Henrietta Busk by Percy Bigland for Bedford College now part of the Royal Holloway University collection
Henrietta Busk by Percy Bigland for Bedford College now part of the Royal Holloway University collection

This page was written by Alison Bailey of the Chesham Bois History Group.

In 1902 Henrietta Busk, a pioneer in the education of women, bought Bois Cottage, to the north of the Common. The access drive used to be on North Road but today is in Long Park Close. She had been advised by her doctor to seek a cottage in the country after a period of serious ill-health. Whilst searching for a suitable site for an annual picnic which she organised, she came out to Amersham on the newly built Metropolitan line. She found a pleasant, wooden bungalow in half-acre of grounds and fell in love with it.

After the arrival of the railway, rural Chesham Bois was changing rapidly with farm land being sold for building plots. In the 1896 Manor Farm Estate sale of the land that is now North Road the area was described as a “true Health Resort”.

Extract from 1896 Manor Farm Estate Sale document
Extract from 1896 Manor Farm Estate Sale document
Bois Cottage c1905 with Henrietta Busk on the Porch
Bois Cottage c1905 with Henrietta Busk on the Porch

She bought the cottage with her older sister, Mary, a keen gardener and botanist and they added more land until the garden was over five acres. They also bought a field at the side, to prevent a house being built there which would spoil their view. This was later let out as a riding stables.

Ruth Young published a biography of Henrietta Busk “The Life of an educational worker” in 1934 to record Henrietta’s extraordinary contribution to the cause of educating women. I have quoted extensively from her book in this article. She describes Bois Cottage “The garden was the supreme delight of the elder Miss Busk, who had always longed for a garden of her very own. A tennis court was laid down, with a rock garden along the side. Roses and gentians flourished; indeed every flower you could name grew at Chesham Bois and the garden was a glorious setting for Miss Busk’s parties.”

Henrietta Busk, was born in 1845 to an academic, Unitarian  family of progressive thinkers, who lived in Great Ormond Street, London. Her father, Henry William Busk, was a barrister. He had studied at Cambridge but was unable to complete his degree course, because of his nonconformist religious opinions. At the time in order to obtain a degree from either Oxford or Cambridge you had to subscribe to the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England. Her mother was Mary Anne Le Breton, the daughter of Rev. Philip Le Breton, who had given up his ministry in Jersey after joining the Unitarians and founded a school in London. Henrietta was the youngest of five children, and practical and resourceful from an early age she seems to have been relied on by all the family. There was a family saying “if you need anything out of doors, call a cab, indoors, call Henrietta!”

Public service and education were of paramount importance to the Busk family. Henrietta’s brother Edward attended the non-denominational University College, founded by family members. After initially being educated by a governess, the girls were sent to the newly established Bedford College.

Bedford College, the first college in Great Britain for the higher education of women was founded in 1849 by the pioneering social reformer Elisabeth Jesser Reid. Mrs Reid was also a Unitarian, a widow of independent means and an anti-slavery activist. She started the College with her own money and a group of equally committed women which included Mrs Mary Ann Busk, Henrietta’s mother.

Like University College, Bedford College was liberal and non-sectarian. To quote Ruth Young again “Bedford was willing to welcome Chinese, Jews, Turks and Infidels, without questioning their beliefs or raising objection to their nationality”. Notable students of Bedford College in its early days included Sarah Parker Remond, the first black woman to undertake a lecture tour in Britain on the slavery question, the novelist Mary Anne Evans (George Eliot), the artist Katie Dickens (Charles Dickens’ eldest daughter), the first lady barrister, Eliza Orme and the artist Barbara Bodichon. Barbara Bodichon formed The Women’s Suffrage Committee, and collected 1500 signatures on a petition for women’s suffrage in 1866. This was presented to the House of Commons by John Stuart Mill, the philosopher, political economist and Member of Parliament.

Henrietta was the first pupil of Bedford College School to win the Reid Scholarship to Bedford College. She took “Regular Courses” involving more than seven subjects which included Maths and Latin. She left in 1864 without a degree as this was 12 years before London degrees were opened to Women. Henrietta participated actively in this campaign with her brother Edward. Incredibly it was another 40 years before Oxford and Cambridge followed suit.

Bedford College was the first British college to teach women science, the first to have a laboratory that women could use and the first to allow women to draw from life. Geography, however, was Henrietta’s principal interest and she later lectured regularly and published a book ‘Geography as a School Book’ which can still be found on the internet.  After leaving college, Henrietta applied her organisational skills to the business interests of her father and brother. She gained valuable financial and secretarial experience but always maintained a close association with Bedford College. After her father’s death in 1886 she devoted her time and formidable energy full-time to the College.

Royal Holloway (which merged with Bedford College in 1986) lists Henrietta’s contribution to Bedford College as follows: “Member of Council, Bedford College, University of London, 1882-1885 and 1889-1936; founded the Students’ Loan Fund for the Training Department, 1892; founded the Bedford College Students Association, 1894; instrumental in obtaining for the College a Parliamentary Grant as a University College, 1894, whence followed recognition by the University of London; represented Bedford College on the Council of Teachers’ Guild, 1887-1925; Honorary Secretary, Bedford College Building and Endowment Fund, [1903-1911]; President, Bedford College Old Students Association, 1926-1928.

