Chair Arch, 1877
High Wycombe is known for chair making, especially Windsor chairs.
This impressive chair arch was put up in the town, to welcome Queen Victoria on a visit in 1877. The people who lived here wanted to show off the local industry and their pride in it. In that year, as many as 4,700 chairs were made in High Wycombe every day! Many of the chairs in the arch are Windsor chairs, which is what the area is known for – but not all of them. High Wycombe’s chair making heritage had begun with Windsor chair making, around 1800.
So, what is a Windsor chair?
This is the type of Windsor chair that most people have in mind when they picture a Windsor chair (if they have anything in mind at all!). It is known as a wheelback Windsor after the wheel shape in the splat. The splat is the decorative flat piece of wood in the chair back. Wheelbacks were made both with and without arms
Historically Windsor armchairs were made as fireside chairs, from about the 1740s onwards. From around the 1820s chairs without arms became more common and were used as dining chairs.
Although the most common, wheelback Windsors are just one of many styles of Windsor chair. They come in an endless variety of designs and sometimes look nothing like the typical wheelback Windsor.
So, what do all these different chairs have in common and what is it that makes them Windsor chairs?
The term ‘Windsor chair’ refers to the structure of the chair – how it was put together – not to where it was made or to any one particular style of chair.
The simplest definition of a Windsor chair is ‘a stool with a back added’. On a Windsor chair, the pieces making up the back (and arms, if the chair has them) could be removed and a stool would remain. It would look like the stool below. The legs slot onto the seat from underneath and the back (and arm supports if there are any) slot into the seat from above.
The legs and back are never integral like in these examples below, neither of which are Windsor chairs – there is no way to remove the back of the chair and still leave a functioning stool.
Also, Windsor chairs are typically:
- Made entirely of wood
- Come from a tradition of woodland crafts
- Use turned sticks or spindles rather than sawn sections of wood (there are exceptions to this though)
Why are they called Windsor Chairs?
There is no evidence that Windsor chairs were ever made in Windsor! We are often asked why they aren’t called Wycombe chairs when they were made in such large numbers here.
In the 1700s, Windsor chairs were made throughout the Chilterns and Thames Valley region. The name Windsor chair came well before there was a centre of production in or near High Wycombe. It seems that chairs from the wider area were transported on the river Thames from Windsor. So, the name comes not from where they were made but from where they were shipped.
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