• History of High Wycombe

    As ancient man trudged slowly along the Ridgeway from the West Country, he encountered the Icknield Way as he entered the western borders of Buckinghamshire. Just about Bledlow Ridge the gap in the escarpment was an inducement to step aside and he may well have followed the Bledlow-Saunderton Valley through High Wycombe and on to the Thames. There are several evidences of the presence of ancient man in those hills including Iron Age Hill Forts at Desborough Castle and at Keep Hill, while by Roman time, about 150 AD there was a luxurious villa with mosaic floors and heated baths which served the agricultural community around.

    Mayor weighing in

    The Mayor Cllr Trevor Snaith being weighed-in!

    Many years separate this luxury from the more austere period which followed and in 1086, when William the Conqueror ordered a tax assessment of his kingdom, ‘Wicumbe’, which was part of the estate of Robert d’Oilgi, consisted of 2½ miles of valley and up the hills on each side. It boasted six mills in comparison with Aylesbury’s two and Buckingham’s two and with West Wycombe and Woodburn included, had a string of 17 water mills stretching along the River Wye.

    The population was spread through groups of hamlets along the river, with cottages at Bassetsbury, Loakes and the Parish Church, which together were known as the ‘Wicumbes’.

    As a corporation, the history of the town goes back to the 13th century, with our first charter granted by Henry III [1237], we had mayors quite early on with the first mentioned in 1285 and the first we know by name being Roger Oughtred in 1302. As each monarch came to the throne, it was necessary to re-negotiate a new charter, which set out the way in which the town was ruled and outlined the rights of the corporation. There still survive charters from Mary I [1553]; Queen Elizabeth I, charters [1562 and 1598]; James I [1609]; Charles II [1657] and James II [1685]. There had also been a charter granted by Oliver Cromwell, but when the Restoration was proclaimed in 1660 this was burned in the marketplace.

    The records of the Council are in the form of minutes of Council and Treasurer’s accounts, and these date from the present day back to the medieval period. The First Ledger Book was given to the Mayor and Burgesses by William Redhode in 1475, and this handsome volume of 240 parchment leaves was the first of several which over the years have recorded the happenings in the ‘Council Meetings’ of the Wycombe Borough. The name of the Borough has changed over the years, in the Domesday Book of 1086 it was simply ‘Wicumbe’ it had alternative spellings of ‘Wicumbedena’ and ‘Weycombe’ among others, but in 1340 it was called ‘Wycombe Marchaunt’ and in 1478 the name ‘Chepingwycomb’ was used. The first part of the name is probably taken from the River, and the use of Chepping or Chipping indicates the ‘market’.

    Bound up with the history of Wycombe are the traditions and the treasures belonging to the town. The treasures, or regalia as it is often called, include:

    The great mace

    The great mace

    The Great Mace, made of silver gilt, 1.4 metres longs and given to the Borough in 1694 by Thomas Lewes and Charles Godfrey. This fact is recorded on the mace, together with their coats of arms and the Royal Arms of William and Mary. The noticeable feature is the ‘crown’, which follows the shape of the St Edward’s Crown, while the several heavy knobs along the length of the mace remind us that its original use was to protect the Mayor from attackers. It also represented the Monarch in the Borough and the Charters under which the Borough was governed were, of course, sealed with the great Seal.

    Silver stick

    Silver stick

    The Silver Stick, which is used by the Mayor in procession and is 98 cm long, with the arms of the Borough on the flat top. It was given to the Borough by the donors of the Great Mace, Thomas Lewes and Charles Godfrey in 1694 and probably replaced the iron stick given to the Borough in 1567. This was described in the Ledger Book as ‘one staffe of stele ring irne parcel gilte and doweskyn to be the staffe of Justice for the towne in perpetuam rei memorian’ [one staff of steel ring iron parcel gilt and doveskin].

    The Beadle’s Badge, an oval badge made of silver 12 cm by 9 cm made to be worn on the arm and marked with the silver mark of 1685-6. Its design consists of the chained Swan of Wycombe within a border of laurel leaves.

    Small mace

    Small mace

    The Small Mace is made of ebony and silver and is only 25 cms long.  It has an open arched crown enclosing a cap of crimson velvet.  On the upper mounting the words “Sergant atte Mace” are inscribed while the flat plate at the other end has “Wycombe Armes 1687″ around a chained swan with outspread wings.  The office of Sergeant at Mace had its practical as well as ceremonial responsibilities including the collection of fines and other outstanding debts owed to the Town.  His major ceremonial role was carrying the Great Mace before the Mayor whilst on official business.

    The Mayor’s Chain of Gold and Badge of Office, consisting of a series of oval pointed links, each bearing a shield and united by smaller links. It was provided in 1875 and each subsequent Mayor added a link. The Badge of Office bears the arms of the Borough and was presented in 1876 by J O Griffits Esq, who laid out Frogmoor and presented the fountain in 1877 and also founded the High Wycombe Free Library in 1876.

    The ‘Swan of Bucks’ as a badge originated in the 12th century, as it was used by the family of De Mandeville. When the Earldom passed to the De Bohun Family, who held lands in Buckinghamshire, which included Wycombe, the Swan device was used on the Wycombe town arms. In 1566 it was recorded by the Clarenceux Herald, when it was described as a Swan with closed wings on a black ground. This record was repeated at visits of the Heralds in 1575 and 1634. It differs from the Buckinghamshire County Arms, in that the Buckinghamshire Swan has open wings and the mound on which it stands is partly red and black. The original borough was quite small, stretching from Frogmore to the hospital of St John, and from the top of Crendon Street to the bridge in St Mary Street. This remained the position until 1880 when the new boundaries stretched much further in every direction.

    The trades of the ancient borough were chiefly corn, cloth and lace and, of course, the markets. Over the years the importance of these industries and commerce declined and in time the chair industry, which developed into a furniture industry, grew from strength to strength.

    Much of the western part of the town, Newland, Frogmore, Bellfield and then Desborough Road and Hughenden Valley Road, all sprouted factories and the furniture industry in the 1870s through the First World War was the staple industry.

    There is a saying that Wycombe consisted of chapels, children and chairs and this is certainly true. The Sunday School treats were a great part of their life, the Chapel was their recreation as well as their religion in the short time they were not in the factories. But with the opening of the schools in the 1870s and the new institutions, such as the Free Library, the Art and Science School and the Wycombe Literary Institute, it became possible for some of the younger generation to break out of the mould.

    In time new industries have come to the town and as the Borough expanded areas were put side for industrial growth, such as Cressex, so limiting the encroachment on the residential dwellings, which was so apparent in the 19th century.

    But strangely enough the character of Wycombe was retained, the traditional customs of the Borough Council, the weighing-in and the processions are still as lively today as when they commenced. Find out more about weighing-in at the Mayor making ceremony.