From the Newsletter Archives – A History

In 2011, to commemorate 100 years since the creation of the civil parish in its present form (in March) and 100 years since the completion of the Parish Church as it currently stands (in May), the newsletter published a series of articles on the history of The Lee over the course of the year. These articles are reproduced below.

Part 1: In the beginning
Part 2: 12th -16th centuries
Part 3: 16th to 19th centuries
Part 4: The 1911 parish
Part 5: The ‘new’ St John the Baptist Church
Part 6: The ‘new’ St John the Baptist Church cont’d...
Part 7: Non-conformist Lee
Part 8: The Lee in the First World War: July 1916
Part 9: The Liberty legacy
Part 10: Modern times
Part 11: What does the future hold for The Lee?

Part 1: In the beginning (Colin Sully)

The name Lee is thought to be derived from the old Anglo Saxon word ‘leah’ meaning ‘woodland clearing’. That much of our history seems to be generally accepted. But why would anyone want to settle in a clearing in the Chiltern woodlands? And why just here?

To answer these questions we need to search for evidence going back many thousands of years.

Step back in time…

In a field off the road from Swan Bottom to The Lee, stone-age flint flakes, including a broken blade, have been discovered (probably Mesolithic, 5-10,000 BC). A Neolithic arrowhead, from the last part of the stone-age (2-5000 BC), was also found by school children in the school’s own garden!

Gold bracelet
Gold braclet

The picture above – courtesy of Buckinghamshire County Museum – shows a bronze-age bracelet made of gold (~1000 BC) also found at Swan Bottom during a metal-detecting survey near the crossroads.

This evidence of human activity in The Lee all relates to a period long before farming began – the time of the hunter-gatherers. So what were they doing in this densely wooded area and why linger hereabouts?

Cross roads

It is clear that hunter-gatherers, drovers, traders and invaders have walked or ridden through our part of the Chilterns for over 5,000 years. The Misbourne valley was an established route from the south east of England to the Midlands. The natural cutting in the Chilterns near Wendover made it an easy route for early travellers.

The Ridgeway, passing through the outskirts of the parish was also part of a prehistoric track, once stretching about 250 miles (400 km) from the Dorset coast to The Wash on the Norfolk coast. It provided a route over the high ground for travellers which was drier than routes through the spring-line villages below.

The movement of people, animals and goods would have been along these tracks and, as the various routes became established, so communities started to spring up along the way.

Defending a way of life

The routes and the communities needed protection from marauders and invaders, so hill forts and fortified villages began to appear, making the most of the advantage of the Chilterns high ground.

Hill forts built during the iron-age from about 500 BC until the Romans arrived in 43 AD are to be found all along the Chiltern ridges. Cholesbury Camp is one of the best preserved local examples of such a fort.

map of the extent of the iron age fort
The extent of The Lee iron-age fort

Grim’s Ditch, from the same period, also passes through the parish traversing the Chilterns; it is thought to be an iron-age territorial boundary.

Meanwhile in The Lee, long before the Old Church was built, the ‘woodland clearing’ was also occupied by a fort, probably iron-age, 0-500 BC. The site of the fort covered about seven acres, was shaped like a pear and surrounded by a rampart. There are still traces of a ditch between the church and the present vicarage. A small community would have lived inside the compound, kept a few animals and also hunted and gathered in the surrounding woodlands.

The arrival of the Romans

From 43 AD until the middle of the fifth century, the Romans brought a new wave of travel and trading to England. They too left their mark in this area.

A labourer digging on Lee Common in 1790 found a small Roman statue – a figure of an old man made from copper coated with gold.

map of earthworks at Bray's Wood
Earthworks at Bray’s Wood

Earthworks from this period are also still to be found in Bray’s Wood, The Lee: a series of enclosures with ditches and banks, together with the remains of a number of ancient buildings, including a forge and a substantial stone house.

Roman pottery has also been found here. Even though much of the site is from a later period, the two superimposed moats are thought to be Roman in origin.

During the centuries after the Romans left (the Saxon period from 500 AD to 1000 AD) the long-distance routes remained and continued to be used. The hill-top communities of the Chilterns slowly grew and, as they did so, local boundaries and ownerships began to become established.

1066 and all that…

Following the Norman Conquest (1066) The Lee was granted by William I (the ‘Conqueror’) to Odo, Bishop of Bayeux. He in turn appears to have passed control to the de Turvilles. According to the Domesday Book (1086) “The Lee – a clearing in woodland” was a wooded swine pasture belonging to the de Turvilles of Weston Manor (near Wendover).

At this time, the Chiltern hills were still largely covered with woodland. So we can imagine the community at The Lee also being closely linked to nearby lowland areas more suited to crops and grazing around Wendover – home of the Norman Lord and an important trading town – and Great Missenden where the Abbey was to be built in 1133.

At The Lee, a small wooden chapel was also established around this time inside the compound, on the site of what is now the Old Church.

In 1146 Geoffrey de Turville passed the land at The Lee, including the small wooden chapel, to the Cistercian Monks at Missenden Abbey.

In the next instalment we hear more about how the monks and the lords shaped The Lee for the next four centuries.

