Thursday, December 20, 2007

Arch Rivals

We had a beautiful piece of English oak furniture arrive today. It's a sideboard; bespoke, chunky, very heavy and something new to dust. While trying to describe it to a chum, I found myself talking about the cabinet maker involved and then about High Wycombe itself and how it was once the centre of the UK's furniture manufacturing industry.

Chair Arch built for Queen Victoria's visit 1884.

Much of the industry has gone now and the old factories have been knocked down to make place for housing or industrial units. But it is commemorated in some small way by road names like Parker Knoll Way and the fact that the local nickname for the Wycombe Wanderers football team is 'The Chairboys'. Oh, and we have a chair museum. No, really. We do.

Chair Arch built in 1889 to welcome Sir Edwin Dashwood home from New Zealand.

All of which leads me to an essay I wrote for the millennium that was published in the High Wycombe volume of the Ottakar's Local History series of books. I wrote the piece partly to salute the industry and partly to have a bite at the Health and Safety fascists that managed to spoil what should have been a striking and landmark tribute. The essay mentions several chair arches that have been erected in Wycombe during the past 150-odd years. As you'll see from the photos below, the 2000 effort wasn't a patch on previous efforts. But 10/10 to Wycombe District Council for having a go despite the many restrictions placed upon them.

Not sure about this one ... it's similar to the 1889 arch but in a different location. Certainly the most complex - and most potentially dangerous - Chair Arch I've seen. Sadly I couldn't find a photo of the arch set up inside the Town Hall for the visit of the Queen in 1962.

Here's the essay. Enjoy.

