Chair making in Penn Wood

A group of chairmakers in yard of Howland's furniture factory c.1900 credit @ Sharing Wycombe's Old Photos and High Wycombe Library

Chair making started as a cottage industry in the villages of the Chilterns in the 1600s. However, in the 1790s, with the industrial revolution, High Wycombe became a centre of production for the manufacture of chairs and other furniture. In fact, this trade became the town’s main industry and by the mid 19th century there were around one hundred factories in the area, many using Penn and Common Woods as a source of timber.

Craftsman removing bark from wooden bow c.1948 credit @ Sharing Wycombe's Old Photos and Buckinghamshire Free Press

Around that time, the appearance of the woods changed significantly. Large areas of oak trees were clear-felled and replaced with beech, which thrived in the chalky soil found in the Chilterns, to meet the increasing demand for tall, narrow trees. In fact, so many were planted that they became known as the 'Buckinghamshire weed'. These trees were more easily handled by woodsmen as well as being more economical to transport to the factories in town.

Bodgers

Although the chairs were assembled in factories, the legs, stretchers and spindles were made by highly skilled wood-turners known as bodgers. As it was easier to take their tools to the trees than carry the timber to a workshop, these craftsmen worked in the woods. Having purchased a stand of trees from the estate and built a small shack for shelter close by, the bodger would set to work, roughly cutting and shaping the wood to the length of a chair leg, spindle or stretcher before turning the wood with a pole lathe to produce the finished article.

Once the chair components had been made, they would be stored, drying in piles, until the bodger could take them to the chair factories in High Wycombe for sale. The bodgers worked hard, having to produce at least 144 chair parts per day to make a living, although many supplemented their income by selling wood shavings as kindling.

The bodgers prospered for well over two centuries, until the early 1900s when factories began moving towards the more cost-effective mechanical methods of mass production. A small number of bodgers could still be found working in the woods up until the 1950s, after which the trade died out.

The Windsor Chair

It wasn’t long before High Wycombe became renowned for making Windsor Chairs. This style of chair was constructed in a specific way, starting with the benchman who would carve a solid wooden seat (or bottom) into a shallow dish for comfort and produce the back splats. This would then be passed, along with the spindles, legs and stretchers, to a framer who would assemble the chair by pushing the various components into drilled holes.

Although the traditional manufacturing method has changed considerably over the years, the basic principles of the construction of the Windsor Chair remain and it is still a popular design today.

Household names in the furniture trade

The production techniques might have changed, but the industry continued to thrive and furniture makers flocked to High Wycombe which had established itself as a chair-manufacturing hub. Dancer and Hearne, Parker Knoll and Ercol all had factories in the area and were producing chairs in great volume. In fact, in the 1930s, Dancer and Hearne produced over 10,000 chairs each week, making it the biggest chair manufacturer in the world.

Workers at Dancer and Hearne factory c.1895 credit @ Sharing Wycombe's Old Photos and Buckinghamshire Free PresOther companies were also drawn to the area. The match maker, Bryant & Mays, had a factory in High Wycombe and took advantage of the wood scraps being disposed of by the furniture trade.