John Leland, the Tudor historian, and writer described Amersham around 1540 as “a right pretty market [town] of one street well built with timber”. A description which still applies to the High Street today. Thanks to the arrival of the Metropolitan Railway in 1892, however, the town has two distinct areas, Amersham-on-the-Hill, and Old Amersham. Unlike his father who was totally opposed to the railway, landowner Captain Thomas Tyrwhitt Drake wanted to sell them some of his land he just did not want to be able to see it from his manor at Shardeloes. 

Drake sold Hyrons Farm land on the ridge above and in consequence, Amersham-on-the-Hill developed in the 20th century on Amersham Common nearly a mile above the existing town. Some of the earliest new buildings were Weller’s Station Hotel and the Temperance Hotel opposite to cater for every traveller’s needs! Initial development was slow because of the lack of a mains water supply but this speeded up after the completion of the water tower at Coleshill in 1915. Amersham-on-the-Hill has its own character, with some fine Arts & Crafts buildings, mainly by architect John Harold Kennard, such as The Avenue and the landmark, Oakfield Corner. The conservation area, Elm Close, was built by Kennard in 1920 with government subsidies as part of the Addison Act “Homes for Heroes” policy and is constructed with innovative concrete blocks and cement roof tiles. 

1930s architecture such as the distinctive Chiltern Parade on Sycamore Road built by J Sainsbury in 1936, the bank at Oakfield Corner and the modernist estate agents on Hill Avenue help give this area a distinctive Metroland feel, a term coined by the Metropolitan Railway’s marketing department to encourage workers to move out of London along the railway line. The town features in the 1973 John Betjeman documentary Metro-Land about the growth of suburban London in the 20th century. The civic centre, including the police and law courts, are here, with many of the town’s shops, banks, and cafes. A new community and sports facility, the Chilterns Lifestyle Centre, opened in 2021. 

With most recent developments taking place at the top of the hill, Amersham Old Town, usually known as Old Amersham, has retained its medieval, wide high street and has a wonderful variety of buildings of all shapes and sizes, including the landmark Grade II* Listed Market Hall, built by Sir William Drake in 1682, as a gift for the townsfolk. Much of the old town is a conservation area with over 160 listed buildings. Gilbert Scott’s Amersham Union Workhouse, completed in 1838 has survived as luxury flats after being Amersham’s hospital for much of the 20th century.

Old Amersham, possibly more than any other small town in England, preserves in its streets the same general appearance that it had in the 17th and 18th centuries. One major change was made in 1939 when a row of cottages, known as the Alley, which used to make up the east side of Market Square, was demolished as part of the government’s slum clearance programme. Lovely peaceful memorial gardens were created to the north of the site after WWII, when the town’s War Memorial was moved here from St Mary’s churchyard. Today they are the flagship of Amersham in Bloom, the winner of Britain in Bloom 2022, and where the whole town unites to enjoy band concerts in the summer. 

In 1929 the Old Town was scandalised when young architect, Amyas Connell, completed High & Over, (now Grade II* Listed) for Professor Bernard Ashmole, considered to be the first house in Britain in the International Moderne Style pioneered by Le Corbusier. Connell and Ashmole constructed more cubic concrete houses, the Sun Houses, on the site which were equally controversial and are now Grade II Listed. Two architecturally significant houses were added to the old town in the 1950s and early 60s by modernist architects Ernö Goldfinger and Bill Mullins. The RIBA award-winning, carbon-neutral House 19 was completed in 2016 by Heinz Richardson. Amersham is often used as a location for film and television work and has recently featured in Midsomer Murders and Sky’s Midwich Cookoos. 

Today the two centres combine to make one vibrant market town with a rich and varied history whose story is told more fully by Amersham Museum at 49 High Street and on their website

Early History

The earliest origins of Amersham are undocumented. The surrounding Chiltern Hills were densely forested and an easy hiding place for robbers and bandits. Stewards of the Chiltern Hundreds were appointed to control this lawlessness and to protect the area from Vikings who raided parts of the Chilterns between 800-1016.  There was said to have been a battle on Gore Hill – but it is a myth that it was named after this. The name ‘gore’ came later and refers to a triangular enclosure of land between various large fields south of Bury Farm.

Agmodesham, as the settlement was known by the Saxons, first appears in the records in AD 796. In the Doomsday survey of 1086, it was known as Elmodesham after Ealmond was thought to be the father of Egbert the 1st King of all England. Ham or Hamm is the Anglo-Saxon word for a settlement or village in a water meadow. The first houses were on the banks of the river Misbourne and therefore the origin of the name is ‘Ealmond’s village by the water’. Royal connections continued as the land was held by Queen Edith, the wife of Edward the Confessor and sister of King Harold. After her death in 1075, the land passed to William the Conqueror, who granted it to Geoffrey de Mandeville. His agent lived at Bury Farm, the first manor house in the town although the current house dates from the 15th century. 

