You can still see traces of the history of lace making in Olney in some of the buildings dotted around the town... and there is still lace making in Olney.
The Olney Lace Circle has over 30 members and 6 junior members. The society's logo is a frying pan with a lace bobbin for a handle. The group provides this history of lace making in Olney.
"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. 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.
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'.
Continued on next page "The Old Penny House".