by Colin Sully
After the dissolution of the monastery at Missenden in 1547, the Crown granted a lease on the land surrounding Lee chapel (including other buildings) to John Russell, the 1st Earl of Bedford.
John Russell was one of the most powerful men in the country at that time. He had been Member of Parliament for Buckinghamshire and served under Henry VIII as Lord High Admiral and Lord Privy Seal. At that time he was also given the abbey and town of Tavistock and the area that is now Covent Garden.
When Elizabeth I ascended the throne in 1558 the 2nd Earl of Bedford was also made a privy councillor and he too became a prominent figure in public life.
As far as the inhabitants of Lee were concerned, for nearly a hundred years the Bedfords were absent landlords, even though their family home was only at Chenies Manor. There is no evidence that any of the Bedfords made visits to our village.
We can imagine an agent of the landlord regularly visiting the village to collect rents and taxes, but otherwise Lee was left very much to itself.
A few generations of Bedfords later, in 1635, the then Earl leased the Lee estate – as it then was – to a local man, William Plaistowe of Amersham, for 99 years. The exact circumstances of this transfer are obscured in history. Possibly the estate was leased at that time to pay off debts. Later, the land may also have been sequestrated as a consequence of the Bedfords being involved on the wrong side of the English Civil War.
Whatever the exact reason, the mid-17th century saw a gradual shift in control at Lee from the absent Bedfords to the Plaistowe family, where it was to remain for 250 years.
A number of existing farmhouses and buildings in The Lee date from the late 16th and early 17th centuries; amongst these are Chiltern Field End Grange, Rabbs Corner, Kings Ash Farmhouse, Church Farmhouse, the Old Cottage, the Old Swan (pictured below) and Hawthorn Barn (formerly Hawthorn Farm and, before that, Hawthorn Grange) .
The Plaistowe dynasty
In 1641 the Plaistowe estate at Lee was assessed at 50 shillings annual value, but it is not certain that at that time they also held the manor. (It is assumed that the Plaistowes only obtained the freehold to the manor after the Civil War, during which many of the Russell estates were sequestered.)
By 1665 William Plaistowe had been succeeded by his son Thomas, whose monument is in The Lee Old Church. By the time he died, in 1715 at the age of eighty-seven, the family was well established in Lee. Thomas was in turn succeeded by his youngest son William and he in turn was succeeded by his son (also Thomas), who died in 1785, leaving an only daughter and heiress Elizabeth.
She is said to have advertised for a husband, and by this means married an Irishman named Henry Deering. Elizabeth died in 1812 and her husband held the manor at Lee for many years after her death.
Later in the 19th century, it reverted again to the Plaistowe family, when John Plaistowe became lord of the manor. However, as the century came to an end, the Plaistowes also started to become ‘absent landlords’.
Farming and industry
During the 18th and 19th centuries the Plaistowe family cleared great areas of woodland on the manor estate and established farming in the village.
In 1798 the ‘Posse Comitatus’ listed 34 men between the ages of 16 and 60 in the village. The government census of 1801 recorded 150 people living in 30 houses in Lee.
By the mid-1800s, the population of the village had risen to nearly two hundred and, in 1847, George Lipscomb wrote:
“LEE or LEE CHAPEL is a small hamlet, situated on very much elevated ground, between Great Missenden and Weston Turville. It was and continues to be a hamlet, chiefly consisting of detached houses and cottages, here and there interspersed with some of a superior description, chiefly of modern erection, and one of which is called Lee Cottage, and is the residence of the principal landed proprietor and near the site of which is a farm called the Manor Farm.”
As you would expect, the population was mainly employed in agriculture, although other significant local industries became established during this period, included quarrying (for chalk and clay), ‘bodging’ (making simple furniture by hand and lathe from the beech woods) and ‘straw-plaiting’ (a method of manufacturing textiles by braiding straw). The number of English plaiters was around 30,000 in 1871, as compared with not more than a few hundred in 1907. Lee appears to have been a local hot-spot for plaiters.
With a growing population in Lee, and in other nearby hamlets at Kings Ash, Lee Gate and Lee Common, a new church dedicated to St. John the Baptist was built in the late 1860s, adjacent to the ancient chapel.
Also to serve this growing community, in 1873 the Lee Common ‘National School’ was opened. It co-existed for a time with the older ‘British School’ at Lee Clump, until this school closed in 1883, prompting an extension to the ‘National’.
Part of the British School at Lee Clump was then converted to a Baptist chapel led by local man, James Pearce. James had a ‘vision’ in 1870 and devoted the remainder of his life to the church, becoming known locally as ‘Holy Jim Pearce’.
The fall and rise…
In the second half of the 19th century, as mechanisation became more widespread in farming, there was a population movement from the country into nearby towns and cities. This population movement affected Lee – by now a small parish in its own right and once again with an absent landlord – and the population fell back again to less than 120. [It is worth noting here that the parish at this time was much smaller than it is today. Later we learn of the circumstances which led in 1911 to its expansion.]
It wasn’t until the very end of the 19th century that the population of The-Lee (as it was now beginning to be known) started to rise again. This coincided with the arrival in the village of Arthur Lasenby Liberty.
In the next two parts we learn more about the impact he had on The-Lee.
1. A history of the County of Buckinghamshire Vol. 1, William Page (1905)
2. The History and Antiquities of the County of Buckingham, George Lipscomb (1847)
3. One Hundred Years in The Lee, Edited by Barnaby Usborne (2000)
4. A Brief History of The Lee, www.thelee.org.uk (2010)