Frequently Asked Questions & Sources of Further Information

Curious about the Museum? Want to know more about High Wycombe’s history? Have a browse through our list of Frequently Asked Questions and sources of further information.

Checked our FAQs and still have a question? The Museum runs an enquiries service. We can answer questions about our collection and similar artefacts, but for Family and Local History, please check the information below. Find out more about our enquiries service here

On Wycombe Museum

Is Wycombe Museum the same as The Chair Museum or The Chair-Making Museum?

Despite popular belief there was never an officially named Chair Museum in Wycombe. From around 1875 a local lawyer, James Oliff Griffits, collected books and objects to create a general-interest ‘High Wycombe Museum and Library’. At this time, objects were collected on the grounds of general interest, rather than relevance to High Wycombe. This explains the presence in the collection of objects such as the Babylonian tablet and the Parisian velocipede, which have no specific local connection.

Soon after the Museum opened in the 1930s, local chairs and tools were collected and displayed, reflecting the dominant local industry. As a result, the Museum would come to be known informally as ‘The Chair Museum’. 

The Museum kept the name ‘High Wycombe Museum’ until the 1980s when the ‘High’ was dropped and it was renamed ‘Wycombe Local History and Chair Museum’ – to remind people that the collections cover local history from the wider Wycombe District, including Marlow, Stokenchurch and Princes Risborough. In the 1990s the Museum became simply ‘Wycombe Museum’. We are still Wycombe Museum but don’t mind if you prefer to call us The Chair Museum!

The Chair Making Museum was not in fact a formal Museum but the showroom and workshop of traditional furniture maker Stuart Linford, which he opened to the public. It included a display of Thames Valley Windsor Chairs. It is now closed but the displays have been taken over by Kraftinwood in High Wycombe.

How old is the Museum?

In the 1870s James Oliff Griffits, a local lawyer, raised money for a free public library. The story goes that he held dinner parties where each guest brought a book or an object or a monetary donation. In 1875 he opened his library – with space to display some small objects – in Church Street, High Wycombe.

In 1917 Sir John Thomas of Wooburn, a paper mill owner, left land to the council for ‘a Public Museum and Art Gallery’, as well as some paintings which formed the basis of our art collection.

In 1929 the upper floors of the Library were set aside as a dedicated museum space and more objects started being donated. Fred Skull – an antiques dealer from a furniture-making family – was appointed Honorary Museum Curator.

In 1932, a new library/museum opened in Queen Victoria Road with an extension 5 years later.
In 1962, Wycombe Museum moved to its current home, Castle Hill House on Priory Avenue. The move was initially meant to be temporary, but we’re still here today!

On Castle Hill House

Why is it called Castle Hill House?

There is a long-standing belief that the mound in the grounds was a defensive motte-and-bailey castle in the Middle Ages (see below section on the Museum Grounds). This belief gave the house its name. As the mound has never been excavated, it is not possible to either prove or disprove this belief.

How old is Castle Hill House?

Different parts of Castle Hill House were built at different times, so there are a number of answers to this question. The oldest parts date back to the late 1600s, with the most recent parts added on around 1910.
The original house is believed to have been built between 1690-1720, and is at the rear of the Museum as it currently stands. The original house consisted of the kitchen, hallway and living room on the ground floor, a landing and two bedrooms on the first floor, and the attic which had extra bedrooms.

About 200 years ago the flint fronted extension was added to give bigger rooms and a more impressive façade. These new rooms had higher ceilings which left no room for an attic at the front of the house. This is particularly noticeable in the Museum’s foyer, where the more recent front half has higher ceilings which then lower towards the staircase to the first floor, and is the reason our lift makes multiple stops on the two levels of the first floor. At the same time that the front extension was built, another was added for the servants’ use at the rear of the building – this is where the toilets are now.

About 100 years ago the eastern end of the house was extended resulting in its current, lopsided, appearance.

Who lived at Castle Hill House?

Before Wycombe Museum moved to Castle Hill House, it was a family home. Some of the house’s residents were locally important, but not national figures.

The Shrimpton family, who were tenants here, provided a mayor 21 times for High Wycombe between 1699 and 1786.

Samuel Welles, a member of the family who owned the house until 1808, was Mayor of High Wycombe 5 times. Although his family owned Castle Hill House, Welles never lived there himself.