Principle sources

  1. A trading county, Bucks CC Archaeology website (2010).
  2. History of the Ridgeway, (2010).
  3. Prehistoric settlements, Cholesbury and St Leonards Local History Group (2010).
  4. Buckinghamshire: Later Bronze Age and Iron Age, Sandy Kidd (2008).
  5. Golden bracelets and rapiers, (2008).
  6. Records of Buckinghamshire, Daniel Secker (2005).
  7. Records of Buckinghamshire, Revd Boughey Burgess (1855). 

Part 2: 12th -16th centuries (John Glanfield and Colin Sully)

By the 12th century, the Cistercian Monks, with the support of the Norman Kings, had laid eight abbey foundations in England and Wales. One of these foundations (in 1133) was at Great Missenden. It was to shape life in The Lee for over four hundred years.

Missenden Abbey
Missenden Abbey

Missenden was never among the greater abbeys of England, but it was, from the beginning, fairly well endowed and became one of the most important monasteries in the county.

In 1133 the Abbey owned much of the land thereabouts, stretching up the hill as far as what is now Potter Row. However, the land beyond that, including the wooden chapel at The Lee, still belonged to the de Turville family of Weston Manor (Wendover).

There were many long-standing disputes over this land and, in 1146, in settlement of one of these disputes Geoffrey de Turville confirmed the land at The Lee in favour of the “Canons of St Mary of Missenden”.

Within 40 years, following further disputes, the land was conceded back again to Ingram de la leia (of The Lee). He on his part undertook to feed and clothe the two Canons living at that time at the chapel.

It was also agreed that “on the death of Ingram the land is to revert to the Abbey, and his wife shall have no residence there or access thereto except to the Chapel like other honest women”.

Life with the monks

The Cistercian Monks ran a largely self supporting community based around Missenden Abbey, with a great deal of lay labour. The chapel and residences at Lee (as it became known) would have been integrated into that monastic life.

Services in Lee chapel would have been said or sung in Latin many times each day. It was a disciplined life of prayer and work for the monks at the Abbey and at Lee chapel.

As for ordinary folk, the struggle to grow enough to eat and keep out of trouble was paramount. It was a time of struggles, against the domination of the Papal authority and against crushing taxation to provide money for the King and his crusades.

The Lee Old Church

Lee Chapel

Against this background, in around 1220 AD what we now call The Lee Old Church was built – the oldest standing building in the former Chiltern District.

Secker speculates that Ralph de Bray (a minor lord, descended from the Norman invaders) may have been living in a house at what is now Bray’s Wood and may have supervised the building of the Old Church.

This would certainly account for the fact that some of the relics found at Bray’s Wood closely match those used in the oldest parts of the Old Church and perhaps explain the remains of a forge and a kiln on the site.

The Old Church is of early English Gothic design as indicated by the ‘lancet’ windows (a sharp, knife shape) which first appeared in the 12th century. Also of architectural historic importance from this early period are:

  • 13th Century Glass in the upper part of the east window. 
  • Ironwork.  Ancient window ironwork in hinge bases beside windows in the north and south walls. 
the font
  • The Font basin, which is mediaeval with original staple holes securing the lid (a later 17th century addition). 
  • On the outside of the south wall, Mass clocks (sundials for telling the time for Mass).
  •  Wall Paintings. The earliest work uncovered is 14th century.
  • Originally there were three Bells made by Michael de Wymbis in about 1290. The remaining bell now hangs at the top of the ‘new’ Parish Church. 

The rise and fall

During the 14th and 15th centuries, the community around Lee chapel grew slowly; more woodland was cleared, more pasture land created and crops cultivated. Missenden itself became a major thorough-fare and the Abbey prospered, even if the lives of those that served it remained hard.

Records show that by the beginning of the sixteenth century the lives of many monks at Missenden were becoming less and less in the service of God and more and more in the service of ‘self’. In 1530 it was complained that the abbot, John Fox, was “wholly under secular influences”. One canon, John Slythurst, was also accused “of the crime condemned beyond all others in Holy Scripture”.

John Slythurst was initially imprisoned at the Abbey for his sins, but later, under the generosity of the king and his agents, he was set free and appointed as ‘priest’ at the Lee chapel. For this he was paid eight pounds per annum.
His appointment as the first recorded priest at Lee Chapel must also have been the last, as he died in the 1550s, shortly after the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII.

Following the dissolution of Missenden Abbey, the lands at Lee were given to John Russell, 1st Earl of Bedford a loyal servant to the King. 

In the next instalment, we learn how the Bedfords (and the Hawthorns and the Plaistowes) shaped the next 300 years of the history of The Lee. We also learn of a shake-up in parish boundaries with the arrival of Arthur Lasenby Liberty.

Principal sources

  1. The Lee Old Church Trust, a talk given by John Glanfield, President of the Trust (1996)
  2. The Lee Old Church, leaflet produced by the Trust
  3. Records of Buckinghamshire, Daniel Secker (2005)
  4. A history of the County of Buckinghamshire Vol. 1, William Page (1905)

Part 3 – 16th to 19th centuries (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.

Absent landlords

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 Old Swan
The Old Swan

The Plaistowe dynasty

The Plaistowe coat of arms

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.

Principle sources

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, (2010)

Part 4 – The 1911 parish (Barnaby Usborne)

As we have seen in earlier parts of this history, the origins of parishes date back over a thousand years. In the case of The Lee, the influences of the Normans, of the monks of Missenden Abbey and of the mediaeval lords are all clearly evident.

