Olney Market Place

A Lace Trail around Olney (Revised)

Olney Market Place

Olney, England MK46, United Kingdom

Created By: ODHS

Point of Interest Details

At Point of Interest No. 1 you should be on the Market Place near the War Memorial and facing south towards the Cowper and Newton Museum.

Recent photo of the Cowper & Newton museum

Continental lacemakers came to this area of North Buckinghamshire as a result of religious persecution in their own countries from the late 1500s through to the late 1600s. The lacemakers, particularly those from Lille and Mechlin, settled here in the small market town of Olney and taught the local women to make bobbin lace and thus began a cottage industry which lasted for over 300 years.

The equipment for lacemaking could be made locally – the straw stuffed pillow, the wooden ‘horse’ or ‘maid’ to support the pillow, the parchment patterns, and of course the wooden and bone bobbins, examples of which can see in the Cowper and Newton Museum.

The lacemakers lived in small cottages in the many ‘courts’, off the High Street, Market Place and in Silver End (the street to the left of the Museum building).

See photo of Silver End taken c.1880

The one lacemaking commodity which could not be produced locally was the thread, linen originally, and later cotton. This was supplied by the shopkeepers of the town, often the grocers and bakers, many of whom were in premises around this Market Place. Those tradesmen then bought the finished lace from the lacemakers and sold it on at greatly increased prices, usually at special Lace Markets in London, and made a handsome profit for themselves. This dealing became so profitable that they set up as full time lace dealers and spent substantial money on renovating their houses.

Many of the larger houses in Olney were either rebuilt or refaced in the 18th century for lace dealers. The large building on the south-west corner of the Market Place and the main road (Numbers 37 & 38) is an example. It was originally the Catherine Wheel Inn, but was virtually rebuilt and refaced for John Rickards in 1722 and remained a lace dealer’s premises for the next 150 years.

An earlier photo of Nos 37 & 38 Market Place

A weekly market has been held on this Market Place since at least 1206 and special bobbins could be obtained at the three fairs held annually on Easter Monday, 29th June (Cherry Fair) and at the Statute Fair in October.

When the poet, William Cowper, lived at Orchard Side from 1768 to 1786, there were around 1,200 lacemakers in the town within a total population of around 2,500 in those days; consequently half of the inhabitants were lacemakers. The poet was sympathetic to the lacemakers and their hardworking life of long hours and sought, with the Revd. John Newton, to relieve (through the charity of a generous London benefactor), any distress with practical gifts particularly during the winter months. Cowper also signed a petition on their behalf, which went before Parliament when the lacemakers were threatened with a tax which would have ruined their livelihood. Cowper’s own home (Number 30) was later used as a Lace School in the mid 1800s.

An Olney Lace Maker c.1920s

Make your way carefully across the Zebra Crossing and then turn right and (again) carefully cross Spring Lane and walk some 250 metres until you arrive at Evelyn House, 15A High Street where Point of Interest No. 2 is visible.

This point of interest is part of the tour: A Lace Trail around Olney (Revised)


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