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A Potted History of Amersham

Amersham is located 27 miles north west of London in the county of Buckinghamshire.

Amersham - probably more than any other similar small town in England - preserves in the streets of the Old Town the same general appearance that it displayed during the 17th and 18th centuries. There is evidence that a Roman Villa existed in the area, any remains are now believed to be buried under Shardeloes Lane. However, the origins of the town go back to pre Saxon times. Amersham was then called Agmodesham. The Doomsday Book listed Amersham as Elmodesham, with 6 manors, one belonging to the wife of Edward the Confessor. In 1200, King John granted the town a market and fair, the fair is still held every year on the 19th and 20th of September, the market every Tuesday, but it has moved to Amersham on the Hill. The Reformation had some roots in the town as several Lollards were condemned to death and burnt at the stake, a memorial on the hill above the town commemorates this event and in 2001 and 2004 the people of Amersham performed a community play re creating the events of the time.

Market Hall
The Market Hall - Old Amersham

Amersham is broadly split in two, Amersham Old town, a historic market town and the newer Amersham on the Hill. Amersham on the Hill also has adjacant areas of Amersham Common and Little Chalfont (see here for more details.) which in recent years has gained its own Parish status. The reason for the two parts of the town can be traced mainly to the Metropolitan Railway and the later Metropolitan line of London's underground.

Amersham on the Hill

It might be thought that since Amersham on the Hill has only really existed since the 1890s, that it might have little to interest the historian compared to the much older Amersham Old Town. However, the story of Amersham on the Hill deserves investigation and the reasons for its existence has meant that the Old Town has remained largely unchanged.

Amersham is now the last stop on the London Underground's Metropolitan Line. Although now only a commuter route into the City, the origins of the Metropolitan Line had a major impact on the development of Amersham.

The world's first underground railway, the Metropolitan Railway, opened in 1863 between what is now Paddington and Farringdon in London. The network soon expanded to form the basis of what is now the underground / tube system in London. However, the owners of the Metropolitan Railway had grander ideas and made plans to link their northern railway interests with the Met and then on to Paris via a channel tunnel. In the 1880's and '90's the Metropolitan Railway pushed north westwards out of London on the first part of their ambitious plan. The counties of Middlesex, Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire, which the line passed through, were then unspoilt countryside. Some of the landowners on the proposed route did not want the railway passing over their land and this forced the Met to alter its route. The railway reached Amersham in 1892 and was forced to traverse the hills above the town rather than go through the valley (because the Tyrwhitt Drakes - Lord of the Manor of Amersham living in Shardeloes - did not want the railway to ruin the view across their land). From the 1830s to the 1880s the reluctance of the landowners in the area to have railways meant the Amersham area did not get rail travel for many years after similar towns nearby, this affected Amersham's growth. Whereas nearby towns such as Berkhamstead on a main line into London prospered from their rail link, Amersham almost became a back water. The late arrival of the railway in Amersham meant Amersham did not enjoy the initial rail boom and the route it had to take meant the station was sited some distance from the centre of what is now Old Amersham, both these facts meant the development of Amersham was unlike many other towns in Britain. The Metropolitan Railway pushed further onwards into Buckinghamshire and although the ambition to link to Paris was not fulfilled, the Met collaborated with what became the Great Central Railway to provide a mainline service to London (Marylebone). When the railway arrived, even though it did not pass through what was then the centre of Amersham, many were still opposed to it.

Prior to the arrival of the railway in Amersham, the area around where the station would be built was known as Amersham Common. The common actually spread from Hyde Heath to what is now Little Chalfont. Over the years farms encroached on to the Common land and gradually enclosed the Common (The Enclosure Act of 1815 formalised this process). Apart from the farms, there were a few pubs and cottages across what is now Amersham on the Hill, some of the pubs can still be seen, as can some of the old cottages, such as those in Grimsdells Lane and Chestnut Lane. Some of the farms were very old, and had been turned into family estates. Raans Farm (still standing) dates from at least 1540. It was an important Manor of the area and was granted to the de Mandevilles, a prominent family and land owner in the wider area. Through marriage and succession, Raans passed to the Grove and Brudenell families (names still found in local roads and former school names). Later the Proby family owned the Farm and it was sold to the Duke of Bedford and Lord Chesham. Reeves Farm dates from the 17th century and now only survives in the names of roads, its old farm house having disappeared. Woodside Farm has claimed connections with Mary Pennington, she was the mother of Gulielma Springett who married William Penn who founded the state of Pennsylvania. The Pennington had lived in Bury Farm in the Old Town and moved to Woodside manor situated where Woodside Farm became, some of the farm's buildings survive as part of the Community Centre on Chiltern Avenue. Beel House is also thought to be where Mary Pennington lived, see here . Another notable occupant of Amersham Common was the Weller family (see later about the Weller Brewery) who built a large house called The Plantation close to where Plantation Road is now. It was later converted to flats and called Park Place, later still being demolished, but its name survives in the current Park Place development.

