Housing and Life in the Chilterns before the First World War

Housing and Life in the Chilterns before the First World War

by Tony Sargeant

Researched and presented by Tony Sargeant, Woodlanders’ Lives and Landscapes 

Living and working in the Chiltern Hills


 Today living in the Chilterns is seen by many as being more idyllic than life in large towns and cities. Since the coming of the railways, the region has been an easy commute, and those who work at home can also take advantage of good road and rail networks. But what were life and homes like before it was easy to move around? 

 Travel was at walking pace for the poor, slightly faster with a horse and cart. The horse and cart could go more quickly, but it belonged to your master and there would be trouble if it was not looked after. It was the horse and cart that determined the distance between markets. Each market drew people from its district to trade whatever produce was available. In the Chilterns, movement was more difficult due to its hilly nature, and the markets tended to be on the major routes through the area. Places like Amersham, Beaconsfield, Henley, High Wycombe, Marlow and Wendover are good examples. In the 1600s a traveller could reach all these places without too much effort by going along the valleys or round the Chiltern Hills. It is one of the reasons that fewer people lived in parts of the Chiltern Hills, compared to the Vale of Aylesbury.  

Another reason for a lower population was the difficulty of farming a hilly landscape. Many areas were not suitable for ploughing either due to thin soils on hilltops or steepness of the slopes. In those areas grazing or woods dominated and led to some non-agricultural occupations like wood turning, chair-making and hurdle-making. In Daniel Defoe’s ‘A tour thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain’ of 1724 he mentions Beaconsfield, Amersham and Wendover, but there is no mention of the Chiltern Hills before describing Aylesbury. Defoe does remark that:    

Many of the Poor here are employed in making Lace for edgings; not much inferior to those in Flanders.  

Finding information about how people lived in the area is difficult, although a visitor to the Chilterns in 1748 from Finland wrote a diary that has been translated by Professor William Mead and published by Bucks Archeological Society as ‘The Chilterns in 1748, an account by Pehr Kalm’. When Kalm was at Little Gaddesden he wrote:  

Farmers do not keep servants much here. They have enough if they have a man and a girl. Many farmers have no help. I was assured that in the whole of Little Gaddesden there would not be more than twelve men who hired themselves out for wages. For it is the custom here that a farmer usually employs day labourers, who work for daily wages and who do all his jobs in the plough land, meadow and threshing floor. For many reasons they believe that this arrangement is easier than if they kept and fed many farm workers. 

Kalm goes on to say: 

The system also explains the large number of labourers and poor folk who are to be found in every town, parish and village. 

In Buckinghamshire the rates of pay were set on an annual basis by the Quarter Session Courts sitting in Aylesbury. In 1687 the day rates were set for many jobs. Here are a few examples.  

Labourer from Lady day (25th March) to Michaelmas

(29 September) out of harvest. Without meat & drink. 8d. per day 

Labourer from Michaelmas to Lady day Without meat & drink. 7d. per day 

During the harvest the rate would be 1s. 2d. per day. 

If the rates included meat and drink the rate would be 4d. lower. 

By 1727, the rates set by this Quarter Session Court had not changed. 

To illustrate the lives of the poor and labouring classes, here is the story of the Parslow family of the Princes Risborough area.


Parslows Hillock and the Parslow Family


Evidence for the Parslow family first appears in Princes Risborough in the 1580s. Some branches of the family were doing well with trades like wheelwrights or victuallers, while others were labourers. Details are sparse about their lives at this time; the earliest useful information comes from court records.  

At the Easter 1733 Quarter Sessions Court in Aylesbury, Thomas Parslow senior and Thomas Parslow junior were presented to the court for erecting an unlawful cottage on common land and dwelling therein. Common land (sometimes described as ‘wastes’) was available as open space and not for in use for agriculture. There is a possibility that the cottage was at Parslows Hillock just within the old boundary between Monks Risborough and Princes Risborough. A piece of the woodland had been cleared out of Hillock Wood where it abuts the parish boundary [1]. 

Map of Princes Risborough   

Parslows with Monks Risborough and Princes Risborough parishes. Jeffreys map of 1770. The map was mounted on boards and Parslows is just below the horizontal line in the centre. The villages in the top left are in the Vale of Aylesbury with the Whitcliffe Cross at the top. Published by Bucks Archeological Society, 2000. 

 The Erection of Cottages Act 1588 had controlled the building of cottages. Its aim was to restrict the poor moving about England and setting up a home on any land. This was to counter the common belief that erecting a cottage on waste ground overnight gave the squatter the right of undisturbed possession. The 1588 Act stipulated that 4 acres (1.62ha) of land had to be owned, occupied and worked by the person erecting a cottage and permission obtained from the lord of the manor. John Poyntern was Lord of Monks Risborough Manor, which included Monks Wood, Parslows Hillock, Green Haley and Redland End, shown in the map above. The assart at Parslows Hillock was about 4 acres. (An assart was an area of land cleared for cultivation.) There appear to have been other clearings made in Monks Wood, but they are not mentioned in the Quarter Session records. These only appear in the later enclosure records. 

