Sixty years of the Chesham Society
On 7 August 1957 a number of concerned local people gathered at ‘Great Germains’ on Fullers Hill, home of the illustrator and designer Val Biro. The reason for their meeting was because the County Council was suspected to be planning the demolition of two old houses as a precursor to widening Church Street, High Street and Waterside.
At this time the population of Chesham was rapidly increasing – in just four years from 1957 to 1961 it rose from almost 13,000 to more than 20,000. The expansion of the Town mirrored the postwar burgeoning of car ownership and general road traffic. The narrow streets of Chesham, which itself was located in a valley, with limited access routes, were becoming increasingly illsuited for the increasing levels of traffic.
What emerged from this meeting was effectively the Town’s amenity society and, rather than call itself a ‘protection’, ‘preservation’ or ‘conservation’ body, it should simply be known as The Chesham Society. Its principal aims were clear: to obtain from the then Chesham Urban District Council advance information on proposals for change so opinion could be canvassed; to garner local support to preserve the character of Chesham and oppose undesirable change; and to offer advice on the architectural or historical merits of the Town’s built environment.
Following the inaugural meeting, the Society then – as its previous President Jennifer Moss described in her comprehensive history of the first fifty years of the Chesham Society – immediately swung into action on several fronts. The Society quickly became the voice of the sentiments and fears of the townspeople that Chesham’s special character was under threat by swift and unsympathetic development.
The Society then held what is believed to be its first committee meeting on 12 November – the handwritten minutes still survive – and the thirteen members present (there was a fourteenth who sent his apologies) included Peter Walker, the ‘Son’ of Walker & Son, the organ builders in Wey Lane, who had originally alerted the Town to the Council’s road-widening plans back in July in a letter to The Bucks Examiner entitled ‘Down with Subtopia’. Peter became the Society’s first Chairman, while Val became its Secretary, a post he held until he moved from the Town in 1970.
Another ‘mover’n’shaker’ worth mentioning here is Arnold Baines, then Chairman of Chesham Urban District Highways Committee. Born and bred here and with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Town, Arnold proved to be strong supporter of the fledgling Society and a highly useful link with the Council. For forty years he maintained an keen interest in the Society’s work.
The early years of the Chesham Society saw it engaged in a number of issues, not least the Town Plan 1957-1970 which proposed the demolition of a large swathe of properties on both sides of Church Street, including No.54’ the so-called ‘Oldest House’. Over the years there has been a misconception that the Society is primarily interested in the Old Town, but at this time it concerned itself with wide-ranging issues that encompassed the whole of Chesham and its environs. The expansion of roads and increasing traffic, however, came to dominate these early years as, indeed, they were to be issues for the Society until the end of the century.
The Chesham Society would like to thank the following for their help in compiling this 60th Anniversary commemorative issue:
Jennifer Moss, whose excellent history of the Chesham Society written for its 50th anniversary in 2007 has been an invaluable source of reference.
John Graves for writing, compiling and editing.
Judith Aldridge and Maria Waite for the speedy location and retrieval of the relevant archive files.
Peter Hawkes, whose books on Chesham have been of immense use for checking facts.
Angela Bishop and her volunteers for distribution.
Richard Brock for design and artwork.
The Chesham Society has tried to contact copyright holders of the images used, but has been unsuccessful in several instances. Please contact us if you own the copyright.