A visit to the Embroidered Arts Exhibition in London in search of the lives of Holmer Green tambour beaders

A visit to the Embroidered Arts Exhibition in London in search of the lives of Holmer Green tambour beaders

by Susan Holmes

The latest Woodlander’s Lives and Landscapes blog, researched and written by Susan Holmes

I have been researching the lives of the tambour beading women of the Holmer Green area in the last century as part of the Woodlanders’ Lives and Landscapes project.

Tambour beading is the embroidery skill of sewing beads and sequins on to fine fabrics as panels in ornate patterns for high-end costumes produced by London fashion houses, worn by royalty, film, stage and TV stars, and brides. It was carried on around the village of Holmer Green, north of High Wycombe, during much of the last century – from 1912 to the 1970s – by local women working in workshops or in their own home. Some village women worked as agents, getting the work from London and passing it round the villages to their family members and neighbours to complete. Little detail was recorded on paper so we have to piece together clues from people’s memories.

I’ve been looking at the history of this fascinating occupation by searching through the census records for the villages and conducting interviews with local women who remember their mothers, aunts and grandmothers doing beading work.

Tambour beading in Holmer Green

The tambour beading business was started in the Holmer Green area by Bernard Stapley, a London embroidery manufacturer who in 1912 brought over a French expert to teach the skill to Mrs Carter (a well-known Holmer Green tambour beader and agent, whose recorded memories of her life give precious detail about how the business worked).

Mr Stapley set up workshops in Little Missenden and Holmer Green for his London business, employing up to 50 women. After the First World War he opened a tambour and beadwork factory in Great Missenden High Street, and sold his Holmer Green workshop to CE Phipps of Hazlemere, which was then sold to Stanley Lock in 1956. Stanley Lock became a partner in Hand & Lock, a leading London embroidery atelier (https://handembroidery.com/) working for clients making dresses for royalty and celebrities, and ceremonial costumes, banners for royalty, city guilds, and military. Several Holmer Green women did outwork for them.


Embroidered Arts Exhibition

Hand & Lock has an annual competition for the finest embroidery the ‘embroidered arts’ where you can see wonderful historic and contemporary embroideries from around the world. This year the exhibition included the history of Hand & Lock, so I visited to get some idea of the work that the Holmer Green women did.

The venue was the Bargehouse, a ‘raw, edgy’ exhibition space on the South Bank by the Oxo Tower. It was a very striking location, with peeling walls and graffiti.

The exhibit that particularly interested me was the tamboured wedding dress shown in the photos below. The exhibition caption states:

‘Doreen Lammiman wedding dress 1953: Doreen was employed and trained to be an embroiderer by CE Phipps (later becoming S Lock Ltd) in 1945. This dress was embroidered by Doreen for her wedding in 1953, the same year as the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Doreen had a long career in embroidery and continued as an accomplished embroiderer for S Lock Ltd until the 1960s.’

The dress was donated by Doreen’s daughter, along with a collection of letters from Stanley Lock. She was not a Holmer Green outworker, but it shows the type of work that the outworkers did then. The daughter of an outworker in Prestwood in the 1950s says that it is similar to the work her mother did. Also in the gallery below is another wedding dress from the 1920s made by Ivy Waller, a leading tambour beader in Holmer Green.

A lady that we met in August through the Family Fun Day on the Rye, High Wycombe, part of the CCC Chilterns Celebration, told me about her husband’s great-aunt Gertie Pickett (nee Tyler) of Prestwood whose work included military uniforms, epaulettes, opera cloaks, badges, theatricals and tassels for the Royal Box at the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden.

Hand & Lock sells old sample badges, so I bought some to show people at future project workshops. They also make new brooches and badges.

It was an exhilarating and inspiring day – the first time I’ve been to London for nearly two years!

-Susan Holmes

Grateful thanks to Alastair Rudin Macleod, Chairman of Hand and Lock, for his permission to reproduce photographs from the exhibition.

All photographs are by the author, except the photograph of Ivy Waller, which is courtesy of Stuart King.

My next article, on beadwork and embroidery crafts in the Chilterns villages, will be published here in 2022.

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