The exchange of properties and land (sometimes voluntarily and sometimes through the order of the Crown), national and local laws and systems of tax collection have all shaped the parish boundaries.

The first parish

Map of the parish, showing land ceded from Great Misenden and Wendover

The original parish at Lee was based on the early manor estate with boundaries extending only as far as Hunts Green in the south and Kings Ash in the north. The boundary in the east followed the footpath from Lee Gate to Chapel Farm from where it cut across the fields to Hunts Green, excluding Lee Common.

At the end of the 19th century the parish comprised just 500 acres and 33 properties, with a population of 125 people. The houses in the surrounding hamlets of Kings Ash, Lee Gate, Lee Common and Swan Bottom, were then in the adjacent parishes of Wendover and Great Missenden. 

When Arthur Lasenby Liberty first started to rent The Lee manor house in 1890, The Lee was a village of great simplicity, with no main roads, water or drainage. Before his arrival, the manor had been occupied by a series of tenants with little interest in the village. The absentee landlords (the  Plaistowes) were happy to sell the estate to Arthur, which they did in 1898.

Arthur was tiring of city life and was keen to return to his roots in the country. He set about this with the same vigour and determination with which he had founded his company (Liberty of Regent Street).

The Lee manor estate

Over the next few years he bought more than 3,000 acres of land, including 12 working farms, several large houses, many small cottages and lots of pubs. The Lee manor estate was extended to Prestwood and Wendover Dean to the west and north, and across Arrewig Lane to the east.

Arthur was regarded as being a good landlord, popular with his tenants. He built new houses and extended others (including the manor); he arranged for water to be piped up from the Misbourne valley; and he introduced the first public telephone.

In 1901 Arthur Liberty invited the residents of Lee Common, then part of Great Missenden parish, to join The Lee in preparing celebrations to mark the Coronation of Edward VII. Thus began the move for an enlarged parish, which Arthur as chairman of the Parish Council and a County Councillor was to campaign for vigorously over the next decade.

Under The Lee’s protection

The battle for enlargement was fierce, as both Wendover and Great Missenden parishes strongly opposed the transfer of their “outlying districts” to The Lee. But these districts had strong grievances, among which was their liability for loans for drainage work in Wendover and Great Missenden from which they themselves did not benefit.

In 1907 these residents sent a letter to Arthur asking him to call a public meeting to discuss the serious matter of bringing their homes under the protection of The Lee. Arthur claimed that enlargement would not affect him personally as he already owned almost all of the land. But as he felt it would be of benefit to many of his friends, he paid the administrative costs himself.

The campaign was successful and in 1911, after a great deal of discussion and a series of public enquiries, an Act of Parliament transferred over 1000 acres from Wendover and 500 from Great Missenden to make The Lee four times its original size and as we see it today. Overnight the population increased from 125 to 775 and the number of occupied houses rose from 33 to 188. 

To mark the enlargement, Arthur organised the revival of the custom of beating the bounds of the parish, a custom repeated again on 12th March 2011 to mark the centenary of the occasion. 

Note: Beating of the Bounds will be carried out again in September 2019, as possibly the last occasion when the boundaries are accessible prior to construction of HS2.

In the next instalment we learn more of the Liberty family’s influence on The Lee.

Principle sources

1.    One Hundred Years in The Lee, Edited by Barnaby Usborne (2000)
2.    Coronation Year Records, Compiled by A. Lasenby Liberty

Part 5: The ‘new’ St John the Baptist Church (Mike Senior)

In May of 2011 The Lee Parish celebrated another centenary. To mark those events, we tell the story in this instalment and next of our ‘new’ church.

As we learnt earlier in this series, there has been a church in The Lee since about 1200 when the ‘Old’ Church was built. However in the middle of the 19th century the Old Church was in a poor state of repair and the leading residents in the area decided that a new, larger church should be built. The new church was dedicated, as was the Old, to St John The Baptist. The Old Church was restored most recently between 1977 and 1986. The Lee is therefore unusual in having two churches in the same churchyard; both churches are consecrated and are used regularly for services.

One of the local dignitaries who was closely involved in the planning of the new church was a Mr William Callow, who lived at The Firs. It is appropriate to use William Callow’s own words to tell the story of how the new church came to be built. It will be noted that, in those days, The Lee was called, simply, Lee.

A plan emerges

“On the 12th of February 1865, the then Vicar of Lee, the Rev. Spicer Crutch M.A., and Mr Abraham Watson of the Manor House, Lee, called at ‘The Firs’ to meet Mr Augustus Frere, an architect and friend of Mr Callow’s, and discuss a project for building a new church at Lee as the old one was in bad repair and considered too small. And later in the same day Mr Callow walked to Lee with the architect.

