesham as a settlement are from the second half of the 10th century although there is archaeological evidence of people in the area from around 8000 BC.

The town is known for its four Bs, usually quoted as:- boots, beer, brushes and Baptists. Chesham’s prosperity grew significantly during the 18th and 19th centuries with the development of manufacturing industry.

In the face of fierce competition from both home and abroad all these traditional industries rapidly declined. The ready availability of skilled labour encouraged new industries to the town both before and after the end of the Second World War. Today employment in the town is provided by mainly small business engaged in light industry, technology and professional services.

From the early part of the 20th century onwards there has been a considerable expansion of the town with new housing developments and civic infrastructure. Increasingly Chesham has also become a commuter town with improved connection to London via the Underground and road networks. The town centre has been progressively redeveloped since the 1960s and was pedestrianised in the 1990s. The population of the town has increased to slightly over 20,000 but further growth has been restricted because the area forms part of the Metropolitan Green Belt.

There is archaeological evidence of the earliest settlement during the Late Mesolithic period around 5000 BC in East Street, Chesham where a large quantity of Flint tools were found. The earliest farming evidence from the Neolithic era around 2500 BC. Bronze Age tribes settled in the valley around 1800 BC and they were succeeded by Iron Age Belgic people of the Catuvellauni tribe around 500 BC. Between 150-400 AD there is evidence of Romano-British farming and nearby at Latimer there is archaeological evidence of a Roman villa and the planting of grapevines. However the area was then deserted until the Saxon period around the 7th century’.

Contrary to popular belief, the town is not named after the river; rather, the river is named after the town. The first recorded reference to Chesham is under the Old English name Cæstæleshamm meaning “the river-meadow at the pile of stones”, around 970 in the will of Lady Ælfgifu, who has been identified with the former wife of King Eadwig. She held an estate here which she bequeathed to Abingdon Abbey.

Prior to 1066 there were three adjacent estates which comprised Caestreham which are briefly recorded in the Domesday Book as being of 1½, 4 and 8½ hides, having four mills. The most important of these manors was held by Queen Edith, the widow of Edward the Confessor. Other land having been returned to the Crown it was in the hands of Harold Godwinson and his brother Leofwine Godwinson. Part of these later became Chesham Bois parish. After 1066 Edith kept her lands and William the Conqueror divided royal lands between his half brother Odo, Bishop of Bayeux and Hugh de Bolbec.

Henry III granted the town a royal charter for a weekly market in 1257. During the 13th and 14th centuries the manor of Great Chesham was a part of the lands held by the Earls of Oxford and Surrey. The earliest habitation was in the area close by the present St Mary’s Church in an area called the Nap where are found remaining the oldest buildings of the present-day town in Church Street. During the 16th century it was owned by the Seymour family who disposed of it to the Cavendish family the Earls and later Dukes of Devonshire who held it into the first part of the 19th century. Meanwhile adjacent land in and around the town was owned by the Lowndes family. William Lowndes was an influential politician and Secretary to the Treasury during the reign of William III and Queen Anne. He had the original Bury and manor house of Great Chesham, rebuilt in 1712. The Lowndes family settled in Chesham and over the next 200 years became equally influential both nationally through politics and the law and locally within the town as its principle benefactors. Another family, the Scottowes, also controlled estate lands within and outside the town and later on, the Duke of Bedford also.

Chesham is noted for the religious dissent which dominated the town from the 15th century. In 1532 Thomas Harding was burnt at the stake in the town for being a Lollard and heretic. From the 17th century Chesham was a focus for those dissenting from mainstream religion. Quakers met in the late 17th century in Chesham and in 1798 they built the current meeting house. The first Baptists’ meeting dates back to about 1640 and a place was registered for services in 1706. The first chapel was opened in 1712, one of many to be built for the various Baptist groups during the 18th and 19th centuries. John Wesley preached in Chesham in the 1760s and a Wesleyan Methodist society existed in the town. In more recent time a Wesleyan Methodist chapel was opened in 1897. The Christian Brethren which date back in Chesham to 1876, opened their Gospel Hall in 1895, which closed in December 2008. Broadway Baptist church had branches at the Vale, Hawridge, Ashley Green and Chartridge, only the one at Chartridge survives. Trinity Baptist church had branches at Hyde Heath, Ley Hill and Whelpley Hill, only the one at Hyde Heath survives. The Congregational Church had branches at Asheridge and Pond Park.

