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Old Chesham.jpg
Old Chesham
Grid reference: SP965015
Location: 51°42’11"N, 0°36’7"W
Population: 20,343
Post town: Chesham
Postcode: HP5
Dialling code: 01494
Local Government
Council: Chiltern DC
Chesham and Amersham

Chesham is a market town in Buckinghamshire, amidst the Chiltern Hills. It is 11 miles south-east of the county town of Aylesbury. Chesham is in the Chess Valley and surrounded by farmland. To the south lie woodlands separating it from Chesham Bois and Amersham, and to the north the newer parts of the town climb up the Chiltern slopes. Before giving way to farmland

The town's name is traditionally and locally pronounced: ˈtʃɛsəm or /ˈtʃɛzəm/, although /ˈtʃɛʃəm/ has become more common in usage.

The earliest records of Chesham as a settlement are from the second half of the 10th century although there is archaeological evidence of people in the area from around 8000 BC.

The town is known for its four Bs, usually quoted as:- boots, beer, brushes and Baptists, .[1] Chesham's prosperity grew significantly during the 18th and 19th centuries with the development of manufacturing industry.

In the face of fierce competition from both home and abroad all these traditional industries rapidly declined. The ready availability of skilled labour encouraged new industries to the town both before and after the end of the Second World War. Today employment in the town is provided by mainly small business engaged in light industry, technology and professional services.

From the early part of the 20th century onwards there has been a considerable expansion of the town with new housing developments and civic infrastructure. Increasingly Chesham has also become a commuter town with improved connection to London by the London Underground and road networks. The town centre has been progressively redeveloped since the 1960s and was pedestrianised in the 1990s. The population of the town has increased to slightly over 20,000 but further growth has been restricted through the application of Green Belt policies.

The Clock tower

Chesham Clock Tower in Market Square

Chesham's 18th Century Town Hall was demolished in 1965. In 1992 a clock tower was constructed on the same spot in Market Square. The turret is a reconstruction of the one built onto the original town hall in the 19th century and features the original glass-dialled clock face and clock mechanism from the mid 19th century. (see info box).[2]

Town development

Until the second half of the 19th century the town centre was located to the south-eastern end of the present High Street. The 'old town' particularly Church St and Germain St have been well-preserved and has become a conservation area which includes a number of impressive residential, institutional and commercial buildings that survive to the present such as the 12th century St Mary's Church, 'The Bury', a Queen Anne town house, and the old workhouse. In June 2009 the Chesham town centre and old town conservation area was placed on the English Heritage Conservation Areas at Risk Register.[3]

St Mary's Church

The population more than doubled from 4,000 to 9,000 during the 19th century. As a consequence the centre of the town shifted to the east as shops, workshops and cottages sprung up along the High Street and Berkhampsted Road.

In the period after the Second World War the town centre was progressively redeveloped. In the 1960s St Mary's Way was constructed, rerouting the A416 around the congested High Street which avoided the need to widen the street, conserved its character and allowed for its pedestrianisation during the 1990s. Industrial development became centred on two areas. At the southern end of the town at Waterside which was the site of the first mills and factories in the 18th and 19th centuries there is a mixture of original and newly constructed industrial units and at the northern end along the Asheridge Vale there is a further development of generally small commercial business units.

Expansion in housing has occurred in several phases mainly to the east of the old town where artisans' housing sprang up along Berkhamsted Road and subsequently along the many steep valley sides. Initially this development was as a consequence of the extension of the railway to the town in the 1880s, subsequently the promotion of "Metroland" during the 1920s and the electrification of the Metropolitan Line in the 1960s. Pond Park estate was build in the 1930s.

The population grew quickly after the Second World War as workers followed employers who moved out from London and the northern parts of the town gained a substantial immigrant population. The population in 1951 was 11,500 leading to the building of the Chessmount and Hilltop estates by speculative developers in the 1950s and 60s. By 1971 the population had reached 20,000 since when it has only increased slightly. The growing popularity of the Chilterns as a place to live from the latter part of the 20th century onwards led to restrictions on housing and industrial development in the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and has sustained the demand for further house building in the town. Today an increasing number of those in employment find work outside the town, commuting by car or train as well as an increasing number who are home or office-based using technology to make a living.


Popular belief would have it that the town is named after the river Chess. However the opposite appears to be the case; the river is named after the town. The first recorded reference to Chesham is by the Old English name Cæstæleshamm meaning "the river-meadow at the pile of stones[4] around 970 in the will of Lady Ælfgifu, who has been identified with the former Queen of King Eadwig. She held an estate here which she bequeathed to Abingdon Abbey.[5]

In 1086 there were three adjacent estates which comprised Caestreham which are briefly recorded in the Domesday Book as being of 1½, 4 and 8½ hides, having four mills. The most important of these manors was held by Queen Edith, the widow of Edward the Confessor. One of the two others would later become Chesham Bois parish.[6][7] The earliest habitation was in the area close by the present St Mary's Church in an area called The Nap where are found remaining the oldest buildings of the present-day town in Church Street.

