Chairmaking in the Chilterns

Although it was a cold, wet day and evening there was a good attendance for Dr Catherine Grigg’s talk entitled “Chairmaking in the Chilterns.” Catherine is the Collections Officer at Wycombe Museum (formally known as the Chair Museum).

The audience was introduced to various chair designs, depending on the mode of construction, and then concentrated on Windsor Chairs, the style that made the Lower Chilterns famous. A Windsor chair can be described as a stool with a back and, sometimes, arm-rests, and where all of the main parts fit into holes bored or cut into the seat.

The style was first recorded in the 1720’s; and was made in many parts of the country, East Anglia, The North-East, Wales and the Chilterns. These early specimens were made by individual craftsmen, from selected timbers and were made for the wealthy.

As working conditions and standards of living improved in the mid 1800’s there was an ever increasing demand for economically priced chairs for home and commercial use. The chalk hills of the Chilterns had a ready supply of Beech, cheap and easily workable on simple pole lathes in the “green”, (i.e. newly felled and split). Chair turners set up camps all over the local woods, producing chair parts by the thousand. Legs, spindles and stretchers and all the round parts were produced by these men who later became known as the Bodgers. And “No,” Catherine said, the word ”bodge” doesn’t come from Bodger – it was probably the other way around as “Bodger” only dates from the early 20th Century.

Catherine also mentioned that High Wycombe had the first fire brigade in Bucks – probably because of all the flammable wood and glue! The manufacturers produced the elm seats, shaped the chair backs and arms, often using steam to make the timber more pliable, and shaved and fretted other parts such as the splats. The parts were
then assembled into finished chairs; stained, polished and finished ready for sale.

Catherine’s talk and slides highlighted the tools used by chairmakers, the woods used and the similarities and differences that help to give clues as to where a chair was produced. Subtle changes in the shape or detail of component parts, the method by which pieces are fixed into their sockets and the overall design, all help to identify a chair. Local chairs are less ornate than many others, with slender, elegant legs and with the centre piece in
the back made in one piece also, where the back hoop fits into the seat. If it tapers it isn’t local, if it doesn’t it
probably is!

Windsor chairs remained popular as mass produced items for a hundred years, but by the 1950’s, mechanisation replaced hand craftsmanship. Timber and low-cost furniture were imported and the Bodger was gone from a furniture industry that was, itself, struggling for survival. Today, there does seem to be a renewed interest in wooden chairs and the Windsors are still produced by a few specialist master craftsmen – long-lasting, individual,
traditionally made but costly.

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