It is difficult to say much about the Parslows’ 1733 cottage. It could have been similar to the wood framed and thatched cottage in this picture, but the walls between the timber frame would more likely have been infilled with wattle and daub, not brick. It may also have lacked a chimney and depended on an open fire in the main room. Such a cottage would be easy to extend. 


View of a wood-framed, with brick infill, thatched cottage, Hampden Row, Great Hampden, 1935. Image courtesy of SWOP http://www.swop.org.uk, copyright High Wycombe Library 

The Parslow family’s habits changed with their cottage. It was not easy to travel into Princes Risborough below the escarpment to attend St Mary’s Church on a regular basis. The family was more likely to have worshipped at Great Hampden church, which was slightly closer and on the same elevation. The burial of Hannah Parslow in 1751 suggests that the family did worship there, and that they were able to stay at their cottage. How long the Parslows were able to reside at Parslows Hillock is unclear.   




In 1830 the proposal to enclose Monks Risborough was made and the large landowners were able to agree and get the required Act of Parliament in 1831, but it was not without a fight. It was proposed that the area known as the Hillock was to be sold to the largest landowner in the parish, the Earl of Buckinghamshire, George Hobart-Hampden. This area included Monks Wood and the homesteads like Parslows and Redland End. There were counter-petitions on behalf of small landowners and the poor of the parish. The enclosure of the commons would only benefit a very small number of landowners and would be damaging to most of the local inhabitants. Additional clauses in the Act of Parliament included the compulsory purchase of the waste lands (those not in agricultural use) by the Earl of Buckinghamshire. Another effect of the petitions was the appointment of Sir John Dashwood King, Baronet, to represent the interests of the poor. During the creation of the award – the final allocation of land in the enclosure process – there were so many complaints that two of the commissioners resigned. The effects of enclosure were well known, as Princes Risborough had gone through the process ten years earlier. There were concerns about the livelihoods of the poor, and the threat of rioting would continue if the problem of the Hillock area was not resolved. It is possible that the name Hillock is derived from the term ‘hillwork’ used in the Chilterns to refer to local people’s rights to gather wood, for fencing, repairs and fires. Any use of the Hillocks was based on tradition rather than law, but enclosure would prohibit the right of the poor to gather wood for themselves or to sell.  

When the awards were published there were many objections. The trustees of the poor only received three small allotments, near to Monks Risborough, which were inadequate for the poor of the parish. When the Hillocks and woodland were sold to the Earl of Buckinghamshire the sale included encroachments (claims) made by 16 men on the land. The encroachments do not appear on the enclosure map, although one would have been Parslows’. Those people lost the land with no compensation as there was no legal basis for their homesteads. For other small landowners the situation was just as tough. Landowners needed expensive solicitors to represent them and communicate with the commissioners. The long process took nine years, which put a greater financial burden on those with small areas. Many of the inhabitants had to sell their land to pay fees. 


Levi Parslow and family 


The story of the Levi Parslow family illustrates the problems of labouring class families living on inadequate agricultural wages. In the 19th century many farms were rented so there was no incentive for the land to be improved. 

Thomas Parslow senior, the defendant in the 1733 case, had another son, William. This William Parslow was the great-grandfather of Levi Parslow, who was born in April 1822. Levi’s father John was a labourer from Lacey Green while his mother was Sophia Silsbury before her marriage in 1809. Levi was the sixth child out of seven; he would have been aged 17 and in work for five years when the Monks Risborough enclosure was completed.  

After his baptism, Levi does not appear in any records until 1844. Along with his brother John, Levi was convicted for fighting at Lacey Green. For this offence he was fined £1 8s. 9d. including costs. At the trial, one of the witnesses was Mary Hickman who appeared for the defence. Within six months, on the 23rd September, Levi Parslow and Mary Hickman were married. Their child Susannah was born six months later and died as an infant. Mary Hickman died in January 1849, at the age of 24. There was no cause of death given in the records. 

The fighting case was not the only time Levi Parslow was convicted by the Aylesbury magistrates. On the 15th January 1848 the crime was trespass in search for coneys (rabbits), and in January the following year for damaging trees in Monks Wood, Monks Risborough. These cases resulted in fines of £1 and £2 8s respectively. £1 in 1848 was worth about £80 in 2017, according to the National Archives currency converter. Taking coneys and ‘damaging trees’ are both the sort of crime where somebody was trying to provide for his family. The second conviction happened in the same month as Mary Hickman’s death.  

