From wheelwright to master builder – William Gomm of Chesham Bois
by Alison Bailey
Gomm or Gomme is a familiar name in Buckinghamshire and appears in many local parish records going back more than 300 years. There is the Gomm Valley between High Wycombe and Tylers Green, Gomm Terrace, on the Moor in Chesham and of course the G Plan furniture brand founded by Ebenezer Gomme in High Wycombe.
William Gomm and Sons Ltd
William Gomm (1866-1932), a wheelwright from Chesham Bois, founded a building firm, with his father, also called William, which built much of the earliest housing in Chesham Bois and Amersham following the arrival of the railway. I have written about our Arts and Crafts houses but the majority of our late Victorian and Edwardian villa style houses were built by William Gomm. These are solid usually symmetrical, detached or semi-detached houses with high ceilings and sash bays windows. Gomm houses can be easily recognised around Chesham Bois Common and the surrounding roads.
The village wheelwright
William grew up, with 2 younger sisters and a brother, in Ivy Cott, one of a cluster of cottages and barns, which were part of the Mayhall farm estate. On the corner of Copperkins Lane and New Road (now the main Amersham to Chesham Road) on the south western edge of the common. This later became known as Hive Farm. William’s father was the local wheelwright who worked with Bill Ayres, the neighbouring blacksmith. His mother, Mary was the blacksmith’s daughter. The blacksmith’s forge and stables became Gomm’s workshed and builder’s yard.
A wheelwright was a highly skilled craftsmen creating wooden wheels, strengthened with iron bands (supplied by the blacksmith) for a range of horse drawn carts. William was apprenticed with his father from a young age to learn the properties of timber. Oak was obtained locally during late spring and early summer, and ash, beech, and elm during the winter. The wood would be stored until winter, when it was cut to size, and then left to season for another five or six years before finally reaching the work bench in the form of sawn timber.
In the nineteenth century the village wheelwright was essential to the rural community and the movement of goods and supplies. With the advent of motorised transport and metal wheels the need for the craft declined. The wheelwright’s skills and knowledge of timber were of course transferable to the carpentry trade.
The arrival of the railway meant local landowners were now auctioning farmland as building plots and skilled tradesmen were in much demand. With a family friend, George Pearce, who backed the Gomms financially, they started to build some of the earliest villas for commuters and the new inhabitants of the developing town. Mapledene, on North Road, Heathfield House on Bois Lane and Mowbray Dene on Long Park were built as investment properties for Pearce now living at Manor Farm. These 3 houses were built extensively with timbers, and internal fittings, recycled from Victorian houses in Marylebone which were demolished to build the new railway line.
The building firm
In 1895 William Snr died and William Jnr married Margaret Pearl, the daughter of a woodman from Barnet. They soon had a growing family to support. The building firm prospered and at its most successful employed around 100 men. The family cottage was demolished and a smart new villa, later known as Meade House, was built in its place. The neighbouring cottages were also replaced by a large house for a London doctor. This was built by the new firm of Matthews Bros founded by Denis and William Matthews who had been apprenticed to the Gomms. In 1912 Dr Shaw-Mackenzie’s house was bought by Miss Harrison and Miss Walters to convert to a private school which later became known as Heatherton House. William Gomm converted the original house into a classroom and dormitories whilst Matthews Bros built the new school building in the garden.
Margaret and William, who was also a village constable, had three children, William James, Thomas, and Margaret. Both boys followed their father into the building trade, and Margaret married a decorator, Arthur Cyril Gove.
When war broke out William James enrolled in the Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry but was discharged in 1916 due to a weak heart. Thomas joined the newly formed RAF in 1918 as soon as he turned 18. After the war William qualified as an architect and became a Fellow of the Royals institute of British Architects.
Thomas trained as a carpenter like his father and in 1924 married Winifred Wilkinson. Her father, Edward, was a neighbour of the Gomm family in Chesham Bois but had moved to Amersham High Street to work as a shoe and boot maker. Thomas and Winnie met when she was in service in Copperkins lane and Thomas turned up at the house, in his Gomm’s cap, to do some work there. They moved into a Gomm house, Wood Cottage on Long Park.
Thomas enlisted in the RAF again in WWII, working on Lancaster bombers until he was invalided out with pleurisy in 1943. After his father’s death the company was managed by one of the directors, Albert Henry Jones. The company started to decline until Thomas took it over in 1952 but his untimely death in 1966 meant that the firm which had employed 3 generations of Gomms finally closed.