Initially development was slow to start around the station. The Station Hotel was built, the licence being transferred from the Black Horse pub. (The Station Hotel became the Iron Horse Pub and was demolished in 2004, replaced by a block of flats).  Although many of the land owners saw the potential for development, it was very slow to start. However, development did gradually start to take place in Edwardian times. Initially a few buildings by the station and then some housing. Some of the houses built on Chesham Road and Chesham Bois used windows and fire places from houses which were demolished to make way for Marylebone station in London. Marylebone was the new London terminus of the Great Central Railway which made an agreement with the Metropolitan to share the Met's tracks into London. This also gave Amersham a rail connection with the North of England. A local charity sold some land for housing development and architect John Kennard designed some very attractive buildings. Over the next 20 years or so Kennard worked with developers and created some very distinctive buildings in Amersham. Along Hill Avenue he designed some commercial buildings, but because it was uncertain how successful the area would become, houses were also built along Hill Avenue. These were later converted into shops and if you look above the shop fronts on some of the buildings today, you can still see their original house design. Some early housing development took place in Longfield Drive and around Chesham Boise, both advertised by the Metropolitan Railway in its publications.

Sycamore Corner
Kennard's distinctive buildings on Oakfield Corner

After World War I the housing boom started and Amersham benefited. Kennard designed Elm Close, a development about 50 yards from the station which is a group of houses around a village green setting (see here for more details). He also designed the building at Oakfield Corner and following its success built similar buildings down Sycamore Road and Chesham Road. Other developers started to build houses giving Amersham on the Hill some character. The growth of Amersham on the Hill had started. It is in many ways unlike other towns having very little Victorian development as a result of the late arrival of the railway and the open space the railway arrived in.

Although the Metropolitan Railway never fulfilled its grand plans, it nevertheless proved popular. Along the line through Middlesex and Hertfordshire developers built houses and shops to attract people out of over crowded Central London. The Metropolitan Railway realised it could encourage this process by using the large amount of land it had acquired along its route and buying up land, it started to develop its own housing. It promoted the area along the line as "Metro-land" and undertook a very successful campaign to attract people to live in "London's nearest countryside". The modern day suburbs of north west London were born. In Amersham, The Metropolitan Railway Estates Company (MRCE) used its land and land it bought from local landowners to build the Weller Estate. The MRCE purchased the land in 1930 for 18,000 and by the outbreak of World War II 535 semi detached houses had been built to be sold at 875 upwards. The houses were well designed and contained all "mod cons" for the day. As well as the houses built by the Met in the 1930s, other developers continued to build houses. In Sycamore Road Sainsburys built Chiltern Parade near to the cinema which had opened in 1928.

Part of the Weller Estate
Part of the Metropolitan's Weller Estate

New communities of people who worked in London during the day, but lived in "Metro-land" were created. Amersham on the Hill was one such community and its growth continued. From a small collection of farms and cottages in the 1890s, Amersham on the Hill grew over the next 50 years. By World Way II Amersham on the Hill was a thriving town and the commercial heart of Amersham had moved there from the Old Town which had remained largely unchanged.

The outbreak of World War II put a stop to the spread of London further into the countryside. After the war a "green belt" was created around London leaving Amersham as one of the first places in the countryside outside of London.

In the early 1960s the Metropolitan Line (as the Metropolitan Railway had become) was electrified as far as Amersham, with the line north of Amersham transferred to British Rail for its service to Aylesbury. The improved electric train service provided another boost for the town with further housing and new shops and offices were built along Hill Avenue, Sycamore Road and Woodside Road.

