Church Street in Chesham old town
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.
The land owners of Chesham
The Domesday Book records that there were three manors in Cestreham and one at nearby Latimer. William the Conqueror shared out the estates between four of his dependants. The vast majority of land was granted to Hugh de Bolebec and smaller parcels to Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, Toustain Mantel and Alsi.
Before the 13th century the three Cestreham manors were known as Chesham Higham, Chesham Bury and Chesham Boys (or 'Bois'). In the 14th century they were first recorded as 'the manors of Great Chesham'. Collectively they extended beyond the current Chesham town boundary. Together with the manor at Latimer they were held by the Earls of Oxford and Surrey. During the 16th century Greater Chesham was owned by the Seymour family who disposed of it to the Cavendish family who were the Earls and later Dukes of Devonshire. It is from the 15th century that the earliest surviving properties survive and are to be found close by the church in an area called the Nap, and along part of the present-day Church Street. Though gradually disposing of land the Cavendishes maintained an influence in the town until the 19th century. The Lowndes family started purchasing land from the 16th century. William Lowndes was an influential politician and Secretary to the Treasury during the reigns of Mary II, William III and Queen Anne. He rebuilt the original Bury and manor house of Great Chesham 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 principal benefactors.
No evidence remains of any church prior to the Norman Conquest. However, the siting of puddingstones beneath the present-day church suggests a wooden church was constructed on the site during the Anglo-Saxon period. During the 12th century two families of Norman descent, the de Bolebecs and the Sifrewasts, each held a share of the advowson assigned to the adjacent manors of Chesham Higham and Chesham Bury respectively for the Church at Chesham which it is evidenced from about 1154 was dedicated to St Mary. These moieties were subsequently given by the families to two monasteries. In 1194 the de Bolbecs bestowed their advowson to the abbot and monks of Woburn Abbey and henceforth the parish of Chesham Higham was renamed 'Chesham Woburn'. Meanwhile, and sometime before 1199, the Sifrewast family granted their advowson to the convent of St Mary's de Pré Leicester. As a consequence the advowson for the parish of Chesham Bury became known as 'Chesham Leicester'. In 1536 Henry VIII seized control of church property as part of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Subsequently, during Edward VI and Elizabeth I's reigns, first Chesham Woburn and then Chesham Leicester advowsons became part of the estates of the Dukes of Bedford. Though there were originally two vicars appointed to the parish church of St Mary's from the 17th century a single incumbent was appointed. Jurisdiction was still shared between both advowsons and two parsonages, an 'upper' and 'lower', continued to be maintained until the 18th century when both were superseded by a single new parsonage. The Duke of Bedford subsequently consolidated the moities by Act of Parliament in 1767. To accommodate the increasing population during the 19th century a new parish church were built in 1867; Christ Church at Waterside, and further churches were built at Ashley Green and Bellingdon which were at the time both within the civil parish of Chesham.
Religious dissent and nonconformity
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.
Emigration to the American colonies
In 1630 Aquila Chase left Chesham to join the colony, settling first at Hampton (now New Hampshire), then Newbury, Massachusetts. Descendants of Aquila became influential in shaping political, legislative and commercial matters from the colonial period until after the Declaration of Independence. For example, Salmon P. Chase was the United States Treasury Secretary and Chief Justice in the 1870s and after whom the Chase Manhattan Bank is named (although Chase did not have any connection with the bank).
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 and 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.
Painting of Chesham town, circa 1750
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 Castings & Bronze Castings (Draycast Foundries Limited) and balloons (B-Loony).
The town in times of war
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's 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. During 1642 the influential Parliamentarians John Pym and Earl of Warwick were headquartered in the town along with large numbers of troops. There are records of skirmishes in the area during 1643 when Prince Rupert was stationed near Aylesbury and dispatched Robert Dormer, 1st Earl of Carnarvon to pillage nearby towns, such as Wendover. Heading toward Chesham a company of horse of the Parliamentary Army from the town met them outside Great Missenden where a skirmish took place ending with the Parliamentary force being driven back.
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 provided 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.
Publicly funded education started with the opening of a British School in 1825 followed by a National School in 1845, an Infants' School in 1851 and the first Elementary School for girls in 1864. Chesham Building Society, opened for business in 1845 and continued to operate until June 2010 when it was taken over by the Skipton Building Society. Other public institutions also started at this time with the Fire Brigade coming in 1846, the first cemetery in 1858 and the Police Station built in 1861.
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).