This however only partly reflects her extraordinary contribution. After becoming a Council Member in 1882 she compiled the first list ever made of Bedford College students with their dates of admission. This register of students dating back to 1849, when admissions for 1849-50 alone totalled 293 students, took her four years to complete but “whenever order had to be created out of chaos she was undaunted”. She compiled a list of all girls’ schools from newspaper ads and other sources, when no such register existed, so that she could promote Bedford College by inviting Headmistresses to regular garden parties. In addition to her voluntary work for Bedford College she also served on a national stage as the founder and Honorary Organising Secretary (I think that means she did all the work!) of the Conference of Educational Associations.  According to the Bucks Herald of 28 December 1932, at the age of 87, just before her death she was guest of honour at their 21st conference.   She was also the Chairman of the Secondary Technical and University Teachers Health Insurance Society.

Henrietta bought Bois Cottage on doctor’s orders as “a refuge from the noise and bustle of town”. However this did not mean that she slowed down in any way when she was in the country. In 1910 Henrietta was elected to the Amersham Board of Guardians and Rural District Council, one of the first woman to sit on a district council in Buckinghamshire. Parliament had granted women the right to stand as candidates in town and borough council elections in 1907. Miss Frances Dove (who was probably well known to Henrietta Busk, the Bucks Herald of 23rd June 1917 says that they both attended the Bucks Secondary School Conference in Aylesbury that year), the founder and Head of Wycombe Abbey was elected to Wycombe District Council in 1907 and in 1908 she “narrowly and controversially missed becoming Mayor of the town.” (See ‘Burning to Get the Vote – The women’s suffrage movement in central Buckinghamshire’ page 32 by Colin Cartwright.) It was another 12 years before a woman, Alice Jane Broadbent was elected as a county councillor, serving on Buckinghamshire County Council from 1922 until 1944. And it was not until 1928 that a woman, Winifred Mary Jones was elected to Chesham Bois Parish Council.

Henrietta Busk took her new responsibilities seriously, reading up on the Poor Laws and taking a great interest in the infirmary and the workhouse. She was Chairman of the Boarding-Out and Children’s Committee.  She fought and won a long battle with her council colleagues to board-out workhouse children. In 1913 there were 40 children living as inmates in the pretty squalid conditions of Amersham Workhouse but within the year the Council had adopted the policy of ‘boarding-out’ children to homes in the parish. This was an early form of fostering, with lady visitors checking up on the children and was seen often as a way of them learning a skill or a trade to further their opportunities in life. In most cases it must have been a marked improvement on the workhouse. She attended all meetings, travelling down from town when she wasn’t at the bungalow. She also succeeded in organising a system of rubbish “dust” collection before the Parish took over the task.

During WWI, as a District Councillor she had an important organisational role co-ordinating hospital and convalescent provision, relief committees (she was a member of the Chesham Bois Relief Committee), working committees, aid for Belgium refugees (a number of families were billeted in the area) and provision for orphaned children. She also contributed generously from her own funds, donating £15 (around £650 in today’s money) to the Chesham Bois War Fund.


After the War, according to the CB Parish Council minutes of 20 March 1919, Henrietta Busk proposed a scheme for the creation of a Chesham Bois War Memorial. As treasurer for the Parish Council she suggested that the council donate the £10 surplus from the Peace Celebrations to the Memorial Fund. The Memorial designed by John Harold Kennard was unveiled and dedicated 11 November 1920.

She assumed the Honorary Secretaryship of the Chesham Bois and District Association, a society formed to preserve the beauty of the Common. She succeeded in persuading the authorities to build North and South Road either side of the Common, having raised £200 by local subscription. According to the Bucks Examiner of July 8, 1910, at the ceremony to inaugurate the new roads “the genial Chairman of the District Council, Mr. William Gurney said that Mr Beckley (another councillor) placed all the credit for the success of the scheme upon the shoulders of Miss Busk. Miss Busk was an energetic and business like lady. He recognised the important part she had played and he desired to congratulate her upon it, and also upon her election to the District Council. (Applause). It would be the first time they had had a lady upon the Board, and perhaps she would be able to keep some of the unruly men in order (when they were disorderly) and show them how to do some things better than they had been able to do them.”  Long Park was laid in 1915 and Bois Avenue in 1918.

Her overriding interest in education meant that she was delighted to be appointed to the governing body of Amersham Grammar School (now Dr Challoner’s and Dr Challoner’s High Schools) over-seeing the “additions and improvements” (Bucks Herald 31st October 1930) to the school in 1925, becoming Chairman of Governors in 1928 and Chairman of Amersham Board of Guardians that same year. In 1930 she opened an extension to the Amersham Infirmary which provided 24 extra beds and brand new residential accommodation for the nurses.

Ruth Young concludes that “Miss Busk’s life at Chesham Bois was almost as full as her life in London. The beauty of her home and the loveliness of her garden which her sister helped her to make provided for this stalwart servant of the community surroundings of peace and happiness.” An illness in 1932 finally forced her to give up her country life and to confine her work to London. She died in London in 1936 at the age of 91, working with “indefatigable energy” to the end.

Her obituary in the Bucks Herald of 1932 states “it was an occasion of considerable importance when the first lady member entered the Board Room (Amersham Board of Guardians and Rural District Council). Miss Busk will always be remembered for the very keen interest she took in the welfare of the aged, the sick and the children. Her membership coincided with many “reforms” for the betterment of their lot and she was deeply interested in the boarding-out system adopted. She was a lady of genial disposition and her valuable services were recognised by her elevation to the chair. Her keen sense of humour often brightened the Board Room”.

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49 High Street
Old Amersham

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“Enjoyed our visit to this wonderful interactive museum where you are positively encouraged to touch things!”

“Visited Amersham museum yesterday – lovely place, provides many details on the history of the place. Plenty of cute cafes, pubs and shops around also… not difficult to find free parking nearby. ”

“A well-run, informative and interesting small museum on the main street. It’s mostly volunteer-run and they do a great job in keeping it and making you feel welcome…Check out the herb garden too.”

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