Memories of Olney

Religious refugees, fleeing from the Low Countries and France in the 16th and 17th centuries, brought their lacemaking craft with them and taught the local women of North Buckinghamshire, and it soon became the cottage industry of the small market town of Olney. The poet, William Cowper, while resident in Olney, recorded in a letter dated 1780 that there were "very near 1,200 lacemakers" employed in the town.
By this time local traders had taken to stocking the thread, parchment patterns and pins that were needed for lace manufacture. These middlemen became wealthy lace dealers, making money at the poor cottagers’ expense, and many of the large houses in Olney were built with the profits of the women's hard work.
Lace pillows, stuffed with straw, bobbins, bobbin winders and candle stools were all made locally.

Lace schools were set up where children as young as four were taught to make lace in crowded cottage rooms by a dame who would rub their noses on the pin heads if they did not follow the pattern correctly.

Everyone looked forward to St Andrew's Day, 30th November, known as “Tanders", for this was the lacemakers' holiday, when Olney people congregated in "one another's housen". Special Tanders cakes of dough flavoured with caraway seeds were eaten and a mead-like drink made from honey called metheglin was drunk. Games were played too, like Jumping Over the Candlestick, and a good time was had by all.

It was a sad period for this local cottage industry when the machine-made€ lace from Nottingham came into production in the early 1800s. Local lacemakers reduced the width of their lace from wide floral patterns to narrow "baby" lace in an effort to beat the machines. And one famous Olney lace designer, John Millward, designed circular motifs for the crowns of baby’s caps, which the machines couldn’t copy at first.

John Millward (who is remembered today by "Mill’ards Entry” – a narrow passage leading from the High Street to East Street, alongside his former home) won prizes for lace designs at the Great Exhibition in 1851.

Also exhibited there, for the first time in Britain, was Maltese Lace. The local women liked the look of this more “open” lace and thought it would be quicker to make than the old point lace, so a new form of lace evolved called, initially, Beds/Maltese and now termed Bedfordshire lace (though not confined to that county) with its "leaves" and "spiders" and "nine-pin edge”. This became very popular in Olney and district, so much so that by the end of the 19th century the wide floral patterns of point lace (now known as Buckinghamshire lace) were in danger of dying out, so a group of ladies based at Gayhurst got together and set up the North Bucks Lace Association, persuading the older lacemakers to continue making the point patterns, and it is due to their guaranteed sales of lace that the old patterns survived.

Around the same time Torchon lace from France made its appearance – of simple geometric patterns that was easy to make. It was spoken of disparagingly by local lacemakers, who referred to it as "dishcloth" lace.

By the turn of the 20th century, lacemaking was beginning to pall with the younger women, who could obtain more money working in the local shoe factories. But Harry Armstrong from Stoke Goldington set up a Bucks Cottage Workers" Agency in 1906 and guaranteed the women sales of their lace. His business flourished and in 1909 he moved to Olney to premises near the railway station, which was convenient for the transport of lace to all parts of the world.

Article written by members of the Buckinghamshire Federation of Women's Institutes for the publication "Buckinghamshire Within Living Memory" (1993) and reproduced here with their permission