Historian John Taylor takes us down memory lane
For many years the making of pillow lace provided a major source of income for ‘the poorer class of females’ in the town, and no. 22 High Street was just one of several buildings that accommodated a lace making dame school.
However, with the beginnings of industrialisation the home based industry began a general decline, and in December 1777 came the comment that ‘A machine has been introduced for making point lace, which threatens the destruction of the pillow lace trade, in which so many hands are now employed in Buckinghamshire.’
Not surprisingly the introduction of machine made lace caused a widespread recession for the traditional cottage industry, and this was not the only problem, for in May 1803 a public meeting was called at the Bull to consider the implications of a Parliamentary Bill ‘for consolidating the Customs, as to its probable operation on the Thread Lace – Manufactory of this Country.’
In consequence the local manufacturers decided to set up a committee and petition the Minister, but nevertheless by 1826 the trade was in complete stagnation.
Workers who had previously earned 10s, 15s, or £1 a week could now expect only 2s or 3s, although in the following year the outlook seemed a little less bleak, for ‘The staple trade of Buckinghamshire – lace-making – has partaken of the improvement that has been noticed in other branches of manufactures. Not only is there a ready sale for Buckinghamshire lace, but the price has advanced.’
However, such were the fluctuations of commerce that by 1830 fortunes had again declined, and it would not be until the arrival of Henry (Harry) Hillier Armstrong that the industry enjoyed a significant revival. A native of Stoke Goldington, there at the age of 23 he began as a lace buyer, and in 1906 he established the ‘Bucks Cottage Workers Association.’
With the necessary materials furnished to the remaining lace makers, their finished products, fully examined for quality, would be purchased by travelling lace buyers, and in 1909 the success of the venture prompted a move to Olney, as more convenient for transport.
The lace was even purchased by Royalty, being in 1911 awarded the gold medal at the Festival of Empire and International Exhibition at Crystal Palace.
In 1919 Mr Armstrong collaborated with Thomas Wright in writing a history of lace making in the district, whilst in other ventures he advertised for classical music pupils – ‘2s 6d an hour’ – with persons interested to apply to ‘Harry Armstrong, Silk Manufacturer, Olney.’ Yet others in the town were also engaged in the lace trade, including George Smith.
An expert in his field, he designed the lace worn by the Queen of Spain on her wedding dress, and at one time he had 3,000 Bucks cottage dwellers working for him. As for Mrs Whinnett, of the Market Place, she was in the market for pillow lace, for which she offered a postal order by return.
Then in 1928 came the construction of Mr Armstrong’s ‘Bucks Lace Industry’ factory in the High Street, Olney, although this was actually a warehouse. Unfortunately the construction coincided with the final decline of the industry, but nevertheless it was here that even in 1940 all kinds of pillow lace were bought, and parchments and threads supplied.
Harry died in 1943, whilst as for the building, in the 1960s this accommodated Schwinner’s lampshade factory.
When this closed proposals were made to convert the premises into residential flats, but a reminder of the former craft may still be seen on the façade of the building, where a lace maker is represented with her traditional equipment – a wheel, pillow and globe.