In 1808 Samuel Nash, the Town Clerk, bought the house and lived in it.

Afterwards it was owned by the Carrington family, who have ties to Wycombe Abbey School. The Carringtons leased the house to their land agents.

John George Peace, another Mayor of High Wycombe, bought the property in 1892.

From 1909 to 1962 the Clarke family owned the house. All 3 heads of the house – Daniel, Arthur and Roland Peace – were Mayors of High Wycombe.

Is Castle Hill House haunted?

There are said to be at least 3 ghosts:

A Victorian lady walks through the blocked door in the upstairs chair gallery, a man in a Tricorn hat on the front lawn, and footsteps through the upstairs chair galleries.

However, none of these ghosts have been witnessed in recent years – unless you count our staff and volunteers dressing up at our Halloween events!

On the Museum Grounds & Garden

How have the grounds of Castle Hill House changed over time?

Until the middle of the 19th century, the house grounds went all the way down to Castle Street, across to Amersham Hill and up to Priory Road. Land was sold off as follows:

  • 1862 – land to the south sold to the railway for the extension to Princes Risborough & beyond.
  • 1875 – land to the east sold for Greenways houses.
  • 1975 – land to the north sold for Haystacks houses.
  • 1975 – a small parcel of land to the south-west sold for a new vicarage.

Was a Saxon burial site discovered in the grounds of Castle Hill House?

In 1901, a wedding was taking place in the House grounds. It’s said that during the ceremony, workmen working on the driveway unearthed an old grave. Amongst the grave goods was an approximately 1,000-year-old golden Saxon pendant. Although the original is now kept by the British Museum, Wycombe Museum holds a replica of the pendant in our galleries.

The amount of truth in this story is unknown. While there was definitely a Saxon burial site and golden pendant discovered, it’s not known exactly where within the grounds they were found, or whether they could have been discovered during a wedding ceremony. In 1901 the boundaries of Castle Hill House’s grounds were not the same as they are today. Before the railway was built, the House’s driveway went right down the hill and came out at the bottom of Amersham Hill. When the railway came, the House’s driveway ran along the north of the railway and still came out in Amersham Hill, but just above the railway bridge. Priory Avenue was not made until about 1901 so were the workmen working “on the driveway” somewhere between the present gates and Amersham Hill? If men were working on the driveway, then how did guests get in and out of Castle Hill grounds for the wedding celebration?

Sadly, the exact location was not recorded, so these questions remain unanswered.

What is the history of the motte in the grounds?

The motte, together with the rest of the grounds, was scheduled as an Ancient Monument by English Heritage (now Historic England) meaning it is of national importance. They declared it to be a Norman fortification called motte-and-bailey, probably dating to the 12th century period known as The Anarchy when Stephen and Matilda contested the English throne.

There are people in Wycombe who dispute the motte-and-bailey claims, and say it is a landscape garden feature, although this is also disputed. There have been several other suggested origins but, sadly, there is no conclusive proof as to what the motte is or is not.  Mike Farley, former County Archaeologist, says that, until clear evidence is found, perhaps it should simply be called ‘The Mystery Mound’.

On Furniture & Furniture Making

What is a Windsor chair, and why are they called Windsor chairs?

A Windsor chair is, most simply, a stool with a back added. It refers to how a chair is constructed, rather than to a particular design.

Read our blog post What is a Windsor Chair here 

Windsor chairs have never been produced in Windsor. They were named ‘Windsor chairs’ by at least the early 1700s, which was long before High Wycombe became a centre for chair production. This would only begin to happen 100 years later. Windsor was where chairs made in the surrounding area were loaded onto river barges for transporting to London. This is almost certainly how Windsor chairs got their name.

Why were some chair makers called bodgers?

Bodgers produced all the parts of chairs that were turned on pole-lathes – including the legs, stretchers, arms and rods. They would work in woods around Wycombe, close to their homes. Bodger is an informal name for these turners and it doesn’t appear to have become common until the early twentieth century. They never called themselves bodgers. When they had to record their job, they always used the more correct word ‘turner’.

It’s not possible to know exactly where the name came from – one idea is that it has links with the idea of a ‘bodged job’, and was a derogatory term used by workers in furniture factories when referring to men who worked in the woods. Or it may simply refer to men who produced incomplete chair parts, leaving the factory workers to produce the finished product.

What do the initials stamped on chairs mean?