In 1854, Levi went on to marry Sarah Deaney, who was from Hyde Heath. Sarah and her sisters Emma and Elizabeth were straw plaiters in the 1841 census. In the 1851 census Sarah is shown as Levi Parslow’s housekeeper. By 1871 Sarah had taken up producing lace in Lacey Green, which she continued for the rest of her working life. Over the years Levi’s family grew to nine sons and three daughters. 

At Princes Risborough Petty Sessions Court, on the 1st May 1858, Levi Parslow, George Clark, Henry Bowler, and two others were guilty of trespass in search of coneys, at Hillock preserve. George Clark was distantly related to Levi Parslow. There was another fine to pay. During this year Levi’s first daughter was born.  

All of Levi Parslow’s boys became agricultural labourers, some from the age of nine according to the census. One of the strategies for a family to cope with poverty was to distribute some of the children to other family members. The eldest two sons, George and John, moved out of the parish to take their chances elsewhere. George Parslow, the eldest, left the area and resided in Leicestershire after getting married in Loughborough.  

The third son, John Parslow, started working and living on farms away from the family, firstly at Wilton Farm, Little Marlow and then in Colnbrook. He may have worked in other places before he settled in Colnbrook. In 1878 he married Sarah Jane Smith, a local woman and daughter of Thomas and Jane of Horton. By 1881 their first child was born and they were living in Mill Street, Colnbrook with Rosa Jane Parslow, the youngest and 12th of Levi and Sarah Parslow’s children, who was then 10 years old. There is a possibility that Rosa Jane was there to mind the infant, allowing her sister-in-law Sarah Jane to work, either as a servant or at a job in the paper mills at Poyle. Sending Rosa Jane out of the Levi Parslow household to Colnbrook caused problems. There are reports of Levi Parslow being fined in June 1883 for an offence under the 1870 Education Act. Levi was charged by the Wycombe School Board and fined 10s. 6d. In June 1884 he was fined 5 shillings for not sending a child to school. Rosa Jane was the only one of his children of school age, and living only a few doors down from the Colnbrook School which resided in the Eton school board district.   

Levi Parslow’s fourth son, James, gave up being an agricultural labourer to become a platelayer for the railway in High Wycombe. His wife Jane Williams was a bead worker in 1891. At the time, James’s sister Rosa Jane, then aged 19 and also a bead worker, had left Colnbrook and was living with them. Bead working was not a long-established occupation in the Williams family; the 1861 records show Jane Williams was a lacemaker with her mother Sarah and sisters Clara, Mary & Thersa [2], but the lacemaking industry was in decline by the middle of the 19th century and so some women turned to bead working or other forms of embroidery for their living. Levi Parslow’s second daughter was also a lacemaker, but we don’t know for how long or whether the trade was passed on to her daughter. Many census returns were only interested in what the husbands were doing. 


The later Parslows Hillock


A later replacement for housing at Parslows Hillock could have been Hillock Cottages seen in the picture below. Given what happened during enclosure, these cottages could have been built in a different location to the original cottage. Hillock Cottages were built as four cottages, probably around 1900. Today they appear to be three dwellings; the outer two have been extended to provide more space.

Old picture of people standing outside house

Hillock Cottages, Parslow’s Hillock, about 1905, with (left to right): Arthur Tilbury, Reginald Tilbury, Mrs Owen Smith, Mrs A. Smith (with her pillow lace), Eldred Tilbury, Dorothy Tilbury, Alice Tilbury, Mary Tilbury, Daisy Smith, Florence Smith, William Beverage and sister Ciss Beverage (Dr Barnado’s children, fostered by cottagers), Mrs G. Saunders, and Archibald Tilbury who lived at Lilly Bottom Farm. Image courtesy of Stuart King. 




[1] Sackett, Hannah Kate, The Remaking of the English Landscape – An Archaeology of Enclosure, Phd Thesis, July 2004. Available from EThOS at https://www.bl.uk/ethos-and-theses. 

[2] Her name is given as ‘Thirza’ in the Parish Register. 


Further Reading


Hepple, Lesley W & Doggett, Alison M, The Chilterns, Philimore, 2nd Edition, 1994 

Sackett, Hannah Kate, The Remaking of the English Landscape – An Archaeology of Enclosure, Phd Thesis, July 2004. Available from EthOS at https://www.bl.uk/ethos-and-theses 

Taylor-Moore, Kim & Dyer, Chris, Solent Thames Historic Environment Research Framework Resource Assessment Medieval Buckinghamshire (AD 1066–1540) July 2007  

Webb, Cliff, National Index of Parish Registers, Vol 9 Part 3, Buckinghamshire, 1992 

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