The wooded hills surrounding the town and good agricultural land helped the settlement grow. It became a centre for the rural community with a prosperous local economy. In the year AD 1200 King John granted a charter for a weekly market and an annual fair which established the town as we know it today. The south side of the High Street was laid out as a planned town with burgage plots 440 ft long extending to a back lane, the Common Platt. These plots were offered to ‘burgesses’ – bakers, butchers, drapers, tailors and other useful tradesmen and craftsmen to encourage them to settle in Amersham. The wide central street which stretches nearly half a mile from Broadway to Town Mill was one huge trading area for the weekly market. The widest area was where herds of sheep and cattle could be penned before being sold. Many routes passed through the town, including a road between London and the Midlands, the road from Hatfield to Reading, and ancient drovers’ ways. The needs of travellers were catered for by the numerous beer houses and coaching inns which sprang up in the town.

The exact age of most of the high street houses and inns can’t be confirmed, as many of them have been altered and added to over the centuries. The oldest parts are the backs – the fronts having been modernised according to the fashion of the period. The earliest houses still standing are timber framed, with wattle and daub in the spaces. Local oak provided the main timbers. Flints were found in the chalk in this area and were split to face walls. The roofs were originally of thatch, but in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, brick and tile making were local industries. Tiles made at least 300 years ago are still on many roofs in Old Amersham and more recently slates have also been used.

Church of St Mary the Virgin 

Today, in a mostly secular age it is hard to appreciate how the church dominated the town. Amersham’s parish church, St Mary the Virgin, dates from around 1140. The whole town was expected to attend church, not just every Sunday, but on Saints’ and feast days. The tower and South Porch were added around 300 years later and the exterior was refaced in 1890 with knapped flints excavated from the new railway cuttings. The most significant change took place around 1480. Being so close to the river, the church frequently flooded, so the churchwardens organised all the townsfolk to bring rocks and soil to raise the floor and the surrounding churchyard by nearly a metre.

The influential Fraternity of St Katherine was established in Amersham during the 15th century. This was a charitable body founded by the most important burgers and tradesmen in the town to support its members during times of hardship. As well as a large guildhall in Market Square, the Fraternity had its own chapel and altar dedicated to St Katherine in St Mary’s Church.  The chapel contained a statue of the saint with expensive silken robes with which she was dressed, before being paraded around the town on her feast day, 25th November. The Fraternity was abolished around 1552 following the break with Rome but she is still remembered locally as the Patron Saint of lacemakers.

Photo above: St. Mary’s Church in Old Amersham

Power and Wealth

On the North side of St Mary’s Church is the Drake family chapel with many commemorative monuments. The Drake family, later known as the Tyrwhitt-Drakes were Lords of the Manor from the early 17th century and had great influence over the town. Their fortunes grew, usually by marrying well and in 1758, the ancestral home, Shardeloes, just outside the town was completely rebuilt in a grand Palladian style, with an impressive portico and fine interiors by Robert Adams. The then Lord of the Manor, William Drake became one of the wealthiest men in Britain by marrying Elizabeth Raworth, heir to a director of the South Sea Company, whose fortune was founded on the slave trade. 

From 1625 Amersham sent two Members of Parliament to the unreformed House of Commons and was considered a ‘pocket borough’ in the Reform Act 1832 when it was stripped it of its representation. Throughout that period both the MPs were usually members of the Drake family, as was often Amersham’s rector. They also owned many of the town’s properties (to ensure that the tenants voted for them) and employed many of the townfolk on their estate.

The Tyrwhitt-Drake fortunes declined in the 19th and 20th Centuries due to high death duties and the family obsession with fox hunting when the Drakes were “attracted to women who were good riders rather than wealthy heiresses”, according to Julian Hunt. Many of the Drake properties were auctioned off in 1928 to help finance the death duties owed. During World War II, Shardeloes was acquisitioned as a maternity hospital and over 5000 children were born there during this time. Dr Beatrice Turner was the Chief Obstetrician who offered every woman anaesthetic and achieved a record low mortality rate. Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother) and Princess Elizabeth both visited the hospital during the war. Shardeloes was later threatened with demolition and inspired the creation of the Amersham Society which founded the Amersham Museum. In 1958 Shardeloes was sold and converted into luxury flats. 