“During the same month of February a meeting was held to advance the said scheme at which the sum of £325 was promised by those present. Within about four years afterwards a total sum of £1906 11s 1d was subscribed…

The Bishop intervenes

“During the aforesaid month of February Mr Callow instructed the Architect, Mr Frere, to make drawings and plans for the new church. On March the 2nd of the same year, Mr and Mrs Crutch called on Mr Callow with the news that the Bishop of the Diocese (the Rev. Samuel Wilberforce) was opposed to Mr Frere being appointed architect for the proposed new church and claimed that the architect must be the Architect of the Diocese (i.e. Oxford). And on this Mr Callow demurred and the whole scheme came to a standstill…

“In July 1867 the Vicar, Mr Crutch, reported to Mr Callow that he had seen the Bishop who had asked him as to how the building of the new church at Lee was progressing. And the Bishop appeared very regretful to learn that the scheme had been dropped by reason of his (the Bishop’s) stipulation that the work must be done by the Diocesan architect and the Bishop forthwith waived such stipulation.

“On September 26th of the said year, 1867, the work of building the new church was commenced by Honour the builder under the supervision of Mr Frere as Architect.

Services commence

“On February the 3rd 1869, a service in the Old Church was held for the last time and on February 6th following the Consecration Service of the new church took place. On this occasion were present among others the Rural Dean with ten other Clergymen, Lady Chesham, etc. The collection at the service amounted to £340. Afterwards a luncheon was given to all the visitors at the Manor House by Mr Watson.”

The above note by Mr Callow was however not the end of the story of the development of the new Church of St John The Baptist. The chancel and vestry were considered, after a time, to be ‘inconveniently cramped’. The Vestry was a recess behind the organ chamber and with large congregations the seating in the nave was proving inadequate. In 1908 therefore it was enlarged. The principal members of the congregation were consulted and a committee was set up which was chaired by the then Vicar, the Revd J. Pownall Britton. Plans were agreed, but the Revd Pownall Britton was about to retire and as a consequence the faculty to begin the work was deferred.

In the next instalment, read about how the building was finally enlarged to become the Church we know today.

Part 6: The ‘new’ St John the Baptist Church cont’d… (Mike Senior)

In the autumn of 1909, a new Vicar was installed, the Revd Reginald Palmer, and the committee to oversee the development of the Church was reconstituted.

Extensive developments

At this time the Lord of the Manor was Mr Arthur Lasenby Liberty who had already done much to help the church. He had given ground to enlarge the churchyard, contributed to the restoration of the Old Church, re-roofed the New Church and had given land for a new vicarage. Arthur Liberty now took a leading role in the development of the New Church and in order to prevent delay he underwrote the whole of the rebuilding cost. For its part the Committee undertook to collect a sum to cover the cost of the transepts and the re-flooring of the nave. The result was that “by voluntary effort on the part of all classes in the community, including even the children of the Sunday School, the needed sum of £550 for this portion of the work was raised”. Almost £3,000 was needed to pay for the remainder of the project and that was donated by Mr and Mrs Liberty.

The work on the church began in September 1910 and it was extensive. The changes and additions included:

  • the extension and re-roofing of the chancel
  • the addition of two transepts
  • a new baptistery
  • a new vestry
  • a chamber for a ‘heating furnace’ together with new pipes and radiators
  • east and west stained glass windows
  • carved oak furniture for the choir and altar areas
  • wrought metal candelabras and gas fittings
  • wrought metal fittings on the doors and pulpit.

The decorative work was carried out by Messrs. Liberty of London.

foundation stone of the new church

During the re-building work the original foundation stone was moved and positioned “between the old and the new work”.

This took place on 14th October 1910 and on the same occasion a tin box was placed under the foundation stone. In the tin box were deposited a copy of The Times for that date, a coin (believed to be a penny) and a newly-minted 1910 half-crown piece.

The dedication of the enlarged church took place on 6th May 1911. The service was led by the Bishop of Oxford and there was “a very full attendance of residents in the district”.

The Church today

The present church is very much as it was in 1911. However certain items have been donated over the years. The organ, which originated in Glasgow, was given by Lady Liberty in remembrance of Sir Arthur Liberty, who died in 1917. After the First World War the Revd Constantine Phipps provided a silver altar cross and two silver candle sticks, in memory of his two sons who were killed in the War. Sadly both the candlesticks were stolen in 1973. The processional cross is in memory of Mrs Constantine Phipps.

In more recent times the gas lighting became electric and the coal-fired furnace is now oil-fired. The pine pews have been refurbished to match the oak furniture of the choir and altar areas.

The words written in 1911, at the time of the enlargement of the church, still hold true today. The work “has transformed our little village church into one of the most dignified and beautiful sanctuaries in the county”.

Principal Sources

1.  The Doings in the Parish During Coronation Year, A. L. Liberty ( 1911)

Part 7: Non-conformist Lee (Colin Sully, Neil Rees, Marian Tomkins and Barnaby Usborne)

By the middle of the 19th century, a strong non-conformist tradition was well-established in parts of the parish.

Lee Common Methodist Church

The Methodist chapel, situated in Oxford Street, Lee Common, dates from 1839.

The original carved plaque can still be seen in the front wall – although a Methodist congregation had been first registered in 1836. The chapel was built by local people as a ‘Primitive Methodist’ church (indicating that they were conducting themselves in the ways of Wesley and the original Methodists).

Primitive Methodists

In the 1840s and 1850s the chapel was also used as an infant and day school run by the non-conformist British and Foreign School Society.

In the religious census of 1851 the church steward Thomas Batchelor reported congregations in the morning of 73, in the afternoon of 103 and in the evening 104. He also reported that the church had on average 170 in the Sunday School!