The landowners of Chesham

King Henry III granted the town a royal charter for a weekly market in 1257.

During the 13th and 14th centuries the manor of Great Chesham was a part of the lands held by the Earls of Oxford and Surrey. During the 16th century it was owned by the Seymour family, who disposed of it to the Cavendish family, the Earls and later Dukes of Devonshire, who held it into the first part of the 19th century. Meanwhile, adjacent land in and around the town was owned by the Lowndes family. William Lowndes was an influential politician and Secretary to the Treasury during the reign of King William III and Queen Anne. He had the original Bury and manor house of Great Chesham, rebuilt in 1712. The Lowndes family settled in Chesham and over the next 200 years became equally influential both nationally through politics and the law and locally within the town as its principle benefactors. Another family, the Scottowes, also controlled estate lands within and outside the town and later on, the Duke of Bedford also.

Religious dissent and nonconformity

Chesham is noted for the religious unrest which dominated the town from the 16th century and for the migration of the prosperous and respectable few to Lincolnshire to escape social stigma in the middle of the century. In 1532 Thomas Harding was burnt at the stake in the town for being a Lollard. From the 17th century Chesham was a focus for those dissenting from mainstream Church. Quakers met in the late 17th century in Chesham and in 1798 they built the current Meeting House. The first Baptist meeting dates back to about 1640 and a place was registered for services in 1706. The first chapel was opened in 1712, one of many to be built for the various Baptist groups during the 18th and 19th centuries.

John Wesley preached in Chesham in the 1760s and a Methodist society used to meet at the Congregational Church. In more recent time a Wesleyan Methodist chapel was opened in 1897. The Christian Brethren which date back in Chesham to 1876, opened their Gospel Hall in 1895.


Salvation Army Citadel

The oldest church in Chesham is St Mary's Church, which dates from at least the 12th century. Chesham has a long history of religious dissent; even before the sixteenth century Reformation took hold, lollard reformers were active. Thomas Harding, a lollard, was martyred on White Hill near Dungrove Farm in 1532. The 17th, 18th and 19th centuries saw the rapid growth of non-conformism, especially Baptists. Broadway Baptist Church dates back to 1706 and had its 300th anniversary celebrations in Chesham in 2006. Its roots are in the Chesham and Berkhamsted Baptist Church which dates back to 1640.

  • Church of England: The Parish of Great Chesham
    • St Mary's
    • Christ Church (in Waterside)
    • Emmanuel (in Newtown)
  • Baptist:
    • Broadway Baptist Church [1]
    • Newtown Evangelical Baptist Church [2]
    • Trinity Baptist Church [3]
  • Free Church: St Hiving's in Upper Belmont Road
  • The King's Church Chesham (meets at Chesham Park Community College) [4]
  • Methodist: Chapel, Bellingdon Road
  • Quaker: Friends Meeting House, Bellingdon Road
  • Roman Catholic: St Columba's [5]
  • Salvation Army: Citadel in Broad
  • United Reformed Church [6]

Further reading

  • Baines, Arnold &, Birch, Clive (1994). Chesham Century. England: Quotes Limited. ISBN 0 86023 549 1. 
  • Branigan, Keith (1967). The distribution and development of Romano-British occupation in the Chess Valley. 18. 136–49. 
  • Hay, David and Joan (1994). Hilltop Villages of the Chilterns. England: Phillimore & Co Ltd. ISBN 0 85033 505 1. 
  • Hepple, Leslie &, Doggett, Alison (1971). The Chilterns. England: Phillimore & Co Ltd. ISBN 0 85033 833 6. 
  • Hunt, Julian (1977). Chesham A Pictorial History. England: Phillimore & Co Ltd. ISBN 1 86077 058 4. 
  • Piggin, George (1993). Tales of Old Chesham. England: Highgate Publications (Beverley) Ltd. ISBN 0-948929-70-7. 
  • Rance, Eva (1991). Eva's Story, Chesham Since the Turn of the Century. England: The Book Castle. ISBN 1-871199-85-9. 
  • Seabright, Colin J (2004). Chesham Images of England. England: Gardners Books. ISBN 0-75243367-9. 
  • Fletcher, Keith (2008). Chesham at Work. England: Hawkes Books. 

Outside links


  1. Piggin, George (1993). Tales of Old Chesham. Highgate Publications (Beverley) Ltd. ISBN 0-948929-70-7. 
  2. Chesham Town Clock Tower
  3. English Heritage National Survey of Conservation Areas at Risk, June 2009 Retrieved, 1 July 2009
  4. Hunt, Julian (1977). Chesham A Pictorial History. England: Phillimore & Co Ltd. ISBN 1 86077 058 4. 
  5. S 1484.
  6. Hay, David and Joan (1994). Hilltop Villages of the Chilterns. England: Phillimore & Co Ltd. ISBN 0 85033 505 1. 
  7. Hepple, Leslie &, Doggett, Alison (1971). The Chilterns. England: Phillimore & Co Ltd. ISBN 0 85033 833 6.