Sycamore Road
The 1930s Chiltern Parade - Sycamore Road

Today, a lot of the character of the 1930s Amersham has gone. The reliance on the train for travel has decreased, replaced by the car and nearby motorway network. The shopping centre has lost many of its small shops, victims of the success of the large supermarkets. The town's cinema and theatre closed in the 1960s. New offices have been built, a fine swimming pool complex and much in filling of spare land with houses. Many of the early houses in Amersham on the Hill were large developments and a number have been sold off, demolished and replaced by smaller houses. The restrictions on developing in the Green Belt have meant there has been much infilling in Amersham, some would argue too much with small developments of smaller houses and flats being squeezed in.  In recent years the arrival of a small Waitrose and marks and Spenser along with a number of coffee shops have created a buzz again in the shopping area.

Light industry has come to the area. The Radio Chemicals Centre was established in World War II to make such things as luminous paint. It developed after the War into making radio isotopes for the medical industry. The Centre became a large employer in the town and became Amersham International when it was privatised. The Company is still based in the area although it has had several name changes.

Old Amersham

While the development of Amersham on the Hill was taking place during the 20th century, the Old Town hardly changed.

Amersham, as Old Amersham is correctly known, is an old market town with much to commend it. It appears today attractive and picturesque, particularly in summer when hanging baskets and window boxes adorn the many old buildings. The main High Street, outstanding because of its width is flanked by a variety of different frontages which have changed greatly over the centuries, but its history can be detected from the many varying period styles. One needs to look at the roof line of premises and if it were permitted, the interiors which would reveal timber framed structures with wattle and daub. Fine old houses; coaching inns; little court yards; almshouses and modest cottages can all be found along the main thoroughfare, in the middle of which stands the ancient Market Hall.

Amersham was known by the Saxons as Agmodesham. The earliest charter concerning Amersham is dated AD 796. Amersham (or as it was known then as Elmodesham) is mentioned in the Doomsday Survey of 1086 and in the year 1200, King John granted a charter for a weekly market, an annual fair, two members of Parliament as a "Pocket Borough" which lasted up to the Reform Act of 1832. The granting of a charter for a market was the impetus for some town planning, whereby the land owners planned a large market square and wide street to make their market a success. The geographical location of Amersham on the River Misbourne helped the town to grow. The wooded surrounds and land suitable for agriculture also helped the town grow to become a central area for the community which the market only encouraged. Traders started to base themselves in Amersham and local business grew to support the market and the town.

The Martyr's Memorial
The Martyr's Memorial

From the 14th century, Amersham was an active centre of Dissent: on the hill above Amersham is The Martyrs' Memorial to those who were burnt at the stake for their religious beliefs during the reign of Queen Mary. During the Civil War Oliver Cromwell's family lived in the area (at Woodrow High House, just outside Amersham). From the 17th century prominent Quakers settled in the area and endured persecution. (A quakers meeting house is situated in Whielden Street). The town also had two Baptist churches and the Methodist opened a church in 1899.

The main trades of the town were chair making, lace work and straw plait work. The growth of the town was also helped by the fact that trade routes / roads passed through the town (London to Birmingham / Reading to Hatfield being the most important), giving rise to coaching inns and facilities to support the trade. Amersham would have been the first stop out of London and became very important for providing overnight accommodation and "comfort stops" for the horse drawn coach travelers (and the horses). The town had many coaching inns which needed the related businesses to support them, along with breweries and maltings. The maltings also produced excess materials and these were transported to London. The Weller brewery grew in the 19th century to become the largest employer in the town. It also had a large chain of pubs in Amersham as well as the rest of Buckinghamshire and surrounding counties. The Weller family sold the brewery and pubs at auction in 1929 after which brewing left Amersham, but the building remain. For more information about the Weller brewery see the web site here