One of the main families at Lee Common Methodist Church was the Beeson family. Charles Beeson became a Methodist preacher at the church in 1867 and by 1874 he was also holding evangelistic services in Ballinger schoolroom. When the new Ballinger School was built, the old schoolroom became the Mission Hall and, later, St Mary’s. Charles continued these services until his death in 1880.

In 1885 additional land was purchased for an extension to the Lee Common chapel and it has been further modernised over the years. In 1986 it was completely refurbished and is now a fine multi-purpose hall, with its art deco stained glass windows and pinewood ceiling and shutters.

Lee Common is the oldest Methodist chapel in continuous use in the Amersham circuit of churches and it continues to provide for its congregation, for visitors and for the local community.

The Missionaries

Emmanuel hall
Emanuel Hall (Swan Bottom)

By the late 19th century a number of Mission Halls had been created around the parish – Emanuel Hall, at Swan Bottom, the Springfield Mission Hall in Potter Row (at a place called the Chalet) and the Mission Hall in Ballinger (now St Mary’s). The halls were created mainly for workers and their families employed on the land – local Mission Halls were a way of bringing the church closer to them.

Arthur Beeson (son of Charles) was a local farmer and also a Primitive Methodist preacher. He formed some of his farm workers into a choir which for a while met at Russells Farm. In 1883 Emanuel Hall, Swan Bottom was built for these farm workers and their families to attend. A memorial stone at the top of the chapel reads: “Emanuel Hall, 1883, erected by Mr Arthur Beeson as a Thanksgiving to the Lord” and over the doorway was written “Jesus invites you all to come”.

The chapel was enlarged in 1887 and after Arthur died in 1900 his sons took over its running.

Emanuel Hall ceased to function as a chapel in 1990. Following initial refusals by the district council to allow a change of use, it fell into a state of disrepair. More recently it has been sold, renovated and converted into a private dwelling.

Strict Baptists

For many years the local Strict Baptists had to walk into Townfield Chapel, Chesham on Sundays (Strict Baptists only allow baptised believers to share communion).

A cottage at Grove Wood, The Lee belonging to Mr George Chilton became their first local place of worship and then, in 1827, the congregation bought a piece of ground nearby and built a chapel on it. After some years and a falling attendance, it was converted back into cottages and the Baptist congregation then met in different people’s houses. The original chapel building no longer exists.

A few years later, the local landlord’s agent purchased a plot of land in front of Lee Clump farmhouse, where a small new building was erected for their worship. However by the 1840s the church had shrunk to no more than a dozen people who used to meet in the vestry because the chapel itself was too large. 

The story is then told that in 1877 local man James Pearce was working in the fields around The Lee one day, when he had a vision that would change his life. He knew from this vision that he would be lost forever if he continued in his sins. From then on he gave up his old friends and devoted his entire life to the church.

Baptist Chapel
The British School at Lee Clump becomes the ‘new’ Baptist Chapel

In 1883, with the old Baptist chapel now falling into decay, a part of the former British School at Lee Clump was converted to a fine, new Baptist chapel under the patronage of Joseph Butcher of Chesham.

In 1883 the Baptists used the schoolhouse for meetings and called it Providence Chapel. Soon after vacating the old chapel it was demolished. A house called Inglenook is now on the site.

In 1900 the schoolhouse was rebuilt into a chapel and a gallery was added. It could now seat 150 people. Some of the adjoining land was also made into a burial ground. In 1909 Frederick Butcher gave the chapel, the house and the adjoining ground to the Strict Baptist congregation.

In the same year James (Holy Jim) Pearce was installed as pastor. His preaching and writings were full of biblical and religious fundamentalism until his death in 1929. In 1909 the chapel had 19 members, but had 66 children in the Sunday School, taught by seven teachers.

The last service at the chapel was held in October 1968. The chapel was then sold and converted into a private dwelling (Chapel Farm).


At the beginning of the 20th century, the original parish magazine, founded and edited by Arthur Lasenby Liberty, included regular contributions from all the non-conformist chapels in the parish – a very ecumenical gesture at the time and perhaps a reflection of Arthur’s own non-conformist origins in Chesham. An annual Sunday School party was also held at the Liberty’s manor house for Sunday School children from all of these churches (Anglican, Baptist and Methodist).

The Baptist chapel and Emmanuel Hall are both now private residences. The Methodist chapel is the only non-conformist place of worship in the parish. It retains its place at the heart of Lee Common whilst, at the same time, maintaining strong links with St John the Baptist church… and with this Newsletter.

In the next instalment we move on to learn of the events of 1916 – for The Lee, a year to remember.

Principal sources

1.    One Hundred Years in The Lee, Edited by Barnaby Usborne (2000)
2.    Centenary Service, Provident Baptist Chapel (September 1927)
3.    Workers Together, A Brief Record of Mr and Mrs James Pearce, (1935)
4.    The Lee Methodist Church, Bucks Examiner, (14th July 1939) 
5.    Emanuel Hall – A Short History of Thirty-eight Years’ Work (1921)

Part 8: The Lee in the First World War: July 1916 (Mike Senior)

There can be no doubt that The Lee played its full part in the First World War. In July 1916 the Lee Magazine published a list of local men who had volunteered for service. There were 105 names in total. Of these, eight had joined the Navy; two were in the Royal Flying Corps and the remaining 95 were in the Army. By the end of the war over 160 men had joined one or other of the armed forces. Since the population of The Lee parish at that time was some 750 (the same as it is now) it can be reasonably assumed that all the eligible men in the locality had served in the war. Eleven of these men were decorated for bravery.