Many chairs will have initials stamped onto them, usually on the back edge of the seat. They are usually the initials of the chair ‘framer’ – the worker who put all the chair parts together to complete the chair. It made sure the worker was paid for all the chairs he completed. Initials on their own are not enough to identify a specific chair framer.

Why did so many furniture factories catch fire?

Factories were made of wood, were full of wood used for the furniture, tools had wooden handles, and the air within factories was filled with sawdust and wood chippings. Open stoves were used for heating chair-glue, which set hard if it got cold. This combination made fires almost inevitable.

It has been suggested that some fires were started deliberately for the insurance money, especially towards the end when factories were becoming unprofitable, but these claims are unsubstantiated.

List of High Wycombe Furniture Makers

External Resources on Furniture & Furniture Making

On High Wycombe’s History & Heritage

What is the origin of High Wycombe’s mayor weighing tradition?

Traditionally, a mayor was weighed at the beginning and end of their term to make sure that they had not ‘grown fat’ at the expense of the people of Wycombe. It has in recent years become more of a ceremonial tradition. The date of the first mayor weighing in High Wycombe is unknown, but in John Parker’s history of Wycombe (1878) he claims that this tradition had fallen into disuse since the dissolution of the old Corporation in 1835. There are no other known references to the tradition.

Mayor weighing is almost unique to High Wycombe – in 1951, mayor weighting was adopted by Minneapolis in America.

Why were chair arches built in High Wycombe?

In Victorian Britain many towns often constructed arches to mark special occasions, often composed of objects which symbolised the town, and High Wycombe was famous for chairs.

The original idea of a triumphal arch goes back to classical Greek and Roman times. More recent examples were probably inspired by Marble Arch which was moved from Buckingham Palace to Hyde Park Corner in 1850-51. See more on the town’s chair arches on our Photography page.

What is the origin of the Wycombe swan emblem?

The association between Buckinghamshire, its towns, and the swan starts from around 1444, when Humphrey sixth Earl of Stafford became Duke of Buckingham. The swan was his personal crest. However, the direct link to High Wycombe is not known. The crown that accompanies the swan on the emblem of High Wycombe is said to come from the belief that High Wycombe owes its allegiance to no one but the crown.

There are differences between the Buckinghamshire swan crest and the High Wycombe swan crest. While they both derive from the Duke of Buckingham’s crest, the Buckinghamshire county swan almost always has its wings open, whilst the High Wycombe swan’s wings are almost always closed.

Is High Wycombe listed in the Domesday Book?

The Domesday Book is a record of the 1086 Great Survey, that was undertaken in much of England and parts of Wales, as ordered by William the Conqueror. There is an entry for High Wycombe (then Wicumun), which includes these details:

Population: 60 ‘very large’ households – 40 villagers, 8 smallholders, 8 slaves & 4 boors.

Ploughland: Land for 30 ploughs – 3 lord’s plough teams & 27 men’s plough teams.

Other resources: Meadow – 3 ploughs. Woodland – 500 pigs. Mills – 6.

A ‘boor’ was the lowest grade of peasant, but above a slave. A ‘plough’ was a measure of land, determined by what could be ploughed by a team of 8 oxen in a day.

Was there ever a castle in Desborough?

It is believed that a castle was built at Desborough during the 1150s, during the reign of King Stephen and the war with his cousin Matilda. A fortress could have been sited at Desborough as early as 1000BC.

External Resources on Wycombe’s History & Heritage

On Local Art and Photographs

Can I get copies of any of the Museum’s photographs and paintings?

Wycombe Museum’s photographs, and prints of many of our paintings are available to be purchased and licensed for reproduction. You can find out more on our Image Licensing page. [Link in Licensing page]

Sharing Wycombe’s Old Photographs

View Wycombe Museum’s Oil Paintings on ArtUK

On Local Records & Family History Research

Can Wycombe Museum help me with my family history research?

Wycombe Museum does not carry records specific to family history research. We recommend you use the resources available at the Buckinghamshire Archives and High Wycombe Library.

If you are looking for information on a relative you know to have been associated with a particular local furniture factory, you may also want to look at our List of High Wycombe Furniture Factories [link to Factories list].

Checked our FAQs and still have a question? The Museum runs an enquiries service. We can answer questions about our collection and similar artefacts, but for Family and Local History, please use the relevant links to other sources of information above. 

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