Arch Rivals

“It’s not healthy you know. Obsession, that is. Especially when it centres on inanimate objects.”
Jake eyed the Millennium Arch with something like suspicion.
“What are you on about?” I said.
“Football. Star Trek. They’re obsessions that I can sort-of understand”, he said, raising a Spock-like eyebrow. It echoed the shape of the ten metre high arch above us. “But chairs? That’s just weird.”
“I’m not with you”, I said.
Jake pointed up at the structure above us; a skeleton of scaffolding under a skin of boards and tarpaulins and supported on two sturdy legs. The legs were trousered with the bright, optimistic paintings of local students. Some idiot had vandalised two of the pictures and torn off a third. Above the lintel and on all four faces, several long ‘shelves’ ran the width of the arch. On each shelf stood a variety of chairs: cane-seated chairs, armchairs, recliners and Windsors, carvers, drawing-room, lounge, library, reading and rocking chairs. There were nearly 200 in all.
“A chair museum? A road called Parker Knoll Way? And now this?” said Jake, laughing. “I’d call that obsession.”
“Not obsession. Tradition”, I explained patiently. “It’s a chair arch, put up to mark the Millennium. Wycombe has a tradition of chair arches.”
Jake snorted. “I just thought you had posh scaffolders round here”, he said. “I can just imagine them up there, all yellow hard-hats and bum-cracks, sat in comfortable Chesterfields and Parker Knoll Recliners shouting, ‘Phwoooaarrr!’ at the ladies below. Well, it would probably be more like ‘Ding dong!’”
“Har har”, I said sarcastically.
“I don’t know”, said Jake, shaking his head. “Millennium Domes, Millennium Eyes, Millennium Arches … call me a cynic but what a waste of money! I mean, it’s not even as if it is the real Millennium yet, is it?”
“Ah, that old argument.”
“It’s not an argument. It’s basic maths. You can’t tick off a period of a thousand years until the end of the thousandth year. The real 21st century doesn’t start until New Year this year, 2000. Those Whitehall wallies had us celebrating the end of 1,999 years.”
“I see your point”, I conceded.
“And how did our government celebrate all that’s best in Britain at the end of 1,999 years? With an up-turned wok that cost the British public billions. Billions.”
“Did you go there? To the Dome?” I asked.
“Me? Not likely”, said Jake.
“That’s a shame”, I said. “I had a great day out. In fact, everyone I know who went also had a great day out. The floor show alone was worth the entrance fee.”
“Yeah, but that still doesn’t warrant the cost”, said Jake. “People like me who live way out in the country couldn’t afford to go there. What with the rail fares being as high as they are. And petrol isn’t exactly cheap either. That’s the true vision of Britain in the year 2000; an attraction that no-one but Londoners can afford to visit. Is that why you lot built this arch? As a cut-price version of the Dome? To give the locals something to look at as they couldn’t get to the Greenwich white elephant?”
I took a deep breath. Jake had ruffled my feathers but I didn’t want this to sound like a history lecture.
“No, Jake. That’s not it at all. The idea behind the Dome was, as you say, to celebrate Britain at the end of the 1900s. Sadly, the Press got their claws out for it from Day One. The whole project was used as a metaphor for the Government’s performance. And the amount of lottery money that went in didn’t help public opinion either. This arch is different. This was built by the people of Wycombe for the people of Wycombe. It’s a way of celebrating our past, while looking forward to future prosperity.”
I paused to wave at the arch above. “This borough was once the furniture capital of England. All the big manufacturers were based here, like Ercol and Parker Knoll. We were particularly famous for chair making. Chairs were the town’s main export. So, when Queen Victoria paid a visit to Disraeli in 1877… you did know that Benjamin Disraeli lived in Wycombe? At Hughenden Manor?”
“I didn’t, but go on.”
“Well, to mark the occasion the Council came up with the idea of building an arch made of chairs. So they got one of their people – a guy with the brilliant name of Walter Skull - to organise it through the Chair Manufacturers’ Association. The arch even included the State chair of the Mayor.”
“But why an arch?” asked Jake.
“Some reckon it’s a tradition that started after Marble Arch and the Arc de Triomphe were built,” I said. “I’ve heard of places making arches from things like flowers, garden tools and motorbikes. Depends on what the local area is famous for, I suppose. In Wycombe, it’s chairs.”
“Good job they didn’t build a Millennium Arch in Soho then”, said Jake.
“Anyway, the arch was built and, apparently, Queen Vic was so impressed that she stopped the coach to have a closer look at it. That’s what started the fad for chair arches. There have been about three more, I think. I know the biggest one was for the visit of the Prince of Wales in 1884. That had about 400 chairs. And there was definitely one in 1962 for the visit of the Queen.”
“And you say that you’re not obsessed?” said Jake. “How do you remember these things?”
“I don’t”, I said with a smile. “It’s written on that poster just behind you.”
Jake turned and saw the information sheet. “Ah. You cheated,” he said.
“I may be interested in local history but I don’t own an anorak yet”, I said.
Jake turned and nodded.
“Yeah, well … I guess it is nice to see a town taking pride in its past. A lot of places just don’t bother any more.”
“It’s one of the reasons I like the town”, I said. “And, as you say, it’s civic pride. Some of the big furniture makers may have moved on, but we still have some of the best bespoke cabinet makers in the world around here. And local schools and colleges produce a large number of brilliant new furniture designers every year. So, still think we’re obsessed with chairs?”
“No. Okay. Point accepted. There is a good reason for the arch. If some places can have hat museums and toy museums, I suppose that Wycombe can have a chair arch.”
“And museum”, I said. “If you like, we can take a walk up there. It’s only five minutes away.”
“Not really my bag”, said Jake. “Although I’m quite happy to go and study the barstools in the Falcon.”

Extract Copyright (c) 2000 Ottakar's Local History Series: High Wycombe.

The Millennium Arch. Good effort all things considered ...


‘The High Wycombe Millennium Chair Arch was on view From 17th May - 31st May 2000 outside the Guildhall, High Wycombe. The design and planning of the Millennium Chair Arch was a collective local effort, with delegates from higher education, the media, industry and Wycombe District Council working together on a project with its roots in the past, but confidently looking to the future.’

Taken from the Wycombe District Council website ( as were the photographs used in this blog post.

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