The Lee suffered heavily in terms of casualties. 30 young men were killed and a further 36 were wounded – a casualty rate of over 40 per cent. Robert Bignall, Walter Hearn and Percy Jennings were each wounded twice. These casualty figures were not spread evenly over the four years of war. Until July 1916 only one man had been killed. He was John Pearce of Swan Bottom who was reported as ‘Missing’ after the Battle of Festubert in May 1915 and whose body was never found. In July 1916, however, a major attack took place on the Western Front involving men from the village. It was the outcome of that attack that made July 1916 the blackest month of the war for The Lee. 

The Battle of Fromelles

The great Allied offensive of the Somme had been launched on 1st July. Information had reached Sir Douglas Haig, the Commander in Chief of the British Expeditionary Force, that the Germans had transferred troops from Northern France to act as reinforcements on the Somme. It was essential that such transfers should be stopped and it was therefore decided to make a diversionary attack some 40 miles north of the Somme to keep the German troops pinned down in that sector. The place selected for this attack was Fromelles, a few miles south of Armentières in French Flanders. The attack was to be carried out by two Divisions, one British (61st) and one Australian (5th). The British Division was made up of men from the South Midlands counties and among them were men from The Lee serving with the 2nd Bucks Battalion.

The assault began at 6:00 pm on the evening of Wednesday 19th July. The attack was over a front of two and a half miles and the immediate objective was to take and hold the enemy trenches. The task of the artillery, both British and Australian, was to demolish the German defensive positions and, to that end, artillery bombardments took place during the five days leading up to the attack. The British General in command of the attack was optimistic: “When we have cut all the wire, destroyed all the enemy’s machine gun emplacements, knocked down most of his parapets, killed a large proportion of the enemy, and thoroughly frightened the remainder, our infantry will assault, capture and hold the enemy’s line along the whole front”.

Critical failures

But these crucial artillery bombardments failed – the result of inexperienced gunners and poor weather. The most critical part of the attack front was towards the German strong-point known as the Sugar Loaf. Along the Sugar Loaf sector the Germans had built 75 concrete bunkers at 25-yard intervals. Each bunker housed machine guns that dominated the whole of the central area of the attack. It was later learnt that the British and Australian artillery had put only eight of these bunkers out of action.

The failure to destroy the Sugar Loaf defences proved to be disastrous for the whole operation and particularly for the 2nd Bucks Battalion and for the men of The Lee. The 2nd Bucks, along with the Australian 59th Battalion, were the assault troops whose objective was to take the Sugar Loaf. However, when they made their assault they were cut down in No Man’s Land by the German machine guns. It is unlikely that any of the Bucks Battalion or the Australian 59th Battalion entered the German trenches. Despite some success on the flanks of the attack, it became clear that if the Sugar Loaf could not be taken the operation would end in failure. While fighting continued through the night of 19th /20th July the attack was officially called off at 5:00 am and the Allied troops – those who could make it – were ordered back to their lines. Fierce spasmodic fighting continued until about 8:00 am. The operation therefore lasted some fourteen hours. During that time, the Australians lost 5,550 men and the British 1,550. The Germans lost fewer than 2,000. The trench lines were exactly the same after the attack as they had been at the beginning.

However, it is at least of some consolation that although the tactical aim of the attack – to take the German lines – failed, there is strong evidence to show that the Germans, fearing another attack in the Fromelles area, did not move troops from that sector down to the Somme for at least six weeks – a critical period at that stage in the Somme offensive. The sacrifice of these young British and Australian soldiers was not, therefore, in vain.

A place of sorrow

The 2nd Bucks Battalion, with casualties amounting to 322, lost half its men during the Fromelles attack. Among the casualties were nine men from The Lee. Ralph and Arthur Brown, brothers from Oxford Street; Sydney Dwight of Lee Common; Harry Harding of Kingswood; Arnold Morris from Field End Lane; Charles Phipps, the son of the Vicar; Harry Pratt, also from Oxford Street and Edward Sharp of Kingswood Cottages were all killed. Ivor Stewart-Liberty, wounded in the left leg early in the attack, was dragged back to the British line, but subsequently the wound became gangrenous and the leg was amputated. Two days after the Fromelles attack Harry Talmer of Lee Common, serving with the 1st Bucks Battalion, was killed near Pozières on the Somme.

The Lee hockey club of 1916

The Lee Hockey Club 1908-09, Arthur Brown and Ralph Brown back row second and fifth from the left.

Arnold and Emily Morris with two children 1915

Arnold and Emily Morris with two children 1915

Of the 30 Lee men who lost their lives during the War one-third were killed in the month of July 1916. The Bucks Examiner of 28th July carried the headline: “A Heavy List of Local Casualties.” The article noted that “The Lee casualties during the past few days have been very heavy… The Lee is a place of sorrowing”.

Ivor Stewart-Liberty

Nevertheless, The Lee, like many similar communities throughout Britain, carried on with determination and courage. As Ivor Stewart-Liberty (pictured left) later wrote: “They were indeed the saddest and the proudest of days”.

