This blog is accompanied by a 4 minute voiceover which can be used in conjunction with the text and images. The voiceover was kindly provided by Amy Botes.

Should you wish to learn more about Olney’s lace activities, a list of relevant links to the ODHS website are included at the end of this blog.   .

The building of the Lace Factory on the east side of the High Street is the last example of a commercial attempt locally to keep the lace industry viable, in spite of the changing economic climate and the vagaries of fashion. The earlier buildings on this site were destroyed by fire in 1924.

The ‘Lace Factory’ – a relatively recent photograph

The factory was built in 1928 by a slightly eccentric character, one Harry Armstrong, who hailed from Stoke Goldington. He employed George Knight to build him ‘something the like of which Olney had not seen before’. Builder George had to talk him out of Corinthian columns and other fanciful designs.

The ‘topping out’ ceremony of the Lace Factory

The photograph shows the ‘topping out’ ceremony on the top of the factory building; which doubtless would not comply with today’s Health and Safety Requirements!

Being the time of the Great Depression, the building was constructed mostly with second hand materials. The only work with new materials was a heavy façade over the front door, which included three huge carvings of a bobbin winder, candle-stool and a bobbin stand. The heavy façade was later removed for safety reasons.

The façade which now resides at the Cowper & Newton Museum

Lace was never made in the Lace Factory. It was used as offices and a warehouse, where lace was sewn onto garments or any article that Harry thought could be adorned with lace! It was then packed into parcels which were sent out worldwide.

The completed Lace Factory (1928)

The lace was made by women in their homes and brought into the Lace Factory for sale, or was collected by agents in local villages. The lace makers had to buy the thread for the next week’s work out of their earnings.

The lace maker in the photograph is of Mrs Mary Wooding, taken around 1930. She could be categorised as a typical Olney lace maker and lived in Osborn Court. As this court was accessed via an entry adjacent to Number 51 High Street, opposite the Lace Factory, she may well have sold her lace to Harry Armstrong.

Mrs Mary Wooding c.1930

Harry advertised his business in women’s magazines, and by sending out postcards touting for business from individual women or women’s groups. A response would result in the dispatch of a parcel of lace ‘on approval’. Prospective purchasers were given a month to pay up or return the goods. The late Cis Elderton who worked in the office for him said they lost very few parcels. “People were honest in those days” she said.

The photograph of the girls employed at the factory was taken in July 1931, and includes the late Cis Elderton (the fifth lady from the left).

Girls employed at the Lace Factory
– July 1931

Harry was quite a character as he traded as ‘Mrs Armstrong’, believing women were more likely to buy lace from another woman! Sadly, he died at the early age of 56 while on a business trip to Scotland in 1943.

Thereafter lace making in Olney, as a business, was carried on only by a few older women who made lace for gifts.

Lace making enjoyed a revival in Olney in the 1970s. But by this time, the once traditional cottage industry had become a leisure time craft.

Harry’s Lace Factory was used by the Army during the remaining years of the Second World War and then by Polarizers Ltd. In the 1970s the premises were again taken over and became a successful lampshade factory. Later, in 1988, it was converted into flats and apartments


Lacemaking in Olney:
Suggested links to further reading on this website:

Direct link to Elizabeth Knight’s talk on Harry Armstrong
Direct link to Elizabeth Knight’s booklet on Harry Armstrong
3 Direct link to the Cis Elderton’s article derived from her interview
4 A guided Lace Walk around Olney

Suggested links to videos:

5 Cis Elderton’s video on the price of lace
6 Lace making in Olney Bucks

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