On the eve of modern life: Buckinghamshire in 1889

As the Metropolitan Railway neared completion at its final station in Chesham, finishing touches were being made on a magnificent country residence in Waddesdon,  a new addition to the burgeoning estate known colloquially as ‘Rothschildshire’. The year was 1889, and modern life as we know it was on the horizon…

It’s easy to think of the two world wars of the 20th century as being the catalysts that ushered out the old ways of life, with the advent of universal suffrage in 1928 and the birth of the NHS in the 1940s. However, in 1889 the grass roots movements behind the monumental social, political, and economic changes to come were already flourishing. 

By 1889 the industrial revolution had driven Britain’s growing population into increasingly filthy cities. There were new levels of extreme poverty which – along with a concerted effort to keep at bay the bloody revolutions seen across the channel – made reform inevitable. Decades of reform had led to the Local Government Act in 1888, and county councils came into being in 1889. Five years later rural and urban district councils, and civil parishes, were introduced.  

In 2020 a major change to local government has occurred, with the formation of the new unitary Buckinghamshire Council; to mark this new era, this article looks back at the dawn of modern local government 131 years ago, and examines how life was different – or not – for the residents of Buckinghamshire…

1. The new council was home to world famous millionaires

In what would now seem like the equivalent of having Richard Branson or Elon Musk elected to the local council, the new county council’s elected members in 1889 read like the roll call for a Vanity Fair cover shoot. Ferdinand de Rothschild of Waddesdon Manor, the Duke of Buckingham of Stowe, and two Thomas Francis Fremantles (Lord Cottesloe and his heir) – among others – were elected either as councillors or aldermen. This was not unusual; 137 peers were elected to new councils across England in 1889, and the entrenched deference to the ‘ruling classes’ wouldn’t begin to decline until after the First World War.

The first council of 1889, held at Buckinghamshire Archives

One esteemed alderman sadly did not even make it to the first council meeting. The sudden death of the 3rd Duke of Buckingham on 26 March 1889 signified the end of a Dukedom and two Marquessates. Well-liked and respected, thanks to his careful handling of his roguish father’s ruinous spending, the Duke’s death was a blow. In the minutes for the first council meeting, which can be seen at Buckinghamshire Archives, Lord Cottesloe made a heartfelt dedication to his friend and distant cousin, speaking of a “deep sense of the heavy loss” felt not just by the Duke’s faithful family and friends, but by the new council which would have greatly benefited by his “wide experiences, good judgement, and intimate knowledge of county business.”

There were, of course, dozens of well-to-do, working men on the council as well – such as Owen Peel Wethered, a partner in Wethered & Sons Brewery in Marlow, and Alfred Gilbey who founded Wooburn Working Men’s Club in the 1880s.

However, it goes without saying that all the new elected members were men. Women were not entitled to run in council elections although, somewhat surprisingly, they could vote in them – decades before suffragists made headlines fighting for the right to vote in general elections. In 1907, this changed and the formidable Frances Dove was elected to Wycombe Borough Council, one of only a handful of women elected to councils nationally that year. The county council would welcome its first female councillor, Mrs. Alice Broadbent, in the 1920s.

Dame (Jane) Frances Dove, by Walter Stoneman
National Portrait Gallery, London

2. A royal visit sparked just as much excitement in 1889 as it does now

On 2nd July 1889, the council minutes feature “an application by the committee for providing a jublie [sic] Reception of the Shah in Aylesbury on the 9th”. This was the Shah of Persia, making his third tour of Europe in 1889. Accompanied by the Prince of Wales, the arrival of his cortege in Aylesbury market square was flanked by constables and crowds. The Shah and Prince were guests of county councillor Ferdinand  de Rothschild at Waddesdon, where the Shah was very impressed with the technology on display; in particular a mechanical elephant which he asked to see perform over and over again. The elephant in question was made by French clock maker, Henri Martinet, in London in 1774 and can still be seen at Waddesdon today. These days, the elephant has its own Twitter account, @WMelephant, from where he tweets little updates about events at  the National Trust manor – what would the Shah make of that technological innovation?

Detail of musical automaton. Photo: Waddesdon Image Library, Chris Lacey
Detail of musical automaton. Waddesdon Image Library, Chris Lacey

Waddesdon was frequently host to Ferdinand’s royal friends, including the future King Edward VII. One such visit to Buckinghamshire by the Prince of Wales is responsible for a local myth – it’s long been assumed that Aylesbury’s General Infirmary was renamed the Royal Buckinghamshire Hospital after the prince received emergency treatment there for a broken leg. In fact, it seems likely the renaming was simply part of the Queen’s jubilee celebrations in 1887, because unless the Prince was unfortunate enough to break his leg twice in Aylesbury, the accident in question wasn’t to occur until 1898. Reportedly rushing because he had to catch a train back to Windsor, but didn’t want to skip breakfast, the prince tumbled down the stairs of Waddesdon manor – breaking his leg in the fall.

3. The workplace was more modern than you might think

Records still held at Buckinghamshire Archives give an insight to the surprisingly modern attitude to wellbeing, and employee rights, at work. An entry from September 1889 makes mention of an attendant at Stone Insane Asylum, Mercy Welch, who had been granted three months leave due to ill health, and was now deemed too unwell to continue work. According to census records Mercy would have been in her mid-forties in 1889, and had worked at the asylum for 20 years. An attendant’s role was somewhere between nurse and guard and, despite reform of treatment for the mentally ill throughout the 19th century, the job would have been physically and emotionally exhausting. Mercy received a superannuation of £20 (equiv. £2,500 in 2020) and while she doesn’t appear in the Buckinghamshire census two years later, there is a marriage record of a Mercy Welsh in London in 1892, so perhaps she had a happy ending despite her ill health.

