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Olney Lace Circle

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  Lace Making in Olney  
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It was the Flemish Protestants who brought lace making to England during the 1560's. Many of these immigrants were lace makers and as they moved out of the overcrowded ports they began to settle into areas now regarded as the historic centres for the craft of lace making. In the county of Buckinghamshire these immigrants settled in Newport Pagnell, Buckingham and of course Olney.

The immigrant lace makers settled in the many courts or alleyways off the High Street in Olney. These were the poorest quarters of town at that time. Among them are Bull Court, pictured below and Silver End

 
 
Bull Court
Bull Court
 
 

Silver End

Silver End

 
 

During the following decade the Huguenots fled France and a great many French lace makers also settled in this area.


Life was difficult for the 17th and 18th Century lace maker and so it seems surprising that the sole industry of hundreds of villages in this area was making lace. Nevertheless, the lace industry grew as the immigrant lace makers taught the locals how to make lace. To support the lace trade, the local trades people such as the butchers and bakers began to supply the lace makers with materials to work with. Most expensive was the imported cotton and linen thread. But most materials could be found locally: the pillow stuffed with straw, the pins, the 'horse' or pillow stand made of wood and the bone and wooden bobbins. These suppliers would then buy back the finished lace from the lace maker and sell it for good profits in London. Many such dealers became so rich in the 18th Century that they refaced their houses rather grandly with stone.

 
 

Dealer's House

An example of a former dealer's house on the Market Square refaced in the 18th Century

 
 
Lace makers themselves however, were known to work in horrendous conditions. John Newton, during his 15 year ministry in Olney was well aware of the plight of the Olney lace maker. His friend William Cowper was also sympathetic and was known as the 'lace maker's poet'. In 1780 he wrote: 'I am an eyewitness of their poverty and do know that hundreds of this little town are upon the point of starving and that the most unremitting industry is but barely sufficient to keep them from it. There are nearly one thousand and two hundred lace makers in this beggarly town'.
 
 

Cowper and Newon Museum

The Cowper and Newton Museum, Olney

Penny House

The Penny House, Olney

 
 

The Old Penny House was a school for young girls run by Sarah Duxbury. You can still see it in the High Street. She taught them reading and writing but mainly lace making.

Life was difficult for these young girls. There would be no heating in the house apart from the fire pots or 'dick pots' the girls put underneath their skirts. These were usually made of earthenware and contained hot wood ashes. Their hair was tied back in order to reveal their necks so that they could be slapped if the work was not satisfactory. Their heads were also pushed down so that their noses were pressed against the pins.


Next door to the Old Penny House (on the left in the photo) is The Honey House. The family here kept bees. They made a drink called megthelin which was made of honey. On St Andrew's Day each year the family were allowed to serve the drink to the lace makers to celebrate the day. They also ate saffron buns and the children played games.

 
 

Lace Factory

The Lace Factory Building still stands in the High Street
and is now converted to apartments.



back to lace projects

 
 

At the beginning of the 19th Century when machine made lace was coming into its own, new ways of attracting people to buy handmade lace were being thought of.

Two lace designers in Olney, John Millward and William Soul did much to keep the craft alive. Lace crowns for muslin caps were designed as these were small and relatively quick to make. This helped the lace maker to survive yet another recession. In the wake of the Industrial Revolution however, the numbers of skilled lace makers dropped and by the end of the 19th Century lace making in Olney was a cottage industry.

Harry Armstrong, a lace dealer, occupied a building in the High Street known as The Lace Factory during the early 1900's. Lace was never made here although lace 'joiners' would have pieced together the lengths of lace that were measured and sorted.

 

Lesley Hancon
Niki Durbridge

Sources:
Lace Villages - Liz Bartlett  
Romance of the Lace Pillow - Thomas Wright

 
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