The past is a foreign country, so why not explore it?
Why does a small market town in the south of Burckinghamshire engender such an interest? Beer, beech trees and highwayman all played a part. John Stanbury explains why
FIFTY years ago, a man had a dream. Councillor O S Puckle, Chairman of Beaconsfield Urban District Council sent a letter in October 1960 to those whom he thought might have an interest in the history of the town.
Such was the response that an inaugural meeting was held on February 18, 1961 at the old Rectory. 84 attended and paid the subscription of ten shillings each (50p). The enthusiasm of those founding members produced an exhibition of some 198 artefacts held at the Council Chambers in the following January and subsequently every two or three years.
Why does a small market town in the south of Buckinghamshire engender such interest? It is not mentioned in Domesday. At that time much of England was swathed in deciduous forest which was in the process of being cleared for arable farming which included the Beech trees of this area. Hence the name Bekensfeld and similar variations occurred describing Beech or Beke fields but not pronounced Beeconsfield.
Probably by the early 12th century the population had grown to justify the presence of a chapel. By 1210, a church with a Rector, William de Windsor, was established.
Meanwhile, farming flourished in the area.
Beaconsfield is at the cross roads of the main road from London to Oxford, possibly of Roman origin. There was a Roman villa on the Rye at High Wycombe. The other is a road from St Albans to Silchester. The town is situated on a hill with slopes down to Wooburn Green and Loudwater, so the road through the town would be comparatively dry in winter. By the 17th century, stage coaches were running to Oxford, taking two days. Beaconsfield was a convenient half way stage for changing horses and many passengers broke their journey here and as a result numerous inns were established, at least eight of them. Many were brewing their own ale. This in turn attracted maltsters. Not all were within the law, in 1685 Desmond Browne was summoned for keeping an unlicensed alehouse and in 1690 Richard Dell likewise. The maltsters were also given to malpractice, Henry Fellows in 1711 was accused of mixing wetted corn, contrary to statute.
The roads had to be maintained and this was achieved by the Churchwardens periodically levelling a rate of 6d and by 1689 it was agreed that each family in the town should pick twelve loads of stones to be used for road repair. Surveyors were recruited to ensure that the work was done. One such was Edmund Burke. Those who did not comply appeared before the Buckinghamshire Sessions and were fined.
Roads, inns and taverns attracted the oldest profession and in 1701, Ann Smith was summoned for keeping a disorderly house and for harbouring harlots.
The introduction of steel springs increased the speed of the coaches, so that Oxford could be reached comfortably from London in less than a day and so the number of coaches using the road to Oxford and not stopping caused the decline of trade at the inns.
The joy of travel was not unalloyed. On December 12, 1692, John Bartlett’s wagon was robbed of £300 between London and Oxford. John was injured whilst resisting the highwayman called Savage. The most notorious was Jack Shrimpton, he robbed almost every coach running between London and Oxford usually at Gerrards Cross Common. He was caught and hung on September 4, 1713.
On January 21, 1816 the Shrewsbury Mail Coach overturned at the Mother Red Cap public house at Loudwater. All the passengers were severely injured and two of them took weeks to convalesce, attracting many sympathetic visitors it is recorded.
The new book The History of Beaconsfield is available to purchase and will give far more details of the people and activities that have been outlined in this article.
History is important. It is not dead and distant. It allows one to look back with pride and gives us a deeper understanding of our society and to use the wisdom inherent in our historical heritage to face the future with confidence.
For more information about Beaconsfield Historical Society, please contact the membership secretary, Mrs Irene Stanbury, 01494 673 778.
A 20th century reconstruction of a Beaconsfield coach and below, a copy of Cary’s 1787 map of Beaconsfield and the surrounding area