The Heart of the Chilterns: Volunteers #6, Susan Holmes, Woodlanders Lives Researcher
What have you been doing as a volunteer?
She’s been researching a Victorian lace dealer from High Wycombe, and taken part in a larger project on the tambour beading business of the Holmer Green area (a form of luxury embroidery for glamorous fashion, mainly done by women from World War 1 to the 1960s.
Something of a ‘super volunteer’, Susan’s also volunteered for the Beacons of the Past hillfort archaeology project, which we’ll cover further down this page!
What’s been your role so far as a volunteer?
I started working with the oral history recording of a local tambour beading agent, Mrs Carter, recorded 50 years ago, in which she and her brother told their stories of how the business operated.
Stuart King, the Woodlanders’ Lives historical consultant, has a large collection of relevant photographs and information.
I pieced together their stories from online research in the British Newspaper Archive, and Ancestry websites and I’ve written several articles to be published soon on the blog.
I’ve also been trained to do oral history recording, and have recorded two interviews about the tambour beaders of the area.
What was your previous experience?
I’ve traced my own ancestors from the 1400s, some of whom worked as woodlanders in the Chilterns. I’ve also researched the history of my own house, originally an 1830s public house on the Grand Union Canal, so I’m familiar with this type of research. I’ve also taken up lace knitting during lockdown, so I can try some practical skills.
What prompted you to get involved?
Some of my ancestors were Chiltern Woodlanders – lacemakers, woodsmen so I was fascinated to learn more about their lives and how they fed their families, and handle the types of equipment and tools that they used in their occupations.
What have you enjoyed and learnt from volunteering?
I’ve enjoyed finding about women’s craft and skills – I’ve always liked heritage textile crafts such as lace making, older types of embroidery and knitting so this is an ideal opportunity to practice them.
I feel part of a skilled community doing original research – little was known about the tambour beaders business in the area, yet it has proved to have a strong story to tell. There were good challenges, there is a lot of information available about these topics but you have to hunt around for it.
A memorable moment: I tried tambour beading myself, it’s done with a tambour hook that like a very sharp needle with a hook at the end that you push through fabric to attach the beads; within days I’d impaled myself with the hook and had to have it cut out at Stoke Mandeville by a plastic surgeon! So I will research it rather than practice it. But it gave me a feel for what it would have been like doing this for long hours- it was often done in the evening by the light of oil lamps when children had gone to bed.
A major exhibition about Woodlanders Lives at Wycombe Museum is coming up soon and I’ll be involved with that. I’ve also taken up lace knitting which I find is marvellous for relaxation, and will continue trying old patterns after the project ends.
What tips would you give to someone thinking of volunteering but not sure yet?
‘Hidden Hands: Women and work in the Chilterns’ is a 6-month long exhibition opening at Wycombe Museum in March, which curates and presents the original research by our volunteers into the lives of traditional skilled craftswomen across the woodlands of the Central Chilterns.
Beacons of the Past archaeology volunteering
What have you enjoyed and gained from Beacons of the Past volunteering?
Read Susan's articles
Read Susan’s blogs about Stories of Tambour Beading in the Chilterns part 1, and Stories of Tambour Beading part 2, plus read about Susan’s research trip to the Embroidered Arts Exhibition in London.
If you love local history, you can read all the blogs from the Woodlander’s Lives researchers on the Chalk, Cherries and Chairs News page, including stories about lace makers, straw dealers and chair makers (bodgers).
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