High Wycombe, commonly known as Wycombe and formally called Chepping Wycombe or Chipping Wycombe until 1946, is a large town in Buckinghamshire, England. It is westnorthwest of Charing Cross in London; this information is also engraved on the Corn Market building in the centre of the town. According to the 2001 census High Wycombe had a population of 92,300, making it the largest town in the non-metropolitan county of Buckinghamshire now that the Borough of Milton Keynes is a unitary authority area, and the second largest in the ceremonial county. The High Wycombe Urban Area, the conurbation of which the town is the largest component, has a population of 118,219.
High Wycombe is mostly an unparished area in the Wycombe district. Part of the urban area constitutes the civil parish of Chepping Wycombe, which had a population of 14,455 according to the 2001 census – this parish represents that part of the ancient parish of Chepping Wycombe which was outside the former municipal borough of Wycombe.
Wycombe is a combination of industrial and market town, with a traditional emphasis on furniture production. There has been a market held in the High Street since at least the Middle Ages. The town has always had a presence of industry, which in the 17th century exceeded the market town and now Wycombe remains more industrial in character.
The name Wycombe comes from the river Wye, and the old English word for a wooded valley, combe. Wycombe appears in the Domesday Book and was noted for having six mills. The town once featured a Roman villa (built 150–170 AD) which was excavated three times, most recently in 1954. Mosaics and a bathhouse were unearthed at the site on what is now the Rye parkland. High Wycombe was the site of a minor English Civil War battle featuring John Hampden, and the home of Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli.
The existence of a settlement at High Wycombe was first documented in 970, as Wicumun. The Parish church was consecrated by the visiting Wulfstan, Bishop of Worcester in 1086. The town received market borough status in 1237, although the market had been a feature of the town since early in the 12th century.
Trade and industrial development
High Wycombe remained a mill town through Medieval and Tudor times, with the manufacture of lace and linen cloth. It was also used as a stopping point on the way from Oxford to London, with many travellers staying in the town's taverns and inns.
The paper industry was the most notable in 17th- and 18th-century High Wycombe. The Wye's waters were rich in chalk, and therefore ideal for bleaching the pulp. The paper industry was soon overtaken by cloth.
Wycombe's most famous industry, furniture (particularly chairs) took hold in the 19th century, with furniture factories setting up all over the town. Many terraced workers' houses were built to the east and west of town to accommodate those working in the furniture factories. In 1875, it was estimated that there were 4,700 chairs made per day in High Wycombe. When Queen Victoria visited the town in 1877, the council organised an arch of chairs to be erected over the High Street, with the words "Long live the Queen" printed boldly across the arch for the Queen to pass under.
The town's population grew from 13,000 residents in 1881, to 29,000 in 1928. Wycombe was completely dominated socially and economically by the furniture industry and, consequently, there was considerable unemployment and social problems when the industry declined in the 1960s.
By the 1920s, many of the housing areas of Wycombe had decayed into slum conditions. A slum clearance scheme was produced by the council, whereby many areas were completely demolished and the residents were rehoused in new estates that sprawled above the town on the valley slopes. Some of the districts demolished were truly decrepit, such as Newlands, where most of the houses were condemned as unfit for human habitation, with sewage pouring down the street and people sharing one room in cramped courtyards of subdivided flats. However, some areas such as St. Mary's Street contained beautiful old buildings with fine examples of 18th- and 19th-century architecture.
From 1940 to 1968 High Wycombe was the seat of the RAF Bomber Command. Moreover, during World War II, from May 1942 to July 1945, the U.S. Army Air Force's 8th Air Force Bomber Command, codenamed "Pinetree", was based at a former girls' school at High Wycombe. This formally became Headquarters, 8th Air Force, on 22 February 1944. Since 1968 all commands of the Royal Air Force are housed at RAF High Wycombe.