A VICTORIAN COMMUNITY
Written by Anne Mills for the Amersham Society newsletter, March 1982 and reproduced here with permission.
What was Amersham like in 1851, the year of the Great Crystal Palace Exhibition in Hyde Park? As the museum archives have copies of some census returns for that year, it has been possible to piece together a vivid if somewhat incomplete picture of the town in early Victorian times. The most striking fact to emerge from the returns is the large number of food shops for a total parish population of 3,662. There were five bakers, five grocers, four butchers and one fruiterer and fishmonger in the High Street and Broadway alone.
Other businesses included a draper, employing three men, two apprentices and three milliners; a chemist; two corn-dealers; a Post Office (then next door to the Crown) and a ‘dealer’ (unspecified). There was also a printer, William Broadwater, who may have published the original ‘Buckinghamshire Advertiser (or it might have been his successor Thomas King). Three millers are listed – William Gregory lived at Town Mill and John Shrimpton a little further downstream on the north side of the High Street. It is not stated whether these were both flour mills. The third miller, John Impey, lived on the opposite side of the High Street, away from the river, and probably worked for one of the other millers. Lower Mill (now occupied by Ambers) is not covered by the census pages available.
Local people had every opportunity to be well-dressed as there were seven tailors, 12 dressmakers, 2 bonnet sewers, a glover, four boot and shoemakers and four cordwainers (a superior kind of shoemaker, belonging to a craft guild). Housing needs were looked after by a builder, Joseph Hatch, three bricklayers, three plumbers and glaziers and seven carpenters. As the railway boom of the 1840’s had left Amersham untouched, transport still meant horse power. This is reflected in the workshops of two blacksmiths, three wheelwrights, two saddle and harness makers and a coach painter. Other craftsmen included a brazier, whitesmith and two watchmakers.
Lace-making was perhaps the craft for which Amersham had become best known, but by this date it was dying out, following the introduction of machine-made lace. There were still 20 pillow lace-makers in these census pages, mostly women over 30. Some of them lived with relatives listed as paupers, so obviously they were unable to earn enough money to keep more than one person. Straw-plaiting for the Luton hat trade was replacing lace-making as the major occupation for the wives and daughters of local labourers and 25 plaiters living in the High Street and Broadway were listed in 1851, chiefly young girls in their teens. Often one member of a household made lace and a daughter or sister plaited straw. Their menfolk were often involved in the furniture industry and 18 chair-makers are listed.
The professions were also well represented in Amersham. Living in the High Street were five medical men, two lawyers, a surveyor and auctioneer, a veterinary surgeon and an Inland Revenue and Excise Officer, while the Curate occupied a house in the Broadway. In addition, there were no fewer than three boarding schools within a few hundred yards of each other. The largest of these was Ebenezer West’s Academy, at the building which is now Elmodesham House, and used to be the Council Offices. A total of 39 boys, aged between 10 and 17, are listed as part of the West household. Four more scholars in their late teens, together with two teachers, appear to have been boarded out with George Washington Morris in Meeting Yard. Further up the road towards Coldmoreham, Miss Eliza Cox had nine female pupils, aged 5 – 17, living as part of her household at what seems to have been the present Hinton House. Few children at either school were born locally. Birthplaces listed range from Yorkshire to Devon, Brecon, Norfolk and the Home Counties, although it is not stated where their parents were living in 1851.
As the system of identification used by the census takers bears no relation to present-day house numbers, it is difficult to locate the resident of Edmund Luce ‘Clergyman of the Church of England and Master of the Grammar School’, on the north side of the High Street, some 40 dwellings east of Turpins Row. Presumably the Grammar School also had many day pupils and lessons may still have been held at the old Dr Challoner’s building as another schoolmaster, probably an assistant, lived there.
Of the other large houses in the High Street, it is likely that Piers Place was the home of Mrs Elizabeth Weller, an 81 year old widow, ‘fund-holder and annuitant’. Town Farm was occupied by William Salter, who farmed 100 acres of land, and next door, at Town Forge, resided Joseph Beeson, Veterinary Surgeon. Thomas Nathaniel Gray, MRCS, Licentiate of Apothecaries’ Hall, may have lived at Apsley House and his fellow-surgeon, Thomas Brickwell, opposite at The Gables. Tresco House seems to have been the residence of Charles Statham, whose entry under ‘Rank, Profession or Occupation’ simply reads ‘Independent’.
This brief glimpse into a few High Street households in 1851 gives the impression of a lively, varied community, fairly self-sufficient but not insular. The industrial revolution, celebrated by that year’s Great Exhibition, may have largely passed Amersham by, but the town had by no means stagnated.