The Mad Hatter of Chesham
The Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland, is often said to be based on the Mad Hatter of Chesham. This is the story.
Hat making in Chesham
Chesham has a long history of hat making. By the mid-1860s Chesham was home to 21 straw plaiting schools. They supplied high quality plaited straw, mainly for making straw hats. One hatmaker in Chesham was Mrs Stratford in Stratford Yard, but more often the plaited straw was sold to dealers, who supplied straw plait from Chesham to hat making firms in Luton. Even today, the nickname for Luton Football Club is the Hatters.
Roger Crabb, hatter
Chesham’s most famous hatter is Roger Crab who lived in Chesham in the seventeenth century. He was born in about 1621 in Buckinghamshire, and was brought up at Chesham, where he was apprenticed to a hatter.
He became a strong Christian imbued with Puritan principles. In 1642, when the English Civil War started, he was recruited in Chesham to join the Parliamentary forces. He served for seven years in the Army, and preached to many crowds. He was sentenced to death, but the sentence was commuted to two years’ imprisonment.
After his release in 1649 he returned to Chesham and resumed his business as a hatter. The trade was profitable and he was able to buy a small property, which brought him an annual income. Eventually he became one of the richest traders in Chesham. There are different theories about where his business was, but no-one knows for sure.
He devoted much of his spare time to reading the Bible, and he was often to be seen praying behind the counter during the intervals between customers. He tried to live a sinless life and took passages from the Bible very seriously. Roger Crab studied his New Testament carefully, and in the Gospel according to Mark chapter 10 verse 21 he came across the words “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor.” Taking this literally he decided to sell everything and give it to the poor of Chesham.
In 1652 he then decided to leave Chesham to live off the land in the wilderness like John the Baptist. He rented a quarter of an acre of land at Ickenham, near Uxbridge in Middlesex, which was then a remote rural location. He built himself a basic cottage to live in and lived a very simple life, living as a hermit.
The Mad Hatter
Roger Crab was known as the Mad Hatter. Some people ascribed his madness to a severe head injury he had had at the Battle of Colchester, and others to the mercury that had been used in making felt for hats. However, he was actually considered mad for his radical biblical principles.
After the English Civil War he was inspired by the biblical story of the Rechabites (in the 35th chapter of Jeremiah), and the story of Daniel (in the 1st chapter of Daniel) to be teetotal and vegan (before these two words were invented). He ate only bread, bran, herbs, and vegetables, and drank only water. He was also pacifist and celibate. He used herbal medicines and gained a following for himself with natural treatments, advising patients to avoid meat and alcohol. He was falsely accused of witchcraft. He was beaten, and placed in the stocks, and was publicly whipped.
We know quite a bit about him because of his pamphlets and publications, especially his autobiography published in 1655, with a long title typical of the era, which starts “The English Hermit, or the Wonder of his Age; being a relation of the life of Roger Crab, living near Uxbridge, taken from his own mouth, showing his strange, reserved, and unparalleled kind of Life…” This book became the equivalent of a bestseller and was reprinted a number of times.
In 1657 he moved to Bethnal Green and joined a Christian group called the Philadelphian Society for the Advancement of Piety and Divine Philosophy. It was at Bethnal Green that in 1680, Crab died at the age of 59. He is buried at St Dunstan’s churchyard in Stepney.
As mad as a hatter
Some people believe that the phrase “as mad as a hatter” may actually derive from Roger Crab. The phrase certainly predates the character of the Mad Hatter from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, written by Lewis Carol and published in 1865.
Its sequel Through the Looking-Glass was published in 1871. One of the characters is the hatter, who is described as mad. The book does not call him the Mad Hatter, but that is what he has come to be known as, and one theory is that he is based on the Mad Hatter of Chesham, Roger Crab.
There are other theories, and whatever the truth of it, successive articles in local newspapers over the years, (the earliest I found was in 1912) have cemented the idea locally that Chesham is the origin of the Mad Hatter in Lewis Carol’s books. In 1926 Johnnie Walker Whisky company produced some newspaper advertisements featuring Roger Crab of Chesham.
Hats Off Chesham
On Saturday October 9, 2021, Chesham had a new festival called “Hats Off Chesham”. The festival was organised by Chesham Connect, who are trying to revitalise the local community. They were inspired by the story of the Mad Hatter of Chesham, and the local hat-making industry.
The weather shone and many people came wearing fancy hats. Entertainment was provided by a hatted band playing musical cover versions. Hat shaped bunting hung from the clocktower, and children took part in a hat drawing competition. It was held again on July 9, 2022 and plans are being made for this year’s event on 15th July 2023.
Hat making in Chesham today
There are still hat makers in Chesham today.
Rebecca Webb from Chesham, has her own crochet business called Dolly and Blue and crochets woollen hats, amongst other things. She can been seen on market stalls at Chesham and Amersham. She used to crochet on her commute to and from London. For practical reasons she used to make smaller items on the train such as baby boots, scarves and hats.
Ellie Vandenbrekel is Chesham’s own milliner. Since 2005, she has been making hats, fascinators and hairpieces for weddings and events like Ascot. She started making them in her house, and now has her own studio.
This article was first published in the pages of the Bucks Free Press, Amersham and Chesham edition, on October 29, 2021. It has been updated for the blog.
Learn more about Chesham’s industries
Chesham has a rich history of industries, including boots, brushes, beer and bricks. You can read more about those in our online collection.