Arthur Lasenby Liberty was born in Chesham, Buckinghamshire in 1843 and was employed in the 1860’s in London at the shop of Messrs Farmer and Rogers in Regent Street. With a £2,000 loan from his future father-in-law, Arthur Liberty took on the lease of half a shop directly opposite Farmers and Rogers at 218a Regent Street.
In 1875 he opened his first shop. Within eighteen months Arthur had repaid the loan and acquired the second half of 218 Regent Street – the now world famous Liberty store.
Arthur’s grandparents lived near to The Lee at Chartridge Farm and he visited them frequently. Attracted to live in the area again and with his new found wealth, he moved into the Manor House at The Lee in 1890, initially renting it from the absent Plaistowe family, and in 1898 he bought the manor estate from them.
As Lord of the Manor, he extended the estate to cover over three thousand acres, stretching well beyond the parish boundaries. The estate eventually comprised twelve working farms, many houses and cottages and ‘lots of pubs’.
He also did much to improve the village, including new cottages, fresh water to The Lee pumped from Missenden valley (but not to other communities which were then outside of The Lee parish), a village green, cricket pitch, football ground and, in 1911, improvements to the Parish Church.
A new well was also dug around this time at Lee Common to improve the water supply to that community. It was completed in 1897, the year of Queen Victoria’s Diamond jubilee, and remains to this day. The well is 365 feet deep and there were two counter acting buckets each holding 25 gallons of water.
The well was closed in the early 1950’s and was made a Grade II listed building in 1986. It is now owned and maintained by The Lee Parish Council.
The Lee Parish
The present geographic boundaries of the parish of The Lee also owe much to Arthur Liberty’s influence. In the latter part of the 19th century, the communities at King’s Ash, Lee Gate and Swan Bottom all belonged to the Parish of Wendover; whilst Lee Common and Lee Clump – the name given to a small group of houses separated from the main village – belonged to the Parish of Great Missenden. In 1911 the parish of The Lee was extended to include all these communities. The geographic size of the Parish consequently increased four-fold and the population increased from 125 to 775.
To mark this enlargement, Arthur organised the revival of the old custom of ‘beating the bounds’ of the parish. This ceremony involves parishioners processing around the boundary of their parish and praying for its protection in the forthcoming year. The custom has continued intermittently until today.
The Stewart-Liberty legacy
There are other visual reminders in the village of the influence of Arthur Liberty and his descendants. For example, in 1907 Arthur had the old village pub taken down and a new one – the present ‘Cock and Rabbit‘ – built in a more suitable position next to the new village green; in the same year a large sarcen stone was excavated from Lee Gate and ‘erected’ on the village green where it remains to this day.
He also built a house near The Lee – ‘Pipers’ – for his nephew and eventual heir, Ivor Stewart-Liberty. At the entrance to this house is a wooden figurehead of Admiral Lord Howe taken from the Navy’s last wooden warship, HMS Impregnable (previously called HMS Howe).
In 1921 the ship was broken up and used for the mock Tudor extension to the Liberty store in London. The figurehead was brought by Ivor to The Lee, where it has remained ever since.
After Arthur liberty died in 1917, Ivor Stewart-Liberty and his family continued to have a major influence on the parish, continuing the work that Arthur had started. In the 1930’s the estate employed around one hundred people directly or indirectly and almost every household was dependant in some way on The Lee Manor estate.
Ivor Stewart-Liberty’s death in 1952 marked the beginning of yet another chapter in the history of the parish. In 1952, Arthur Stewart-Liberty, Ivor’s successor, sold one third of the estate including the manor house, moving himself to Pipers. In many cases the sale of farms and cottages went to the tenants, thereby creating the beginning of a new period for many in the parish.
In 1980, Chiltern District Council created a conservation area around the Old Church, the village green and the manor house.
The Liberty and Stewart-Liberty families have had a strong influence throughout the 20th century in shaping both the physical and institutional character of the Parish. Their legacy is clear to see today.