Photo above: Shardeloes (Photo credit: Lesley Tilson)

Three generations of the landowning Mason family lived at Beel House on Amersham Common from the end of the 18th Century. Their fortune was based on the slave trade and slave plantations in the Caribbean with successive generations marrying into other slave-owning families, such as the Pomeroys and Lovells. These families left a legacy in local place names with The Pomeroy pub and Pineapple Road on Amersham Common, and further afield, the Amersham Arms pub and Amersham Road in New Cross, South London where the family also invested in land. Amersham, Montserrat in the West Indies was named after a slave plantation there, owned by the Mason family. This village, then a suburb of the capital, Plymouth was destroyed by the volcanic eruption of 1995.


Amersham was an active centre of dissent in the 16th century and has always retained a subversive streak. On a hill just above the town is The Martyrs’ Memorial in memory of the Lollards burnt at the stake in the reign of Henry VIII. They challenged the authority of the Church because they wanted to read the Bible and pray in English.

During the English Civil War, Amersham served as the headquarters of the Parliamentary garrison the Buckinghamshire Lieutenants. Oliver Cromwell’s family lived nearby at Woodrow High House, and he regularly passed through the town. He is recorded as “taking refreshments” at the Griffin in 1645. 

From the 17th century, prominent Quakers settled in the area and endured persecution, and a Quaker meeting house, now Grade II* listed, can be found on Whielden Street. The founder of Pennsylvania, William Penn courted his wife Gulielma Springett in Amersham. Later non-conformist Baptist and Methodist churches were founded in the town.

In 1824 and 1830 MP Captain Thomas Tyrwhitt Drake presented Amersham petitions for the abolition of colonial slavery which are important evidence of a grassroots anti-slavery movement. This was particularly strong amongst the Quaker community and other non-conformist church groups. Women’s societies would have held tea parties and sewing circles to fundraise and discuss slavery.

Similar tactics were later adopted by the Mid-Bucks Suffragists, organised by Catherine Courtauld, who campaigned locally to secure women the right to vote. Many former militant suffragettes later settled in the area including Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, Muriel Matters and Louise Jopling. Jopling, the first woman to be elected to the Royal Society of British Artists, was a celebrity portrait painter and social campaigner who founded the Chiltern Club of Arts here. Henrietta Busk, another founder member of the Chiltern Club of Arts was an educational pioneer and the first woman elected to Amersham Rural District Council in 1910. Amersham had to wait until 1984 to get its first woman mayor, the indomitable Jean Archer. Eight years later it elected Cheryl Gillan as the Conservative MP for the Amersham and Chesham constituency. Dame Cheryl Gillan retained the seat until her death in 2021, serving as the Welsh Minister from 2010 to 2012. The current MP, Liberal Democrat Sarah Green won the by-election in 2021 and is the area’s first non-Conservative representative since 1923.

Trade and Industry

The main trades in Amersham were traditionally leather work, chairmaking, straw plait work and lacemaking. Amersham Veil or Black Lace was particularly well regarded and usually exported to France where it was made into expensive lingerie popular with Parisienne courtesans! 

The town has a long history of education with six schools on the high street in 1842 including Cox & Drayton’s Ladies’ Boarding and Day School and Dr Challoner’s Grammar School founded in 1621. This moved to its current site in Amersham-on-the-Hill in 1905.   

Photo above: the original building of Dr Challoner’s Grammar School in Old Amersham

As the first coach stop for travellers from London to Birmingham the towns Coaching Inns and public houses needed a plentiful supply of beer. There has been a brewery and maltings recorded in the town from the beginning of the 17th century, with the most substantial houses on the south of the High Street belonging to maltsters and brewers. In 1775 a maltster from Wycombe, William Weller bought into the brewery by St Mary’s Church and moved to the town with his wife Ann and rapidly expanding family.

Weller’s Brewery became the largest employer in the town in the 19th Century with a chain of public houses around the surrounding area selling their Weller’s Entire stout beer. The family prospered and in 1871 George Weller built a grand country estate, The Plantation on Amersham Common to rival Shardeloes and Latimer House, the ancestral home of the Cavendish Family. The Plantation was demolished for social housing after WWII but lives on in local place names. Five generations of the Weller family ran the business until 1929 when it was sold to Benskins who promptly closed it down as they were only interested in purchasing the pubs to increase the market for their own beer. 

The magnificent brewery buildings beside the church were sold, becoming a hotel with sports facilities, Badminton Court, before it was used as the factory for Goya Perfumes from 1945 to the 1980s. The substantial maltings on Barn Meadow were originally envisaged as a country club with an indoor swimming pool and dance floor. This later became textile manufacturer Amersham Prints who also manufactured barrage balloons and inflatable dinghies during WWII. 