In the next part we complete our look at the first half of the 20th century.

Principal sources:

1. No Finer Courage by Michael Senior, re-published by Pen & Sword Books 2011 as Fromelles 1916.

Part 9: The Liberty legacy (Barnaby Usborne)

In earlier parts we have covered Arthur Lasenby Liberty’s specific influence on the parish boundaries and on St John the Baptist Church. Before we move on, it is worth pausing a moment to reflect on how he came to be in The Lee and what other influences he had.

The Lee manor estate

Arthur was born in 1843 in Chesham, where his father owned a draper’s store. When he was eight the family moved to Nottingham, but he came back frequently to stay at his grandparents’ home at Chartridge Farm. So he knew the area well when, in 1890, having heard from his grandparents that The Lee manor was available, he rented it from the Plaistowe family. Thus began the association between The Lee and the Liberty family that continues to this day.

By the late 1890s he had become a local JP, Chairman of the (then much smaller) Parish Council and High Sheriff of Buckinghamshire. He had already begun acquiring land locally and in 1900 he bought the manor from the Plaistowes. We read in Part 4 how he then set about building up the estate to over 3,000 acres and how this in turn led to the expansion of the parish to its present size.

As well as this legacy and the enlarged St John the Baptist Church, his other visible legacies include:

  • The Guild Room opposite the green – built to form a social centre and local meeting room
  • The Well-House built by Liberty craftsmen to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Jubilee
  • The tree-lined approach roads
  • An enlarged manor house
  • Clearance of the village green, including re-positioning and re-building the Cock and Rabbit
  • Water supply from a spring in the Misbourne valley
  • The first public telephone
  • The original parish magazine
  • The house at Pipers, built as a wedding present for his eventual heir and successor
A view of the old Cock and Rabbit pub

A view of the ‘old’ Cock and Rabbit

Arthur was knighted in 1913 for ‘services to the applied and decorative arts’. Although shortly afterwards his health began to deteriorate, Arthur and his wife, Emma, continued to invest their time, energy and efforts in bringing improvements to the parish. They had no children of their own.

Paternalistic interest

Arthur died in 1917 and is buried at St John the Baptist Church. His nephew, Ivor, who had been named as Arthur’s heir in 1913, then took over both as head of Liberty’s store and owner of ‘The Lee Manor Estate’.

We learnt in the last part of his role in the Great War. Between the wars, Ivor and his wife Evelyn continued to take a keen and paternalistic interest in the local community. They donated the recreation ground to the village and built the Youth Club (now the Parish Hall) “for the purposes of education and recreation”.

They were the major employer in the parish, keeping a large domestic staff to run the manor house and with many others employed in farming and in the upkeep of the estate. Ivor’s death in 1952 was to mark the end of an era. For fifty years nearly the whole of the enlarged parish including most of the dwellings in it, had been owned by one landlord. He had also employed most of the inhabitants. All this was about to change… as we shall read in the next instalment.

Principal sources

1.    One Hundred Years in The Lee, Ed: Barnaby Usborne (2000)

Part 10: Modern times (Colin Sully and Barnaby Usborne)

The fact that most of the land and housing in the parish remained in the estate of Ivor Stewart-Liberty until well after the Second World War meant that urban housing development was very limited in the parish during this period.

One building project to construct 21 council houses was completed by the Rural District Council immediately after the war. Apart from this, virtually all the building in the parish for over 50 years was carried out by the Liberty estate. In addition, existing houses and cottages could only be modified or extended if the landlord agreed.

A new era begins

Sale Offer of parts of The Lee Estate following the death of Ivor Stewart-Liberty

The death of Ivor Stewart-Liberty in 1952 led to the sale of The Lee manor house together with a significant part of the manor estate; some 1,400 acres.

Following its sale, the manor house (described by Ivor’s son Arthur as “like a gypsy encampment”) was divided into three properties. Seven farms and a great many other houses and cottages were also sold, often to sitting tenants. Out-buildings and farm buildings were converted into independent homes. It was indeed the end of another era and the beginning of a new period for most of The Lee’s residents.

The year 1980 also marks a special point in the history of The Lee. This was the year when Chiltern District Council created a conservation area around the Old Church, the green and the former manor, thereby ensuring that the special architecture and history of this part of The Lee would be preserved for future generations.

In more recent years, rural planning restrictions have further limited the spread of large and small-scale developments. The Green Belt, the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and the Conservation Area have all helped to create and then preserve the character of The Lee parish.

Valuing community

For some time now, the estate and the farms in the parish have no longer been the major employers of the local population. Like many pleasant places to live in the south east of England, The Lee has become more of a ‘community of commuters and retired folk’ than a truly agricultural community – even though we are surrounded by agricultural countryside and reminded of it every day.

The parish’s long history and the legacy of the Liberty estate continue to have a major impact on both the appearance and the character of the parish. Many of the traditional events and activities of The Lee that go back over 100 years – the flower show, the cricket club, the WI, etc. – are not just ‘preserved’ as an act of nostalgia but are still celebrated and valued by the present community. It is not surprising that such a community has more recently also created a community Shop and the LeeWay.