The primary industries of the town in medieval times were flour production, woodworking and weaving of wool. There were four mills built along the Chess which was diverted to generate sufficient power. Surplus flour was supplied to London. The number of clothworkers, including spinners and those associated with dying (fullers), grew rapidly between 1530 and 1730 and became the major industry in the town prior to a period of rapid decline. Between 1740 to 1798 mills were converted to produce paper (pulp) responding to London’s insatiable demand for paper. However, technological developments in paper-making elsewhere rendered the mills unprofitable and they reverted to flour production in the 1850s.

New industries emerged from the 16th century onwards. The woodlands had been a source of firewood for London during the mediaeval period. A small-scale woodenware industry; making shovels, brooms, spoons and chairs, began around 1538 and its expansion was accompanied by the planting of beechwoods between 17th and 19th centuries. Straw plaiting was seen as home-based work for the wives and daughters of labourers from the 18th century. Straw was also imported from Italy to produce the superior ‘Tuscan plait’ traded at a Saturday market for the Luton and Dunstable hat trade and remained the major cottage industry until around 1860, providing employment for women and girls some of whom attended a ‘plait-school’ in Waterside. Lace making developed in the 16th century as a cottage industry and was valued for its quality. Chesham specialised in black lace. The industry declined in the 1850s due to mechinisation in Nottingham. Between 1838 and 1864 silk-spinning, powered by a steam-driven mill in Waterside was started to make use of unemployed lace workers. This trend was relatively short-lived as changes in fashion and the growth of the railways resulted in competition from elsewhere for the valuable London markets. However one exception was the firm of George Tutill, which specialised in high-quality banners and was responsible for three-quarters of those made for trade unions. The firm is still a going concern still specialising in flags and banners.

Three of the four Bs that have shaped Chesham’s history relate to its industries. Brush making was introduced around 1829 to make use of the off-cuts from woodworking. Boot and shoe making which started as a cottage industry later expanding through small workshops thrived following the opening of tanneries around 1792 which also supplied leather for saddle making and glove. By the mid-19th century both brushmaking and footwear manufacture became major industries in the town with production concentrated in large factories. The industry declined in the early-20th century as the market for heavy boots declined. Beer brewing grew rapidly around the town centre in the 19th century again declining at the start of the 20th century. These traditional industries were succeeded by smaller but more commercial enterprises which took advantage of the available skilled labour. For example in 1908 the Chiltern Toy Works was opened by Joseph Eisenmann on Bellingdon Road, later moving to the ‘new’ industrial estate in Waterside, making high quality teddy bears. The works finally closed in 1960. Post Second World War industry has ranged from the manufacture of glue (Industrial Adhesives) to aluminium-based packaging (Alcan), Aluminium & Bronze Casting (Draycast Foundries) and balloons (B-Loony).

William the Conqueror paused at nearby Berkhamsted in 1066 en route to London. Henry VIII imposed a tax on the town to pay for his wars against Scotland and France.

In common with the majority of communities in Buckinghamshire, Chesham’s Lollard heritage and puritan traditions ensured it would vehemently resist King Charles I demand for Ship Money a tax on tradesmen and landowners. In 1635 the townsfolk of Chesham protested to the Sheriff of Buckinghamshire, Sir Peter Temple who was reluctantly enforcing a writ requiring payment of a levy to the King. Not surprisingly given the local allegiances to John Hampden the towns’ people largely sided with the Parliamentarians at the outbreak of the English Civil War. There is evidence of skirmishes in the area and Influential Parliamentarians such as John Pym were headquartered along with large numbers of troops for a period.

The records of the Posse Comitatus for Chesham in 1798 recorded over 800 men between the ages of 16-60 enrolled in a militia to defend the town in the event of invasion by Napoleon I or to deal with civil unrest. Less than 50 years later, in 1846 a similar register of 22 able-bodied men had been assembled to form the Chesham troop of the Royal Buckinghamshire Yeomanry which coincided with the billeting of troops from the Queen’s Own 7th Hussars passing through the town on their way to Ireland.

During the First World War 188 servicemen from Chesham lost their lives (see Landmarks). Alfred Burt a corporal in the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regiment from Chesham received the Victoria Cross for his actions in September 1915. The town were temporary quarters for several regiments including the Kings Royal Rifles and the Royal Engineers honed their bridge building skills in local parks. Over the duration of the Second World War 80 servicemen lost their lives. Air raid shelters were built by the Council in 1940 although the official view was that the not being a strategic location the town was unlikely to be targeted. In fact at the end of the war it was estimated that 45 bombs fell in the Chesham area and it is known that nine people were killed.

