The tour at the High Wycombe Chair-making Museum begins almost the moment you arrive. You ring the bell on the front door. Robert Bishop answers and welcomes you into a room filled with chairs, tools and photographs. You sit down, and bam – he begins telling you a story.
You are hooked. And for the next two hours you live out the trials, highs and lows of the chairmakers of High Wycombe.
The Chair-making Museum is unlike any museum I’ve visited. Yes, there are amazing original objects from High Wycombe’s past. There are documents laid out everywhere on the tables for you to examine. The walls are covered in tools and historical photographs.
You could easily spend an hour just looking at the materials. But then you’d miss the delightful tale of High Wycombe as told by Robert Bishop.
Robert is an accomplished turner, and his work is sold in the galley upstairs from the museum. But he’s also a historian of the people who produced 4,700 chairs a DAY in this beautiful valley in the Chilterns (about 28 miles outside London).
What is most delightful about Robert’s presentation is that it is told from the perspective of the people who made the chairs and owned the chairmaking shops.
He begins in the beech woods surrounding High Wycombe and explains the day-to-day life of the “bodgers” who harvested the stands of lumber to make legs and stretchers for the chair shops. Robert doesn’t offer a romantic view, which we’ve heard before. Instead, it is a purely practical explanation of the work as told by the bodgers to Robert.
It’s the tale of a fascinating micro-economy. The bodgers were accomplished green woodworkers who could turn a billet into a leg in about 3 minutes on a pole lathe. They were efficient. They helped their fellow bodgers. And they lived in town.
Robert’s stories spanned the history of 19th-century High Wycombe. He tells about the life of the 11-year-olds pressed into work at the chair factories – detailing their duties and the things they learned before they turned 17 and were sent to work at the bench.
He recalls the beginning of the chair industry in High Wycombe – acting out the voices of the main characters. Then tells the tale of shops who defied the High Wycombe chairmakers (it isn’t a good end). And explains the details of how difficult it was to get chairs to London for sale.
I don’t want to spoil too much of the story. Even if you have no particular interest in chairmaking, Robert tells a great tale.
But for chairmakers, there are interesting delights in the details.
The collection of Windsor chairs is well-curated. Robert has picked out good examples – chairs that the V&A Museum in London should display (but they don’t). He has a gorgeous Forest Windsor – an early chair that (of course) I fell in love with.
Aside from the chairs, there are the tools. Robert has two working lathes acquired from local bodgers – a pole lathe and a treadle lathe. Both in perfect working order. There’s a tool chest filled with tools from a chairmaker. Plus walls of tools that Robert has himself collected from area chairmakers.
I was struck by so many things during the visit. Here are just two details to consider.
- Bending wood without steam. Robert showed photos of how bodgers would make bent armbows using a beech sapling and a form. Each day the sapling was bent a little more on the form and held in place with pegs. By the seventh day the armbow was fully bent. Then a batten was affixed to the armbow to hold it in place while it dried. Robert had an example there with the bark still on it.
2. An English shavehorse with bite. Many of the tools in the museum were acquired directly from the bodgers as the trade wound down in the 20th century. Robert acquired the shavehorse of one of the last working bodgers. It is your typical English horse, but the jaw features iron teeth that hold the work. Obvious, yes, but also amazing.
I can’t say enough good things about the tour. It is worth the journey from London and the 4 pounds. After the tour, I had to catch a train back to London to meet my family for dinner, so I couldn’t pick Robert’s brain or have dinner at the Bird in Hand.
But maybe you can.
A highly recommended day.
— Christopher Schwarz