The 21st century

The proximity of London and of international airports, together with the advent of the internet and ‘high-speed’ broadband, have all greatly increased the attractiveness of the Chilterns in general and The Lee in particular as a place to live – notwithstanding the ever-increasing impact of road traffic, air transport and now (possibly) high-speed rail.

The small size of this parish, its special geographic location, its unique history and the visions of the people that have shaped it, have all combined together to make The Lee parish what it is today.

Just what it might look like in the future, we will speculate on in the final part of this history of The Lee.

Principal sources

  1. One Hundred Years in The Lee, Edited by Barnaby Usborne (2000).

Part 11: What does the future hold for The Lee? (The Lee residents)

Maypole dancing

We have covered over 10,000 years in this history of The Lee; but what might the  future hold? We decided to end this series by asking a number of residents for their thoughts on “What The Lee might be like in 2050”. Here is what they had to say. 

Real challenges
By Revd David Burgess

Physically I don’t think much will change. It would take a battle with an entire community to bring in an influx of new buildings or the radical redevelopment of existing ones. 

However what we use will alter radically. IT is always smaller, faster and cheaper – in 2050 much of it might be out of sight and literally part of the furniture. Fossil energy is going the other way; so more solar, wind and geothermal installations. We’ll need to be more self-sufficient in food as well.

Spiritually… my area, I guess, and the one that may be hardest to predict. I worry about what faces our children. I believe that God has a design for our lives and that the Church faces real challenges in the years ahead if we’re to be effective in promoting his purposes in society. Many of these young ones will become key decision-makers, and the spiritual environment in which they’re being brought up now really matters. 

Things, maybe, for my successor to ponder in 39 years’ time; I hope this potential 92 year-old will be around to talk to him… or her about it!

A stroll through the village
By John Ford, The Lee

A resident of the future on a walk around the village on a warm afternoon in late 2050 might try to guess how the fabric of the village had changed from 40 years ago.

Walking up from Leather Lane observing the unfinished ventilation towers of the HS2 tunnel he wondered “when will they ever complete this project?” It seemed to have been going on for years. Strolling past the fields of sunflowers, soya beans and various bio fuels he heard the faint buzz of electric cars on the M413. He was more conscious of the constant aircraft noise as stacking air buses prepared to land at Heathrow Terminal 8, just outside Uxbridge.

Walking up to the new town hall of the unitary borough of Chiltern Ridges, past the retractable floodlights of the cricket club, now a well established county ground with stacks of temporary seating, he finally came to stop outside the community mosque and the original branch of the massive Usborne Supermarket Group. “How much of this was around in 2011” he wondered?

Looking both ways
By Geoffrey Palmer, Hunts Green

The future? I cannot help but think of the past and the changes since we came here in 1969.

Well, the Bugle was an alternative to the Cock and Rabbit and in Ballinger, in addition to the now plucked Pheasant, there was the sadly missed Bull. May the Cock continue forever!

Apart from Ernie Brown’s, mine was the only car in Hunts Green, when you could easily turn left at the bottom of Leather Lane even in the rush hour… because there wasn’t one.

And… let’s not mention the railways… but the trains at Great Missenden were 1st and 2nd class, smoking and non-smoking and had heavy doors – I remember opening one for Clement Atlee.

For the future, I wish the hedges between Hunt’s Green and The Lee could be put back – for birds and for humans. Otherwise, I will just keep my fingers crossed for all the young people in 2050.

Farming tomorrow
By Trevor Pearce, Lee Clump

In recent years nearly all the dairy herds have gone; so have the pigs and the poultry farms. The farm workers have gone too and much of the farm work is now done by contractors with high capacity machinery.

We may not have a single working farm in the area or indeed any business of any kind; perhaps not even a pub! We may see a golf course in The Lee or perhaps wind turbines; or will they soon be as out-dated as a 1980s mobile phone?

The school is the heart of the village… but that too could well be gone. Perhaps the shop will survive.

And will any of the old village families still be here? I sincerely hope so!

All that beauty
By Liz Stewart-Liberty, The-Lee

As Thomas Gray wrote:

“The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
All that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour:
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.”

In the year 2050 I think The-Lee will be the same glorious place: thriving, full of happy, lucky people benefitting from The-Lee’s unique magic: shine on harvest moon, ring out the bells and rejoice!

The-Lee may shelter a helpful Martian come to repair the potholes! King William’s triplets might be attending our village school and Elvis (who has undergone major resuscitation) could be living in a bunker beneath The Lee Green – his choice, wise guy!

Long live The Lee, way beyond 2050. I’m just glad I shan’t be there.

We have left the last words with a teenager – who probably has the best chance of being around to see 2050.

By Alex Morgan, Lee Common

Imagine a smaller Chorleywood, up on a hill. The Lee will be bigger… with more concrete and electric cars due to inexorable expansion of London’s suburbs. The Lee will be larger and more vibrant. The majority of Lee Commoners will be Birmingham City fans due to the ease with which they can travel to home games… thanks to HS2!

Despite the increased hustle and bustle, The Lee will retain its quintessential village feel, the shop and Cock and Rabbit still remaining and flourishing, whilst the cricket team still suffer batting collapses with a Swain still as Chairman. Some things will never change!

Over to you

So, there you have it: we have come to the end of this history. What do you think? How do you see the important events that have shaped our Parish? What do you think the future will look like?