A Chesham workhouse for 90 paupers was operating in Germain Street as early as 1777. New legislation transferred the control of the Chesham institution to Amersham Poor Law Union in 1835. However there were long-standing rivalries between the locals of both towns and in July that year violence broke out when an order was given to remove the paupers to Amersham. The Riot Act was read out to an angry crowd of 500 and arrests followed.

Chesham cottage hospital, built for £865 17s 11d on land provided by Lord Chesham, opened in October 1869 and just ahead of an outbreak of typhoid in 1871. Despite a local campaign to save the hospital it closed in 2005. In September 2010 the derelict hospital building was severely damaged by fire caused by arsonists according to police reports. The Council commissioned a waterworks to be built in 1875 in Alma Road and mains drainage in the town and a sewage works was opened adjacent to the Chess, downstream in 1887. A gasworks was constructed on the southern part of the town in 1847. Bathing in the Chess at Waterside was an old tradition which became increasingly popular in the 19th century. Complaints that it had become a nuisance led to the Urban District Council surrounding the site with a concrete wall. This further increased its popularity and an open-air pool was built by the council in 1912.

Transport connections have always come late to the town. The Metropolitan Railway eventually reached Chesham in July 1889. Electrification was not to come until the 1960s. Between the two world wars and in the 1950s and 60s there was much expansion in the town with new public housing developments along the Missenden Road, at Pond Park and at Botley.

The first public viewings of cinema films in Chesham were provided by travelling showmen around 1900 and attracted large crowds. The first purpose-built cinema, The Empire Picture Hall, opened in Station Road in 1912 and in 1914 The Chesham Palace started up in The Broadway. Both showed silent films. By 1920 the Empire had closed. In 1930 the Chesham Palace was refurbished to show the new ‘talkies’ and reopened as The Astoria which remained in business until 1959 when the arrival of television forced it to close. The Embassy in Germain Street opened in 1935 and survived until 1982, closing due to competition from cinemas in nearby towns. The Elgiva Theatre, completed in 1976 beside St Mary’s Way, was equipped to show films and on moving to a new site just across the road in 1998 state of the art projection equipment was installed in the new theatre (see image below).

The town is located in the Chess Valley and is 11 miles south-east of the county town of Aylesbury and is situated 25 miles (40 km) north west of central London. It is the fourth largest town in the ceremonial county of Buckinghamshire and the largest in Chiltern District, with a population of some 20,343 people behind Milton Keynes with 184,500, High Wycombe with 118,200 and Aylesbury with 69,200. Nearby Amersham has 17,719.

Chesham is located in the Chiltern Hills and from its lowest point of 295 feet above sea level rises up valley sides. It lies at the confluence of four dry valleys formed by the meltwater at the end of the last ice age which deposited onto the bed rock of chalk, alluvial gravels, silts, on which the town now sits. Subsequent periods of subsidence and submergence deposited clays and flints. The River Chess is a chalk-stream which rises from three springs; to the north-west along the Pednor Vale at Frogmoor, at Higham Mead to the north of the town, and to the west near the Amersham Road which converge in the town near to East Street. Prior to the 19th century the Chess was known as the Isene relating to the iron-charged spring waters feeding it. Today the streams are culverted and conducted below street level before emerging at Waterside and flowing in a south easterly direction towards Latimer. From there it flows to the north of Chenies and on towards Rickmansworth after which it joins the River Colne.

Chesham developed as a market town which prospered through its manufacturing industries fuelled by a series of mills which sprung up along the River Chess. Until the 19th century the town was centred to the south-eastern end of the present High Street. Most of the present-day town centre’s development took place during Victorian times. The ‘old town’, particularly Church and Germain Street, has been well-preserved and now designated a conservation area. it includes a number of impressive residential, institutional and commercial buildings that largely survived Victorian ‘improvement’. The 12th century St Mary’s Church, which underwent refurbishment and redesign by George Gilbert Scott in the 19th century. ‘The Bury’, a Queen Anne town house was built in 1712 for William Lowndes Secretary to the Treasury. Chesham had two workhouses, both buildings survived and are located in Germain Street. In June 2009 the Chesham town centre and old town conservation area was placed on the English Heritage Conservation Areas at Risk register which the District Council commented was due to the misinterpretation of its responses to the conservation body’s questionnaire. Due to the pattern of the town’s expansion there are several centres of employment which are interspersed with residential housing. Industrial buildings on the north side of the town have been redeveloped into offices in recent years.