By 1939 Amersham had two busy shopping centres with 56 shops down in the valley and around 100 in the new town at the top of the hill. The shops served a population of around 6,000 people. There were more shops in relation to people than today, reflecting how people shopped locally, usually within a mile of home. It was rare for people living in Old Amersham to venture up to Amersham-on-the-Hill to shop, and vice versa.

Of the 56 shops in the Old Town, 6 were butcher shops. Although Amersham was principally a grain market supplying London, it was also a market for sheep and cattle. Livestock was sold, slaughtered, and processed here. Many still remember Brazils and Stevens as they were the last butcher shops in the old town. Brazils later had a factory where Tesco is today and other branches in Chesham and Amersham-on-the-Hill. There were also leather goods shops including bootmakers and saddlery, five bakers, ten grocers and three fishmongers. 

Two chemists provided a vital service in the town as, before the founding of the NHS, few could afford to visit the doctor too often. Haddons, now a deli, was a pharmacy from 1837, until 1966 covering the era from leeches to penicillin! The chemists offered an incredible range of services from sheep dipping to teeth extraction. 

Kings was Ebeneezer King’s chemist shop, where Seasons Café is today, and offered a similar range of pharmacy services. They would also euthanise your pet dog or cat for a fee!  An early errand boy was George Ward, who became the town’s most famous photographer and was also the founder of Amersham’s Town Band. George Ward’s photos are a very important part of Amersham Museum’s collection and a unique record of life in the town from 1880 to 1930. 

The first chemist’s shop in Amersham-on-the-Hill was Kennard’s at Oakfield Corner. Arthur Kennard was the architect, Harold Kennard’s brother. The brothers moved to the town from London in the early 20th century, bringing up their families here. 

The International Tea Co. and Stores was the first national chain to move into the new town at Station Parade and was a real vote of confidence in Amersham-on-the-Hill. The main shopping streets in the new town, Hill Avenue and Sycamore Road gradually developed as a mix of houses and shops with several grocers, dairies, fishmongers, butchers and tobacconists opening up. The J Sainsbury development, with a Sainsbury counter store at the centre of the parade attracted other national chains to the town such as Boots The Chemist and the Freeman Hardy and Willis shoe shop. Later stores included Nobles Furnishings, Brownings homeware and ironmongery and Woodcocks haberdashery. 

One of the first self-service supermarkets (where you could choose your own purchases from the shelves) the Maypole, arrived in the area in 1961 on the site of the recently demolished Art Deco Regent Cinema. This was built in 1928 by builder Alfred Woodley and Walter Collins, a professional musician and composer who had opened the Pavillion, Amersham’s first silent cinema where the auction rooms are today. At the end of the 50s, the site of Hall’s Hollybush Nursery was redeveloped by Woolworth’s which became a much-loved fixture of the town until its closure in 2009. No trip to Amersham was complete without a visit to Woolworth’s ‘pick’n’mix’. 

In 1981 Catherine and Gary Grant, took over the Pram and Toy Bar in Sycamore Road which became the first Entertainer toy shop. Today it is the UK’s largest independent toy retailer and operates more than 170 stores. 

Homefires and Havens

During the world wars the surrounding woods were full of army camps and the town became a haven for evacuees, refugees and émigrés. There was a Belgium community in Amersham during WWI and a thriving Jewish community here during WWII, which founded a Synagogue on Woodside Road. Heavily accented English would have been relatively common in the shops on Sycamore Road. The artistic émigré community included professional musicians such as the Italian pianist, Francesco Ticciati and the Austrian composer Allan Gray, best known for film scores such as The African Queen. Three women artists; Mary Duras, a German speaking sculptor from Prague; Marie-Louise von Motesiczky, a Viennese Expressionist painter; and Russian/German photographer, Laelia Goehr all found refuge here during WWII. Hodgemoor Camp at Gore Hill became a Polish Resettlement Camp after the war with a church and nursery school and many Polish families settled in the area. 

In addition to the Regent Cinema, the Playhouse Theatre was a popular wartime attraction at the top of Station Hill. Directed by Sally Latimer and Caryl Jenner, the Playhouse was a repertory theatre with 11 performances every week of one play followed by a different play the following week. The actors had to play one part whilst learning their lines for next week’s play. Many famous actors started their careers in Amersham including Denholm Elliott and Dirk Bogarde. 

James Bond author Ian Fleming worked in Naval Intelligence during the war liaising between Bletchley Park and Latimer House, and trained his 30 Assault Unit at Coldmoreham Farm in the High Street. Coincidentally Roger Moore was evacuated to Amersham and attended Dr Challoner’s Grammar School. 

Article by Alison Baily.

Photo credits: Amersham Museum, Alison Baily, Lesley Tilson