On the out skirts of Amersham is Shardeloes. Shardeloes was the ancestral home of the Tyrwhitt Drake family, the Lord of the Manor. The Tyrwhitt Drake family had a great influence on Amersham. By marrying well their fortunes grew through the 16th to 19th centuries. Their power enabled them to have a large say in the appointment of Amersham's Rector, who often was a member of the family and the town's two MPs (up to The Reform act of 1832). They also acquired many properties in Amersham, letting them to sympathetic supports enabling the MPs representing Amersham to either be Tyrwhitt Drakes or their supporters. The Tyrwhitt Drakes were also benefactors and built Alms Houses (1657) and the Market Hall (1682). Their fortunes declined in the 19th and 20th centuries. The need to pay high death duties was one of the reasons why much of their property in Amersham was auctioned off in the 1928 in what became known as "the auction of a town". The Tyrwhitt Drake family are still Lord of the Manor of Amersham, but no longer live in Amersham. An interesting story about the Tyrwhitt Drake family concerns a curse put on the family where by the family inheritance would never be inherited by a direct heir. The curse was placed on the family by the family of a boy murdered at sea when in the employ of one of the Tyrwitt-Drakes. Their coat of arms is surmounted by an axe dripping with blood and the wheels of their carriages had to be painted red! (Later red rims on cars). To break the curse, a member of the family had to spend a certain length of time in an underground tunnel (under Shardeloes lake I think). Once a member of the family (many, many years ago) tried to break the curse and spent a period of time in the tunnel, but gave up and came out mad! How much of the above story is based on fact is uncertain, but its a good story! Is this story related to a story that tragedies would occur to the Tyrwitt-Drakes unless a member of the family lived in "the dungeons". There were underground cellars and possibly passages under Shardeloes, but when the deeds of number 119 High Street were looked at, it was found that the house used to be called "The Dungeons" - was this where one of the Tyrwitt-Drakes should have lived? It is also said that if Shardeloes Lake dries up, England will fall. For further details of Shardeloes, see here . Shardeloes has now been converted into luxury flats. During World War II it served as a maternity hospital for people from London to come out to the countryside to have their children, over 5000 children were born there.

Shardeloes House

With the improvement in road travel and the later development of the railways, Amersham's importance as a centre on a trade route declined. By the 1870s, much of the former coach traffic had passed to the railways (which did not arrive in Amersham until 1892) and the people of Amersham had very poor transport connections compared to other nearby towns. Amersham was becoming a backwater, but the development of Amersham on the Hill changed that and also changed Amersham for ever. For many years (Old) Amersham hardly changed.

However, over recent years change has started to occur in the Old Town. In 1987 a much needed by pass was opened helping to free the High Street from heavy traffic. Shortly after the by pass was opened a huge Tesco super market was opened on the sites of the old Bowyer's / Brazil's meat factory and bus garage. The supermarket is very popular (open 24 hours a day) and pulls people from miles around to Amersham (increasing the traffic!).

Another change to Amersham has been the demolition of the gas holders which spoilt the view of Amersham in the valley for years. Another blot on the landscape has gone with the demolition of the 1960's built nursing home tower at the hospital. Amersham hospital was rebuilt in the 1990s, the "temporary" wards built during World War II have been replaced by a modern hospital. The original work house building at the hospital has been converted into flats. The new hospital is a different hospital to the previous general hospital. Most surgery has been transferred to High Wycombe and Stoke Manderville while Amersham specializes in day surgery, geriatrics, psychological problems and specialist departments such as dermatology.

Many small office blocks have been built around Amersham and the the Old Town is gaining a reputation of hosting a fine selection of restaurants to complement the numerous pubs the town has always enjoyed.  A nu,ber of high class clothing stores have also opened.

Church Street
St. Mary's Church

The above only gives an indication of the history of Amersham. For more information I can recommend the following books. "Yesterday's Town: Amersham" by Nicholas Salmon & Clive Birch - Copyright 1991, ISBN 0 86023 486 X, "A History of Amersham" by Julian Hunt - Copyright 2001, ISBN 1 86077 187 4 Another useful source of information is The Amersham Museum , or you may find The Amersham Society of interest

Amersham History Info is also an interesting web site.  Developed by Amersham Museum this web site aims to make easily available the extensive collection of articles, research, photos and objects related to the history of Amersham

The Change in Population in Amersham

I do not have an up to date population figure for Amersham, but the 2001 census reveals there are 89 thousand people living in the area covered by Chiltern District Council. The area includes Amersham, Chesham, the Chalfonts, the Missendens and surrounding villages. I would estimate Amersham to be over 20 thousand.

Here is how the population has changed -

Year - Population
1801 - 2314
1851 - 3662
1901 - 3209
1951 -10894
1991 - 17629

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