Stone Asylum near Aylesbury
Stone Asylum

Elsewhere in council minutes there’s a charming mention of a Mrs. Crook, who was housekeeper of the Judges Lodgings in 1889, when it became part of the new county council’s assets. Mrs. Crook had been housekeeper since at least 1882, when mention of her appears in letters between the Clerk of the Peace and a local surveyor over a “sinister smell” plaguing the lodgings, to the displeasure of the judges. The smell was nothing to do with Mrs. Crook’s housekeeping, though she had been covering the flue with a sack – it was eventually found to be faulty drains. Luckily for Mrs Crook, it was promptly agreed that she would continue to work “for the present, upon the same terms as to salary, notice, and otherwise, as are now subsisting”. In modern terms we would say that she had been TUPE’d to her new employer!

4. Long before Profumo, Buckinghamshire was home to political rebels

In 1889 Bucks became, for a time, home to two very different people who came to represent the polarising struggle for women’s suffrage. The well-known novelist, Mrs. Humphry Ward, rented John Hampden’s house at Great Missenden for the summer of 1889, evocatively described in her daughter’s memoir: ‘[We were] learning to know the Chiltern country with its chalk-downs and beech-woods… watching anxiously for the ghost that walked in the passage outside the tapestry-room on moonlight nights…’

Mrs. Humphry Ward

In 1889 Mrs. Ward was just embarking on what would be three long decades of opposing the women’s suffrage movement – a mission seemingly at odds with her passion for women’s education. Mrs. Ward was a fascinating, and divisive, Victorian character, criticised by one contemporary journalist as ‘an intellectual aristocrat, one whose ideal is of a small governing class of exquisite souls.’ Little did Mrs. Ward know that at the time she was renting Hamden, just a few miles away in Chesham the wealthy Franklin family had just purchased a 25 acre poultry farm – their infant son, Hugh, would go onto be a key figure in the suffragist movement, gaining a notorious place in history when he was the first person to be released from prison under the Cat and Mouse Act in 1913. Ultimately it was Hugh’s cause which proved the stronger.

Hugh Franklin; photo: Men’s Political Union for Women’s Enfranchisement, photographer unknown / Public domain

5. From handmade lace to bridges made of chairs, the 9-5 was very different

Buckinghamshire is known for its signature exports: chairs, lace, and Aylesbury ducks.  In 1889 the cottage lace industry, which had given the women of the county a way of adding to their family incomes from their front parlours, had sadly given way to machinery for the most part. However, there was still some lace being made by hand, and in the 1891 census over 1,000 women listed their profession as lace makers; while this is nowhere near as many women as those listed as domestic servants, it was still more than any other neighbouring counties by a country mile.

Infographic about professions in Buckinghamshire in 1889

Aylesbury’s famous duck, inspiration for Beatrix Potter’s Jemima, was going into decline by 1889 with the introduction of the sturdier, fatter Pekin duck from China, but the chair and furniture trade was booming. Skilled craftsmen in the thousands producing chairs for upmarket London department stores such as Liberty’s, and special occasions in the county – such as a visit from a royal – always called for a quirky “bridge of chairs” to be erected in High Wycombe. Photographs of these magnificent chair bridges can be found in Buckinghamshire Archives’ historic photographs collection.

6. In the era of the bank holiday, people were good at making their own fun

Both bank holidays and shorter working days were late Victorian inventions, which, coupled with the advancements in public transport, revolutionised leisure time. One of the new county council’s early powers was the granting of licences for stage plays, and in the December 1889 council meeting minutes there are several requests for new licences – was it Panto season, perhaps? Large houses, such as the Grenfell family’s riverside residence Taplow Court, were often the scenes of charity concerts, plays and the 19th century equivalent of your internet connection failing while you’re watching Netflix – the tableau vivant.

Taplow Court, John Preston Neale / Public domain

With their acres of lush green grounds, large estates were also natural homes for local sporting teams, such as the Little Marlow Cricket Club, which played for many years in the grounds of Westhorpe House, Marlow. Meanwhile, over in Wycombe, a new football team had just been founded by young men who worked in Wycombe’s thriving furniture industry – hence their surviving nickname, the ‘Chairboys’.

The Thames was also undergoing an image makeover at this time, as its function as a vital commercial transport link was being usurped by the railways, freeing the river up for play rather than work. The wealthy Hammersleys, bankers from London, moved to Abney House in Cookham in the 1880s, and soon instated a river enthusiast culture that still thrives today. Eights from Oxford and Cambridge could frequently be seen in training for the boat race on the river here, and hotels and public houses, as well as improved housing, sprung up to support south Buckinghamshire’s new riverside playground culture, then immortalised by the 1889 novel ‘Three Men in a Boat’ by Jerome K. Jerome. He described Marlow as “one of the pleasantest river centres… there is lovely country round about it too, if, after boating you are fond of a walk, while the river itself is at its best here.”

A page from a scrapbook held at Buckinghamshire Archives, advertising a concert at Taplow in 1888

This blog was written by local researcher, Beth Mills, using resources held at Buckinghamshire Archives.

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