I AM indebted to Helena Chance and Lesley Hoskins of Bucks New University who prepared this article.

Chalk, Cherries and Chairs is a marvellous new project, funded by the National Heritage Lottery, which encourages local people to get involved with the history, the environment and the wildlife of the Central Chilterns. Teams of volunteers will be engaging in 18 inter-relating projects over the next five years, to build up a legacy of community engagement with the landscape and heritage of our area. One of the individual projects is Woodlanders Lives and Landscapes, which is being delivered by a partnership between the Chilterns Conservation Board and Bucks New University.

The Chilterns are now regarded in popular imagination as a beautiful landscape of beechwoods, chalk escarpments and picturesque villages. But for more than two centuries they were also a busy industrial environment. The woods and villages were alive with furniture making, woodwares, straw plaiting for the hat industry, lace making and tambour beading (the technique of applying beading and sequins for the fashion industry). Volunteers with the Woodlanders Lives and Landscapes project are discovering and sharing what life was like for the people who worked in these industries.

The flourishing beechwoods of the Chilterns provided the raw materials for ‘bodgers’ to ply their trade. Usually working in temporary huts in the woods, using what appear to us to be quite primitive equipment, the bodgers turned out thousands upon thousands of chair legs and stretchers for the nearby chair-making factories. Most of these were in High Wycombe, which supplied 8,000 chairs to the Great Exhibition of 1851! But some factories – such as Dancer and Hearne of Penn Street and Holmer Green – were in the villages. Stuart King, whose father was a wood machinist, is a great expert on chairmaking including chair bodging. He is the historical consultant to the Woodlanders project and is kindly making his large archive of records, photographs and tools available to our researchers.

The working day of a bodger was long and hard. And it wasn’t well paid. Family members often had to contribute to the household economy. Rita Probert, one of our volunteer researchers, tells how some women were stone pickers on the local farms, clearing the fields and lugging flints for filling potholes or building houses. In the 19th-century, many women were lace makers. Rosemary Mortham, of the Lacey Green & Loosley Row History Group, which is collaborating with Woodlanders Lives, points out that, in 1851, 80 of the 104 females in Lacey Green were listed as lace makers. They worked at home, at their traditional handcraft, using bobbins, supporting their work on special bolsters or pillows – hence the name ‘pillow lace’. This was piecework which could be fitted in around other home duties. Pictures show women making lace outside their cottage doorways, taking advantage of the light.

This kind of life had its pleasures. Mosh Saunders’s memoir ‘Children in a Bodgers’ World’ recalls strong local communities, social activities based around the church or chapel, working in the open air, and gathering dandelions for homemade wine. But life could be very hard too. Children as young as four or five might be making lace, sometimes all day long.

Emma Ginger was a thirty-year-old lace maker from Loosley Row. In 1862 she reported that her usual working day was eleven hours, sometimes longer: ‘Neighbours will come in and sit round one large candle; some have sat all through the night.’ She said she earned 4 shillings a week but had to pay for thread and patterns out of it. This was at a time when a very poor cottage might cost between 1 and 2 shillings a week to rent and a good wage for a labouring man was about 10 shillings. Things got worse for lacemakers as competition from the factories of Nottingham intensified. It is not surprising that in 1881, in the days before old-age pensions or other social security, 19 of the 64 female inmates of the workhouse at Saunderton were listed as lacemakers.

The Woodlanders’ project is aiming to uncover stories – happy and sad – of how the people who made their living in these woodland and home-based industries went about their daily lives. Volunteer researchers are already bringing together a mass of existing knowledge with new investigations to tell their tales. If you are interested in volunteering, there are lots of ways to get involved: family history and archive research; interviewing local people; writing local stories; or giving talks and tours. To find out more, get in touch with Helena Chance Helena.chance@bucks.ac.uk, 01494 522141 ext 4105.

If you would like to know more, sign up to the monthly Chalk, Cherries and Chairs newsletter on the Chilterns Conservation Board website and keep a look out on social media for Chalk Cherries and Chairs events.

If you’d like to buy a copy of ‘Children in a Bodgers’ World’ – £5.00 plus postage – email Lacey Green & Loosley Row History Group