The population more than doubled from 4000 to 9000 during the 19th century. As a consequence the centre of the town shifted to the east as shops, workshops and cottages sprung up along the High Street and Berkhampstead Road. In the period after the Second World War the town centre was progressively redeveloped. In the 1960s St Mary’s Way was constructed, rerouting the A416 around the congested High Street which avoided the need to widen the street, conserved its character and allowed for its pedestrianisation during the 1990s. Industrial development became centred on two areas. At the southern end of the town at Waterside which was the site of the first mills and factories in the 18th and 19th centuries there is a mixture of original and newly constructed industrial units and at the northern end along the Asheridge Vale there is a further development of generally small commercial business units.

A clock tower constructed in 1992 stands in Market Square on the site of Chesham’s 18th century town hall demolished in 1965. The turret is a reconstruction of the one built onto the original town hall in the 19th century and features the original glass-dialled clock face and clock mechanism from the mid 19th century. (see info box).

Chesham war memorial stands in a landscaped garden in the Broadway. It depicts an infantryman with his rifle inverted and commemorates those who fell during the First and Second World Wars. it was unveiled in 1921. The inscription reads:- To The Glorious Memory Of The Men Of The Town Who Gave Their Lives And To Honour: All Who Served Or Suffered In Cause Of God King And Country Their Deeds Live After Them Faithful Unto Death.

There is evidence during the pre-Norman period of common fields divided into parcels and strips of land. The Domesday Book records Chesham with sufficient arable land to support four water-powered corn mills on the River Chess producing a surplus of flour exported to London. There was woodland to feed over 1600 pigs and supply timber for local manufacturing of farm tools (ploughshares). Field enclosure started in the early 16th century and although almost completed by the mid 19th century the productivity of Chesham farms provided work for over 450 agricultural labourers. Sheep that grazed on the hillside fields around Chesham provided wool for the cloth making and dying cottage industry which, due to the town’s proximity to London, thrived until the 18th century when Yorkshire mills out-competed them.

Until the 18th century the economic activity of Chesham had remained largely unchanged since the granting of its town charter in 1257. The commercial planting of beechwoods established Chesham as one of a number local centres in the Chilterns for the production of turned furniture components and other wooden items often called bodging, in local workshops. Mills along the Chess concerned with papermaking and silk weaving continued to operate until the middle of the 19th century as did ‘outworkers’ engaged in lace making and straw plaiting whose employment was impacted on by changes in fashion, by mechanization and from cheaper imports from the continent. The mineral-laden unpolluted water of the Chess made it ideal for growing watercress and this industry flourished in Chesham in the Victorian era and beds extended along the Chess towards Latimer, which continued in operation until after the Second World War.

In the 18th century home-based leather trade workers moved to a newly opened Barnes Boot factory and the Britannia Boot and Shoe Works towards the end of the 19th century by which time there were eight major manufacturers and many small workshops. In 1829 Beechwoods brushmaking factory was opened. At its height there were around 12 factories specialising in brush made from locally grown beech with bristles imported mainly from across Asia. The adoption of nylon for brushes was the cause of the downturn with only one manufacturer remaining today. Russell’s Brushes still make brushes in Chesham. Nash’s Chesham Brewery opened in the High Street in 1841. Two other notable rivals were Darvell’s Brewery and Sarah Howe and Sons. Competition led to amalgamations around the turn of the 20th century although brewing continued at Chesham Brewery until the 1950s.

Today Chesham has a diverse economic base comprising many typically small-medim sized enterprises representing all business sectors. Within the two industrial parks light engineering and fabrication industry is to be found alongside printers and graphic designers or other technology-based firms, wholesalers, distribution and courier businesses. As elsewhere there has been an expansion of professional business services and consultancies. The pedestrianised High Street retains some of the character of the old market town with some long-established traditional family retailers and also features a street market on Wednesdays and Saturdays. This individuality was recognised in a survey of town ‘high streets’ which gave Chesham good marks for its distinctiveness. There are two of the ‘big five’ supermarkets present which have impacted on the town’s independent stores and all retail outlets have also to compete with other nearby town centres, at Amersham, Berkhamsted and Tring as well as the large shopping centres in High Wycombe, Watford and Milton Keynes.

From 1950 to 1974 the town was part of South Buckinghamshire constituency; since boundary changes made ahead of the February 1974 general election Chesham has been in the Chesham & Amersham constituency.

Chesham formed part of Amersham Poor Law Union from 1835 and Amersham Rural Sanitary District from 1875. From 1884 the town was administered by the Chesham Local Government District, which was succeeded in 1894 by Chesham Urban District under the Local Government Act 1894.

