How a ‘band of brothers’ helped build the new town of Amersham-on-the-Hill
by Alison Bailey
Matthews Bros was a building firm founded around 1910 by two brothers Denis and Bill who seized the opportunity to develop new housing after the arrival of the railway to the area at the end of the 19th century. Their younger brothers George and Alfred also joined the business which built many of our most distinctive Arts and Crafts style houses, including the heavily timbered houses of Devonshire Road with their ornate chimneys and highly decorative brickwork. They also built Manor Drive, and houses on Copperkins Lane, Weedon Street and Bois Lane. All Matthews houses feature locally sourced artisan bricks, a legacy that continues today. The youngest brother (Henry) George founded the brickworks, H G Matthews in 1923. His descendants, who run the works today, still follow the traditional techniques that he used to make bricks nearly 100 years ago.
The brothers, with their sister, Sarah, grew up in some comfort at Leighton House, a solid Victorian house that has since been demolished. It was just off Bois Moor Road to the north of Chesham Bois Burial Ground, where Woodley Hill is today. Their father, James, who was originally from Leighton Buzzard, was an artist and fine art dealer with premises in London. Their mother, Sarah Cox, was a dressmaker, living with her parents on Bois Moor when she married James in 1883.
The four brothers were all apprenticed to local building firms, learning their trades with Jesse Mead and Rust & Ratcliffe of Chesham, and William Gomm of Chesham Bois. The arrival of the railway meant that the area was undergoing a building boom and the boys would have found plenty of work building the first new houses on the Bois Farm and Manor Farm Estates. Denis and Bill saw the opportunity to establish their own firm and were soon building their first houses in Long Park. Dr Shaw-Mackenzie’s house, on the corner of Copperkins Lane, was an early commission and when this was bought by Miss Harrison and Miss Walters in 1912 to convert to a private school (now Heatherton House) they were engaged to build the new school buildings in the garden.
Both Denis and Bill were secure enough in their prospects to marry their local sweethearts in 1914, presumably encouraged by the impending war. Denis and his new wife, Mabel Ann Collins, moved into Laurel Bank one of two substantial Matthews houses, on Bois Lane which are still there tucked behind some later houses. This new house was just across the street from Mabel’s family home at 3 Manor Cottages, Bois Lane. Bill’s wife, Gertrude Jones was from Bois Moor Road. They moved into Thornville, on Chestnut Lane, which also became the Matthews Bros’ building yard.
The brothers had been members of the Church Lads Brigade, and all wanted to enlist in the army when war was declared. Bill, however, was profoundly death and would have been disqualified from active service which meant he could keep the building firm operating throughout the war. George enlisted in the Signalling Corp of the Royal Engineers and Alf joined the Motor Transport division of the Army Service Corps, serving as a driver. Denis joined the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry at Amersham, transferring to the Tank Corps with the rank of Corporal. On 11 August 1918 he died, age 35, at the Somme clearing station after being terribly wounded by a shell. He is buried at the Villers-Bretonneux Military Cemetery and commemorated on the Chesham Bois War Memorial.
Matthews Bros continued to prosper after the war. Alf married a Londoner, Esther Pulsford in 1922 and moved into Chilcot, another Matthews house in Long Park. George married Elsie Brazil, in St Mary’s Amersham, three years later and started his married life at Jandola on Woodside Avenue. This was another Matthews house, now built with Matthews bricks as both Alf and George has established brickworks in Bovingdon and Bellingdon, making handmade bricks out of Chiltern clay. Brickmaking was an important local industry between the wars with some 23 brickyards within 6 miles of Chesham.
In 1926 Matthews Bros built several large houses in Weedon Lane and the “extravagantly timbered” Normandy on Devonshire Avenue for Charles Wood, the owner of a chain of London grocery stores. In 1927 they built the even more extraordinary Old Timbers (now sadly demolished) for Edward Parker, a director of the Army and Navy Stores. More grand houses on Devonshire Avenue followed and more success. Bill invested in land in Amersham and bought Hawridge Court Farm which came with the title ‘Lord of the Manor of Hawridge’. Whilst the land was a valuable source of clay for the brickmaking businesses it also gave Bill the opportunity to pursue one of his favourite hobbies, shooting.
In 1930 Bill invested in the Maltings (Nostalgia May 1, 2021) which he planned to convert into a glamorous country club and leisure centre with an indoor pool and badminton courts. Sadly, the project was never completed as Bill was killed in December 1933 in an accident on the railway crossing at Mantles Wood. It was reported that Bill had intended to go shooting south of the line. It was a foggy day and Bill, because of his profound deafness, would not have heard the approaching train, which was several minutes late. The train severed his foot and Bill died from loss of blood beside the track.
Matthews Bros appears to have ended with Bill’s death as in November 1934 several parcels of valuable building land were auctioned off. His widow and daughter, Peggy, stayed on at Thornhill but his brothers moved away from Chesham Bois. Alf moved to Bovingdon Green and in 1943, George to Dundridge Manor which came with acres of land containing large quantities of valuable clay. Initially George had to farm the land as it was wartime again. This meant there was a shortage of coal and the brickyard couldn’t function because the glow of the kilns could be seen by enemy aircraft! He would be very proud to know that the current generation has reintroduced the lost technique of woodfiring the bricks.