When the Local Government Act 1972 came into effect on 1 April 1974 the urban district was abolished in favour of the Chiltern district and the civil parish was given town council status.

The various colours of the Chesham Town crest, created in 1974, are the same as those of Buckinghamshire County arms. The Chiltern woodlands are denoted by two beech trees. The river Chess is recognised in the black and white chequers and rooks. The swan is inherited from the Dukes of Buckingham. The lilies relate to St Mary, patron saint of the parish church. The buck’s head is borrowed from the arms of The Cavendish family, which owned most of the parish lands. The motto is from the Epistle to the Galatians, Chapter V, Verse 13.

The oldest church building in Chesham is St. Mary’s Church which dates from at least the 12th century. Chesham has a long history of religious dissent, such as the persecuted Lollards, followers of the John Wycliffe tradition. One of them Thomas Harding was martyred on White Hill, near Dungrove Farm, in 1532. There is a memorial to local Lollards in Amersham, and memorials to Thomas Harding in the churchyard and on White Hill. The 17th, 18th and 19th centuries saw the rapid growth of non-conformism especially Baptists. During the civil war there were groups of Quakers, Baptists and Presbyterians. Broadway Baptist Church dates back to at least 1706 and had its 300th anniversary celebrations in Chesham in 2006. Its roots are in the Chesham and Berkhamsted Baptist Church which dates back to 1640.

Population Total
1801 3,969
1831 5,388
1851 6,098
1871 6,488
1901 7,245
1931 8,812
1951 11,433
1961 16,297
1971 † 20,466
1981 20,447
1990 20,214
2001 20,358

The Mid-2010 population estimate is 20858 a projected 2.5% increase since 2001.

In contrast to other towns in south Buckinghamshire, Chesham historically was not well served by road transport links. The stage coach bypassed the town and, unlike Amersham, there were no turnpikes and consequently roads were poorly maintained. Significant change occurred in the post Second World War period with the opening of the M1 motorway. The A416 now runs through the town, from Amersham to Berkhamsted, and connects the town to the more recently upgraded A41. The A416 was diverted around the High Street and later upgraded to be dual-lane. Although these improvements enable more through traffic, traffic congestion has increased. Chesham’s High Street was pedestrianised in 1990 and the benefits to the High Street have been felt ever since. Whilst some of the previous bustle has been lost, the impact of pedestrianisation has generally been positive.

Chesham tube station, close to the town centre, is the terminus for the Chesham branch, a single track spur off the London Underground Metropolitan Line connecting to Chalfont and Latimer station. It was opened in July 1889. The original plan involved the extension of the line from the station to the LNWR at Berkhamsted, but the idea was abandoned as the Metropolitan Line reached Amersham and thence Aylesbury. There were some sizeable goods yards beyond the station, which were closed and now function as Waitrose’s car park except for one portion occupied by a coal merchants.

In 1959 electrification of the Metropolitan Line to Chesham provided a more reliable connection to London. Following the abolition of London Underground services to Aylesbury in 1961 and the closure of Ongar tube station in 1994, Chesham has become the furthest location served from central London, in terms of both distance and travelling time.

The Elgiva Hall opened on its original location in 1976. In 1998, having made way for an enlarged supermarket development the Elgiva was rebuilt as a purpose-built theatre on its current site and reopened as the New Elgiva. Now rebranded The Elgiva it is a 300 seated/400 standing capacity theatre, with a Dolby Digital 35mm cinema and is owned and managed by Chesham Town Council. The Elgiva presents a wide-ranging programme of professional and amateur theatre productions, musicals, comedy, dance, one night shows and concerts, pantomimes, films, exhibitions and other public and private events by both professional and community organisations. The Little Theatre by the Park is a facility owned by the Town Council and leased to the Little Theatre Trustees. It is the home to the Chesham Bois Catholic Players and used by other local theatre companies and is used for dance and exercise groups.

Chesham Museum is a newly established museum for the town and surrounding area which opened in 2004 having first been conceived back in 1981. Initially it was housed in temporary premises at The Stables behind the Gamekeeper’s Lodge Pub in Bellingdon Road. Since October 2009 is has been located at 15 Market Square. There is also an annual Schools of Chesham carnival, Beer festival and bi-annual Chesham festival.

Chesham is twinned with Friedrichsdorf, Germany; Houilles, France; Archena, Spain.

Note: this page is partly based on a Wikipedia page. Text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. Where possible, text is being updated to original, fully referenced research. ‘Our photos’ means we took the photographs. The Street View and street map visuals are courtesy of Google.

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